Easy as Pie: Packrafting Cataract Canyon

Eating one quarter of a pumpkin pie for breakfast is how the trip started. Three days later the trip ended at 1:15 AM with a belly full of McDonald's fries and a pile of filthy, wet gear on the garage floor.  

Packs+3 days of rain=MUD

Fall was here, and though water was lacking in most of the rivers, flows were perfect for packrafting the bigger water in Cataract Canyon of the Colorado. But none of us had the time, nor the desire, to do a six day trip including 80 miles of flat water paddling and long shuttle.

Here lies the beauty of a packraft.

MC had done the trip a few years previously and planted the seed in my mind months ago. We would park outside of Canyonlands National Park, ride bikes to the park's border, hike a trail-less side canyon to the river, run 14 miles of Grand Canyon-esque whitewater, climb out another canyon, travel back to the bikes, and then ride back to the truck. Three of us would accomplish this over three days, carrying everything (food, water, first-aid, packrafts, drysuits, tent, sleeping bags, clothing, means to pack out human waste, single pair of trail shoes) on our backs and in our boats.

Dates were set, calendars swept clean, permit obtained. Gear list created in my mind, thought about for days, psychologically packed and repacked, stripped of all but the necessities.

The day of departure arrived, the pack was packed and repacked (in reality this time) and heaved into the truck. 



hyperlite pack loaded with all the ultralight backcountry gear needed was far from weightless.

With the price to play known, we set off to sleep under the stars at our start point.

Back to pie for breakfast.

Following my pumpkin pie breakfast, under loads of ultralight gear, we set off to bike both active and abandoned 4x4 roads. Within 100 yards of turning down the first baby head covered descent, we had our first casualty.

We'd later find out there was a stickier bit of collateral damage from this crash.
While the majority of gravity assisted riding was rideable, under the burden of packs some sections were too chunky to risk. It was a different story when gravity was against us. Had we not been burdened, we still would have been pushing. The 4x4 road mostly disappeared, reclaimed by rock and sand, water and wind. Sweat flowed. Calories burned.

Then it was all downhill on sandy roads. 4 mostly easy hours of riding had us stashing the bikes in the junipers and rejoicing when wet chamois dropped to our ankles.

Travis opened his pack and found a drybag, now a wet-sticky-bag, full of root beer.* Not only did he crash the bike, he did it with cameras rolling and killed the can. Too his credit, he slurped it out of the bag without alerting MC and started hiking.  

*Prior to the trip, I planned to secretly pack in 3 cans of root beer to be passed around once reaching the river to conclude day 1. Travis saw his surprise at the house. He got to carry his own can as punishment.

Aside from short spans of what we came to name Hellweed (for the first time ever I was wishing for gaiters), the walk was fantastic. Strolling soft and sandy washes, weaving up and down, under and around boulders, laughing and sliding. The Colorado River appeared far too soon for fun's sake and just in time for the waning light's sake.

With the tent pitched, we ate dinner, shared root beer, and took advantage of Canyonland's reputation for being among the darkest locations in the US eventually falling asleep under the Milky Way.

What the....rain. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and pulled it into the tent, wedging myself between MC and Travis. Each rain drop falling outside the tent knocks a corresponding amount of sand from the inside of the tent and onto our bodies.

In dawn's light I woke with a jolt. What just ran across my face?

A few minutes later, Travis slaps something off his face. MC is next. Light increases and we see spiders running amok.

MC slams a closed fist into the sand. There goes Jimmy the spider. 

We decide to start our day before the rain returns or Jimmy's siblings retaliate. With the
universe in our favor we pack up, pull our boats into the water, seal our skirts, and ferry across the river. And then rain began.

And the rain continued, complimenting the subtle trepidation that exists when floating into the unknown. 

Rapids appear slow at first. A mile or so apart. There’s time to admire the canyon walls and watch a rain loosened boulder tumble a 1000ft down towards the river. Round a bend and suddenly the canyon’s louder, whitewater just splashing over the horizon line. Paddle pulling whatever water it can find, feet pointing to the sky as the boat crests a wave, butt hovering off the seat before accelerating into the trough between waves. Repeat two, three, five times. Giggle, smile, excitedly banter over the shared experience.

Being in the boat feels great and any feelings of unease drift off down the river. We pull to the shore with tips of toothy rocks and airborne water hinting at what lies below the horizon. It seems darker. Clouds must have moved in. I find feelings of unease swirling in the eddy.

Big Drop #3.

Complex, every tongue of green water leads into a standing tombstone and most rough lines end with a hole. There is, however, a line. From our vantage point, it seems as though it’s the only line with any chance for clean passage. The line is intimidating and we spend 10 minutes discussing the best way.

MC asks if I’ve got my camera.

“Yep, you run it and I’ll shoot it.”

Relief and jealously.

He squares up and runs it clean. Travis is up next, feeling nervous but powered by camera courage, he gives the run a last look and paddles out as the rain returns. He must have sensed that I put the camera away, saving an insurance claim. He returns to shore, searching for a different way. Watching his nervousness, I notice my own confidence wavier slightly.

“Hey man, you just want to follow me into it?”

Travis agrees and we hop into our boats. I paddle out and the entrance to our line appears very different that it had from shore. I almost enter too far right, narrowly missing a hole. I expected a wave to hit me on the left, pulsing around a rock, but wasn’t able to see the right lateral wave. Everything is bigger, steeper, and more chaotic than it looked. I paddle hard and fast, pulling through with more luck than skill. Cresting the last of the waves, I spin around in time to see Travis plug the hole at the entrance. MC and I watch for 5 long seconds before finally seeing Travis’ helmet pop up. His boat and paddle get spat out, he kicks and swims and goes under again. As I turn to chase the paddle, I catch a glimpse of Travis flopping over a rock and out of the hole. Mike takes off after Travis and the boat. We all pull to shore and take a breather. Exciting stuff.

We set off for the next rapid and I hear MC yelling swimmer. Still shaken up and full of adrenaline, Travis flips in the waves. As he’s entering his boat, MC asks “did you lose a shoe?” 

Travis, looking down at his barefoot, “I guess so.”

MC and I glance at one another. 

Oh shit.

We’ve got major ground to cover by foot and bike, including some serious scrambling. Doing this without a shoe or even a makeshift shoe, could be fatal.

MC paddles up searching eddies. 2 rafters float down and we chat with them. 

One of the rafters offers him a cheap pair of beater river shoes.

Somehow, the only people we see in 3 days have a spare pair of shoes?

Not only are they shoes, they’re a pair of sticky rubber approach shoes made for climbing and hiking.

We’re dumbfounded.

Travis is part Irish.

We reach our take out a short time later. Looking up the canyon we’re planning on ascending, I'm suddenly much happier it has stopped raining. It’s steep and covered in loose rock ranging in size from pebbles to cars. There are plenty of times when I’m not sure which pebble is holding up which car. Or which car is holding back the truck load of pebbles. Two hours of scrambling, using our hands as much as our feet and we pop over the top of the canyon.

Now it’s raining again and any decently flat spot for a tent happens to be part of the water course draining the massive area of slick rock. Getting washed down the 1200ft canyon we just climbed up doesn’t sound like our idea of fun. For two rainy hours, we search the cliffs and boulders for overhangs and caves, looking for a dry spot to sleep. At dusk, we find something.

Using paddle blades for shovels, we move dirt and rock for another two hours until  we’ve got space to sleep. Travis has what appears to be the most comfortable spot and he warms water for our dinners.

Sleep comes fast.




MC sits up. It’s raining harder and water is clinging to the roof of our cave, dripping free onto his shoulder. Travis’ spot has become a shower. He pulls out our tarp and wraps himself inside. MC digs a flat spot to sit. I spin 180 degrees and go back to sleep. Rain teases us all night. The cave drips with each storm and then dries, lulling us back to our beds only to chase us away again with the next. The morning is beautiful though. And dry. We watch the light play on the red cliffs across from us and pack up. For some reason, my pack hasn’t gotten any lighter the last few days. Funny how rain does that.

We scramble up to the top of the plateau and hike the remaining four hours back to our bikes. Our first 10 miles pass easily and I’m thinking about the burger and milkshake waiting in Moab.

“You want to check out those ruins today?”

“Nah, maybe the next trip.”

There’s a brilliant flash too close for comfort.

“I think you’re meant to see these ruins today!”

We make a dash for the forest and ruins, setting up our tarp just in time for the hail to begin bouncing off the ground.

One storm passes and another follows. Eventually it looks clear enough to move. Less than a mile later and we’re cowering under another tree. The storm turns into a steady rain.

With 3.5 hours of daylight and 20+ miles to ride, we decide I’ll go as fast as possible back to the truck and drive back to meet Travis and MC wherever they’re found.

Luckily the rain stops once I’m out of the valley and my pace picks up. Thoughts of that burger and milkshake power my pedals as I start the climb up and over the pass. And then everything grinds to a halt. All the rain turned the road into clay. Within five feet, my bike couldn’t roll and I was four inches taller thanks to the clay built up on my shoes. I cursed whoever or whatever was listening and carried my bike up the road 20 feet at a time. I thought it’d all be better once I got to the top and could race the final handful of miles down to the truck. Surely speed and momentum would keep my wheels spinning. That was partially true. In between spooking elk and admiring the first snow on the La Sal mountains, I’d still have to wipe the wheels clean and carry the bike. But it was a beautiful night and my curse words were silenced. 

I reached the truck and my forgotten stash of clean, dry clothes and drove back for the others. When we met on the road, both MC and Travis declined a ride and finished our adventure with the truck's headlights for illumination.

We were too late for real food in Moab, finding McDonald’s to be the only spot open. Strangely enough, I didn’t find that meal very satisfying, instead wishing to be back beside the river watching shooting stars and flirting with feelings of the unknown.


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