A River Runs Through It

A dream canoe trip on Utah's Green River was one wrong turn away from turning into a nightmare

Of all the topics that our river guide, Mike, covered before we started our five-day canoe trip on Utah’s Green River, it was the mention of Cataract Canyon that stuck with me the most. I remember wanting to ask him more questions about how we’d know where our pick-up point would be out there in the wilderness, so that we wouldn’t get carried away into some of the world’s roughest rapids. Would there be signs or maybe a Starbucks?

Mike was nonchalant about the whole thing, although I think he could clearly tell that I was the worrywart in the bunch, which consisted of my husband and 10 members of his family. My husband had wanted to take this canoe trip for several years and it was his dream we all go together. After a ton of research, he found the best river tour outfit located in Moab, the closest city to where we would take our canoes and “put in.”

When he first suggested the 50-mile trek where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid infamously hid out because of its remote location, I immediately thought of “Deliverance.” But after he showed me pictures of the half-mile-high red rocks and the wide, glistening river, I was sold. Sure, I might not have access to a blow dryer, but at least I’d be able to experience five days gliding down the majestic Green River amidst some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country.

As the 12 of us stood at the water’s edge, Mike cheerfully wished us luck and said that he’d pick us up in his boat in a few days. I asked him again about avoiding Cataract Canyon, which was precariously close to our pick-up spot, and the last thing I remember him saying was, “Oh, it’ll be fine. The eddies might give you some trouble, but don’t worry about it.”

The first day on the river was heaven on earth — blue skies that looked more like ocean than air, gentle flows in the water that pushed us along with little effort from our paddles and a cool breeze to offset the 100-degree heat. We covered almost 15 miles until we discovered that, since the river was at an all time high, there were very few places to pull over and set up camp. Mike had briefly mentioned this and had even emailed my husband about it, but at the time, it didn’t register.

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My husband and I were in charge of the map, which basically looked like a snake drawn on a skinny flipbook pamphlet. Each potential “pull over” we tried to identify was unrecognizable since the water was so high. Where we thought there should be sand and small beaches, there were only tops of brush and trees peeking out from the engorged river.

When we were finally able to find places to pull over and set up camp, we were thrilled. We’d put up our tents, pour ourselves wine, make a fire and cook the food we’d brought with us in four huge coolers. Strangely, we had not seen one other human being in our four days on the river, and that made me worry that we might be headed in the wrong direction.

On the last day of our trip, it was my husband and I in one canoe, with his brother and nephew in another. We had decided to go ahead to the confluence (one of the markers that Mike told us about where the Colorado River joins the Green River), and find the place where Mike was supposed to pick us up.

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As we rounded the bend and saw the confluence, we had no idea which way to go, so we just went with the flow of the river. We bounded to the right, coasting along until we noticed that the water was getting much choppier. Just then my nephew yelled out that he had seen a sign.

“What does it say?” we shouted.

“EXTREME DANGER! ENTERING CATARACT CANYON!" he screamed over the rushing water. "EXTREME RAPIDS!”

At that moment, we hurtled right past the sign, helmetless and losing control of our canoe, and I was screaming for my life. We must have been traveling 50 miles an hour and I was sure we were headed for certain death.

“PULL OVER!” I yelled to my husband, who was trying his best to direct our canoe sideways across the rushing river.

Somehow we miraculously managed to slam our canoe full force into the brush along the river’s edge. My husband quickly jumped out to grab hold of several branches while the water rushed over his head.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family went catapulting by in three different canoes, beseeching us for some type of guidance. I frantically pointed to the water’s banks. “Are you kidding me?!” my brother-in-law screamed, barely audible over the raging waters.

What none of us knew at the time was that we had just passed through the “eddies that might give us some trouble.” A sharp turn to the left would have placed us directly into some of the most dangerous rapids imaginable.

Our entire group ended up navigating onto the banks of the river, shaken up but mostly unscathed, and thrilled to see other campers in the area.

We’d made it.

Tags: memoirs