By: Roy Webb, Part

“BIGGEST RIDE IN CATARACTS” The Story of Dark Canyon Rapid

You can’t get there from here.  It’s an old expression, usually said half in jest, but when man-the-earthmover gets involved it can become a literal truth. Every boatman on the Colorado has heard of the Big Drops, Mile Long, the North Sea; but what about Gypsum Canyon, rated by “Black George” Simmons as a Class 5?  Or Clearwater Rapid?  Or how about the most famous of them all, Dark Canyon, a wicked S-curve near the lower end of Cataract Canyon that was dreaded by early boatmen fully as much as the Big Drops? Alas, in this case, you truly “can’t get there from here” because both Gypsum Canyon and Dark Canyon–not to mention the other two dozen or so rapids in lower Cataract Canyon, from the bottom of Big Drop 3 to Mille Crag bend, have been flooded by the upper reaches of Lake Powell since the early 1960s.  The lashing waves that once brought dry mouths to early boaters have been stilled by a hundred feet of dead water over them, the huge boulders that created the rapid no doubt covered by tons of silt.

Cataract Canyon splashy wterBut there was a time when all of the rapids in Cataract were in full force and cry when there were over fifty rapids in the forty-five-mile length of the canyon.  It’s the continuous stretches of wild water that caused Major Powell to give Cataract its name, and that same whitewater gave rise to Cataract’s other moniker: the Graveyard of the Colorado.  Starting in the 1890s and continuing periodically for the next few decades, there were mining booms in Glen Canyon and the lower San Juan.  At the time Glen Canyon was one of the most remote places on earth, barely accessibly by wagon and then only after weeks of travel through dry washes and across burning deserts, so many prospectors looked at the smooth water flowing by the towns of Green River and Moab, and thought: why not float down to the gold mines?  Build a raft, load it with supplies, and arrive refreshed and ready at the new El Dorado.  No doubt some of them never made it much past the confluence of the Green and Colorado.  Some probably climbed out successfully; others might have perished in the deserts, while some were lost in Cataract’s rapids.  Many early parties reported seeing wrecked boats and even skeletons along the banks, which must have done wonders for morale.  Even such a consummate boatman as Don Hatch, who literally learned running rapids at his father’s knee, didn’t like Cataract and only went down it when forced to by his business.

It’s doubtful that many of those early prospectors got as far as Dark Canyon Rapid, which was near the lower end of Cataract at about mile 184 (measured upstream from Lees Ferry, which puts the rapid about five miles above Mille Crag bend, the end of Cataract Canyon). Charlie Eggert, who ran it on a filming expedition in 1955, left a vivid description of the rapid:

At Dark Canyon, the mighty Colorado River […] flows around a sharp ‘S’ curve where the river undercuts the canyon wall. Then it proceeds in a mass of foaming, cross-cut waves, around another big curve to the west.  To make the situation worse, the stream which comes down the side canyon has carried enormous boulders into the river. When we looked at the havoc wrought by river and rock we knew we would have a tough run. Furthermore, it was one of the few rapids on the entire run which could not be walked around.

“Black George” Simmons, who ran the river as a USGS geologist in the 1950s, commented further on the formation of Dark Canyon Rapid:

Dark Canyon Rapid was also unusual in that all of the detritus causing it was upstream from the mouth of Dark Canyon. We believed this was because of a bend in the canyon which caused the current to drive into and erode a former alluvial fan at the mouth of Dark Canyon.

Even though the name “Dark Canyon” was in place early on to describe the long side canyon that gave the rapid its name, it’s not known just when Dark Canyon Rapid was christened.  On July 23, 1869, Major Powell and his weary men ran a rapid that isn’t named but sounds like Dark Canyon:

During the afternoon we run a chute more than half a mile in length, narrow and rapid. […] At the foot of the chute, the river turns sharply to the right and the water rolls up against a rock that from above seems to stand directly athwart its course.  As we approach it we pull with all our power to the right, but it seems impossible to avoid being carried headlong against the cliff; we are carried up high on the waves–but not against the rock, for the rebounding water strikes us and we are beaten back and pass on with safety, except that we get a good drenching.

Frederick Dellenbaugh, who was along on Powell’s second trip in 1871, likewise had no name for the rapid near the end of Cataract but there is little doubt it’s Dark Canyon from his breathless description:  oar blade splashing in water

As we sailed down, the river was suddenly studded with pinnacles of rock, huge boulders, or masses fallen from the heights.  By steering carefully we could pass among these and, keeping in the dividing line of the current, make for the head of a rock island, on each side of which the waters plunged against the cliffs with great force as they dropped away to a lower level. […] As we approached the head of the island our keep bumped several times on the rocks, while the current changed from the simple dividing line and ran everywhere. […] By hauling the craft down the right-hand side for about half the island’s length, we were able to pull directly across the tail of waves from the right-hand rapid, and avoid being swept against the cliff on the left where the whole river set. So close every boat go that the oars on that side could not be used for a moment or two, and then we were past.

Interestingly, the next parties of boaters in Cataract make scant mention of Dark Canyon rapid, maybe because by the time they got to the end of Cataract Canyon they were numbed by the many mishaps they had suffered and exhausted by the arduous labor of portaging sacks of flour and sides of bacon, and lining their awkward wooden boats.  Robert Brewster Stanton, usually a keen observer, simply wrote on Thursday, June 20, 1889 “2 P.M., we come to a very bad rapid. […] Made portage of stuff.  Swung boats past worst part of rapid.”  The photographer on the expedition, Franklin Nims, walked around the rapid or rather climbed the cliffs above the river, and wrote “Five of us made a hard climb and walked down while the boats made the rapids. Can[y]on turns sharply to the right, water runs against the walls on both sides.”  The Best Expedition, two years later, had just lost one of their boats upstream in Mile Long Rapid (source of the famous “Hell to Pay. #1 Sunk and Down” inscription) so they were understandably cautious. They took their remaining boat all the way out of the water and moved it along the shore on skids, rather than face the fury of Dark Canyon.  That night they found a case of cranberry preserves in a driftwood pile, and since they “were now down to oatmeal with no sugar” they used the preserves, which made them all sick.  No wonder they were glad to leave Cataract behind them! Finally, George Flavell, who ran the entire length of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1896, made no mention of Dark Canyon at all and is widely assumed to have run it since he mentioned, in his journal which was later published as The Log of the Panthon, all the other rapids he portaged during the voyage.

The 20th century saw an increasing number of people on the river through Cataract Canyon. First was Charles Silver Russell, who with Bert Loper made a famously ill-fated trip through Cataract in 1907. After a series of mishaps, they came to Dark Canyon (which Russell called “No. 55″) in early October 1907, when the water was low, took one look, and decided to portage their remaining boats and supplies. Loper, who numbered it #45, didn’t really want to portage but according to his biographer, Pearl Baker, decided to do it to keep the peace with Charles Russell. They lifted their wooden boats out of the river and carried them bodily around the rapid, through the huge boulders lining the shore.  After that episode, “Bert decided it would be a bad rapid and a good portage that would ever bring him off the river again.” Two years later, in 1909, Julius Stone financed an expedition to run the length of the Green and Colorado just for pleasure and hired probably the best riverman of his time, Nathaniel Galloway, as guide. Galloway was his usual taciturn self when the reached Dark Canyon Rapid on Oct. 21, 1909, saying simply: “Run 2 miles and land at the head of Dark Canyon Rapid. Portage our supplies and line our boats. Run 5 miles today and stop for dinner.” Stone was little more forthcoming, saying only that they reached the mouth of Dark Canyon in the morning, and had a “hard portage,” while Galloway and Seymour Dubendorff lined the boats, and were on their way again by 11:45 AM. What is of interest, however, is that in his journal entry Galloway calls Dark Canyon Rapid by that name, the first time the name shows up in the records.

B&W water photoIn 1911, two years after Stone and Galloway’s voyage, two brothers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb were on the river to make the first motion pictures of running the Colorado River. By the time they got to Cataract Canyon, the two brothers had almost a thousand river miles under their keels and felt like they were finally catching on. Then they reached Dark Canyon, viewing its crashing waves and jutting boulders with no little trepidation: “The rapid at the end of this canyon was one of the worst of the entire series,” Ellsworth wrote, “and had been the scene of more than one fatality, we had been told. It had a very difficult approach and swung against the right wall, then the water was turned abruptly to the left by a great pile of fallen boulders. The cresting waves looked more like breakers of the ocean than anything we had seen on the river”. Ellsworth ran his boat, the Defiance, through successfully, and then went on to describe watching his brother Emery follow in his own boat, the Edith:

“The Edith was dropped directly on top of a rock in the middle of this rapid, then lifted on the next wave. […] Separated from my brother in this instance, I had an opportunity to see the man and water conflict, with a perspective much as it would have appeared to a spectator happening on the scene.  I heard the roar of the rapid; a roar so often heard that we forgot it was there.  I saw the gloom of the great gorge, and the towering, sinister shafts of rock […]  I saw the mad, wild water hurled at the curving wall.  Jagged rocks, like the bared fangs of some dream monster, appeared now and then in the leaping, tumbling waves.  Then down toward the turmoil sped the tiny shell-like boat. […]  There was no rowing.   The oar blades were tipped high to avoid loss in the first comber; then the boat was buried in the foam and staggered through on the other side.  It was buffeted here and there, now covered with a ton of water, now topping a ten-foot wave.  Like a skilled boxer–quick of eye, and ready to seize any temporary advantage–the oarsman shot in his oars for two quick strokes, to straighten the boat with the current or dodge a threatening boulder; then covered by lifting his oars and ducking his head as a brown flood rolled over him.  Time and again the maneuver was repeated; now there, now there.  One would think the chances were about one to a hundred that he would get through.  But by some sort of a system, undoubtedly aided, many times, by good luck, the man and his boat won to land.”  

By the time Charles Silver Russell returned to Dark Canyon in 1914, someone had built a ladder up the cliff to make portaging easier.  He and one of his companions, August Tadje, took advantage of the ladder to bypass the rapid, but only after testing each rung carefully!  The third member of the party, William Reeder, ran the boat through alone, and the force of the water almost tore the oars from his hands.  In 1921, the US Geological Survey conducted the first of a number of river surveys, with the purpose of searching for potential dam sites.  Their head boatman was none other than Ellsworth Kolb, who had been so lucky in Dark Canyon ten years before.  This time his luck ran out, as described by E.C. LaRue, the head of the survey party:

[He] made the mistake of not removing the cargo from the L.A.  Perhaps he was tired of portaging.  Maybe he felt a certain amount of ballast would help in violent water.  At any rate, the boat struck a rock near the head of the rapid and wound up caught between two rocks, partly on its edge.  As the stern shot up, the bow went under, instantly filling the cockpit with water.  The current held the boat pinned fast against the rocks.

Ellsworth made it to shore and tried again with the Edison, another of the survey’s boats.  This time he hung on the rocks but was able to get it loose.  When he tried to run the third boat, the Static, through, though, he missed the rocks but “the waves flipped her over with Ellsworth underneath.  He soon worked his way out and grabbed onto the side ropes.  By then he was going down through the high waves of the lower end of the rapid.  He tried to climb on top of the overturned boat but could not make it.  When the boat was about to enter another rapid, he let go and swam to shore.” It took them a full day to free the first boat from the rocks, and they had to build a “Spanish windlass,” or A-frame, out of logs and rope to finally work it loose. 

To be continued…

Yampa Retro River Roy Webb SmilingRoy Webb is an author and renowned river historian.  Spending a lifetime holding long memory for these special places, Roy said he began his life’s work simply because “It didn’t seem anyone else was”.  He now stands as the go-to river historian for the desert southwest. Some of his first river trips were with Dee & Sue Holladay & Roy remains committed to enjoying quality family-oriented river trips. “Rivers always ask me a question: where have I come from and where am I going?”. Come join him on our Retro rafting trips!