Conversation with … Joe Kelso, longtime Radium river runner
Sky-Hi Daily News
Joe Kelso of Radium is the owner of the Colorado River Runs, the longest continuously operated river-rafting business in Grand County.
For 35 years, Kelso has guided first-time rafters over the rapids of the Colorado River in Gore Canyon west of Kremmling. His business is the only one permanently located on the picturesque stretch of the river, headquartered at Radium since 1981.
With a staff of four guides and a reservationist, Kelso operates Colorado River Runs out of an old ranch house that overlooks the river. It’s also home to his friendly dogs and miniature donkeys.
What makes your river rafting business unique here in Grand County?
There are currently 75 permits for commercial river rafting operations here in this county, but only about 20 are operating daily. Colorado River Runs is the only locally run rafting company on the Upper Colorado River, and we actually live on this river.
Most of our trips start here at Radium and we boat down to Rancho Del Rio. We go through a beautiful canyon that has six to eight good rapids. This is a great stretch of the river and we have the advantage of being here.
What else makes Colorado River Runs different from other rafting operations?
We focus on smaller groups. This afternoon, we’re taking 13 guests on the river, which I think is ideal. We can easily handle 20 to 25 guests because we have four guides. We normally put seven to eight guests in a boat with a guide.
Back in the 1980s, we were doing large groups, corporation trips. Our company had operations at Buena Vista on the Arkansas River as well as here in Grand County and at Wolcott on the Eagle River. But it got too big, too spread out.
We’ve moved away from the big group thing where you could be handling 200 guests or more. When you have that many, it’s very demanding and unpredictable. Big rafting companies get too market driven, so competitive.
Now our goal is to keep from being too commercial. We want our trips to be more personal, fun and laid back. People can come here to Radium ranch house, have a picnic lunch on our lawn and meet our miniature donkeys that we keep here. It’s a chance to relax and enjoy.
What is a typical day of raft trips for your company?
Our morning trips, which last about three hours, start around 8:30 a.m. The first hour gives our guests the chance to change their clothes, get suited up in our splash jackets and flotation vests, and then take a beautiful stroll down the hill from our office to the boat ramp on the river. There’s not any other company around here that can offer that.
Once at the boats, our head boatman will give our guests an orientation and safety instructions. They then split them up among the boats, which each has a guide. Then it’s time to get on the river.
From here to the lower canyon is about a couple of miles of flat water. That’s good because it gives everyone on the boats the time to get situated and familiar with paddling together. It’s about 2-1/2 miles through the canyon and then another two miles of flat water down to Rancho Del Rio where we land. We then ride the bus back to Radium.
In the canyon, we go through the rapids, which seem to go by so quickly, but that’s why they’re called rapids. Right now with the river running high, the canyon’s six to eight rapids flow right into each other.
For our afternoon trip, we bus everyone upriver to Pumphouse. We then float five miles down to our boat ramp at Radium. There are not a lot of rapids on that part of the river.
How big of an issue is safety in your river rafting operation?
Colorado River Runs has an excellent safety record. I tend to be very conservative when it comes to safety. Last year across Colorado, there were seven fatalities, but I’m surprised there weren’t more because some companies get so driven by their investments that they’re willing to take risks.
Usually, the higher up the river you go, the narrower, rockier and faster the river runs. To me, the water in a river is forgiving but the rocks are not. I’m comfortable being surrounded by water, but if it’s by rock, I’m walking out. For me, the risk is too high.
The important thing is to show proper respect for the river and to use good judgment. By doing that in our trips, you can virtually guarantee 100 percent safety.
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