Cataract Canyon

“Whoosh – flip – sploosh. Whoosh – flip – sploosh. Whoosh – flip – sploosh.” The sound of the oars hits the water over and over again. We skim across miles of flat water, the only other sounds around are the birds echoing off the rising canyon walls. It’s nice to relax a bit.

This trip, somewhat last minute and spontaneous, took Dan and I far away from Crested Butte’s snowy spring. We wanted to scout Cataract Canyon before the busy summer got the best of our time, in preparation for our September invasive species monitoring trip with the Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) and the National Park Service.  The water level of our spring trip will hopefully mirror the levels we will see in the fall, so this trip gave us a good idea of what campsites we can use, and an idea of the extent of the invasive weeds we will be mapping. To say that our work is cut out for us would be an understatement. It seems there is enough Tamarisk in Cataract canyon to keep even the hungriest beetles busy for years.

            Our team will be embarking on an extensive, multi-year journey with this project. We are excited to bring members of SCC’s Ancestral Lands Program through Cataract Canyon this September. Native youth will join us to help map sections of the river where there is currently very little data on invasive plant species.  Weeds like Russian Knapweed, Tamarisk, Salsola, and Rivanna Grass clutter the banks on either side of the river along the 95-mile stretch, and crowd out the native species which now struggle to survive. By mapping and plotting the range of these invasive plants through a GIS system, RRAFT and the SCC will enable the National Park Service to better see the full extent of the invasive plant problem as they hammer out the details of their new management plan.

Eventually, our role will hopefully change from monitoring through GPS systems to engage in the dirty work of invasive plant removal. That’s when our work will really begin. Invasive plant removal is an uphill hunt. First you must target an area to be tackled. Then comes the technique. The roots must be dug up in their entirety, lest you risk the plant’s revenge- often they’ll come back twofold and stronger, or you carry in chainsaws, sink the teeth right into the trunk, and apply a chemical herbicide to ensure a complete death. Either option leaves you with clean-up, and each have their pros and cons. But whichever method you choose, it’s going to be a dirty, sweaty day. Good thing we’ll have a river to jump in when we’re done!

This scout trip was a little less strenuous than that. We took the liberty of relaxing, enjoying our time “off” after a long winter. Cataract Canyon is a many-layered gem, scattered with Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont Ruins, pictographs, a couple days full of rapids, and beautiful, sometimes mysterious side canyons. On the river we took our time and explored, scouted potential campsites, and even had a business meeting on our new cataraft- which was also undergoing a test-drive! In camp we had plenty of time to ponder our progress as a new organization, research and learn more about the plants and history of the area, and we did some nerding out on the amazing geology and fossils we found. It was a scout trip well worth taking, and I can’t wait to share it with new friends in September!

-- Jennie Noreen