Mo Mullenax: Pro Whitewater Guide on Multi-Day Rafting with Groups

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