Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bikepackrafting Cataract Canyon.

A few years back I had the opportunity to complete a unique trip in Canyonlands National Park.  Doom, Moe and I rode, walked, and floated for 3 days and roughly 75 miles through Beef Basin, the Needles, Cross Canyon, Cataract Canyon, and Imperial Canyon, as well as the northern edge of the Abajos in completing our loop.

A few months ago Jesse and I got to talking about that trip, and it wasn't something that he could let go of once the seed had been planted.

Jesse took the initiative to do research and pull permits, and at the last minute Travis found some way to sneak out of work on a weekday to join us.  Weather forecasts were unsettled at best, and packing for a shoulder season trip meant we needed to be prepared for sun, wind, rain, and maybe even snow while hiking, riding, and paddling.

In other words, our packs were pretty heavy for a mere 3 day trip.

What Jesse and Travis lacked in experience and specific gear for bikepacking they made up for in positive attitude and simple gumption.   

Sleep gear under the bars, 7 liters of water + tubes, tools, pump, and snacks in the frame bag, 2 cameras and an iPhone with Gaia GPS for navigation in the gas tank, boat, paddle shaft, and drysuit on the rear rack.  Which left a relatively meager PFD and some assorted minutia on my back for the bike leg.

Early carnage as Trav adapts to a big load on a steep trail.

4-ish hours of riding brought us to the park boundary where we cached bikes and began bipedal travel.  Cross Canyon was our route to the river.

The hike went quicker than remembered, bringing us to water's edge just at nightfall.  We dined while setting up the mid and sharing some nectaresque root beer that Jesse had schlepped all the way down.

Morning of day two we blew up boats and put onto the river.  Flows were nearly double what I'd seen here on my only previous trip, and that knowledge coupled with impending thunderstorms that strafed us through the day had us on edge for the early miles.

Once the rapids began in earnest we closed ranks a bit and cued off of whomever happened to be leading at the moment.  Big water swirls, boils, and surging eddies caught us sleeping more than once, sending the lead boater upriver while the new leader snapped-to.

The combination of higher flows and comfort with reading-and-running everything had us covering miles much faster than expected.  Just before following Jesse over a horizon line drop with big explosions just behind it, I sensed that something wasn't right and made the call to eddy left, right at the lip.  Good thing, as we'd arrived at Satan's Gut.  I remembered the power of this rapid vividly and knew I wanted to shore scout it, but expected that it was still 2 to 3 hours downstream.  A quick scramble gave us the view we needed, then brief discussion determined that the obvious left of center line was the only one we were likely to hit.  Jesse gives a good play by play in the writeup linked above.

Overall the paddling was engaging and educational as always, but it ended way too soon for any of our tastes.  Imperial Canyon was our exit point, although finding the route is anything but straightforward from river level.  Getting through a few chokes was exhilarating to the point of fear, then once on top it became a game of finding our way off of a very well protected peninsula of rock.  

Fun routefinding and scrambling eventually led us to a derelict doubletrack, which I knew was our egress back to the bikes.

But before we could get to the bikes a rainy night intervened, forcing us to spend hours in search of a cave-like spot for a bit of shelter, then hours more excavating enough space for cramped slumber.

A breakfast rainbow seemed to suggest good spirits if not better weather on tap.

Mild temps and clearing skies lulled us into letting our collective guard down, strolling at a mellow pace up the valley under the assumption that we had the loop in the bag.  A soaking as we transitioned back to the bikes led to another, and another, in the first few miles of riding.  

The sandy jeep roads underfoot only benefitted from the rain, but the higher terrain in the Abajos held lots of clay, which stuck to our tires and shoes and slowed progress to an hours-per-mile slog.  Carrying mud-caked bikes on shoulders proved the only option, and there's just nothing efficient about that.  

Even once back into Travis' 4WD truck the 10+ miles back to pavement were far from a foregone conclusion, with the truck sliding emphatically sideways at many points despite all 4 tires in contact and driving.

The only real bummer of the trip?  My 'real' camera inexplicably died early on the first day, leaving me with only a GoPro to capture the rest of the trip.  

Jesse did a great job with photos and a poetic turn of phrase from his perspective.  Check it.

And, thanks for checkin' in.



  1. Great looking trip!

    Also, is that a 4 piece bent shaft paddle? Very intriguing...

  2. Bad. Ass. Do you know if I would need a permit for lower Cataract Canyon...specifically launching from Bowdie and floating to Dark Canyon. ~8 miles of river but outside of the Park. Althought it seems like a trip like that it would be better to feign ignorance and ask for forgiveness instead of going through the hoops for a short section of river.

    1. If you don't overnight in the backcountry of the park, and you're not on the river in the park, I don't think you have to deal with the park.