Witnessing the Resurgence of Cataract Canyon

Glen Canyon circa 2023


I first rafted Cataract Canyon some ten years ago. Our group—more than a dozen of us taking advantage of spring break, although none of us had children and few were still in university by then—camped just past the end of the rapid corridor. It had been a manic day of running big whitewater. Cataract’s fifteen miles of churning hydraulics make this stretch of the Colorado River, at good flows, some of the best whitewater in the country. But the river smoothed out weirdly, abruptly, right after the thunderous falls of Big Drop Three. Mellow current, already widening into the reservoir of Lake Powell, floated lazily past the long sandy beach we camped on that night.

I didn’t know then that fierce rapids had been laid to rest beneath that slow water.

©️ Rich Lanyard, Returning Rapids Project, Gypsum Beach circa 2015

The following day, four of us woke before dawn and left the group to deadhead twenty miles to the takeout in kayaks and duckies, on deadline to appear at a friend’s wedding. That day remains one of the most epically exhausting undertakings in my catalog of adventure experiences. As the sun breached the canyon walls, the current slowed until it disappeared altogether. A savage wind rose, blowing, of course, upriver (had there been “river” at that point to blow up). Soon we were paddling on empty; our meager ‘provisions’ (a single bagel and a few handfuls of trail mix between the four of us) were long gone.

But that stupid lack-of-provisions move was not the river’s fault. Neither was the endless lake-paddling-in-headwinds hell to which we were subjected. Nor was the long and muddy mess of the North Wash takeout, even then already perched too high above the water level, that we trudged our boats up in zombie-like staggers at the end of the whole ordeal.

No, all of that was our own fault. Although, if we’re being precise, the last two were the fault of the generation before us who oversaw the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam between Cataract Canyon and the Grand Canyon on the Colorado. The second time I ran Cataract with the Returning Rapids Project, in the fall of 2023, I knew all about that.

I knew that when the doors closed on the dam in 1963, the rising waters flooded the cathedral reach of Glen Canyon and then swallowed more than half of Cataract. Once the most infamously ferocious stretch of an infamously ferocious river, its rapids were drowned and then buried in backed-up sediment, which dropped out from the river as it slowed into the reservoir. I knew the still lake water was a lame excuse for a mass grave marker, whose epitaph would read: In the name of water storage for the thirsty West.

Ten years after I first ran Cataract, Lake Powell’s level has dropped steeply, a result of overuse and less precipitation making its way down the watershed as the climate changes. As the lake recedes, the river has room to flow again, and it’s returning with an efficient determination to scour out the built-up sediment and uncover those historic rapids.

Today, Cataract Canyon’s whitewater doesn’t end at Big Drop Three. The river frolics through a series of riffles and smaller rapids until, at the spot where I’d been paddling furiously and ineffectively on a windy lake a decade ago, the formidable churn of Gypsum Rapid has returned to its former power, tossing unsuspecting boaters out of rafts. The rapid runs past a sediment wall some two stories high, mud left over from the reservoir that the river is quickly carrying away as if it never existed.

The scenes down here, of the power of nature to resurrect itself, are insanely inspiring. Side canyons coming up for air, beaches that didn’t exist the season before, canyon walls that were underwater as recently as a few years ago, petroglyph panels that only just re-emerged. The fact of the river restoring itself, totally unmanaged, after humanity walloped it is nothing short of an environmental miracle. I wrote about that miracle, and the team of passionate river rafters who are bringing it to the attention of major decision-makers in the water wars of the dry West, in Rolling Stone.

©️American Whitewater, Big Drop 2 circa 2021

Inspiration aside, this story is about how much work is still left to do. Work that the river, however powerful it might be, and however mystical it might seem in its own resurrection, cannot do itself. There is all that mud that the river is washing away as the reservoir recedes—half a century’s worth of sediment robbed from the Grand Canyon down to the Mexican delta, where the river no longer touches the sea—with nowhere to go except slammed up against the dam.

There is all the effort, thus far mostly ignored by managing agencies, to keep boaters apprised of the wildly fast changes down here. Running Cataract has always been an adrenaline rush, and it’s riskier now than ever before in our lifetimes. Those walls of sediment, incredibly unstable, often collapse into the river without warning in otherworldly earth avalanches. Before the sediment dries, the mud onshore is so unconsolidated that river guides have sunk to their chests in it; and when it dries, it creates equally dangerous crevasses.

New (and formidable) mud rapids have appeared and disappeared from all the sludge moving downstream. New beaches form and old ones slump away—a boating party might sign up for a campsite only to get downriver and find it gone. And, of course, there’s the disaster of the North Wash takeout, which has deteriorated alarmingly to become an injury-prone steep slide below the one-time boat ramp that requires, in some cases, seven hours just to get a raft and its equipment out.

And there is the tragedy of Glen Canyon itself.

I had never seen Glen, a canyon some thought more beautiful than the Grand. I’d never recreated on Lake Powell. In the fall, the Returning Rapids team attached motors to our rafts to head past North Wash and witness these high reaches of the reservoir that few people see. The river slowed, turned from a thick sepia to melancholy green and then to the shocking blue of a deep lake as we passed the mouth of White Canyon. I had my head down, reading a book from Returning Rapids’ river library on the history of what was lost at White when the reservoir flooded it. When I looked up from the pages, we had entered Glen.

The walls here were different than upriver. This was a hall of soft colors, shimmering sandstone, lovely in its dignified reach above the unnatural clarity of water. Below the unsightly bathtub ring left by the dropping lake level, the stone, though, was crumbling. There was a hard-to-name feeling of what wonder lay, silent now, in the cold subsurface dark. These water-stained walls held the story of what we’d done, what we drowned. And perhaps it was only because I’d come from the free-running river above that the loss hit so hard, but I suddenly found myself crying, awash in grief that threatened to drown me, too.

When we made camp on a stone shore in a wide bowl that once soared three hundred feet above the canyon, I left the group. I needed to get higher. I needed perspective. The sandstone gripped my feet as I climbed up the canting walls, each precipitous step a decision point on whether I would get stuck up here with no safe return. Is this the moment of irreparable mistake? The moment to turn back from this fate?

I finally stood on top of the rim and spun in a slow circle. The land sloped gently for miles, as if readying itself to enact something breathtaking: a plunge, a swan dive, into the Earth’s long work of that shimmering canyon. Flooded now, in the geological blink of an Anthropocene eye.

Most experts have come to agree, however grudgingly, that Lake Powell will never refill to full capacity. There’s just not enough water in the river system to meet the astronomical demand. We’re at a cultural decision point: Keep filling the reservoir when we can during wet years, or begin to consider dismantling the dam. If we do away with the manmade constriction, the river upstream in Cataract may fully return to a state as if the reservoir never existed. Here in Glen Canyon though, our choices will remain marked on the walls.

Marked, but not entirely irreparable. The power of nature often has the last word.


Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of Meg Flynn, Rich Lanyard and Mike DeHoff of the Returning Rapids Project, and American Whitewater.