It’s the first morning on the river; my first time ever riding a raft balancing on the stern, the rear of the raft, which is actually angled like a broad letter U. We’re in the second big set of rapids, whoooooosh!
I am suddenly sitting on my butt in the bottom of the raft. AJ, all of 24 years or so, in his ever-so-cool shades, looks down and says to me “Hey girl? Whatcha doin’ down there?” Well, he had me at the first “Hey” to quote a famous movie line and anybody who calls me a “girl” ……well at my age (59), let’s say it made for a great start!
Look carefully to see me falling down into the raft!
Two things they keep telling you in the briefing for a big trip like this as they are cinching your PFD like they cinch a horse’s saddle squeezing out any extra air and possible space to breathe are:
“Stay in the raft!” and “If you lose your balance, fall into the raft (like I did above),
Not out of the raft”.
And I did just that the entire trip! My mantra later during the hardest section on the 5th day, the Royal Gorge, was “MY BUTT IS GLUED TO THE RAFT. MY BUTT IS GLUED TO THE RAFT.” You get the idea. And it worked. I definitely didn’t want any guides writing any extra paperwork with my name in it!
So if you’re wondering about Part I from my article title here’s a link to Part I
where I briefly compare whitewater rafting to hiking in the mountains and talk about my 5 day trip down the Lower Salmon River in Idaho.
Part II is set in late July 2008, along the Arkansas River in south central Colorado near Buena Vista where I traveled from Maryland with eleven other Boy Scouts to spend five days rafting Class III – V rapids.
And the other cast of players
includes our three guides: Peter, Greg and A.J. whose resume includes:
• 3 college degrees: Dartmouth, etc.
• 10 total summers or so on rivers
• sense of humor of comedians
• safety training and awareness of EMTs, lifeguards
• combined skills of accomplished chefs, super-rafter-packers, storytellers
• and a combined weight of maybe 400 lbs!
Touching the Mountains
Every day on the river the scenery changed. In the early days it was forests and the well known peaks of the Collegiate Range; Mount Princeton, Mount Antero, and so on. Then as we headed further south near the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness Area the trees grew sparse, replaced often with boulder fields until eventually arid hills and rocky gorges filled our view.
Sometimes those rocks got very big and blocked the river. Case in point; our group of two rafts the first morning was traveling with another group (mostly skinny, giggly girls from a private camp doing a one-night trip).
One of the GGRs (giggly girl raft) went first through a rather tight opening in the river at a huge granite boulder called House Rock (as in “big as a house”). For some reason GGR slid sideways blocking the channel.
Then whoosh! Our raft lost its hold on a rock, got caught up in the current of the river, and slammed into GGR. That should have just shoved GGR forward but instead we ended up slammed right against House Rock with GGR! We could touch House Rock and the bank of the river on the other side and nobody could move! Not exactly where we wanted to be and definitely not a guide confidence builder!
Stuck at House Rock! Kid on right is next to river edge. House Rock is on left.
To cure this problem, our guides, whom we had just met less than two hours earlier, asked everyone, 5 adults over 45, from our raft to move into GGR’s raft (eeek for them) while they bumped, wiggled, squished, shimmied, plied, lifted, pulled, pried and finally unhooked the two rafts and broke the logjam at House Rock (sort of sounds like the title of spaghetti western doesn’t it?).
We then rode down through the teeny channel and finally got back into our own raft and AWAY FROM THE GGR!
The storm that followed us to our first night's campsite.
The rest of the first day proceeded to actually go down river and downhill; no pun intended. We ate lunch and parted company from the GGR but a steady, chilly rain poured all afternoon drenching us. By the time we arrived at our first night campsite we were all shivering even though we had on splash jackets and water booties. I don’t remember ever being so cold in 60 degrees in July! Even our macho head guide was shivering by the time we pulled into camp that day.
Luckily this was the only rain of the entire trip and other than heavy dews each morning we enjoyed great paddling weather the entire five days.
Arkansas River Days
Life on a raft trip is boiled down to the essentials. You prepare and pack carefully. You listen to the guide and do what the guide says or your life and other lives can be in trouble. You eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re thirsty and go to sleep exhausted after a long day on the river. Your world changes to the simple stuff which becomes your big stuff.
Many mornings there is a major decision to make: when to put on your damp, cold swim wear from the day before. You can delay the agony but you can’t avoid it: pulling on your rafting clothing; perhaps still wet and probably by day 3 or 4 not so clean.
There are two schools of thought here: keep your nice, clean warm stuff on until you're the last one packing your dry bag OR just dive into your freezing raft wear early on and grin and bear it! I've always been in the "just get it over with" group. The other group dresses in warm stuff and changes at the last minute scrambling to find a place to change and not delay the group. And if you’re thinking just put on your water stuff underneath warm layers, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But all rafters know that eventually cozy fleece gets traded for swimwear and icy, cold sunscreen lotion; warm sneakers exchanged for damp water booties and hats for plastic helmets. When is someone going to make a simple battery operated sunscreen warmer (like those baby wipes warmers?)
Climbers, hikers and rafters have common needs such as an obsession with sturdy plastic bags and being organized. They read maps and leave their plans with someone in case they don’t return on time. Perhaps, surprisingly, rafters are as much at the mercy of their partners as climbers and unless kayaking, rafting is always a partnership of sorts. Often in rafting, just as in making a crux move, certain actions are necessary and fast, without great individual thought. Everybody has to paddle right, or paddle left; lean left, lean right.
And no, there is no command for whack that paddler up in front who just screwed up and got everyone out of synch!
And most of the time you paddle along; following commands as needed. I always asked our guides to point out the mountain names as we passed and they willingly regaled us with local tales of humor and history. Being in the semi-arid west I was especially impressed with the fact that virtually every drop of the Arkansas River is legally accounted for, from its origin in the snowfall on the mountain tops to the little channels overflowing into fields after heavy rains. Makes you think twice about your deposits into the river if you know what I mean!
If you are ever lucky enough to travel any distance on the Arkansas River you will find it a bit of a paradox. Farms, homes, roads and a town or two dot the landscape but you’ll hardly notice civilization since you are paddling through all these rapids with names like Seidel’s Suckhole and Widowmaker and Gosh Awful.
Whitewater rafters and kayers have a language all their own much like climbers. And while rapids are given a general classification like routes in climbing, a rapid’s rating can change in a few hours. It is dramatically affected by rain, meltwater, storm debris and even dam releases. Knowing this, rafting guides scout the same tough rapid every single day.
I always stand there and look with them but I’ll be darn if I can remember all the ins and outs of exactly how to run a particular rapid based on scouting it like they do! I know enough to aim a boat for the “V” in the river and swim for eddies and so on. But stand me up there looking down at say, Seidel’s Suckhole, where the river drops so steeply it plunges down into a ‘hole’ and rushes back upstream against itself, filling the hole with foam and swirling waves and my brain goes to putty.
Seidel's Suckhole But It Doesn't Look So Bad From Here!
Scouting Seidel's Suckhole
Here’s a table of rapids classification with a few of my editorial comments.
| RAPID DIFFICULTY LEVEL || CHARACTERISTICS || MY VERSION
| Level I || No significant waves. No obstacles. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy. || What rapids? You don't even notice these. Take pictures, sips from your water bottle; eat snacks.
| Level II || Easy. Rapids with regular waves, clear passages and wide channels. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed || You watch as the guide gently steers through these; no action on your part is generally required.
| Level III || Moderately difficult. Irregular waves, often narrow channels, maneuvering to avoid obstacles required || Here's where everybody picks up their paddle and follows a variety of commands. Sometimes you get excited (SCARED!) especially if you are in the bow of the raft and the first to see the humongous rock coming up!
| Level IV || Difficult. Complex channels with many significant obstacles to be avoided. Precise maneuvering is required. Strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on large-volume rivers. scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. || These rapids get your blood pumping and require carefully aiming for that V in the river cause that's where you point the raft. Zigzagging back and forth quickly across the river and squeezing between big rocks while trying to stay securely in the raft is required.
| Level V || Extremely difficult. Long violent rapids, often following each other almost without interruption. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. || All hands on deck! No picture-taking now! These are what true rafting addicts live for and usually send your heart racing and your pulse beyond counting. Don't listen to the tales of horror ahead of time though; just do exactly what your guide asks and enjoy the roller coaster ride!
| Level VI || Extremely difficult. Long violent rapids, often following each other almost without interruption.. || Most never raft or kayak these!
| || *These characteristics are from the International Scale of River Difficulty. ||
Our entire trip was building up for the Royal Gorge
, a section on our last afternoon with horrific names such as Car Crash Hole
, Wall Slammer
and Boat Eater Rapids
Let me preface what happens next with a few relevant facts. I am an average swimmer; just average. Swimming on my back, floating and a passable front crawl are my strengths but I have passed the Boy Scout Swimmer Test when ‘required’. For my 2005 trip I did the required BSA strokes in Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, gulping bitter cold water as pleasure boat wakes tried to drown me. It took two tries that day and the encouragement of my group but I did it.
I passed my swimmer test so I could raft back then but it was not a pleasant experience, especially considering that I had to live in a PFD girdle for the next 5 days anyway! For that trip, the rule was that if you were caught with your PFD even partially unbuckled at the wrong time you had to sleep with it on, so taking and passing this test combined with rapids no greater than Class III seemed particularly ironic. I understood the need but really despised the whole swim test experience!
So you can imagine my delight when our 2008 trip plans didn’t specify a swim test requirement. I cherished that fact the entire year ahead. The 2008 trip started and no swim test : )) Then day 3 of the trip comes. We are rafting along nearing the town of Salida (saah-lie-DAH) where our guides warn us that a PlayPark for kayakers is situated, meaning that we would have to avoid a potentially dangerous “hole”
This is the famous Salida "swimming hole"
(such as in Seidel’s described earlier) before the put-in for lunch and supplies. As usual all three rafts do well, avoiding the ‘hole’ and the darting kayakers playing in the river.
Now picture the following conversation.
“What do you mean?”
“We have to walk back upstream, jump into the river and float into the very hole we were told to avoid with our rafts?“
“You have got to be kidding!”
“We have to swim out of that hole and over to the shore?”
“Yes, I see the other two guides standing on the banks with those skinny throw ropes.”
“Yes, I trust you.“
“No, I don’t think I want do this!”
“No, I… r…e...a...l...l…y… don’t want to do this!”
“Oh, if I don’t do this you will have serious doubts about me rafting the Royal Gorge on Friday.”
[The next sound you hear is me coughing, choking and spitting out about ½ of the Arkansas River from my mouth.]
I did what I had to do and jumped in, then floated feet first down the river and into the hole. It spun me around and out and I barely managed to reach for a throw rope. But as my buddy Bill knows, I do best when caught off guard. If you tell me ahead, I worry too much. Never have a 24 year old rafting guide tell a 59 year old, worry-wort lady, that she will soon have to go jump into a rapid. Just surprise her instead and she’ll do fine!
(Proof: I once fell in the biggest rapid on the Cheat River in WV, kept my eyes open the whole time and came up smiling!)
Note: I did not come up smiling in Salida! ; ((
Friday, day 5 dawned bright and sunny with an air of guarded excitement. We packed all our gear, rafted downriver one mile and then unloaded everything for delivery to the outfitter in Buena Vista. We then got back in the raft for a short morning, doing the Parkdale section often the final section for groups but not for us.
At lunchtime we reached a huge covered picnic shelter and drive in access area where more guides from our outfitter joined us. We had to rearrange ourselves in the rafts and lighten them even more. We would carry no gear other than rescue and first aid.
This only raised our anxiety levels. I have no clue what I ate for lunch or how long we were there but I do remember feeling sort of in suspended animation. Everybody was so excited; so nervous but not really talking much. After all, the Royal Gorge is rated by some as one of the top 20 runs in the country.
I had to give up my seat on the “U” to one of the extra guides and there was no longer any small talk or chatter. Remember my mantra? I really did chant it constantly that afternoon: “MY BUTT IS GLUED TO THE RAFT. MY BUTT IS GLUED TO THE RAFT.” It definitely worked for me and might have helped two of my raftmates who did fall INTO the raft. No loss of pride for me and I even managed to smile for some of the pictures taken by a photographer stationed on a strategic rock.
So what makes rafting the Royal Gorge such a big deal? After all, it’s less than eight miles long. But what an amazing narrow, treacherous canyon compared to the previous eighty or so miles we had traveled.
One of the narrow passages in the Royal Gorge
On one side you have a railroad track with trains loaded with tourists roaring by drowning out your guide’s commands at critical times. On the other side of the river huge pieces of rebar and pipe stick out, remnants of a water conduit from many years past. At times the gorge narrows to channels barely 17’ feet wide.
Then of course, you have the rapids; 19 or so major ones all rated Level IV – V even when the river is running at medium flow as it was when we were there in late July. And the rapids come one right after the other with no break; no chance to recover if you make even the smallest mistake. With names like Dire Straits, Boat Eater, Sledgehammer, Grateful Dead, The Fishbowl, and Wall Slammer you know what you are up against.
Look carefully to count all 8 people in the raft including me!
This time someone else fell INTO the raft!
Funny thing is I don’t remember ever being scared while I was in the Gorge. I had a great time the whole ride. And it was all over far too quickly. The whole afternoon and the whole trip.
I even briefly looked up at the Royal Gorge Bridge 1,000 feet above as we paddled under it knowing that we would walk across it the next day peering down at rafters like ourselves. As we rode back to Buena Vista, we were finally told why the extra guide was in our raft. Our own guide was being certified to run the Gorge and he passed!
After cleaning five days of Arkansas River grit from our bodies and reclaiming our rental cars and clean clothing we headed to the Royal Gorge Bridge, Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Air Force Academy, and Rocky Mountain National Park. It was mountain heaven for days on end as we drove and hiked and just took in the wonderful Rockies day after day. It was hard to get on the plane even though I missed my husband and son at home. I didn’t know when I would be getting back to the Rockies or rafting again. I still don’t but I can dream.
“Let the mountains talk, let the river run. Once more, and forever