Whitewater rafting in Utah offers more than adventure; there’s a river community waiting to be discovered.

Utah Westwater Canyon rafting
James Kaiser

In his 1901 State of the Union Address, President Theodore Roosevelt asserted that “the rule which underlies all others is … on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.”

Roosevelt’s emphasis on community above the individual spoke to a fractured society during an era when soaring industrial gains coincided with dramatic disparity between the impoverished and the fruits of progress. It’s a chasmic polarity that resonates even today amid a discordant landscape in which “nearly half of Americans say the pandemic has divided their communities,” according to a December 2021 Pew Research poll.

And yet there exist spaces in the outdoors where community thrives. I discovered one in Utah’s Westwater Canyon, where a two-day, 17-mile float on the Colorado River washed away any trace of our drift from egalitarianism.

BREACHING THE SURFACE

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Escorted by the Moab-based outfitter OARS—and in partnership with Yeti—16 strangers piled into four rafts that eased through trip’s first few miles under impeccable weather and soothing currents. Occasional bird song and the soft rush of the river were joined intermittently by the voice of my boat’s guide, Cameron Yates, who dispatched rowing instructions that nudged us along gracefully, each mustard-hued oar dipping in unison beneath the murky surface of the sediment-rich Colorado. Walls of sandstone soared 300 feet overheard, giving way near the water’s edge to wax-like Vishnu schist, some of the oldest rock on the planet.

Rafting along Colorado River in Utah

James Kaiser

That night I found myself seated around a campfire with a party I’d only met one day prior. It resembled a sight from 2020, when humanity’s common vulnerability appeared to coalesce communities, albeit briefly, in the form of socially-distanced get togethers with once-unfamiliar neighbors, the clanging of pots and pans to salute hospital workers, or the performance of live music outside retirement homes, where residents smiled from balconies at impromptu string quartets.

A roaring fire had just dissipated to a collection of smoldering orange embers that cast a soft glow on the encircled faces when a voice sounded from the chair opposite the dwindling flame.

“When did you feel your strongest today, and when did you feel your most vulnerable?”

The question came from Zack Sam. Earlier in the day I’d seen the OARS guide from Navajo Nation taking notes during guest conversations with the intent of graduating from stranger to friend.

Answers suddenly breached the conversational surface that, without the nudge, may have remained mystery. Physical ailments. Social anxieties. Tremendous personal loss. Each new voice further eroded whatever interpersonal reticence lingered.

Sam discussed his journey from Navajo Nation resident to OARS guide, and how initial apprehension over acceptance evaporated among a judgment-free assembly well-versed in the cosmic futility of ego-driven endeavors.

“I was nervous at first, but they really took me in and accepted me as part of that community,” Sam said. “My family always says, ‘You might not make as much money as some, but you’re the happiest out of all of us.’”

Vulnerability is seldom easy, especially in the presence of strangers.

But by the time the last ember extinguished, we could hardly classify ourselves as such. And it’s a good thing. We didn’t know it, but conditions on the Colorado the following day would test every ounce of our newfound serenity.

“THE ROOM OF DOOM”

Clear skies overnight gave way to morning clouds that suspended low as we dined on a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee. Within an hour, we pushed our boats from the riverbank and set off toward the siren call of Class IV rapids bearing names like “Sock It to Me,” “Skull,” and “The Room of Doom.”

Through every tumultuous section the river jolted our boat.

“Left back! Right forward!” a zealous Yates shouted.

Water crashed over our raft from all sides, pummeling us with an intensity matched only by the smiles plastered on the faces of each drenched participant. It wasn’t until reaching the end of the rapids corridor—and what we anticipated would be calmer waters—that Mother Nature began peeling back the curtain on unsavory developments.

Rain began to fall, softly at first, then with a force that included occasional sleet. Gusts of 65 miles-per-hour wind battered us head-on, transforming our watery playground into a Stygian gantlet sans relief.

Utah Westwater Canyon - Colorado River

James Kaiser

The guides convened, deciding after witnessing our demonstration in rowing futility to bind the rafts together, tighten down gear once more, and uncase a motor to ease our Ben Hur-style ramming speed on what was now a watery treadmill.

We hunkered down, shielding ourselves against blasts of wind and rain that slammed into us with unbearable force. Soaked extremities went numb and darkened. Curse words were muttered with each crash of water against our shelled jackets. A few sleeping bags were passed around.

“Did you put on the wool socks?” one of the guides asked me.

“They’re on my hands,” I responded to scattered laughter. The mere thought of my motor cortext prompting arms, hands, and fingers to work in conjunction and remove my river shoes was staggering.

No matter the misery, occasional glances at our stalwart, mission-driven guides kept morale afloat. More than an hour of storm navigation transpired before we reached the take-out point. To be a fly on the canyon wall and witness the comical scene of our bone-chilled cadre exiting rafts, a gaggle of newborn giraffes clumsily working through first steps. Frozen feet and joints do not physical grace make. Without any real shelter, a group of us opted to huddle like penguins inside a pit toilet, our frenzied shivering joined by a chorus of maniacal laughter at the necessary depravity of our toxic refuge.

Colorado River rafting among Utah red rocks

James Kaiser

There is disarming beauty in the indiscriminate chaos of the natural world. Here, we are stripped of hubris and hurled into a cauldron of natural fury and disorder that entices and discombobulates, where personal pursuits are supplanted by consideration of the group at large.

It is in these environs that community can be found. And few actions require big-picture prioritization more than joining the unpredictable dance of our rivers, where the calculation of individual action is paramount to group success.

It was good to be reminded of that—even for a couple days.

Get a Guide

For a rugged adventure on the water, book a single- or multi-day whitewater trip with OARS. Founded in 1969, the California-based company operates rafting trips in iconic destinations all over the world, from the American West to Fiji and Morocco, while fostering a sense of community and environmental stewardship. Camping gear, meals, and more can all be booked as part of each adventure. Single-day trips start as low as $119 per person.