“A group of twelve, huh?” asked Smokey. He was past retirement age and seemed like a nice enough man to have as a campground host.
“Yes,” Ted said. “Is there enough space for us for two nights?” We were still in his car and had just pulled into the campground when Smokey stopped us.
“Well, you'll need two sites for your group. I have two open sites for tonight, but only one for tomorrow. They cost nineteen bucks each. This is a real nice place. Lots of good fishing here.”
“I think we should keep looking,” I said to Ted, loud enough for Smokey to hear. “I don't want to have to move tomorrow.”
“Don't bother,” Smokey said. “Every campground upstream of here is already full.”
We had just entered the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins after driving through the afternoon and into the night. The four cars in our group had gotten spread out during our drive. There were several other campgrounds on the Cache La Poudre River, where we planned to spend our final days in Colorado, but we had agreed to meet at this one first.
Ted and I discussed the situation and he convinced me that we should stay put – even if Smokey was wrong about the other campgrounds being full, we wouldn't be able to communicate with the other cars if we left because there was no cellphone reception within the canyon.
But something about Smokey's demeanor seemed out of place.
“Did a car with boats on its roof stop by here tonight?” I asked, helpfully pointing up to the four kayaks that were on top of Ted's car. Ken's car should have arrived at least a few minutes ahead of ours.
“Nope, I just kicked two kids out for trying to poach, but that's it. Nobody's come through here with boats all night.”
“All right,” Ted said. “I'll pay for both campsites for tonight.”
“Great, I'm sure you'll love it here. You need to fill out this form,” Smokey said, producing a clipboard and a piece of paper. “But I can do it for you.”
Ted paid Smokey cash for our sites and we started to set up our tents. A few minutes later, Christophe's car showed up, so only two of our cars were still missing. Just as I finished blowing up my air mattress and laying out my sleeping bag, Ken's car showed up. There was a problem, though – Michelle was in the car, but Dave was missing.
The six of us who were setting up camp listened closely as Michelle explained their story. It turned out that Ken's car had arrived first and they had already talked with Smokey. Knowing that they had some time before the rest of us showed up, they decided to keep looking at the campgrounds that were further into the canyon. They found two empty sites a few miles up the road and paid for two nights, leaving Dave behind to flag down the other cars in our group as they passed. Then Ken and Michelle returned to tell us the good news.
“But we already paid for our sites here,” I said.
“Didn't Smokey tell you guys to wait for us to come back?” Michelle asked. “I told him you were just a few minutes behind us.”
“No, he told us he hadn't seen anyone else with kayaks all night.”
It all started to click now – Smokey was going to pocket our money! Because we paid cash and hadn't made a reservation, there would be no paper trail. Smokey's generous offer to “fill out the form” on Ted's behalf was further evidence. It was 10:00 PM and we were in a remote campground – nobody would notice if the host, instead of the state government, suddenly became $38 richer. It was the perfect crime.
But Smokey had gotten greedy. By not telling us that our friends were already looking for a site, he risked having us find out about his little side business. Because Ted and Michelle were the two who had talked with Smokey, they went to his trailer to demand their money back. Smokey was conspicuously missing, but his wife was there. She apologized for the mix-up and returned the money. That was the final proof we needed – if Smokey had slid our money through the slot of the locked payment box like he was supposed to, he wouldn't have been able to return it to us.
Lesson learned: Get a receipt when you pay for camping or your money might conveniently disappear.
Dan's car showed up a few minutes later, so we were all together. We drove a few miles up the road and set up camp on a section of the Cache La Poudre River called The Narrows. The river near our site was full of Class IV's and V's and therefore too burly for our group. Instead, we decided to kayak an easier section that was a little further upstream.
As soon as we got into our kayaks the next morning, we saw that the Poudre was different from the Arkansas because the river was so rocky. It looked like a more difficult version of the Wolf River in Wisconsin at low water. With the twelve of us ping-ponging off of the rocks and taking multiple lines for each rapid, it soon became apparent that our group was too big for its own good. We decided to split into two groups of six and I went in the first group with Christophe leading the way. We navigated around a few long stretches of Class II water, then hit a bigger Class III that led us through a tight S-shaped turn like a water slide around some boulders and dropped us into a large pool.
The river downstream of us was mostly obscured by a couple of boulders, so Christophe decided to get out and take a look. I soon followed and scrambled up the forest hill and onto the highway. It started to rain as we walked about 100 yards down the road, staring at the river. The rocks and whitewater below us created a maze of navigation with no places to rest. Then we spotted a drop with a hole that looked sticky. It would be easy to avoid if we picked a good line, but we wouldn't be able to see it from our kayaks.
If the rapid had ended there, it wouldn't have been so bad, but looking further downstream, the whitewater continued for a few hundred more yards before the river rounded a bend and left our view. The sheer length of this rapid made it a risky proposition for our group. If one of us swam, there would be a long and difficult cleanup effort, and with a group of our size and limited experience, someone was going to swim.
When our other leaders got out and saw that this was what our entire run would likely look like, they had a conference and decided to call it off before someone got seriously injured. As it continued to rain, we went through the arduous process of hauling all of the kayaks up the hill to the road with ropes, then someone ran back to a car so we could start packing our gear. I was disappointed to end the run so early, but we were clearly in over our heads. Unfortunately, river conditions can change from day to day, so you often don't know how difficult a section of whitewater will be until you get on it.
It was early in the afternoon, so maybe we'd still have time for a short run, but the river was giving us “bad juju.” With the thunderstorm now beating down on us, we decided to call it a day and head to the New Belgium brewery in nearby Ft. Collins. As our group drove out of the canyon, we hit some muddy debris in the ground, then our lead car came back toward us, flashing its lights. The thunderstorm had triggered a mudslide and left the road covered in four feet of mud. Our bad juju had turned worse – our only realistic way out had been blocked. Luckily there was a gas station in the canyon, so we bought some New Belgium beer and spent the afternoon at our campsite, lest the river gods strike us down for good.
For our final day in Colorado, we got packed and headed downstream to another section of the Poudre. The rain was gone and the road had been cleared. Our final run was fun and short, taking us only two hours to complete. The only incident our group had was a broken paddle, but even that was due to years of wear, not from a single collision with a rock. It was just the run we needed to end the trip.
I probably encountered more rapids in a week than I had in my whole life of kayaking in Wisconsin. This accelerated my skills in both reading rivers and running rapids. Many thanks go out to Dan and the other river leaders who made this trip happen. They could have taken a small group of experienced paddlers and easily run these sections, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to join in. And I was especially happy that despite our setbacks, we all made it back home with no major injuries.