“The Graveyard of the Colorado” is a foreboding yet apt nickname for Cataract Canyon. It earned this moniker in the early days of river running, back when wooden boats were the norm and oarsmen lacked the decades of experience we have to reference today. With its massive, tumultuous rapids that come with unrelenting frequency, rapids that sport a steep gradient and are littered with boulders the size of school buses, Cataract Canyon had a unique ability to smash, pin, and dismantle wooden boat after wooden boat belonging to its early adventurers.

Gordy, Dee, and Kim scout a rapidDee Holladay took his first ever river trip in 1960. In 1962 he took his third trip, this time working as a guide as a favor to his friend Jack Currey, owner of Western River Expeditions. After that trip, he was hooked. By 1966, he and Sue had bought a few 10-man rafts and founded Holiday River Expeditions. Despite Dee still working full-time as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Salt Lake City, they were able to make the business work, with Dee running weekend trips and Sue looking after their young daughters. In the summer of 1968, Dee took a leave of absence from his mechanic job to run rivers, which is when Holiday started facilitating Cataract Canyon trips.

The years between 1969 and 1976 were times of growth, with Dee leaving his job at Ford and hiring his first full-time guides, including Marty Taylor, Kim Crumbo, and Frogg Stewart. Holiday established itself as a leader in the industry through running Cataract trips nearly every week. Dee accompanied nearly every trip the company did, with Sue handling the office work, grocery shopping, shuttles, and child raising. By 1979, Holiday had expanded into Dinosaur National Monument, onto the San Juan River, and into the rivers of Idaho, with Frogg becoming a part-owner and running that side of the business.

Beyond just its whitewater, Cataract Canyon is an environment of extremes. It is extraordinarily remote. The summer temperatures can be unrelenting. The canyon walls are tall, steep, and constantly crumbling. Its history is momentous, from the perils of its early adventurers to the enormous dam impacting its lower stretches. The water delivered through its passage helps supply nearly 20% of the nation’s residents.

Holiday is proud to be an enterprise that cut its teeth and found sustained success in such a place.

Cataract

In his book, Powell does not spend much time explaining why he dubbed the canyon below the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers as Cataract (the word used for rapids at the time). After a few days of portaging and struggling downriver through Cataract’s whitewater, on July 23rd he writes, “On starting, we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon.”

Dee and Sue Holladay

Dee and Sue floating downstream

Regardless, the name fits, as Cataract Canyon is home to Utah’s most formidable whitewater. The rapids are so abundant that rather than naming each of them, they are known simply as Rapid 1, Rapid 2, etc. Some have earned proper names due to their history of causing river runners trouble, such as Hell to Pay and Ben Hurt. The most notable rapids in Cataract are numbers 21, 22, and 23, known collectively as The Big Drops. From the top of Big Drop 1 to the bottom of Big Drop 3, the river drops more than 30 feet, making it the steepest gradient of the entire Colorado River. Features in The Big Drops have earned names such as Little Niagra, Satan’s Gut, and Frogg’s Wave, the latter’s namesake being Holiday’s own Frogg Stewart, of course.

In those early years of Holiday, Dee was almost always on the river, and he spent more days in Cataract than anywhere else. With Sue responsible for the behind the scenes work, Dee worked tirelessly on the river, frequently making a quick turnaround after getting off the water on Friday and running Westwater Canyon trips over the weekend. He and Sue built their company through hard work, providing excellent customer service, and operating with a conscientious environmental ethic. They were driven to offer an experience that connected people to the natural world.

Triple RigAs an extension of that philosophy, when his competitors adopted the use of motors in Canyonlands, Dee refused. The noise of the engine, the smell of gas, the industrial mechanics in place of human-power… there were too many aspects of running motors that compromised the mission of his company. To this day, Holiday remains the only company that rows the entire river on every trip, from Potash to Lake Powell. During high water, when the whitewater of Cataract is an imposing, tumultuous, Leviathan-like challenge to navigate, other outfitters will utilize motor rigs to run the rapids with the guests, or act as safety boats for their smaller crafts. To avoid motors, Holiday instead uses Dee’s original idea. He took a rough design Georgie White used in the Grand Canyon, modified it for 18’ rafts, and thus the “triple rig” was born. By strapping three boats together and having one oarsman in front and one in back, Dee was able to create a stable watercraft that could maneuver laterally across the river and punch through the biggest waves Cataract has to offer with an exponentially minimized risk of capsizing.

Before the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and the subsequent formation of Lake Powell, there were 67 rapids in Cataract, the last of which being near Mille Crag Bend at mile 177. When the lake is at full capacity, it’s still waters extend all the way to the bottom of the Big Drops (a difference of 24 miles from Mille Crag Bend). Because the lake hasn’t reached capacity in years, the receding water has left sediment built up dozens of feet high on both sides of the river that guides like to call the “Powell Formation”, or sometimes the “Floyd Dominy Formation”. As the lake recedes further, the river’s current has extended itself downstream and has begun moving the sediment that has settled on the riverbed. This has begun the reemergence of the lost rapids of lower Cataract, including at Waterhole and Gypsum, rapids that haven’t existed since Glen Canyon Dam’s completion in 1966.

Two organizations are working hard to document these changes and predict what they could mean for the future: the Glen Canyon Institute and the Returning Rapids Project. The output from both groups is informative, thought-provoking, and critical for our future as we learn to adapt to the changing canyon.

 

Westwater Canyon Justing Rowing WhitewaterOriginally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.