Imperial Canyon, Utah, Spring 1968

A lot hung in the balance in 1968. On one hand, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo. North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive. Several of our cities were torn by rioting. And Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite told us.

On the other hand, Boeing bet their entire future on the 747.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black U.S. athletes, took a stand against racism at the Summer Olympics. “Star Trek” aired American television’s first interracial kiss (no, it wasn’t Kirk and Spock). And above all, Apollo 8 astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman orbited the moon!

But more down to earth and a little less known, one more thing added to the good side of the scale in that tumultuous year: A 12-year-old brat in a Levi jacket stood on the edge of Imperial Canyon, studying a route to the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. Shortly after starting the steep descent, the brat and that tall and foxy 15-year-old, Debbie Steed (she’s 65 now and they still call her “that tall and foxy 15-year-old”), were bungeed back to the top by the Callings of the Fathers. “Not enough time,” they’d said. Back on the edge a decade later with friends David and Nate, I decided the Fathers had been right.

Imperial Canyon, Utah, Spring 1978

Nothing about schooling at BYU stood in the way of doing something else. And I got the grades to prove it. The mere mention “the land” was potion enough to expel the quest for the overrated “A” clean out of the Circle of Blithe. Some things just get out of their lane sometimes. This is the most important thing I learned in college.

Imperial Canyon beckoned one day when we were high on tedium at “The Focal Point”, our arcane social roost in the library. We made a half-hearted parry with a quick, graduate-level study of human behavior: I had several hundred dollar bills from the recent sale of a motorcycle and we tossed them around on the floor to see what passers-by would do. We got some good reactions but no one took notes, so it was no use. PDQ, we were on our way to Imperial Canyon.

I started feeling sick on the way down. By the time we got to Elephant Hill, I ached all over with some 24-hour bug. Up and over the Hill anyway, in the dark of night, all the way through Canyonlands and up Bobby’s Hole. Sometime around 2:00 a.m. we stopped at a vague track that headed west. It looked about right. There were several vague tracks in the area but this one looked about right the most. We scanned one skyline, then another; and traced from them to make sense out of closer, more obscure features in the darkness. Here a cliff, there a canyon; everywhere a cliff and canyon.

David and Nate: “What do you think, Johns?”
I thought it looked about right.
“It looks about right,” I said. “I think this is it.”

An hour or so later we crested the south ridge of Imperial Valley. Stars…. Stars and the Milky Way – starkly brilliant against the pitch black sky. The stars cast their soft light across the landscape and danced with the dark cliffs and monoliths on the horizon. We watched several disappear behind the Orange Cliffs. Then we slept ‘til mid-morning.

The day was as crystal clear as the night. Our favorite landmarks paraded around us as we scanned the land. Always scanning. Imperial Valley ranges from northeast to southwest down below. It’s interesting. Imperial Canyon pierces the middle of the valley, like a huge arrowhead from the northwest. The valley extends southwestward, actually rising to the edge of Cataract Canyon. Viewed from west of the river, Imperial tantalizes, nestled amid the panorama of the canyon lands.

Inspired and enchanted, though I still felt ill, we descended the ridge and crossed the valley. Centuries before, the Anasazi had built a large dwelling right at the serrated arrowhead point of Imperial Canyon. And far below, at the mouth of the canyon, the Colorado River roared through Imperial Rapid in primeval magnificence. Not yet affected by the rising waters of Lake Powell, we gazed down on it as the Ancient Ones had.

We spent some time there, contemplating the Ancients. What did they think? What were their plans? What was a typical day…? How often did they trek to the river? How fast could they do it and how much could they carry? We were honored to step where they stepped and go where they’d gone.

I wondered: Would Lake Powell rise as high as Imperial Canyon? It did. Would I experience the pristine river ever again as I did on this day and in 1968? I think not. When we kayaked Cataract in 1981 and ‘82 the hyporheic zone was influenced by the lake at Imperial.

Nate, Cataract Canyon, 1981

Time to submerge. We plunged into the canyon via the steep talus where Debbie and I had gone before. In no time we passed the Calling of the Fathers, where she and I had received summons. I could almost hear Dad’s echo and see Debbie’s venturesome look: “So do we go back or what?”

We scrambled down into the channel of the canyon, not much the worse for wear. Less steep now but any easy route barred by huge boulders and drop-offs. The channel, after all, was for water, not people. We optioned up and over, down and under, over and around, and sometimes just dropped; just like we like.

Getting into Cataract Canyon isn’t easy. I don’t know any workable route off the west rim, south of the Doll House. On the east side, there are a few. Successful routes get you low fast. You can view the river from thousands of places along the rim. It’s just a half mile straight down. Seems like the closer you get to the edge, the farther away from the river you are. Almost inevitably you run into the wall-to-wall, sheer precipice of several hundred feet. They’re breathtaking!

It wasn’t long before we stepped to the edge of the one in Imperial Canyon. Spectacular! But no readily apparent way down. This was unfortunate. Making the river was what we’d come to do. Like the frustrated climber, “I want that peak!” I wanted that river!

Time for a little diversion, pushing boulders off the cliff. That amused me for a while but I still wanted that river. I scanned again. Always scanning. Choices in front of us and to the right were fatal. But there had to be a way. Why would the Anasazi have built there, otherwise? I looked more closely to the left… hmm. There’s a steep talus just a bit beyond the cliffs. But it looked like air in between. I worked my way closer. Boulders exploded at the bottom of the canyon.

There was the air all right, right between me and the talus. But there was also a kind of chute recessed into the side – hidden by the cliff until you walked right up to the edge. At least as steep as the talus, it was also as smooth as a slippery slide. But with a little nerve and a decent run … hmm…, a winning pitch onto the talus looked likely enough. If you slipped, you might slide the last two hundred feet to the canyon floor but probably with a degree or two of control.

More boulders crashed at the base of the cliff as I backtracked a bit. I ran fast, hit the chute with a couple of strides, and sprawled onto the steep talus. OK then; OK. Right. O…K…. I hope I can do that again on the way back. Forget about it for now though.

Right quick I was on the alluvium at the bottom of Imperial Canyon, safe enough from the crashing boulders. Riverstruck, I only looked up a couple of times for David and Nate. Couldn’t see them. But I figured they’d prob’ly see me.

The river was farther away than I’d thought. Three rafts rowed carefree but confident through Imperial Rapid. I broke into a run, hoping to see others. Why though? I slowed back to a walk. It turned out these were the last of the day and they quickly floated out of sight. Good enough. They’d probably have tried to rescue me, anyway.

I was there. Boots off and barefoot in the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. Ten years is a long time for a twelve-year-old so this was a big deal for me. Euphoria doused my earlier malaise. I rebooted after a while and started up to the Big Drops.

Tadd Wright, Big Drop 3, 1981

Cataract Canyon is just full of rocks, so that’s what you hike on. I mean, it’s not like hiking on a path. When you’re young, you just go. You get tired before you realize it and you pay for that later. I trekked on up to Big Drop 3 and spent some time there. This is where Dad’s good friend was lost in a river upset in 1960. Dad saw him float into Satan’s Gut. Nobody ever saw him again. Dad had forged a route out to the west rim, way up above me. A memorial to his friend. I’d been there several times, looking down on where I looked up now.

Well, how far up the canyon could I go? I decided to find out. I didn’t know whether David and Nate had come down or what they were up to. I trekked northward past Big Drop 2 and Big Drop 1.

Above Big Drop 1 is the long stretch where Mile Long Rapid runs. I pressed on until I convinced myself that I really did know what I knew from the start: I couldn’t make those intriguing canyons, Y and Cross, farther up. It was time to turn around.

I met David and Nate back at Big Drop 3. They were marveling at the furious river there, as I had. We filled each other in as to who’d done what, when. And now it was getting late – not much light left. We walked back to the mouth of Imperial Canyon. Dusk now, with a line of clouds coming in. Camp was 2,500 vertical feet up the canyon, across the valley and up the ridge. We’d eaten all the food we had and we were out of water. But water was an easy fix. And it wouldn’t kill us right off the bat. And they say the Anasazi skedaddled for lack of water, not too much of it. So we filled our water bottles and took one last big drink from the river. My thoughts turned to that chute up there….

Bill the Wheel, Nate the Skate, and Jim. The Beam

We hiked up the alluvium and climbed the steep talus to the chute. That’s when it started to rain. Better get across before it gets wet. The chute was just one of those things you have to do. Getting a run across the steep talus would be harder than from the flat and stable cliff approach earlier. But another quick look and, one by one, we each managed to make the cliff top without a slip. Now to gain a lot of altitude. In the night. And in the rain. Tired, hungry, and wet we worked our way up the channel. When the rain poured, we crawled in among the boulders and waited. The heavy showers would come and go, and we’d foray when they’d lighten up. It took a long time to crawl up out of the canyon but we finally topped out. Happy to do it, too!

Still not done though. Imperial Valley looked a lot wider than it had earlier and the ridge beyond looked dark and sheer. No one there to do it for us, so we started out. In the night. And in the rain. We trudged across Imperial Valley to the base of the ridge, best-guessing where we thought the camp was, still high above us. With a slow but constant pace we eventually reached the top. No camp. We opted left (or was it right?) and found the camp within 100 yards or so.

Peaches! We had bottled peaches! They’re still the third best meal I’ve ever enjoyed. We ate a bunch, then dried off in the tent and collapse into our sleeping bags. It was 4ish in the morning. We’d been out about 18 hours. Now everything got really really quiet as we drifted off into unconsciousness.

Ach! Troubles!! David leaped from his sleeping bag to the window and yelled, “Hey! HEY!!” “Oh” he said. Nate and I laughed as he worked his way back to reality and got back in his bag. Uninterrupted sleep followed. No further distress.

Sometime later we packed up and started for home. We came upon a small herd of deer that, for some reason, needed a good chasing. After three strides we were in agony – crippled by stiff and sore muscles. We walked it off along the rim of a small canyon, arriving at an overhanging drop into an alcove. It was fifty feet deep or so and about that wide. And nearly full of tumbleweeds.

Matches, matches, who’s got the matches? We flicked some into the weeds and quickly flicked up a storm. That fire got real hot and real high, real fast. Very little smoke, though. We pondered that, then congratulated ourselves and checked any hot embers across the barren landscape.

No further adventures the rest of the way home.

Checking helmet integrity in Rapid #5. The Author, 1981

One Responses

  • Simply fascinat’n story. Would have been better had you stopped at ephiram on the way down and saved a drowning kid. There are a lot of scary, turbulent Waters there. But then, it would have been a much more cautious tale. Things like “we filled extra water bottles, ” and talked to an old man about a map.

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