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Words By Taylor Fasolo

Building Bonds On Big Water

Photos by Black Koles

A group of strangers forges new friendships over a shared love of whitewater on the ancient canyons and relentless rapids of the Colorado River.

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The sound of knocking on my car window told me that I had slept through my alarm. My sleeping pad had deflated a bit which made rolling over to check the time difficult. I heard Kevin say “Did our new friend oversleep?” And yes, I had overslept. Parked on the bank of the Colorado River at a campground in Green River, Utah, I had slept in my car overnight after driving from Jackson, WY. I was meeting a group of people I didn’t know to join them for a couple days floating down Westwater Canyon. 

The evening before they told me their names were Kevin, Perla, Tyler and Sierra, but I had already forgotten by that morning. I hopped out of my car, deflated my sleeping pad, packed up my stuff and reintroduced myself to the group. Together we drove to meet our river guides, pack our dry bags, and get to know each other a bit better before heading onto the river. 

Westwater Canyon is a stretch of the Colorado River running along the Colorado / Utah state line. It’s the first whitewater section of the river within Utah, including Class III and IV rapids. Between the put-in at the top of the canyon and the take-out at Cisco Landing, there are about 17 miles of water, with campgrounds on either bank to stop at for the night before hitting the 9 or 10 rapids (depending on flow) the following day.

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The walls of the canyon are made up of some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet. Deep black in color, this Precambrian metamorphic rock has existed on this earth for 1.7 billion years. Now, it makes up the walls around the river that we were set to float down for the next two days. That was our journey for the weekend.

Kevin, Perla, Tyler and Sierra had all come down from the Salt Lake City area. Other than Tyler and Sierra, none of us had met before the previous evening. Going into a trip like this—remote, with limited communication to the rest of the world—having trust for your trip partners is important. Going onto the river with people who I had only met hours before gave me a slight twist in my stomach. However, the river is a beautiful place to strengthen relationships, allowing the veils we often hide behind to lift and let our truest selves come out. By the end of the two days we spent on the river, a connection was made that will last a long time. 

We met our guides at their boathouse, packed our dry bags into the boats, and trailered everything down to the boat ramp. Four boats held our food, camping gear, camera gear and people. The first morning, we paddled over flatwater and got to know each other better. Stopping for lunch, we jumped from the rafts and began setting up our kitchen: two tables, a hand washing station, some mixing bowls and a cooler. We ate salad and sandwiches, and explored the area. 

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A few more miles down the river and we reached our campsite for the evening. We unloaded the boats again and tied them down for the night. Tents were made, the kitchen was built—this time with a gas stove and dish washing station. We built a fire, chairs placed around it, and watched as the sun drifted behind the canyon walls. 

Around the fire we talked about family, work, things we did for fun, passion projects, where we’ve lived—all the things you go over when you are first getting to know each other. Camp that night brought us even closer together, with steak and potatoes eaten around a warm fire. We cooked and laughed and slept under the stars, enjoying the peace and quiet that being out of service on the river brings. 

The next morning is when it felt like the adventure really began. Nine rapids lay ahead of us, so we mapped out what our order of approach would be for each section and talked through each rapid. Marble Canyon Rapid, a long wave train with a bend to the left; Staircase Rapid, another wave train with a right side pour-over, stay left; Big Hummer, one big wave with a hole mid-channel, stay right and don’t flip, the next rapid comes fast; Funnel Falls, formed by two large boulders, send it through the narrow shoot in between the boulders, big drop into a wave; Surprise, two steep wave trains, stay left of center but watch for the hole far left; Skull Rapid, formed as the river takes a sharp left turn, there’s a very narrow approach with waves trying to push you over Skull Rock, drop in left of the rock and stay left, avoid the magnetic wall on river right, there’s an eddy that’s a bear to escape; Bowling Alley, stay right to avoid mid river boulders; Sock It To Me, left run with a maneuver to the right after the lateral waves at the bottom; Last Chance, stay left and enjoy the ride.

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Between the first and last rapids, the smiles didn’t leave our faces for a moment. With the help of our guides, we rowed semi-gracefully through each wave train and all managed to stay in the boats. No rescues were needed, no one flipped, everyone was psyched. 

There’s a word you don’t say on the river. It starts with “W” and ends with “IND.” You don’t say this word because if you do, it invites the W word to hit you head on. I’m not sure which of us said it, but just as we rowed away from Last Chance, storm clouds formed in front of us, and the wind began to blow straight down the canyon. With two people pulling on each oar, we still made no progress against the push of the wind. As the rain began to pour, we decided to pull to the side and wait out the storm. I had lent my rain jacket to Kevin, so I cowered in a small cave nearby and waited for the storm to pass. Despite the cold rain, the harsh wind, and the lack of progress being made towards our destination, the team didn’t stop laughing and cheering. The stoke was high from the rapids, and this new group of friends celebrated an incredible last day and a half. 

The storm passed, and we eventually made it to the boat ramp at Cisco. We de-rigged the boats, loaded into the van, and made our way back to the boathouse. In the 45-minute drive back, music blared over the speakers and everyone sang along, still riding high and unwilling to say goodbye yet. Once we were back at our cars, we hugged, patting calloused hands onto dusty backs, taking every moment we could to continue to live in the new and strong connection we had all made on that river.

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