Adventures of a Wild Rivers Expeditions Boatman …by Cherie Rohn

There’s a stretch of tricky water dead ahead of us. I have to row like hell to gain access to the faster water inside the river’s bend, the main channel. I’m navigating through Eight-foot Rapid on Utah’s San Juan River in a McKenzie inflatable. In my boat are six teenagers armed with water balloons, hell-bent on revenge and dangerously near capsizing us. I concentrate on the task at hand and spin our boat so they can get a perfect shot at their target, another boat of screeching youngsters approaching us broadside. Not really a big deal except it’s my very first time rowing paying customers for Wild Rivers Expeditions out of Bluff, Utah. That was 1983, a year I’ll never forget.

Cherie Rohn (foreground) rowing passengers on San Juan  River, UT 1983 Credit: Art Rohn
Cherie Rohn (foreground) rowing passengers on San Juan River, UT 1983 Credit: Art Rohn
Cherie Rohn, Yellow Jacket, CO  1974 Credit: Art Rohn
Cherie Rohn, Yellow Jacket, CO 1974 Credit: Art Rohn

Most knew me as Dr. Arthur Rohn’s young second wife, a cartographer and archaeology student at the University of Illinois, Urbana. My dogged determination makes up for the fact that I don’t possess any great skills. Never a dabbler, I groan at being labeled as such. I’m determined to do the best bloody job at everything I tackle from mapping a 9,000-year-old agricultural site in New Guinea, to running Southwest whitewater rapids or whatever the fates throw my way. Nothing is dull.

My husband Arthur Rohn, Southwest archaeologist & Harvard Ph.D., was a man of some renown. He’d been part of the scientific team tasked with excavating, recording, mapping and stabilizing the cliff dwellings of Wetherill Mesa in Mesa Verde National Park under the auspices of the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society. Art’s role was to excavate and stabilize Mug House, a major cliff dwelling. His interpretations based on his meticulous research and analysis led to a monograph that still excites those who read it.

Over the course of more than 15 years Art introduced me, an inexperienced city girl, to a multitude of Southwest locations paramount to his research. We led a life straight out of a Hollywood movie. Art could have done a turn as Indiana Jones except it wouldn’t have been a spoof.

Art Rohn at Mug House, 1960 Art Rohn private collection
Art Rohn at Mug House, 1960 Art Rohn private collection
Art outside field camp, Yellow Jacket, CO 1973 Credit: Cherie Rohn
Art outside field camp, Yellow Jacket, CO 1973 Credit: Cherie Rohn

Little did I know that we’d be climbing ancient Anasazi toeholds to gain access to ruins perched 500 feet above the Mancos River. To my dismay, I discovered I had a real problem with heights. Another time, traversing Cinnamon Pass between Lake City and Silverton in our Chevy Chevelle, I had to clear masses of rocks blocking the summit trail while Art inched his way along a dangerous precipice. A sign we’d passed warned: “Do not attempt without 4-wheel drive.” Too late – we’d come too far. No GPS. No cell phones.

Cinnamon Pass, CO 1970s Credit: C. Rohn
Cinnamon Pass, CO 1970s Credit: C. Rohn

On more than one occasion, with only 4” of clearance, we high-centered on some Mesa Verde service road. No problem. We dug out a bit of earth under the car frame and placed rocks where the earth had been to attain more elevation. That enabled us to push the car off the rocks in order to get traction. Many serious backcountry explorers will understand challenges such as these. Our next car – a GMC Jimmy with no power steering, but a decided improvement.

Over time these events became commonplace both enriching my independent spirit and making me eager for more. I’d jump in my stick shift VW Rabbit and head off on the washboard track through Hovenweep National Monument to Bluff, Utah. Or I’d drive up the West Fork of the Dolores River to the old mining town of Dunton, stopping in Dolores for camp supplies at Akin Mercantile on the way back. Meanwhile Art ran digs with his students in dry-land farming country near Dove Creek, Colorado. Our field camp was a homesteader’s log house we rented complete with a privy. Everyone who came to visit marveled at the outstanding meals whipped up by our cook, Etha Gilliland. Twice a week during field season we’d haul water from a standpipe and deposit it in our cement-lined cistern, our only source of water.

View from field camp looking south. Yellow Jacket,  CO 1970s Credit: Robert C. Euler
View from field camp looking south. Yellow Jacket, CO 1970s Credit: Robert C. Euler

One memorable time back in the 1970s, Art and I were checking out the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center when we ran into a wiry, crusty old-timer by the name of Kenny Ross. Kenny was a highly respected self-taught archaeologist, geologist, naturalist, river runner with an indomitable spirit. His knowledge and expertise would put many so-called “professionals” to shame. Kenny was showing some folks the dioramas of ancient cliff dwellers he’d constructed in 1934-35 with Meredith Guillet back when Kenny was a park service employee. Art and Kenny shared a story or two about the Wetherill Mesa project, such as the Indian crews who were reluctant to dig up their ancient ancestors they encountered on the sites. They were afraid the spirits would haunt them. The magnificent dioramas are still on display.

Fast-forward to 1982. Kenny Ross & archaeologist Gary Matlock were running Wild Rivers Expeditions, a San Juan River outfitters operation in Bluff, Utah. Well, Art and I plus four friends booked a trip with Wild Rivers. It was an adventure-filled 5-day from Bluff to Clay Crossing on Lake Powell, made even better by having both Kenny and Gary as our guides. It’s a wonder we didn’t capsize due to the many cases of beer we had aboard. But the beer only tended to unfetter any inhibitions Kenny may have had. Kenny stated he needed liberal doses of beer and grog to “maintain clear thinking.” We became the eager recipients of endless Kenny stories about his amazing life in the Southwest.

By that time, the San Juan River had been inundated in its western reaches by Lake Powell due to the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1973. That’s why we ended our trip at Clay Crossing, which was now part of Lake Powell. The controversy surrounding building the Glen Canyon Dam fills volumes. To my knowledge, the argument continues regarding whether or not the dam should be dismantled. It seems an utterly improbable task. That’s a topic better left to those more acquainted with the complicated politics surrounding the creation of Lake Powell.

I have nothing to lose, I thought. So in February of 1983, I wrote to Gary Matlock inquiring if I could join the crew that coming season. Yes, replied Gary a month later. He and Kenny believed I could start out as a swamper doing basic chores and work my way up according to my ability. Of course, I knew it was all because of Art and Kenny’s friendship that I was allowed such an honor. I took the fact that I was the only woman on an all-male crew very seriously. My intent was to work my hardest and gain the respect of everyone. It was satisfying that my bosses didn’t spare me from any task no matter how difficult.

 Wild Rivers boat camp, Bluff, UT 1983 Credit: Art Rohn
Wild Rivers boat camp, Bluff, UT 1983 Credit: Art Rohn

The events of that summer could be the topic of another story. From my very first turn as swamper for the Smithsonian Institution group, eager for a thrill, to my near drowning on one nearly catastrophic trip, I was hooked. Even cleaning porta-potties didn’t faze me. I pretended I was still partying back on the Norwegian freighter, Ellen Bakke, heading to Australia for Art’s sabbatical. It’s amazing what the mind can conjure up when the body is under duress.

The San Juan doesn’t have big whitewater, as Gene Stevenson, a regular contributor to this publication, can attest. That doesn’t mean it’s always “friendly” to boaters. (Kenny referred to our floatables as boats not rafts, as ours had sides to them.) There are plenty of tales about crafts foundering in some tricky spot. I’ve had my own problems learning Kenny Ross’s rules of river running. If Kenny said it once, he said it a hundred times, “Cut the C’s and ride the V’s” regarding optimal boat placement within the channel. And “Don’t memorize. Recognize.” A foolish mistake of memorizing conditions from a previous run nearly got me killed when I was swept down the roiling river sans life jacket. I certainly learned my lesson during that pleasure swim.

Cataract Canyon map Credit: Adventure Bound River Expeditions
Cataract Canyon map Credit: Adventure Bound River Expeditions

So when Charlie DeLorme and some of the other crew members began talking about putting together a boatman’s trip down infamous Cataract Canyon, my ears perked up. The more I heard, the more my blood quickened. It made me giddy to think that I was going down that stretch of whitewater where the Colorado and Green rivers unite to form some of the most demanding rapids known anywhere in the U.S. and beyond. Kenny told us that the canyon still echoes with the cries of those who didn’t make it after their boats overturned in the rapids and crashed on the rocks. He was dead serious.

As a point of comparison, the San Juan River ran about 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs.) during peak season in 1983. Cataract Canyon during a comparable period ran over 100,000 cfs. Now add to that the word “cataract” meaning stairs. This year was one for the record books. And I was about to be part of history.

Gary Nichols in his River Runner’s Guide to Utah, 1982, sheds some light on our planned outing. He states the following:

Running Cataract Canyon at high and low water stages is like running two different rivers with different rapids between the same canyon walls. The 25 surviving rapids will, in high water, rival the size of the rapids in the Grand Canyon. But in low water the river is characterized by never-ending rocks and tortuous channels. The early trips made around the turn of the [20th] century were done in the fall. It was in this low water level that the blind, left-hand slot in Big Drop 3 acquired the appellation “Satan’s Gut.” In high water the rapid is run down the tongue on the right.

Lake Powell has been allowed to back up 26 miles into Cataract Canyon, covering over half the rapids,” Nichols continued. “… including the once formidable Dark Canyon Rapid. It is now quite difficult to find campsites along the sheer walls well above ‘river level.’”

Our plans were made and the crew assembled. Charlie DeLorme, a seasoned boatman, would lead our group. A college student and I rounded out Wild River’s contribution. I believe Kenny felt the extreme conditions this year would make his participation too challenging. But this is just my opinion. He once told us that he named Satan’s Gut during one of his numerous Cataract Canyon trips. Gary Matlock opted to do the shuttle for us and run boat camp. I was only with Wild Rivers for one season so I barely knew the rest of our crew for the trip, three park service rangers stationed at nearby Sand Island, plus a Bluff archaeologist. The eighth member of our Cataract crew, my husband Art Rohn, would join us on the way to Moab. Here’s how it all happened:

Cataract Canyon Trip 1983
The Graveyard of the Colorado”

Cataract Canyon Credit: NAVTEC
Cataract Canyon Credit: NAVTEC

In July of 1983, a group of Wild Rivers Expeditions river guides and National Park Service employees from Bluff, Utah, embarked on an historic rafting trip down infamous Cataract Canyon below the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. I had the privilege of being on that crew.

What’s noteworthy is that the water that year was running at record levels, the highest ever recorded. Being a novice, I didn’t have a clue what dangers lay ahead. One official noted later, “It did not get bigger than the high water seasons of 1983 and 1984 where it ran 100,000+ cfs.” (cubic feet per second) Prior record had been around 85,000 cfs. Read this brief description from a seasoned boatman describing that awesome water:

Top 10 Most Dangerous North American Rapids, Class VI Big Drops 2 and 3 – Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, Utah: Cataract Canyon‘s Big Drops 2 and 3 (ok, technically two rapids) might be a surprising pick considering most of the season they’re a fun Class III ride, but those who’ve experienced these infamous back to back drops at high water know their unforgettable nature. Longtime OARS guide Jeffe Aronson, who claims to be the first to run the Big Drops on an 18-foot raft at 75,000 cfs says, ‘They’re bigger, scarier, harder and more consequential than anything else we run, period.’ At their peak, these rapids are two of the top ten biggest rapids in North America offering up waves bigger than the biggest rapids in Grand Canyon.

When we ran those two rapids in 1983, to repeat—Cataract Canyon was running well over 100,000 cfs. Another outfitter stated in 2011:

…the boatmen that were running the river in 1983 and 1984 were still talking about how big the water was in Cataract Canyon. The stories were told over and over again to the point where newer guides would reenact these legendary boatmen by putting their hands on their hips, puffing their chest out just a bit and stare off into the imaginary distance and with a voice full of reverence say, ‘back in ’83…’”

Those graphic descriptions place my following firsthand account in better perspective. Can’t really describe how big, scary and overwhelming our passage was. Glancing at the first couple of days, the reader may think this is all much ado about nothing. Yeah, a few days of smooth sailing. Then DANGER alert! BIG DROPS!

When a high water year does happen once a decade or more” a river outfitter observed, “It is not an overstatement to say the waves in Big Drop 2 and 3 are nearly three stories high!”

No exaggeration. I can assure you the real thing was anything but tame. Here’s my trip log, edited only for clarity.

Cherie Rohn Log

Crew: Charlie DeLorme on J-rig; Rob Rice on Rogue; Bunny Sterin, Terry Humphrey and Russ Hawkins (Park Service Rangers), and Bill Davis, Bluff resident and archaeologist/river runner; plus Art Rohn and me. Gary Matlock and Kenny Ross opted to cover boat camp operations. (Following photo credits: Art Rohn except as noted.)

Russ, Charlie, Cherie (Left to Right)
Russ, Charlie, Cherie (Left to Right)
(Left) Rob with “Satan’s drawers” and (Right) the Crew in camp
(Left) Rob with “Satan’s drawers” and (Right) the Crew in camp
(Left to Right) Terry, Bill, and Bunny
(Left to Right) Terry, Bill, and Bunny
Terry readying Rogue; J-Rig upper right
Terry readying Rogue; J-Rig upper right

July 11 – Finally got it all together about noon. Didn’t depart Bluff boat camp till past 12:30. Arrived Monticello where Art joined us. Arrived Moab and picked up food, ice, liquor including 13 cases of beer. Ate dinner at a Mexican cafe then headed out to our put-in at Potash. (Few miles below Moab.) What a miserable night! Though we camped at a place considerably higher than water level, the mosquitoes were bad enough to lift us several feet off the ground, making a meal of our tender body parts. Art and I had no tent (Art never had one. Didn’t think we needed one.) A sheet over our heads wasn’t enough to keep nasties from biting. Somehow got through it. I didn’t sleep.

July 12 -Breakfast on shore then passed Park Service inspection. Shoved off. (Two boats: a 22 ft. motorized J-Rig and a 16 ft. oar-powered Rogue River.) Colorado River was very broad and peaceful the first day. Scenery indescribably lovely, to coin a phrase.

I rowed Rogue for a while. Pinched myself at my good fortune. Our first camp was around 27- mile marker, much further along than Charlie had thought. Missed some ruins at Lathrop Canyon. No matter. We set up camp early, a blessing for it was extremely hot. Naps, happy hour, hamburgers, mosquitoes, in that order. Thank God Charlie generously offered Art and me his tent. Don’t think I could have lasted through another mosquito-infested night.

Cherie rowing Rogue
Cherie rowing Rogue

July 13 – Awoke refreshed before dawn. Wonderful breakfast of Texas toast, bacon and eggs. More of the exquisitely colorful scenery. J-Rig pushed Rogue. River calm. Registered 2nd time with Park Service ranger for most challenging part of trip. Ranger said two people had died the previous week on Big Drops with a seasoned outfitter. Cataract C. running about 100,000 cfs! Charlie dazed. Expected big water but not this. Passed confluence with Green. Set up camp at upper middle Spanish Bottom. It was a little hard hauling gear up the steep bank. But once above, the camp was very pleasant with a large tree for welcome shade. Boats had to be loaded extremely tightly for the first of our rapids the next day. Bunny and I made a tasty dinner of B-B-Q chicken, broccoli, rice and Rob’s Dutch oven apple cobbler. We visited Tour West camping just south of us that evening. I sang by request.

Upriver from Cataract Canyon
Upriver from Cataract Canyon

July 14 – All gear loaded tightly by about 10:00 a.m. The first of our rapids to contend with was Brown Betty named after a boat that was eaten by the rapid in the late 1800s. On the J riding the bow were Art and I, Art directly behind me. Bill was behind Art on the jack in case we needed to get the motor up quickly to avoid rocks. Bunny was in the middle on the other side and Charlie at the helm. The Rogue River was rowed by Rob with Terry and Russ as crew. We learned the night before that the river was running at new record levels. That meant it was very fast and many of the rapids were washed out. The monsters that remained were going to take tremendous skill plus luck. What a ride!

The J went first. At the bow, I held onto the grab ropes with all my might and was still nearly swept overboard by two mammoth tail waves breaking in opposite directions. Whap whap. Charlie said later he looked up and saw us almost vertically above him. Charlie ran the rapid exactly as planned. Then we watched Rob do just a spectacular run with oars on the Rogue. We all eddied out onto the nearest shore and exalted in the rush of an excellent run.

The other rapids that day were equally taxing. Each presented huge challenges. Charlie said in all his previous years running North American white water that he’d never seen anything like what we just went through. The worst was yet to come. There are a series of rapids called Mile Long that feel like they go on forever. It was at the beginning of these rapids that our fuel line broke – real trouble – no power. Charlie told us all to get ready to break out the oars. I thought, how am I going to do that when I’m holding on for dear life? As it turned out the motor turned over just in the nick of time, so we could avoid going over the most dangerous part of the rapid. There’s an optimal way to approach a rapid that every boatman must learn, as did I. Don’t think I could have run these big babies. I was too green as in “new.”The Rogue, this time piloted by experienced boatman Terry, did a magnificent job. He switched with Rob in mid-rapid.

As we went along, we put ashore so the boatmen could scout the next rapids to see how they were going to try to traverse them. It was very important to do this, especially with as little recovery time as we had once we entered a rapid. Luckily, we put out for the night in the only available spot before the BIG DROPS whose roar provided background music to our camp activities. It was a perfect little beach. Cocktails, steaks, potatoes, salad made the difficult day behind us a little easier. My adrenalin was now running at a more normal rate. Soft white sand offered the perfect resting place for boatman’s heads dancing with visions of SATAN’S GUT!

(Left) Only photo of Art Credit: C. Rohn. (Right) Cherie & Bill with J-Rig

July 15 – D-DAY! DROP DAY! Boatmen conned what lay ahead – two huge drops with Little Niagara followed immediately by Satan’s Gut. (The water was running so high that Big Drop 1 had combined with Little Niagara, Big Drop 2, to make one huge MF rapid.) Re-rigged the boats for the worst. Watched Moki-Mac group go by in a big baloney boat with Bob Quist at the tiller, seemingly over the whole mess, in bad position. Our plan was for J-Rig to run first, then the Rogue. Bunny opted to take pics on shore just before Little Niagara and walk to where we could pick her up. She couldn’t stomach what lay ahead. Couldn’t blame her a bit.

Our J-Rig went through massive waves on Little Niagara. Somehow got through without capsizing, only to spy Bob Quist eddied out on the left and furiously signaling for us to do the same. Don’t know how Charlie managed to get out of the main current which, with its tremendous power, was doing everything to suck us down the next two drops. Once on shore, Bob Quist only wanted to know if Charlie realized what was ahead. What a silly question.

Years later Charlie said that he had worked a couple of trips for Bob and they had talked about the best route on our trip in ’83 as they had scouted the drops together that morning before they all ran through. Charlie recalled:

“Nothing like any of us had seen before. Bob’s motor drowned out when that first big 40 ft. roller broke just as he dropped in with that 33 ft. baloney boat. He and I never could speak of anything else but that day whenever we ran into each other again. Special experience that one was! Only a few folks have seen those 30 to 40 ft. waves. Mile long had same size big rollers but they weren’t breaking like the ones in The Drops.”

Next thing we see is the Rogue going by in what appeared to be grand form with Rob at the helm. He tells of how in the middle of Little Niagara confidence prompted him to shout, “We’ve got it made” just before oars were ripped out of his hands and the Rogue flipped. We followed immediately upon seeing the Rogue had not made Little Niagara upright. No way to describe the tremendous fury we went through. I looked up into a giant wave just before it came crashing into us. Shouted an expletive as it nearly tore me loose. (Note: At 38 years old, I was probably the fittest of my life and stronger than some of our male crew.) That was nothing compared to the next wave.

Bunny later told us the 22 ft J-rig had at least 10 ft of water below it and 10 ft of water above it while the boat was almost vertical. What a giant standing wave. She added that we just hung up there for a while before nearly pitch-poling down, end-over-end. At least roller coasters have bars to keep you from falling out.

(Left) Rob doing great job in Little Niagara (flow is r. to l.) and (Right) ...then over. Credit: Bunny Sterin
(Left) Rob doing great job in Little Niagara (flow is r. to l.) and (Right) …then over. Credit: Bunny Sterin

We had barely recovered from that experience in time to see the Rogue, inverted, heading straight for Satan’s Gut, a swirling hell-hole drop of several stories. Frantically I scanned the boiling waters for human figures. I held up two fingers to Charlie who by this time was trying desperately to eddy out. The Rogue had now been caught up in a violent whirlpool. From under the Rogue finally appeared a much waterlogged, weak Russ, hanging on to the grab lines for dear life. Charlie maneuvered the J ashore. While I held the J’s bowline, Charlie tossed Russ the throw rope. Though very weak, Russ managed to hang on to the rope while Charlie hauled him ashore. Rob and Terry were by this time on hand, freshly wet from their unscheduled swim, to help retrieve the Rogue. Thank God they hadn’t been swept over the Gut. (Readers will note an absence of photos in following section. Crew too busy.)

I was too rattled to do much more than sit on rocks. My heartbeat deserved a speeding ticket. Russ sustained minor cuts and abrasions from being under the boat. It’s bad to be caught under a boat. No air space to breath like you might think. He’d also swallowed some quantity of water. We were thankful Russ, Rob and Terry were safe. Apparently, Rob had just shouted “We’ve got it made” when he had to eat his words. Even though he set the Rogue up in perfect position, the 40 foot+ standing wave was just too much and over they went. I was humbled by all this, thinking what it might have been like if I’d been rowing. Gulp.

Art and Terry went ahead on land to survey the last Big Drop—Satan’s Gut. They hoped we could line the boats past dreaded Satan’s Gut (guiding them with tow lines from the shore), but the river was smack up against a sheer cliff face due to it running so high. They also hoped to find the oars that were ripped out of Rob’s hands. No luck. The rest of us attended to the monumental task of uprighting the Rogue with its hundreds of pounds of rigging and gear.

Much grunting later, the task was accomplished. We surveyed the damage and found one oar obliquely entangled amid the nylon straps that still held personal gear in place. Thank God for that. But the water’s mighty force had also torn an oar lock and wooden mount completely off the boat. Charlie thought it best to totally de-rig the Rogue, pack most gear out on foot above Satan’s Gut, deflate the boat and strap it atop the J-Rig. The J would be manned by Charlie at the helm, Bill on the jack and Terry on the bow. The rest of us with gear would negotiate the rocky terrain above the river and all meet up at the bottom of the rapid.

Charlie and Terry set about removing part of the motor mount on the J (2 in. thick, I think) that had nearly torn in two on Little Niagara. Also removed mount screws now resembling horseshoes. By this time Bunny had made her way over to us, rather sober and wide-eyed. We ate a simple lunch thinking about the job ahead. Rogue now loaded aboard the J. Charlie worried about the extra weight being too much, especially if they overturned. While the crew pondered, I consulted an old news clipping I brought along that read:

Satan’s Gut –“Then we saw it. A hole had opened in the water, and we suddenly fell, like a plane in an air pocket, into it and immediately reared upward on the foaming mountain on the other side. We seemed to hang vertically forever. Watchers on shore told us later they were sure we were goners. We weren’t 90 degrees from horizontal, they said, we were past it. In fact, we had passed the point of no return. By the laws of physics, our raft should have fallen back on top of us…”

And that was much lower water, I thought.

Okay. As if the news clip wasn’t scary enough, I was mesmerized by the following scene. Recovering from their earlier upset, the Moki-Mac group went through the Gut with experienced boatman, Bob Quist, frantically attempting to restart a drowned out motor on his S-rig to no avail. Clipped the edge of the raging whirlpool. Last view of boat before it was out of sight was 2 pairs of legs and derrieres straight up in the air. We learned later that a father and daughter were thrown overboard, the daughter in good shape able to swim to shore early. But the father, swept miles downstream, almost didn’t make it. And he never could restart the motor. Quist, who took trips down this stretch every week, said this was the worst water he had ever encountered.

So Bunny, Russ, Art, Rob and I watched with great trepidation Charlie’s efforts to gain access to the main current, a rolling “tongue” of water on the right side of Satan’s Gut. If he didn’t make it, the J would be sucked into the Gut, a massive drop the proportions of which would dwarf a battleship. The intended route wasn’t much more consoling. After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, Charlie maneuvered the J-Rig into the planned course. The river was flowing unbelievably fast. Huge lateral waves put the J on its left side. We thought for sure it would capsize. Then it was out of viewing range. Shit!

I picked my way over the grueling non-trail with my load, maybe a half mile, praying the J made it upright. I stumbled a few times under the weight plus fatigue. The past rapids had taken a toll. Finally we spied the J with its occupants safely eddied out below us. I can’t explain the relief and euphoria that followed. Much whooping. Hikers exhausted and boatmen jubilant. It’s beginning to dawn on me why boatmen wear brown. LOL.

No rest yet. We loaded the gear we carried, waterproof Bill’s Bags, Go-to-Hell ammo boxes, etc. atop the J-Rig. Still had to find a favorable camp site on what was now the upper reaches of Lake Powell. The lake’s inundation combined with the river running so high submerged several major rapids such as Gypsum Canyon and Dark Canyon. It was a zip-line fast ride, still plenty bumpy. Then slower water.

Our slaphappy crew took out considerably further downstream than we wanted. The favorable campsites upstream had all washed out. A rocky and hilly place barren of trees offered us a welcome resting place. Zombie-like we prepared tacos capped off with Art’s private reserve—Sauza Conmemorativo Añejo Tequila. Then to bed. I clutched my sleeping bag all night through restless, shivery dreams.

July 16 – Awoke at dawn much fatigued. Packed all gear and set off by 7:00 for we expected to run out of gas (broken fuel line on Mile Long) somewhere down on Lake Powell. Charlie wanted to buy all the time he could. Getting hot already. Broke out beer at 7:30. Then hardboiled eggs plus PBJ sandwiches for breakfast en route. Enjoyed Tanqueray and grapefruit juice. I swear we were all raging alcoholics. In anticipation of running out of fuel, Charlie rigged second set of oars on Rogue frame sitting atop J. Out of gas at 9:30. Waiting expectantly for boaters out on Lake Powell so we could swap our last beer for their gas.

Wasted on Lake Powell
Wasted on Lake Powell

We rowed perhaps a mile then spotted boat and skier. Waved orange life jackets. Boat came by and skier inquired whether motor was down. Wildly nodded heads shouting YES! Skier hollered back they’d return in about 1 ½ hours. Groan. J crew half bombed. Rigged a sail with our orange tarp. I gladly manned oars as I needed something to keep me awake. Nearly lost tipsy Charlie overboard a few times. I cursed boaters not coming immediately to our rescue. Boaters finally arrived. Charlie bartered our last two cases of beer for two gallons of fuel. Boaters believed they got too good a deal. We knew better.

Exuberant, wasted river runners arrived at Hite Marina to the great relief of Gary Matlock and others awaiting our return. Gary shook his head, grinning at the strange and wild appearance of the newly arrived. Spoke of an air search looking for us. Was he kidding? MUCH celebrating. Champagne all around compliments of Gary and Debbie Westfall, Bill Davis’s wife. I passed out on the shuttle home, still on the river… But I had to drive Art to Monticello to pick up his Jeep. At dinner we both held onto the table. I finally arrived back at boat camp, stumbled into my tent, unconscious by 9:00 p.m.

Celebration at Hite Marina Credit: unknown
Celebration at Hite Marina Credit: unknown


At the end of the trip our crew was bound together by events that few river runners could fathom. I don’t think we actually talked too much about it other than to give Kenny and Gary a running account. Except for Gary Matlock and my husband, I never heard from any of them again. We simply lost touch in an age long before Facebook and cell phones.

Several years later I rowed some friends through the Taos Box in the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico. It was thrilling technical whitewater. Still it couldn’t remotely compare to Cataract Canyon in 1983.That was the last of my whitewater experiences. Other challenges beckoned. At the age of 50 I became a NAUI scuba instructor, a casino blackjack dealer and washed cars for Avis.

The Cataract Canyon trip – the entire season actually – changed my world. Prior to 1983 I’d just gone blithely through life. There was plenty of unexciting work I called “making a living” between adventures. While I’d appreciated the life I was able to lead, now I was humbled by a singular, lucky experience that I shared with a few others. Humbled probably sounds corny. But it’s true.

Time hasn’t dulled vivid recollections when everything seemed idyllic in a country not yet rife with Coronavirus & political divisiveness. I refuse to become jaded. When I see recent online accounts about the Southwest, particularly Cataract Canyon trips run by young, slick outfitters, I’m reminded of our historic moment – a time of indescribable joy.


Cherie Rohn 2018
Cherie Rohn 2018

Gary Matlock knew how much I admired my old mentor, so last winter Gary sent me a copy of Gene Stevenson’s recent book Canyon Country Explorations & River Lore, The Remarkable Resilient Life of Kenny Ross. Lucky are those who have read the excerpts posted on “The Canyon Country Zephyr.” The book is light years beyond sheer entertainment. I passed along my account of the Cataract Canyon trip to Gene who hooked me up with “The Zephyr.” As they say, the rest is history.

Currently I live in a highrise 19 floors above the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers, Florida, and write true crime.

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6 comments for “Adventures of a Wild Rivers Expeditions Boatman …by Cherie Rohn

  1. December 1, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    A wonder I cherish comes from the Southwestern Colorado we think of as the Four Corners Region. The years are gone and only the written memories and few campfire stories remain. The adventures and commitments of really great people like Kenny Ross have embedded themselves in the earth that channels the San Juan, the Colorado, and the Green rivers.
    Cherie, you and Art left legacies – still appreciated – of the Mesa Verde and other research sites out in the red loess soils of northern Montezuma County. For many years Crow Canyon’s research programs, usually led by Sally Cole, documenting rock art by raft on the San Juan River, ventured out via water in the desert. Of course Crow Canyon Archaeological Center would not exist if it had not been for Art Rohn and You believing in me and my dreams. Mention a name – Gary Matlock – and whole volumes of information fall from the libraries of our memories. Cherie, your writing will stand the test of ages to come. It will inspire those who walk through the dust – as we have – and enjoy the delights of discovery.
    In friendship,
    Ed Berger, Ed.D.

  2. Stacey Glenn
    December 3, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    You are so adventurous! Lucky for us, we can live vicariously through your vivid descriptions. I can see your pure exhilaration! Thank you for sharing.

  3. John Morarre
    December 5, 2020 at 8:37 am

    I enjoyed your vivid account of rafting a wild Southwest river at its wildest. The amazing transformation of rivers when the volume of water changes from flowing to surging to thundering to oh my God, you are going to ride through that cauldron in rubber boat?!?!

    I have done several of the rivers flowing out of the Appalachian Mountains in canoe and kayak. What we called rapids and white water were challenging and exciting to us. However I have seen the Great Falls of the Potomac at triple its normal flow, with the water rising vertically for 30′. It is astounding that you and your friends attempted a river even more powerful than that. I am so happy that you survived to share your exciting experiences with us.
    John Morarre

  4. Anthony
    December 10, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    Any comments I could make would hardly do justice to one of the most remarkable women to grace this planet. My heart still beats a little faster everytime you re-enter my life, even from afar.

  5. Katie
    February 13, 2021 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Cherie, your article found its way into the hands of one Terry Humphrey, my dad! It was a real blast from the past for him, he got really excited talking about it. I told him he had a death wish, ha! Obviously he got me into whitewater rafting too, but nothing like that! Anyway, thanks so much for sharing!

    • Cherie Rohn
      February 19, 2021 at 7:33 pm

      Wow! I’m thrilled for you to see some of your dad’s fancy boat handling. I didn’t know him well. But we sure all got along great on that trip. It was such a privilege to go through Cat with guys like your dad on that historic run. Please give him a big hug for me, Katie. Happy rafting!

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