Tom Turiano, Tom Bennett, Stephen Koch, David Koch, Mathew Goewert, David Stubbs, and Forrest McCarthy descended Cataract Canyon on an unsupported all-Alpacka trip.
We started at Elephant Hill in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. From there we walked a 9 mile mix of jeep trails and single track to Red Lake Canyon and our first Camp at Spanish Bottom on the Colorado. The following day the whitewater began. The rapids above Range Canyon were relatively moderate and the bigger flipper holes and cresting waves could be avoided. Several of us enjoyed an enjoyable afternoon hike up to the canyon rim.
The Following day we negotiated the biggest whitewater, including Big Drops 1, 2, and 3. One packrafter ran all the rapids. We camped that night near Imperial Canyon. The following day we negotiated the last few rapids and many miles of flat water with fantastic scenery, stopping for camp at Sheep Canyon. The following morning we paddled the last 7 miles to Hite.
The River was running around 7,000 CFS. Guide books rate Cataract Canyon at this flow Class III+ (Class IV). We were able to sneak along the banks and eddies through some of the biggest drops. These “sneaks” had a creaky character with technical maneuvering and small poor-overs. It was necessary in a few places to poke out into the main current and negotiate big cresting waves, frothing whitewater, and pushy eddy-lines. The paddling was technical and committing. The consequences were big. I give it a PR 5 rating.
We had several swimmers and applied the swift water rescue techniques developed by Roman Dial and Alaska Pacific University. All boats had bowlines and grab loops in the stern. We found these very effective. Everyone had a throw bags, a Coast Guard approved whitewater life jackets, and a helmet.
We had planned on taking out at Dark Canyon. However, to keep the logistics simple we took advantage of the low levels of Lake Powell and rode the current all the way to Hite. At higher Lake Levels packrafters could exit at Gypsum or Dark Canyons. The possibility of a loop, with no shuttle, exists if one parked at Beef Basin and approached the River via Red Lake or Cross Canyons. For packrafters wanting to avoid whitewater great loops are possible by putting in above the confluence and hiking out from Spanish Bottom. Another highly scenic and non-technical option (at low Lake levels) would be to approach the river via Gypsum Canyon and exit at Dark Canyon or Hite.
Permits are required through Canyonlands National Park (CNP). Permits cost 30$ and are issued at a first come first served basis. There is normally no waiting list, however, plan on at least several weeks to process all the paper work. Nights spent within CNP, but not on the river, will require an additional backcountry camping permit. Fire pans (we used an aluminum turkey pan), wag bags (packed in a dry bag), extra paddles, First Aid Kit, and Coast Guard approved Life Jackets are required. Chances are you will encounter a Ranger and will be asked to show him/her the required items.
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