Kayaking the Zion Narrows with the Arrogantly Challenged

By Kyle McCutchen

Did we sandbag it? That was the question that needed an answer, and was more than a good enough excuse to return to the North Fork Virgin River’s Zion Narrows. The “arrogant sandbagger” guidebook author call-out was a few seasons in the past, but the issue has been far from dead, thanks to a misguided Zion National Park 600cfs flow restriction rule that was enacted because a paddler felt misguided by yours truly, co-author of Whitewater of the Southern Rockies.

We didn’t need to ask if we were arrogant. We knew we were arrogant because we were kayakers, because we believe that passing through committing inescapable canyons can be really easy, and because at 7am here we are standing at the ZNP backcountry permit desk expecting to get a permit despite the flow being 650cfs, because we came prepared and are us.

“Have you run it before?” the desk ranger asks.

“Yes,” I answer with a reinforcing nod and a sleep-deprived evil-eye look that threatens to call the manager. He asks my name and I give it with a slight hesitation, concerned that after the debacles a few years ago I’ll be blacklisted. He checks the flow, has us sign a few things stating the flow isn’t what it is, and let’s us off on our way. We leave quickly, in case his manager shows up, and in awe that we have a permit to kayak the Zion Narrows at a prime level. Our biggest hurdle, negotiating the permit regulations that limit boaters to a narrow flow window, has been accomplished and we are off to explore 15 miles of arguably the most spectacular river corridor in all of Utah.

Our second challenge is to navigate the put-in road that the backcountry ranger warns us might not be open, and we are pleased to find it snow free as we arrive at the put-in to a cold wind and nice flow. We make a plan with Lori Merritt, our team shuttle driver, to promise not to report us missing even if we show up missing, and Justin Merritt, Tina Swan and I launch by 9:30 on a flow that allows us to take paddle strokes immediately from the put-in. The healthy flow is nearly double of what I previously remember, and I am cautiously relieved that we might not have to spend too much time dragging our boats down the streambed.

Tina Swan smiles when she sees waterfalls. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

Sometime after a portage around a cable, a herd of elk, nice side canyon, and scenic waterfall, Tina announces that she has a broken kayak. It’s not good to be barely 4 miles into a run and have to perform a major boat repair patch. We were thankful that we came prepared, and that the walls were starting to close in.

One of the first narrows. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

Tina entering a narrows. Photo: Justin Merritt

Then from roughly mile 4 to mile 5.5 the pace slowed as a few wood portages forced us out of our boats. Making matters worse was our patch job had already torn along the roughly 8-inch crack, and Tina constantly had to drain her kayak. We refrained from using our second boat patch until we had made it to the confluence where there would be less contact with the rocks. At the park service boundary a collapsed bank created a new sieve. It wasn’t the first sign of how much water ran through this side canyon back in December of 2010. In fact, nearly all of the wood portages that I remembered were gone, replaced by new pieces of wood in some inopportune places. The added flow was a blessing though, and with the additional flow the pace had quickened to IV- wood dodging and sight seeing.

Kyle McCutchen is pretty sure that every kayak run should have an easily portageable and totally huckable waterfall like this. Photo: Justin Merritt

Justin Merritt is all smiles after the falls. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

BC Falls had an amazing flow. Enough to boof at the lip, and enough to create a big hole backed up by a boil on the right side of the landing and a seam on the left. Justin and I both had good lines, landing flat on the boil and paddling away. Immediately below this was a two-foot drop where Justin claimed he hit a three-foot boof, followed by a narrow slot with a small hole, one of the few legit rapids up until this point. Could this be the 6-foot falls that we didn’t warn people about? More questions still. A quick push later and we make the confluence.

Just before the confluence with deep creek. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

The confluence with Deep Creek is extraordinary. Leaving the upper slot canyon of the North Fork Virgin River, you enter a much larger canyon, and the flow triples as you peel out into the waters of Deep Creek. Although I think the shuttle would be heinously longer, getting to this confluence in the canyon appears like it might be easier from Deep Creek, especially at lower flows. The piles of discarded trees from the floods were impressive at Camp 2. Less than 10 minutes later we arrived at Camp 3, at 3:40 in the afternoon, with 8 miles to go.

Did we bring enough boat repair supplies? How did we get so far behind schedule even with a great flow? I mean other than Tina draining her boat every 1/3 of a mile. We must be taking too many photos. Wow, this flow is fantastic! And maybe the upper is a little harder than class III… damn sandbaggers. By 4:30 we have Tina’s boat repatched, with her winter hat serving as a makeshift wedge to keep the patch job from breaking. We all agree that Tina isn’t allowed to hit any more rocks, which for the first time all day is now possible thanks to a flow of about 675cfs!

Kolob Creek Rapid Photo: Justin Merritt

Okay, so maybe over 600cfs Kolob Creek rapid becomes a IV-, but it’s still a class III at 450cfs. Actual whitewater noted and appreciated, and we are no longer worried about how much daylight we have left because the flow is fast! Must be time for more side hikes and pictures of the best parts of the Narrows.

Part of the Big Spring waterfalls. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

Big Spring Rapid. Photo: Justin Merritt

The Big Spring Rapid wood situation has created a class IV- slalom move, although if the log on the left side moves (or if you don’t mind rolling under it), then it’s probably still class III+. Although I’ve never received an answer that wasn’t easily contradicted and subjective to the question, “What is the difference between a class III+ and IV-?”

Beginning of the Wall Street section of the hike. Photo: Justin Merritt

I heart Wall Street when flooded. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

I try to not base my whitewater ratings on wood (because that relates to consequence more than navigability), but the speed of the water and the comfort of a paddler to read-and-run a walled in corridor might be getting up to class IV- at levels over 600. We spent the remainder of the afternoon gawking at the walls, and leap-frogging each other to get some photos of the inner parts of the Narrows. We took a short hike up Orderville Canyon, before we put the cameras away for the last time.

Somewhere in lower Wall Street. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

Orderville Canyon boat ramp. Photo: Justin Merritt

Shortly below the end of the developed hiking trail, in the last mile of our run, the largest rapid of the run gave us one last class IV whitewater fix, and we reached the Temple of Sinawava takeout by 7pm.

The riverside Pah Tempe. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

Many great paddling days have ended at a hot springs, as they should. The private Pah Tempe hot springs near the takeout of the NF Virgin Timpoweap Canyon was ours for the late evening and morning hours for $120 for four people (rates vary based on # of people), and $30 for camping.

While relaxing here we debated, and eventually determined that Evan and I did sandbag it, just not at the flow level that some folks say we sandbagged it at. I feel that our description is very accurate in describing the commitment and consequences of having a bad day, and accurately warns that there may be changing wood issues, which there have been. We didn’t foresee a new sieve forming, but these things happen and the overall rating of the run usually doesn’t change, it just gets one mandatory portage. So, for the WWSR edits to the Zion Narrows beta box, the ratings should read something like this:

  • Min 350 III- (IV, P)
  • Low 450 III (IV, P)
  • Med 600 IV- (V-, P)
  • High 1000 V (V, P)

The Zion Narrows has some serious shuttle bunny bait, which is a good thing because it’s a long enough day that it’s nice to not have to drive back to the put-in. Zion National Park is a cool place to explore, there are a few decent eateries, and there are hot springs! Plus the scenic drive back via Hwy 12 rewards the travel weary with some spectacular desert sight seeing. Huge thanks to Lori Merritt for making our weekend adventure that much smoother.

Lori and Justin Merritt. Photo: Kyle McCutchen

The Zion Narrows section of the NF Virgin River is an amazing place to kayak. Please treat the park personnel with respect and hopefully together we can help the park implement a management plan that minimizes the need for rescues, and is less detrimental to the completion of successful descents. Please treat the run with respect and go prepared. The water is cold, the day is long enough to require a constant downstream pace (6+ hours), the portages are short and complicated, and boats break because even at prime flows it’s still shallow. Most of all, it is walled-in and magical.

Photo: Justin Merritt

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