Veteran river guide Lars Haarr shares what makes a Cataract Canyon rafting trip one of Utah’s top adventures
“There is a great difference between running a wild, free stretch of river versus a contained and over-managed stretch,” says OARS guide Lars Haarr. The wildness he’s referring to is a stretch of river on the Colorado that cuts through towering red rock walls and multi-million-year-old rock formations in Canyonlands National Park.
Cataract Canyon is rugged and breathtaking, with out-of-this-world scenery that includes waterfalls and prehistoric ruins. But it’s not just the scenery that makes this stretch of the Colorado so special. It’s also unique in its accessibility for novices and whitewater junkies alike, as seasonal water fluctuations can make for easy floating or epic Class IV-V whitewater, which is why having an expert guide is invaluable.
Whether you crave an adventure-heavy trip in late spring when Rocky Mountain snowmelt can create some of the biggest whitewater conditions in North America or a more mellow trip later in the season, you’ll have plenty of time to explore Canyonlands National Park by raft, dory, stand up paddleboard, and on foot. OARS offers 4- to 6-day Cataract Canyon whitewater rafting trips weekly April through October, including adult-only and solo traveler adventures, as well as “Stars with Lars” departures, which combine astronomy and adventure in an International Dark Sky Park.
We took some time to talk with Lars, who’s an expert on the region’s plants, animals and history, in addition to being an incredible whitewater guide. Here’s what he had to say about what makes Cataract Canyon so special.
What is your favorite thing about Cataract Canyon?
My favorite thing about running Cataract would probably be the continuity of the rapids. Even at low flows they come one right after another and our guests have a great time smashing through wave after wave. When the water is high, on the other hand, not only do all the rapids get bigger, they begin to merge with one another and the speed of the river itself increases. The term “runaway freight train” comes to mind. Nothing comes close to that feeling of getting a raft or dory through the Mile-long series and the Big Drops, with their truck-sized walls of brown water crashing down on all sides!
Can you share a favorite memory from a Cataract Canyon trip?
A favorite memory I have is from a trip back in 2007. I was rowing a dory at flows around 65,000 cfs, trying for the far right sneak of Big Drop 2. To make a long story short, I missed my cut and headed straight into the maw of the beast, but escaped unscathed after some strenuous high-siding and a few colorful quotes. It was just an incredible ride through some of the biggest waves I’ve ever rowed, and we made it!
What is the best thing about being a guide?
Watching folks come alive over the course of a trip as they shed the shells of civilization and start to become a part of the natural world out there is magical.
In addition to introducing people to rivers, you also introduce them to another wonder of the desert southwest: the night sky. What inspired you to start looking up, and learning about stars?
Growing up in Montana I’ve always been exposed to a dark night sky, but didn’t really fall for the stars until I spent a winter working for an outdoor youth rehab program in Utah. I would spend hours after my last group check-in of the night looking up at the stars. My curiosity got the best of me and I decided to teach myself about what I was seeing. Taking this knowledge on my trips and doing star talks on the river (the name “Stars with Lars” was coined–-a lucky rhyme) was a natural progression.
Over the years I’ve noticed that the night sky is one of the biggest attractions for our guests. Too many people live in increasingly light-polluted, urbanized areas and have lost touch with the stars. Coming on a river trip is a great way to see the Milky Way for perhaps the first time, and I can be their guide to the night sky.
Why is it important for people to experience wild rivers?
A quote often attributed to late OARS Founder George Wendt is, “You protect what you love, and you love what you know.” And that’s another reason my job as a guide is so special; I’m helping to protect these places by sharing what I know with our guests.
All these places are special. Cataract Canyon, Gates of Lodore, the Yampa, and so on. Every wild place we have left is invaluable, because once they’re gone, they’re never coming back.