Reid Armstrong: Take me to the river
June 29, 2011
My coworkers and I closed the office Friday for “staff training.” After the long winter, we desperately needed a day out of the office and, with the Colorado River running at a 14-year peak, we knew we had to see what it was like, for history’s sake.
Dan “Mouse” McMillan and Jason Cox of Adventures in Whitewater gave us a flawless midday trip. The two guides between them had more than 30 years of experience. Mouse told us this was something like his 1,268th trip down the river.
Let me note that we all had some trepidation going into this, having not only read but written the news about rafts/people/dogs running into trouble on that section of river in recent weeks.
My boss made it quite clear to our guides that he didn’t want to go swimming that day in 40-degree snowmelt.
The standard safety speech didn’t calm our jitters especially as our guide Jason explained the worst-case scenario for each of the river’s biggest rapids – high siding at Needle’s Eye, getting pinned at Mary’s Wall, wrapping our raft up like a taco at Red Eye or flipping in the giant hole at Yarmony.
“I’m nervous,” one of my coworkers said as our boat caught the fast current and pulled away from shore with our guide still on shore. He lunged after us and swung himself aboard.
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“I’ve only had to swim after a boat once,” he said as he settled in his seat.
Cue the bald eagles please. Just before we entered the first canyon, we were greeted by our nation’s emblem, in full regalia. And then, in a moment of nostalgia, a coal train rumbled by and the driver opened his window, waved to us and blew his horn.
This run, from Pumphouse to Rancho del Rio is the second-most popular river run in the state. The scenery is spectacular, with two canyons rising 1,500 feet above the basin, rolling green foothills, and a true feeling of wilderness away from highways and traffic.
Three out of the five of us had floated the river numerous times before, and they were laughing out loud at the level of the water – how it had submerged entire islands, created alternate, runnable channels and turned grassy ranches into bayous.
With nearly 15 feet of water below us and 9,150 cubic feet per second flowing past the gauge in Kremmling, I could have reached my paddle up in several places and touched telephone wires. The water was only a few feet below the railway in places where the track should have been well above our heads and signs marking private property had become underwater obstacles.
The river was fast. We cruised through sections that normally require hours of paddling. We went from Pumphouse to Radium in about 30 minutes with our guide leisurely pumping his oars and the rest of us soaking in the views.
Needle’s Eye was entirely washed out and we effortlessly passed the hole by staying right. We splashed happily the rest of the way through Little Gore and were soon relaxed and having fun, snapping photos and telling stories of other more harrowing trips down the river.
Our guide told us a few legends of the river, including how Chief Yarmony of the Ute gave the run’s biggest rapid its name by being buried atop a nearby mountain and how Sir George Gore notoriously hunted big game in the area in the 1850s.
In Red Gorge, Jason prepared us for a push through the biggest rapids of the trip. In this case, the build-up was deserved. Yarmony was mouth-gapingly huge. We paddled hard to the left and then our guide swung us into an eddy so we could look back at the semi-truck sized hole (that we had purposefully avoided). Then he punched us through the last hole of the wave train, just for fun.
We stopped for lunch at the BLM’s “Island” and were treated to a huge spread catered by Fraser Hot Dog. (Although there was nary a hot dog in sight, there were gourmet sandwiches and makings to suit every variety of taste bud.) I had hardly lifted my paddle at all that day but had a voracious appetite nonetheless.
As for our, ahem, “staff training,” it took us a few attempts, but we eventually learned to paddle in unison, and there is something about seeing coworkers more or less in their skivvies that really breaks down the walls. By the end of the trip, as we floated up a submerged boat ramp, we were all trying to figure out how to make a living working outside.
We were surprised to learn that many people are avoiding the river this summer for fear of it being too big. While I wouldn’t take my non-swimming 4-year-old down Yarmony at this level, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the trip with a knowledgeable guide. The high water makes the run down the river much faster, bouncier and more fun. It’s also a chance to witness mother nature doing her powerful thing, changing the landscape.
Since last Friday, the river has risen almost another foot and was peaking Sunday at 9,700 cfs at the Kremmling gauge. As the level drops back down, the Upper Colorado should be beautiful, clear and flushed out from the spring flood. So get out there and enjoy the river, for history’s sake!
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