Snapshot memories fill my mind from my one-day trip down Westwater Canyon with Moab-based outfitter Sheri Griffith River Expeditions. One is an image of a family of sleek otters frolicking near the river bank just outside their den. Their little faces would peek above the surface, and then they’d disappear, their curved backs surfacing momentarily as they dove, popping back up somewhere else.
“They’re so cute—my little heart!” exclaimed one of the two guides leading the trip as we floated past, which is pretty close to what I was thinking.
Another highlight is looking straight down several feet into the bottom of a wave as our rubber raft dropped nose-first into a hole. Our guide shouted directions and eight people stabbed their paddles toward the water, hitting only air every other stroke. Physics threatened to toss me out of the boat, but luckily I was still on board when, drenched and laughing, we were released from the jaws of the rapid.
The 17-mile stretch of the Colorado River that flows through Westwater Canyon gives a satisfying variety of adventure and serenity. There are Class IV rapids, with technical runs and face-first splashes, as well as sweeping canyon walls sculpted into graceful, glassy shapes; wildlife both majestic and endearing; and monuments to the colorful history of the West.
We started out on flatwater with our two rafts strapped together so guide Luigi Haslam could prepare a tray of grapes and dainty slices of pound cake to pass around: a touch of class, as promised in the Sheri Griffith slogan. A bald eagle perched in a hueco in the red cliffs above the river stoically watched us swat biting flies as we floated past—a regular sight in the canyon, according to Haslam and our other guide, Tyler Barton.
After snack time we split up. Barton captained the gear-laden oar-rig, which he would power and steer himself; Haslam took over the paddle raft, along with the task of directing a bunch of inexperienced paddlers who were by turns gawking at the scenery, fumbling with phones or water bottles, eating snacks, swatting flies, chatting too loudly to hear instructions, and maintaining a light buzz.
We were eight in the paddle boat: a gregarious group of four from Colorado, a couple that used to live in Moab, me and Haslam. The other boat, with just Barton and two passengers, seemed more contemplative. They were rewarded with a glimpse of a fox on the shore which our boat missed, too busy cackling and heckling our guide. However, we all got to admire several great blue herons, a golden eagle, and two groups of heart-stealing otters.
Haslam pointed out a decaying miner’s cabin along the way—19th-century prospectors sought various minerals along the canyon—and what’s known as the “outlaw cave,” a cavity in the cliff with abandoned bed frames and other 100-plus year-old artifacts. It’s not known for sure who used it first or when. There are stories of bank robbers, counterfeiters, horse thieves and murderers, but Haslam told us that Butch Cassidy and his wild gang hid in the cave after a successful robbery. Their location was betrayed to the sheriff by irritated “ladies of the night” as revenge for the outlaws’ failure to tip. The story is clearly more fable than fact; the point is, always tip your guide!
The most engaging rapids come one right after another in a 4-mile section that scared boaters away for many years. The first known descent through Westwater Canyon was in 1916, by experienced whitewater pair Ellsworth Kolb and Bert Loper. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the permitting system for the canyon, urges caution:
“This section is challenging at all water levels and is only recommended for experienced boaters,” the BLM website says. “As with any remote river section, Westwater can be a very humbling and dangerous place if not treated with proper respect and ability.”
We felt we were in good hands as Haslam steered us through choppy waves that dropped buckets-full of water in my lap, a welcome relief from the roughly 100 degree temperatures. We bounced against one boulder but were able to avoid the “Mag Wall,” a jagged cliff face that acts like a raft-magnet as a whitewater section makes an abrupt bend around it.
We hooted and shrieked through the fast-moving waterscape of peaks and valleys, making it through to the calm sections with grins on our faces. The guides were having fun too, in spite of their early morning start after finishing a trip late the night before, and in spite of having run this stretch of river dozens of times.
Haslam laughed as he told Barton how he got knocked off his seat when a rapid called “Sock It To Me” socked it to us. It’s engaging whitewater for both first-time rafters and veteran river rats.
We reached the take-out in the late afternoon and made it back to Moab by dinner time. I have a few photos from the trip, but they’re not as vivid as those mental snapshots of otters, eagles, cliffs and waves.
Subscribe to Utah Stories weekly newsletter and get our stories directly to your inbox