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What I Love About Rafting--Jesse's Version

by Kristl 21. December 2017 06:57
I asked our guides to send me a quick note about what they like most about rafting.  I'll be sharing their notes over the next few posts. --Kristl

Jesse R. Rock Loving River Guide

From Jesse:

It’s easy to say I’m drawn to rafting because I’m addicted. I’m addicted to the solitude, to the exploration, to the perfect cup of coffee in the morning, the perfect oar stroke, the adrenaline buildup of a rapid scout, to the challenge. I’m addicted to the release of being below the big stuff, to laughing and joking with guides and guest alike. I still pinch myself when I wake up in the middle of the night, blinded by the moon and stars so bright that I have to put up my umbrella to get a good night’s sleep. I’m addicted to being out amongst it. But if I had to pick one reason, my one true love, I’d say I love rafting because I love rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks!

The short story is that I came to rafting during graduate school. Rafts were the chosen vehicles to study rocks, specifically landslides and how they’ve affected the carving of the Grand Canyon. My fellow researchers and I could load our rafts with tools and camping supplies that could support geologizing for weeks on end. Now that I’m a guide, in between casual rowing and conversations with folks on my boat, I daydream about the processes that form the canyons through which we float. From our conversations, I’ve come to realize my guests wonder about similar things. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, the typical tongue-in-cheek guide answer, and an abridged, nerdy answer that yours truly would provide.

Question: “How deep is the river right here?”

Guide answer: “17 units, with a unit equal to 1/17th of the depth of the river.”

Guide Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “Actually, it’s always changing – sand bars are moving. The river gets shallower in rapids and deeper in the pools between them. Jetboats change the ”

Question: “Have you ever seen the rocks fall?”


Guide answer: “Once, in Deso on the Green River, but that’s it.”

Guide Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “It was a spot of a previous rockfall and the rocks were still settling. Major rockfalls tends to happen during the winter, when water freezes and wedges open cracks in the rocks above. I’m usually skiing powder that time of year.”

Question: How old is the river?

Guide answer: “It was here when John Wesley Powell boated it in 1869, so at least that old.” 

Guide Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “Well, it depends. If you wanted to know how long a river flowing from the Rockies through Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, and out to the Pacific has been around in this area, you’d be talking about the age of preserved river gravels. Geologists motivated to place the age of the Grand Canyon downstream into a regional context discovered such river gravels beneath lava flows at 10,000’ atop Grand Mesa in Colorado. This location is near where the modern Colorado (used to be called the Grand River) and Gunnison Rivers join, hence the name of the nearest town – Grand Junction. The lava flows are easily dated using radiometric dating and their age can approximate the age of the gravels they cover. If the lavas are 10 million years old, the gravels are 10 million years old. Over that time, the Colorado River has carved down ~5000 feet through the rock strata in Western Colorado to its present elevation. 

The river water itself can be a few days to more than 10,000 years old. The age mostly depends on its source. During springtime runoff, daily snowmelt causes minor fluctuations in water levels each day as temperatures in the mountain rise during the day and fall at night. During all other times of the year, river water is mainly sourced by springs, themselves sourced by groundwater in the mountains and canyonlands that has been around since the end of the last ice age.”

Question: What forms the rapids?

Guide answer: “There’s a rapid machine that gets turned on each morning and off each night. Also, there’s a track that each raft is connected to! As guides, we get to choose which track we’re going to run that week. I most prefer track A.”

Guide Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “Rapids are made by 4 things: gradient, constriction, discharge, and obstruction.

Gradient is the steepness of the river. While not impossible, it’s difficult to imagine a rapid forming in a flat water section of the river.

A notable exception to rapids forming in flat water is the Slide in Meander Canyon because of constriction. More like a riffle, the Slide can cause trouble for canoeists, where picks up speed and can get pretty swirly. This is where John Wesley Powell’s group gave up trying to row upstream from the Colorado-Green confluence during their river expedition in 1869. Bigger rapids in Cataract and throughout the Colorado River drainage basin are formed by constriction of the river channel by materials brought to the river from tributary canyons, mainly during flash flood events.  

Discharge is a big player in forming rapids. Some rapids are affected very little by changes in discharge, while others are completely changed. For example, at lower water levels Rapid 7 in Cataract Canyon is non-consequential while at higher water, the wave train becomes a maelstrom affectionately referred to as the North Seas. If you’ve been there, you know why.

Obstructions account for the last aspect of rapid formation. If it weren’t for the presence of things that water doesn’t pass through, like huge boulders, all rapids would be easy peasy. It’s the rocks in rapids like Capsize (aka Hell to Pay) and Big Drops 2 and 3 that really create their largest, boat flipping and munching features. Most obstructions have been given names because they habitually like to cause trouble for boatmun, like the Claw (RIP), or Little Niagara, or Big Mossy. It’s the obstructions that transform straightforward, read-and-run wave trains and into more technical Class 4 and 5 whitewater.

Question: “Where are all of the plants?

Guide answer: “Umm, really? Do you see all that green?!”

Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “Deserts are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. This is mainly because plants have to be creative when it comes to survival. The rock types vary widely and therefore so do the soils. There aren’t too many trees along Utah river ways, except Fremont cottonwoods and hackberries. The cottonwoods show you were the river might’ve reached in the past few years during high water because their seeds need to be wet to germinate and thrive. Hackberries, on the other hand, don’t require so much water and therefore mark historic high water. They provide a marker to visualize how much water levels can change in undammed river sections. 

Question: “Why did you pass up that huge beach?”

Guide answer: “Some groups that came before us did a horrible job picking up food crumbs from lunch. Then along came the ants, then the anteaters, and then the bears. And bears eat river guides. So we pass up that beach.”

Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “It’s not the best beach to walk on and I wanna keep my boat clean. As water levels drop, sandy beaches form in slower moving water. If water moves slow enough or is stagnant, the smallest sediment particles like mud and clay in the river will drop out too. The river flashed last week, causing the river to rise and fall fairly quickly. That huge beach isn’t made of sand because the water here doesn’t move fast enough to clean the smaller flash flood mud away. ”

Question: “Are we going to finish where we started?”

Guide answer: “Yes, of course! That’s exactly how rivers work.”

Jesse’s nerdy geology answer: “Yes of course! That’s exactly how rivers work.”

You’d be surprised some of the questions we as guides field on the river; sometimes it’s tough to keep a straight face. Deep down though, beneath some of the most ridiculous ones, there’s a burning desire to learn about some of my favorite topics - the geologic processes that are ongoing deep within the desert canyons we float.

Sometimes, I get so into arm waving, I forget the question that launched me into my rant. What was it again? Oh yeah! What do I love about rafting? Aside from the solitude, the fresh food, the company of great guests and my fellow guides, the feel of a perfect oar stroke, a clean line through a rapid, or a tasty beverage at the end of a hard day, it’s the teaching and learning. For those that will listen, I’m always game to share with my guests what makes these places we float through unique; much of the time for me, it’s the rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks!



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