It was a warm November morning with a slight breeze and all the colors of fall exploding around us when we set off from the Westwater Ranger Station in Utah.
Twelve merry sailors, disguised as pirates, felons, ladybugs and a proctological superhero, embarked on an overnight trip from Westwater to the takeout near the ghost town of Cisco 17 miles away. I have heard stories of the powerful rapids encountered on this stretch, but, after seven years, I finally was aboard for a rafting trip down this legendary canyon of whitewater.
I had some frayed nerves about the Class IV rapids, but my true trepidation came from the fact that I would again have to drive through Cisco, a place straight out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” As the saying goes, “You don’t stop in Cisco, you just roll through the stop signs.”
The night before was Halloween, so a drive through this eerie hamlet seemed right for the theme of our trip. We even had a small costume party the night before, and most of us wore remnants of that festivity.
We floated smoothly along the Colorado River — a curving ribbon of Ovaltine cutting through the towering red sandstone cliffs. The water was gentle, and raptors of every size and color lazily circled above in search of their next meal. It was a good day for a smile and a beer on the river.
But the warm weather belied the frigid water beneath our inflatable home. This wasn’t the usual desert boating trip where getting in the water was enjoyable. For the next few hours, getting wet certainly wasn’t an option and could prove to be a hypothermic mistake.
We planned to camp at Hades Bar just before the major rapids and take them on the next morning.
The rapid “Little D” was just prior to our docking for the night, and we hit it perfectly.
The icy wave slapped me, stealing my breath and leaving me shivering, a taste of just what I wanted to avoid the following day when we would get into the more substantial whitewater.
After setting up camp, riverside chef extraordinaire Jesse served food he cooked in a Dutch oven. Heaping piles of flaky biscuits were smothered with a chicken pot pie mix or corned beef and cabbage, sating our hunger and bringing warmth to our bones.
After dinner, we drank a few cocktails and created a new form of the game Jenga (with stones) next to the campfire as many in our crew transformed from being total strangers into new friends.
We listened to music, told stories and laughed as ring-tailed cats danced in and out of the periphery and every star known and unknown burned brightly in the night sky above.
The next morning, we packed up the gear and set our focus on the fun just around the corner. Sage river man Dave gave us a serious safety speech and went over rescue procedures if anyone left their boats for a quick scream and an icy bath. This canyon can be as dangerous as it is enjoyable.
We shoved off, but this time adorned in splash gear, wet suits and wool layers. The weather was nice, but the river level had risen overnight, increasing the chances for larger waves ahead (we would later learned that the water spiked from 3,600 cubic feet per second to 5,500 CFS on this day).
The canyon narrowed significantly as we floated past the “Outlaw Cave” and around the bend.
Waves picked up, and the ride began.
We crashed through named rapids: Marble Canyon, Staircase, Big Hummer, Funnel Falls and Surprise. Over and over we were assailed by huge walls of frigid water splashing down upon us.
We rode nature’s perfect roller coaster past sheer walls of black Precambrian rock, a prehistoric Willy Wonka boat ride over dark rock and chocolate froth.
With the splash gear holding up its end of the bargain, we eddied and allowed the boats up front to scout the next challenge: Skull.
Rumor was that a new rock feature made the move to the left a bit more technical, and we wanted a better look at the hidden obstacle.
After 10 minutes or so, the lead boat disappeared around the corner. The rapid is hidden until you are right on top of it, so I was a bit nervous. I really had no clue what to expect.
With pirate swords raised in hand, we emerged from the darkness and plowed head first into the feature. It was amazing — the water ahead appeared to be 20 feet below us as we crashed and bobbed our way through the waves. A shout not of fear but of total exhilaration erupted from my lungs. What a ride!
We eddied again to make sure that nobody behind flipped their boat or got caught in the “Room of Doom” — an area where the rock had been eroded away to the right of the rapid.
I was told that boats entering the Room of Doom at high water seldom escape, held fast by a powerful whirlpool action inside. Piles of debris swirled and mixed inside as if caught in a giant blender.
Luckily, all of our boats made it through without flipping, losing a passenger or checking in to the Room of Doom.
We sat back basking in the warm sun and chatted with a friendly boater from Palisade whom we had encountered the day prior. I looked around at the canyon and smiled at such an enchanting place. In fact, the enchantment was so powerful that my PBR replenished itself each time we hit a named rapid … it must have been magic.
Next up were Bowling Alley, Sock-It-To-Me, and Last Chance.
The night before I had mistakenly called Sock-It-To-Me “Slappa Me Stupid” and feared that the wave would exact its revenge upon our boat. We came in dead center and certainly were “socked” by the wave. My gaze went from the raging river straight up toward the blue sky overhead as we powered through. One last refill at Last Chance and we were done with the amazing whitewater.
The river smoothed out, and dry and wet suits were removed for more comfortable attire. Food and guitars appeared, and river bards Brad and B.L. broke into song. Ryan conjured up some percussion instruments, and B.L. even showed off his skills with the triangle, a masterful solo that still resonates in the ancient canyon today.
As the diamond-shaped flotilla glided merrily downstream toward the end of our journey, a lone bald eagle watched in the distance from his cottonwood perch.
— Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor for the Post Independent. He is really glad that he and Jolene were invited on such a wonderful journey with these fine people. He’s now gone 12 days without giardia, so he’ll chalk up his beer’s replenishing abilities to magic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.