With over 180 trips under his belt and around 220 days on the water, Mo Mullenax from Peyton, Colorado shared the inner workings of his last whitewater rafting trip with students along Cataract Canyon in Utah. Gaining permits, planning itineraries, and guiding the boats are just some of the obstacles necessary to gain the rewards of nine full days of beautiful red-rock desert and roaring Colorado River rapids. Mo’s last adventure provides insight into some of the other considerations it takes to float for nine days with a group of new rafters.
What sort of permits did you need to obtain on Cataract Canyon?
Mo: There are great reasons for a permit system. Many rivers all over the country require permits. Think of all the people taking a piss in the same place over and over, or even worse, using the same groover. Think of the congestion some of the river corridors would experience if there wasn’t a fee for all to raft down such captivating scenery and inspiring history. Cataract Canyon is a great example of this. Desert rivers are quite vulnerable and can change dramatically when used so often. These ecosystems do not filter out pollutants (mining above Cataract Canyon near Moab) due to low precipitation and the types of soils.
What it takes to get a permit is simply a credit card number. These permits are obtained through the Bureau of Land Management. The cost for Cat (short for Cataract Canyon) is $25 per person or so.
Many permits, including Cat, have a limit to the number of people that can be on the permit. This is also useful when camping. Many times the camp spots along a river can only support a small amount of people. There’s usually a box where the trip leaders of boating parties fill in that shows when and where that party will be camping. It’s a huge bummer when someone is at your camp spot (we unfortunately did this to another party on our Cat trip).
For this particular trip, what was the leader(s) to student ratio and how were the leaders chosen based on experience and training?
I chose six boatmen to push participants and gear. They were chosen on experience and ability. Requirements included having ran this section of River before, boating ability, first aid training, and my comfort and trust in them for nine days. I chose two experienced commercial river guides, one of which had guided this section many times, a firefighter, and another student and two others that shared oaring a boat, and myself.
How much food was needed? What kind of food was brought and how was it cooked and stored from the elements?
I think we spent a little over $2,000 in food. We ate well. I created teams of participants that rotated among cooking duties. A team would start with lunch, then do dinner, and finish their rotation by making breakfast. This seemed to work well and I would do this again on long multi-day trips. Each raft had a large cooler and dry box for storing food. We ate bacon and eggs, pancakes, eggs Benedict, one eyed somethings, biscuits and gravy, salads, wraps, sandwiches, brats, burgers, lasagna, Sheppard’s pie, thai pastas, and so many good deserts. Brownies, cobblers, and… freakin’ Ice Cream (pack with dry ice, do not tell anyone it is there until morale gets low around day 4 or 5.… priceless and people will love you). In other words… There is no food experience like the multi-day boating trip food bonanza.
What kind of gear was brought, obviously boats and oars but what else was needed for nine days on the water?
Of course, repair kits with patches and heavy needles and thread for torn boats. We didn’t have this issue arise but it certainly does happen. We took 150 gallons of water, one or two kayaks, two SUP boards, one 14′ boat, four 16′ boats, and one 18′ boat, flip lines, throw bags, frames, cargo nets, buckets, a couple of inflatable kayaks, hoola hoops (my personal favorite), six or seven groovers (poop cans, named before, we starting putting toilet seats on them. After taking care of business and sitting on the can a person would stand up and have two grooves on their cheeks). It is important to monitor people’s health and comfort while on the river for so long, therefore we like to use a rating system of 1–5. Ask them the ranking of their groover experience and you will have an idea of how they are doing. 1 usually means things are not well, 3 things are pretty normal for them, 4 maybe they saw some wildlife or a nice sunset, a 5! A 5 means they had a most enjoyable experience and were even able to wave to another party from the beach while in the ‘lazy boy’ position.
What was decided to be your start point?
We planned to raft about 13 miles each day. We started from Mineral Bottom on the Green River and took out at the Hite Marina in Lake Powell. This was all decided based on scenery and day hike opportunity. This was one of the smoothest most well planned and on-time multi-day trips I have experienced. It seemed that we were always on time.
How many miles a day did you plan to raft, and did you always make it?
There was one incident where we didn’t make our expected camp. The Big Drops. Cataract Canyon starts a few miles below the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. The big drops are the high consequence rapids. There are three. We planned to camp after them but didn’t make it through this section of the canyon before evening. Shadows falling across the high canyon walls forced us to decide between pushing on or playing it safe, so we decided to run the rapids in the morning with good lighting. We camped on the beach above the big drops. There was just enough room for two large groups. We arrived first, not knowing who would show, taking the choicest camp spots. Next thing we know a group of party going college kids show up on their beach with most of our crew, tired from a long day of pushing, laying all over the place. Beer cans strewn across the sand and rocks, disheveled tents galore, and a large kitchen with the smell of some tasty chow… They were not happy to see us. But as leaders, the boatmen kindly walked over to apologize and hand out some brews and share the peace pipe commonly used by Native Americans as we all know.
What were some of the leaders primary safety concerns?
Hydration most important. Boatmen and leaders brought extra layers of everything for the people that were sure to forget something. We didn’t run into any bad weather or first aid accidents, so thankful for that. Food consumption was easy and vegetarian friendly. As boatmen, we always used the same conservative line in the rapids when we can. We tied the boats up on the beach and hiked to scout rapids such as Capsize and the Big Drops.
Can you describe the juxtaposition between the leisure periods of calm quiet water contrasted with the excitement and pressure of upcoming roaring rapids?
As mentioned, one boatman was quite nervous before the big drops. The water was all white. It was low, but still big and mean. It seemed as if the safest thing was to drop in, bounce off a rock in center of the river that would then send you into the rock on the left, which would in turn bounce you into a pourover at the bottom, and then splash through the last wave to safety. The river has its way of doing things. It isn’t a controlled environment. There is no stop button. All a person can do is mitigate the risks involved. Most of the boatmen were aware of this the five days that we had been on calm water, enjoying the sun and scenery. Most people did not know what Cataract Canyon brings to a trip. As the days got closer the boatmen got more serious and focused. This is why I chose them. The rapids were big, all 27 of them. The calm water was fun. So fun it was easy to forget where we were, where we were going, and why we had to get back to society, eventually.
What type of community was built over the time spent together?
After sleeping under the stars and sharing the same toilet seat day in and day out it’s hard not to build a strong camaraderie. Some were hesitant to work and wanted the trip to be ‘all inclusive’, but the guides spent hard earned time and money on this trip as well. After the first few days, people were all involved and supportive of one another. Boche ball, frisbee, hoola hoops, horse shoes, and a good old game of pull the other person off of the groover can with the throw rope were always good ways to pass the time. Also, on our layover day at Spanish Bottom, a few of us found a large mud pit to go sliding around in.
Where are you boating now, and do you think you will return to Cataract again?
I am in the North West guiding for a company called ROW. I’m taking this fall semester off to run the Grand Canyon for 21 days with 16 other people. One of these people was a boatman on this Cat trip. No words can describe how thankful I am for what the river has taught me. No words can describe the love I have for the friends I have made on the river. The only word that I can think of sometimes is…River