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Old 01-23-2008   #1
Andy H.'s Avatar
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1995
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,909
Cataract Canyon at High Water - video and analysis

Something for the rafters and other interested folks for when there are ice dams on our favorite runs. What follows was written by Earl Perry, who guided Western rivers in his younger days. Perry also mentions Rich Phillips who is a GCPBA board member and posts on the Buzz as "richp" with updates and info on Grand Canyon issues.

The text below was originally posted to the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Assoc. email list in the last day or so. The topic of the thread originally started as discussing PFDs and bouyancy but then turned to high-water on Cataract. Perry provided a movie clip and then gave a detailed analysis of a high-water Big Drops run and provides interesting commentary. There's a way to log onto the GCPBA-dot-org site and read all the posts if you are interested but don't ask me how.

Watch the video of an unsuccessful run through the Big Drops and then check out the analysis by someone that's been running big water longer than most of us have been alive.


PFDs on Cat at High Water:

In Cataract above 60K, I require doubled lifejackets with crotchstraps on those who can wear them; either wet- or dry-suits (and if drysuits, puffed up by the wearer before launching for the day); and helmets.

I'm trying for positive bouyancy in the 50-lb range, on every participant.

There was a very odd death in there back in '95 - Stan Hollister, veteran boatman, who had (on purpose) swum Cat on more than 100K. He was swimming Cat at about 65000, saw friends at Lake Cataract at lunch, and was found below Big Drop 3 a little later, drowned. No signs of impact. Big flotation and a wetsuit. Nobody knows how it happened.

The speculation is that either a hell of a big eddy fence just took him down and kept him down; or that the flotation was not enough to keep him in the wave above, and he got carried down into the extreme turbulence of the subsurface rocks in Capsize or Little Niagara; or that those pourovers on the left at Big Drop Three that form at high water were just too violent for him. See [video link above referenced]

At high water in Cataract, I don't want anyone in the water. And if I have to have people in, or if I have to be in the water, I want the people WAY UP on the surface. Under those conditions there is no swimming; you make it based on bouyancy.

Perry's Discussion on run shown in the video:

He hit the Marker Hole to start with, which is not necessarily a wrong entry - it's pretty close to lining you up for the Window, which can be an elegant run. The number of attractive runs at that stage is limited, even with a more precise entry than he made. But I'd stress that there's a strong element of the random when the water is that high. Waves and holes break or don't break with a non- timeable period, and they are large enough that if they do break you can get a true endo from a big raft - which is what happened to President Yeamans and his sons.

Most of us are very used to what I'd call entry boating - you get the line right at the top of the rapid and you can sit on the oars. I saw Rich Phillips do this in Horn last spring, quite literally. Oars immobile and clear of the water from above the entry clear to the left cliff at the bottom. Not a single stroke. In fact there are only a handful of rapids where you have to get the entry right, get the maneuvers right for hundreds of yards or even miles while taking on water, and then make a critical move down below. Warm Springs at high water. Ladle. The upper Middle Fork down to Velvet with the water over 6'. But that is true of much of Cataract when the water is up, with the further complication that even when your entry is exactly what you planned, a wave break can drive you 50 feet to one side or another. Look at what happens to this oarsman at the top as he gets out of his involuntary surf - that river motors him close to 100 feet toward the left bank.

One other thing I'd note is about midway through: huge boat, swamped, 4 people, very strong boatman (look at him bend the oars, stroke after stroke), and the eddy fence spins them through a 180 in an instant. I can tell you that even with 20 hp, you will not get a spin as quick as that. No one on the oars could do it - the oars would be ripped from your hands, or bent. Watch his. That spin is one of the more subtle indications in the clip of just how powerful the river was that day. I know of a motor J-rig that went over about where he first surfs, and was jetted into the left eddy between BD2 and BD3. When they finally got it Z-dragged aright and got the motor going again, the boatman drove it out to the eddy fence (he knew plenty about those pourovers waiting below on the left) with a plan to surf clear over to the right bank. It sucked the whole stern under and whipped him through a 360 or two, leaving him to tell me later, "I was wondering whether I would be the first professional boatman to tip over twice in the same rapid on the same day."

I mention this because even a motor may not necessarily get you from that left bank area to the safety of the right side down at BD3. The line of tailwaves between the two rapids is eerily compressed, and again, breaks randomly. They are large enough to produce water tipovers - no rocks, no holes, just a wave that sudden bursts and can blow over a boat as big as a J. This boatman had a near-impossible task.

That said, sometimes there's a funny dish effect in there, right at the top of Satan's Gut. Sometimes, for a moment. You can be driving or rowing hard right, certain you won't make it, and at the last moment, you hit what looks and acts like a sort of broad half-pipe, and get whirled like a teacup ride in a fair over to the right side. A moment later it's gone. You can't count on it and you can't time it; with luck and reflexes you may be able to use it. If it's there when you are. No such luck for this guy, whose boat's awash and whose paddlers have been cancelling him most of the way. He gives some sort of warning which my ears cannot pick out. When there's obviously no hope, he stands up and tries to push into it: his last chance at the right move. It nearly works; he actually gets through the first one. Then he takes one of the great hammerings.

All in all, as I said above, I'm with you on the flotation and the helmets. But I think Brady's right - this guy does as well as a man could, but he's had it from the start. I wonder if he has gone back when the water is up; I've known people - including some with 'successful' runs -- who never will again. If I'd had his run, I don't know if I would.

Follow-up comment by Edward Stephens:

I have made a lot of runs in the BDs in my row boat and my snout at levels above 45,000 no flips yet. I have also been in the same predicament that those guys were in (note I had self bailer and two passengers) and I had seen the video many times (that helped ). I pulled for my life and made it. Maybe it was the half pipe or the rivers gods I don't know. Cat at high water is the scariest stretch of river I have ever run period. Well Selway at 5.8 and rising is right up there. One thing is for sure Cat above 45,000 scares the living shit out of people and me. But that's what makes it fun. As for rogue waves I have seen it also in between bd2 & bd3. The third wave in the train seems to get people.

Nothing in the world is more yielding and gentle than water. Yet it has no equal for conquering the resistant and tough. The flexible can overcome the unbending; the soft can overcome the hard. - Lao Tse
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Old 01-23-2008   #2
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Bozeman, Montana
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looks like some epic surf

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Old 01-23-2008   #3
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Summit, Colorado
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I miss bail buckets.

This discussion reminds me of when we chased a flipped raft for 5 miles after Velvet at well over 6.

I think the discussion of high-float versus low profile modern pfd's is an interesting debate. Honestly, I'm not sure what I think. After re-circing in holes for several cycles, I'm a little concerned that a high-float would have made it harder (if not impossible) to go deep and catch that greenwater going downstream. But obviously, they are more helpful in preventing flush drownings. Interesting topic.

"The world would be a better place if everyone kayaked."-Brad Ludden (Valhalla)
"You only get one chance to run a drop blind."-DD
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Old 01-23-2008   #4
Gnarnia, Colorado
Join Date: Jun 2006
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That is scary. Just plain scary. I know some like it big but that's too damn big IMO. Too many things can go wrong and a fun high-water trip can quickly turn into a hellish nightmare. I ran the Main Salmon in '06 when it was running 92,000 cfs at Whitebird and it was fun but I was so gripped most of the time (except when in camp with a stiff drink in my hand) that it wasn't really that much fun. We made it with no flips or issues but for me boating isn't about 'just making it'. However, I'm glad I did it and can always say that I did.

That said, hats off to those of you who like high-water runs. Good luck, be safe and shoot some vid because I always like to see folks running the shit!
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Old 01-23-2008   #5
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at my house, Montana
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Teach me

All I can say is HOLY SH!T. Not for me, or my dogs!

So, some questions from someone who always asks too many.

Wouldn't you want the paddlers idle during this?

Isn't that a bit big of water for a bucket?

Is it sometimes that a smaller (slightly) boat gets through better? I guess unless it flips. That things seemed like a monster in places, just augering in, but that might have been due to all the water in the boat.

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Old 01-23-2008   #6
Golden, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1975
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kind of like watching a bug hit a windshield in super slowmo...

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Old 01-23-2008   #7
Gnarnia, Colorado
Join Date: Jun 2006
Posts: 651
I know some big water aficionados who love the 18' bucket boat because once full of water it will plow through most anything. Much of the big, hard shit that has been run to date was first done in bucket boats. Self-bailers are relatively new to the scene. If I had folks on the front of my rig with paddles, I'd want them digging with all they've got.
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Old 01-23-2008   #8
Join Date: May 2004
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One of my great paddling memories is a one day Cat trip I did with the UT crew. We caught an early AM jet boat ride to brown betty. We snapped our skirts on above rapid #1 at about 10:15 AM with the flow around 65K.

Because the lake was so low there was moving water all the way to the marina and we paddled the 50ish miles to the takeout in around 5 hours.

The Big Drops looked like they'd be REALLY gnarly for a raft, but they were actually pretty chill in a playboat....although the one person from our group who decided to try and surf the red wall got completely bitch slapped...

Good times...
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Old 01-23-2008   #9
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Englewood, Colorado
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The NPS has some other media of Cat on its website too. That one is from a video that they sell. From what I understand, the Park restricted the river to outfitters only during that peak, causing a ruckus among the lowly and unskilled private boaters. If you look carefully, the raft tacos at one point and then sits awfully high when it washes out - sans frame.
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Old 01-23-2008   #10
Join Date: Nov 2003
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A few years ago, some friends and I took out three 14' hysides on the Lower New River when it was flowing at about 20 feet, and I was thrilled to be wearing a high-float PFD with a crotch strap.

We decided that a human would need as much luck as pysical ability to survive a swim in the humungous eddy lines, gigantic whirlpools, and bottomless seams that formed at that level.

Not one person had an out-of-boat experience, and we were all very happy about that.

I'll never do it again.

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cataract, cataract canyon

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