By Bob Spiwak
“It’s instant death to run Cataract Canyon in an open boat,” said our van driver as he zoomed past a semi in a whiteout on Interstate 70. He was speaking to Jeff Sandine, Craig Nelson and me, and referring to our three canoes on a trailer behind the van. There were also various dry bags, paddles and wherever else would not fit in the van.
The shuttle trip from Moab to Green River was the first phase in a planned 12-day paddle starting from the town of Green River, then down the Green River to Spanish Bottom on the Colorado River. It was early April, and while it was snowing when we got on the water, the rivers were rising. The second-scariest event of the entire outing was the shuttle van ride.
We’d picked up Craig at the Salt Lake City airport, driven to Moab and gotten a motel. The first endeavor was to get food and other things for the trip. We stocked our coolers with block ice, and while the other guys bought steaks and potatoes and greens, I, the non-foodie cheapskate, bought several dozen hot dogs, a pound of coffee and forgot to get cigarettes, the essence of my daily grazing diet.
The beginning mishap was when we beached the first evening. I had already gotten soaked when my canoe ran aground and I had to wade to deeper water. Soaked to the knees, I continued to the campsite, a mild embankment. The river was moving swiftly and in trying to exit quickly I pushed the canoe sideways and I ended in the water, again soaked. The snow had ceased and it was sunny, but quite cold. I shortly developed early hypothermia symptoms, my body shaking uncontrollably. Jeff made a big fire and gave me a fleece jacket and in a couple of hours I got back to normal. That night my water bottle leaked and next morning there was ice on the floor.
We eventually left the prairie and got into the beautiful red rock country, going past Arches and into Canyonlands national parks. At a place called Anderson Bottom we found a top-grade camping area: a big cottonwood tree in a treeless terrain, with a spring nearby (according to our map).
We decided to take two days off from paddling and just kick back and explore. The spring issued through a narrow pipe in a cliff half-a-mile away, and delivered two drops of water per second. We put a bucket underneath the pipe to collect water. It was now day eight of our cruise. As we were relaxing under the tree, a canoe pulled up and two men wearing identical black sunglasses came into the campsite seeking water. We named them the CIA guys.
Water is a precious commodity in the desert. It just so happened that cheap Bob had not brought enough coffee and we were about out. Likewise, I was down to my last two cigarettes. I asked the CIA guys if they had any cigs, and if we could barter. They did not smoke. I suggested bartering water for coffee. They did not have coffee. Sorry, guys, they said, and left. We saw them make camp a ways downstream.
Several hours later they were back. They had “found some coffee” and were willing to trade for water. Craig went to our bucket and gave them a couple of quarts. We got a few cups of ground coffee. From another paddler, a smoker, I got a pack of cigs. He refused the $5 I offered.
On the 11th day we got to Spanish Bottom, but were refused access to a campsite that had a group of people. Now on the Colorado River, rising fast, we could hear and feel Cataract Canyon a quarter-mile downstream.
We had to ferry against the current across the big river to a sandbar to camp. This was the scariest interval of the trip. Later we found there were several campsites beyond those people. Bad map-reading. Duh!
The pick-up boat was due in two days. As the Colorado rose, our sand bar shrunk. The boat picked us up when there was only a little sand bar left, then got the group that would not let us up the bank. They got quite friendly on the trip to Moab and one of them, author Craig Childs, announced that we had the distinction of traveling with two geological PhDs. What did we do, one of them asked.
The three of us were ratty and dirty as could be and I responded with, “I am a parole officer, and these two are on furlough.” The group had little to say to us the rest of the trip.