For the first time in 18 years life has gotten in the way of my annual fall river cleanse. I had to forgo my favorite hoodoos for hospitals, hospice and a memorial. Now I need this trip more than ever and I vow to return next year to the starkly beautiful desert river waterways of Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The canyon looks a lot like the big one downstream known as the Grand Canyon.
In Cataract Canyon there’s no TV, radio, internet or iPhone. No word on the future of the world. Fear? Hope? Nope. Just that little ball of fear about the rapids ahead. And my hopes that I can bring ’em back alive.
In Canyonlands National Park it is off season. Gone are the crowded commercial trips shuttling tourists on large power boats down the Colorado River through a place where it is sacrilege to hurry.
There’s a secret chamber cloistered in the maze of sandstone blobs known as the “Dollhouse,” above Spanish Bottom near the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. In 1999, our group discovered a room with a view among the massive slabs of broken and fallen stone. We dubbed it the “Y2K Chamber,” thinking it would be the ideal place to hide from the impending Y2K apocalypse.
Inside the Y2K Chamber you can claw up the rock face to a ledge and a wide panoramic rectangle into the outside world. I watch closely in case anything has changed in the years since our discovery. Even though everything is always changing, transformation is slower than a snail in the Y2K Chamber.
Photographic evidence dating back to the Powell expedition in the late 1800s shows that the landscapes, rock formations, bushes and trees have hardly changed at all in the last 150 years. But I still watch, just in case.
I feel pretty safe in the warm bosom of the Y2k Chamber. Nothing here is likely to change during my brief visit. It is possible, however, that the forces of gravity, weathering and tectonic activity that made this sandstone shelter possible in the first place could flatten it like a pancake in the blink of an eye. Almost as sure as the sun shines that will happen one day — maybe even today — but maybe in a couple of thousand years or so. I’ll take my chances but if it happens on my watch, goodbye cruel world.
The annual quest to Canyonlands in the fall officially closes the door on days of light and warmth and ushers in winter like so many leaves. I shall return.
Thirteen years ago on this voyage, my three companions and I saw no other human on a two-week river trip except for one lone hiker at the mouth of Dark Canyon on day nine. The hiker didn’t even look at us, although he certainly noticed our ragtag flotilla spinning by in the river. When we floated silently past, none of our crew had the urge to check the news of the outside world, socialize or even grunt. You go down Cataract Canyon to get away, not to get together with lone hikers. Sometimes, encountering humans can be a letdown. I’m sure he was let down but maybe out of mutual respect we all held our breath and did not acknowledge each other.
Going to this savage place of tumbling shale, limestone, sandstone, salt deposits, uplifts, ramparts, ravens, chub and Mormon tea cleanses the soul. It is said that the Ute people considered the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers as the center of the universe. That’s pretty progressive thinking given the immense time and space represented in the billions of glittering stars overhead.
The steep crumbling walls of Cataract Canyon reveal the history of the region. Shallow seas deposited muck in layer after layer over millions of years. When the sea water evaporated it left behind massive domes and layers of salt that cause tilting and crumbling, eventually leading to the fans of rock which form the fearsome rapids at the bottom of the canyon. There’s plenty of speculation of how old the river canyon is, but my guess, based on assimilating the evidence presented so far, is 16.2 million years, give or take a week or so.
At this time of year the approach to Cataract Canyon is shrouded in silence. Nature has already started to hunker down. A few slow motion bees still circle drunkenly, but the cacophony of bugs copulating in the 110 degree heat is all but over. Now there’s nothing but silence, if the weather cooperates.
A couple of miles past the confluence, silence gives way to the steady droning of distant whitewater. Large rocks, steep gradient and channel constriction combine to provide a soundtrack like no other. If you put your head under water you can hear the smaller rocks on the riverbed: grinding, tumbling and washing down, down, down to where the water suddenly stops. Suddenly the river’s glory, power and erosive beauty are sequestered, held back by man’s mighty, temporary hand. There’s a damn dam that forms Lake Powell — where a real confusing world awaits the return of people who are somehow changed for the better.