After coming home from my fishing trip, I traveled with a group of twelve Hoofers to the Arkansas River in southern Colorado for a week of whitewater kayaking. Five people from the group were advanced kayakers who had already run far more challenging rivers. The other seven (including me) were intermediate and hadn't run anything on this scale.
We made our base camp on BLM land next to the river at about 8000 feet above sea level. The forested hills and snowy fourteeners that surrounded us showed little indication of the recent wildfires that devastated much of the area and put a campfire ban into effect. The river had been running low, but the rainstorm we got during our first night probably raised the level a bit and helped to mitigate the fire risk.
Our first run was down a section called Brown's Canyon. Having never kayaked anything bigger than the little rivers in Wisconsin, I was nervous when I first popped on my spray skirt and launched into the current. Soon, however, the jitters went away and I was able to enjoy the river and scenery as I got swept downstream – the Arkansas was just bigger and pushier water than the rivers I was used to. Our biggest challenge of the day wasn't even the river but attempting to dodge the multitude of rubber rafts that were running it, often in groups of ten or more. They were a lot bigger than our little kayaks and moved faster than our group because we stopped and played at the smaller waves. Their guides and customers were friendly, though, and we were able to avoid them and didn't have any major incidents all day. The takeout for the run was at our campsite, so despite having kayaked a long run of about thirteen miles, it was a short day.
The next day we ran a section called The Fractions. Dan, our group's leader, thought it would be an easier run than the previous day, and I was glad he was wrong. This turned out to be the funnest day of our trip with lots of great play waves and few dangerous rocks. The section ended at a play park in the town of Buena Vista, so a few people from our group stayed on the river a bit longer and practiced their moves. Afterward, we rewarded ourselves by bathing at the famous Mt. Princeton hot springs, which has multiple pools set at various temperatures from cold to scalding. By the time we rolled back into camp, we were relaxed and ready for a bigger challenge.
We got what we wished for. The next day we drove ninety minutes to the famous Royal Gorge. Kayakers, rafters, and tubers alike go to the gorge to take in the beauty of its thousand-foot cliffs and the Royal Gorge Bridge, which spans the Arkansas River from 955 feet above and until recently was the tallest suspension bridge in the world.
The first rapid on our run was a Class III called El Primero. We couldn't see the whole thing from the top, but decided it would be tame enough to “read and run” rather than getting out of our boats and scouting. Our strongest kayakers went first and raised their paddles straight into the air as a signal to continue.
I went next. The first part of the rapid was a wave train, a series of tall, but harmless waves that smacked me in the face and blocked my vision temporarily. As I was barreling along, a rock suddenly appeared right in front of me. If the water were a bit higher, I could have safely gone over the top of it, a bit lower and I would have seen it with plenty of time to react. But the water was just obscuring the rock enough that I didn't see it until I was a second or two from crashing into it. If I hit the rock sideways, the force of the rushing water could pin me against it. If I got thrown upside-down while pinned, I might get trapped inside my kayak. I swerved left, the bottom and right edges of my boat scraped the side of the rock, and the strong sideways current flipped me. I felt a sharp crack as my helmet hit the river's floor. I tried to roll but only got partway up as the current sucked me into a hole and slammed my head again on the way down. I nailed my second roll and got right-side up just before going over the rapid's final drop. I was shaken, but uninjured.
The next person in our group didn't fare so well. She also ran into the hidden rock and flipped, but scraped her way to the bottom upside-down before ejecting from her boat. Before letting anyone else continue, the other Dan walked to the top of the rapid to tell the others about the rock and the easiest line to take. Everyone else made it down unscathed, but it portended a long, challenging day on the river.
As we continued downstream, we hit a few more Class III's with only a couple of swims and appeared to be getting into somewhat of a rhythm as a group. Then we were presented with our first big challenge of the week when we came upon a Class IV called Sunshine. We walked on a path around the rapid to scout it and found one big problem: After a few smaller drops, there was a large hole that looked sticky – the water going over the drop got recirculated and had enough power to hold onto a boat or a human for a long time. At the right side of the hole was a “tongue” of water that flowed freely over the rapid without being recirculated, but it was only about a foot wide. It would take a set of technical, precise moves to hit the tongue. I decided not to run it and carried my kayak around it along with the other weaker kayakers.
The first few people who ran Sunshine hit the tongue and made it to the bottom without issues. Then Ted came along, hit one of the higher drops a bit off course and drifted to the left with his boat pointed upstream. He was barely able to turn his boat around before going over the drop, but it didn't help. Despite a tenacious effort, he got sucked back into the hole and was soon upside-down and getting jolted as if riding a bull under the water. Somehow he managed to roll, but was quickly flipped again and was stuck. He loosened his grip on his paddle in preparation to wet-exit and it got yanked out of his hands and thrown downstream. Then he popped his skirt and got sucked to the bottom, where he hit the downstream current and got flushed out of the hole. We threw two ropes at him, but he didn't see them as he passed beneath them. When he finally popped back up, he was near the bottom of the rapid.
Ted needed a long time to recover his energy, but he was OK. We portaged the rest of our boats around Sunshine and continued downstream. We were now entering the main part of the gorge and the walls closed us in, narrowing our focus and committing us to the river. The only man-made objects inside the gorge were an out-of-commission water pipe that was suspended above the water to our right and a railroad track about twenty feet above the water to our left. The large rapids continued with few quiet pools in which to rest.
Soon we hit a rapid called The Narrows, a long Class III with some technical maneuvering required. Our leaders took a long time to scout a clean line, then sent us down one by one. As the name suggested, the river got narrow at this point and was only about 30 feet wide by the time we hit the eddy at the bottom of the rapid. About 100 yards downstream was Wall Slammer a long Class IV rapid. A train full of gawking tourists pulled up next to us and stopped just as Caitlyn was running The Narrows. She got flipped and had to swim half of the rapid to the pleasure and horror of the onlookers, most of whom had their cameras rolling. One guy offered her whiskey as she was climbing into her boat and she waved her hands in victory. Her run is probably all over YouTube and FaceBook now.
Wall Slammer turned out to be another big challenge, with one Class IV hole in the middle surrounded by several III's upstream and down. Our first few boaters ran it and waited at the bottom. Virginia got flipped in a hole and tried to roll, but the current was slamming her against a wall that was most likely undercut and she got thrown back down and wet-exited. She was fine, but all of expert boaters had to run over several more drops in their efforts to rescue her and her boat. They couldn't paddle back up the river because the current was too strong and there was a twenty-foot, forty-five-degree retaining wall leading up to the railroad tracks that would present a difficult climb in neoprene boating shoes. The ledge that was just above the water normally would be perfect for walking back upstream, but a six-foot section of it had broken off, so there was no way to traverse it safely. I used my climbing skills to give Christophe a hip belay, bracing myself against the only thing available: a train track. Then we got his boat into position and I lowered Virginia and her boat back to the water using the same technique. (This Flickr photo courtesy of Dan Y shows it well.)
By the time we got on our way, we had just a few hours of daylight left, but over five miles of river to run. I looked up at the rocky cliffs that surrounded us. Posted signs threatened us with jail time for walking on the railroad tracks. We had already used the tracks during our portaging adventure, but even if there were a nice path next to the tracks, walking five miles to the cars would be very difficult while carrying our boats. We had started our run at a reasonable hour, but because we were moving so slowly, we now faced an overnight bivouac next to the river if we didn't reach our cars before dark.
Luckily, the canyon walls got lower until they were only ten feet above us. We ran the last of the named rapids, but still had to navigate through miles of Class II's, or what they call “flat water” out West. I watched the sun dip beneath the trees behind me and wondered how much further we still had to go. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we saw our cars with about half an hour of daylight left. After loading our boats, we made the long drive back to our campsite in complete darkness.
Despite a very challenging run, we made it with no major injuries. Our group was worn out, though, so we decided to take it easy for our last day on the river and spent most of the day in the town of Salida. Signs of kayaking were everywhere in town, from the line of old boats against the wall to the mural of a guy kayaking a PBR can in a river of PBR. At the edge of town was a nice play park, so we still got a few hours in our boats. Late in the afternoon we packed up and began our drive across the state to our next challenge: the Cache La Poudre River.