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High Water Cataract Canyon Through the Years

When the snowpack looks promising, we have a tradition of guessing when the peak flows will roll down through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. This has been one of those outstanding winters, so we have been giddy all spring. Since our CEO, Brian Merrill was a Cataract Canyon guide in the really high water years of the 1980’s, he has geekily tracked the flows since those highest water years in the 1980’s. Here’s how Brian explains it to all the guides and the newly hired:

Dear Guides and Crew,

As we are certainly facing another high water year [2019], I’m renewing my tradition of soliciting your high-water predictions. The object is to most accurately guess the Cubic Feet per Second (CFS) at which Cataract Canyon will peak and on what date the peak will occur. For our new hires, Cataract Canyon is located downstream from the Confluence where the Green and Colorado Rivers join together. The Colorado, above the Confluence, is mostly free flowing although there are some dams that can affect flow such as those on tributary streams such as the Gunnison, and Granby Dam which is on the Colorado but far upstream, nearer the headwaters. Most of the streams that contribute to its flow are not dammed. The Green River has Flaming Gorge Dam which controls some of the flow but major tributaries such as the White and the Yampa feed water in below Flaming Gorge so it behaves a lot like a free-flowing river.

Send me [comment below or in the Facebook post] your two guesses:

1. Peak CFS 

2. Date of the peak flow

The winner will receive the respect and admiration of his/her peers and something else that will be great, believe me, it will be better than anything ever…


Brian Merrill

P.S. Here is a little historical information that may help inform your decision. As you may deduce from the chart below, it can be difficult to predict just how it will hit the canyon. High snowpack percentages don’t always tell the future. A cold spring and a couple of suddenly warm days in the Rockies can become the peak flow for that year. But the numbers this year look good so far. As of April 7th, the snow pack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was sitting at 131 percent of average, and spring is still springing:


So with all this, you may be wondering, “What’s the big deal?” Or wondering what monsters come out when the water flows exceed 50,000 cfs? Simply put, Cataract Canyon in the peak flows are the largest whitewater rapids in North America – big enough waves to make the 37 foot long J-Rig do exactly what it was designed to do: stand on end (and ride right over) whitewater rapids that want to swallow it whole. See the image below:

J-Rig, Cataract Canyon 1984 @ 114,000 cfs

Be warned:

Slaying dragons from even the best equipped steed isn’t right for just anyone. Even those who “think they can” need to be well-informed just what they are in for. For instance, in 2011 a 70+grandmother of a group was scheduled to launch with her family on what had become a high water season. She was not deterred by warnings (over the phone) that it would be rough down there. Brian Merrill himself took a framed photo (the one pictured above) to the boat ramp and met her in person to assess her fitness for the trip – and to help her understand (visually) what would play out downstream. Upon seeing the photo, she took Brian’s offer to stay and play in Moab (on Western) while her younger crew carried out the mission.

While this kind of fun isn’t for everyone,  the J-Rig certainly gets to test its strengths against the kind of Colorado River waves it was designed for – which means taking big waves with paying passengers aboard, for the fun of it! The image above shows (the wave actually hides from view) twenty-one guests on that J-Rig, getting the ride of their lives. With grip on the ropes and good form on the rafts, every single one of them stayed on board- including the Park Ranger in the green sleeves.

From his 1984 high water training trip, Brian says to this day that Big Drop 2 turned his eyelids inside out!

Yes. There are risks. This is black diamond stuff, but we’ve done these runs before  –  and oh! How we love it!

“Is this fun?!”, “is it scary?!” you ask? Listen to what our guests in 2011 (the last high water year on record) had to say about it:

Kam Wixom

Kam began guiding in the Grand Canyon in 1991, met & guided with his wife in 2000, and is the proud daddy of 5 kids. He now works as the Marketing Director for Western River Expeditions.

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