Sunday, March 09, 2008


Well, so far this year the snowpack is looking really good. To any outdoorsfolk here in the Southwest, this is welcome news, particularly given the very dry years just past.

Every spring for the last decade or so, my sister and I have taken a whitewater rafting trip somewhere in the Southwest. We go with professional rafting companies and generally seek an overnight trip with at least a few class IV or even a couple of class V rapids. The last couple of years, seasons have been short and the flows down, a tough condition on the rafting companies and we tourists. This year promises a longer season, provided spring doesn't get too hot too fast, and bigger water. The Rio Grande through the Taos Box in New Mexico provides a whole different level of excitement at 2800 cfs than it does at 1200.

Here's a couple of guides working a supply boat through a tight spot on the Gunnison in '03- barely enough water to get through there. Interesting ("technical") but not exactly a matter of adrenaline. More like work pulling on the lines:

Here's a different sort of work on the lines- a couple of guides lining a boat down a tight spot on the Piedra in southwestern Colorado:

Year before last we went down the upper Animas, between Silverton and Durango, Colorado.

That was our second trip down that particular river. The upper Animas is unusual amongst southwestern rivers in that instead of presenting a pool-and-drop scenario, the gradient is so steep that you have almost constant class II and III rapids with occasional stretches that spike up to IV. You really don't want to fall out of the raft or have it turn over, as there aren't many spots along the steep banks that offer a chance to eddy out and crawl out of the water, which is very cold. On the plus side, you get lots of work and excitement and the Animas usually flows at a decent rate. The company that we've gone with insists on running a stern rig with oars, rather than pure paddle boats, and I can't really blame them or be too sorry about it. We're just doing this to have fun.

A few years ago we took a day trip through Westwater Canyon on the Colorado, just into Utah. The outfitter provided inflatable kayaks and oar boats.

There is a fair amount of flatwater on the trip and quite a few small and medium rapids that were plenty exciting for novices to IK's. The trip got a bit more exciting for my sister and I when we missed eddying out after Surprise rapid. We'd picked up another trip member (actually, our friend) who'd dumped and was swimming, then ferried him back up to one of the escort rafts. The guides had everyone pull river right and eddy along the cliff wall, but we bounced out of the first couple of eddies and were getting pulled progressively downriver. Getting tired, we tried one more eddy (my sister even attempted to wedge her paddle in a crack in the cliff) but were ejected once more. The lower safety boat had long since gone downriver and the guide in the follow boat helpfully exhorted us to "Eddy out!" As we drifted toward the horizon line he even more helpfully shouted "Eddy out! You really don't want to go down there!" Sarcasm ensued in our boat. We knew darned well we didn't want to go down there, but we couldn't catch the eddy and needed to rest a minute or two before hitting what was obviously another rapid. We didn't really have a choice, wants aside.

By that point we were about in the middle of the river and, once we could hit the top of the rapid, we could see a huge hole river left. Even worse, the river appeared to split on a cliff right in front of us. Lacking apparent options, we tried to run the main current, knowing for certain that we wanted no part of the big recirculating hole. We hit the wave train, got caught, bounced, then flipped. I came up a few feet from the rock face, sucked in some air, went under at the face, then came up in a huge eddy. I let that carry me back up to the midpoint of the rapid, crawled out, then started looking for my sister, who was nowhere in sight. The other IKs and the escort raft showed up sneaking the rapid on extreme river left, going around the back of that huge hole, which turned out to be Skull Rock. Yep, we went down Skull Rapid the wrong way, at least wrong for a couple of novices in an IK. The guides were less than thrilled to spot me on the wrong side of the infamous "Room of Doom" (the eddy), too. The guide who drew the short straw got in an IK then ferried across. Once he'd caught his breath, the two of us ferried back over, paddling hard to avoid being swept into the rock face ("The Rock of Shock"). It turns out that my sister managed to miss the rock face entirely and swam the rapid with no incident, getting picked up by a Utah park ranger waiting below for just such an occurance. This remains our one scary, as opposed to thrilling, rafting encounter. I wish the guide has used some of his breath to yell "Go river left, hard left, all the way left!" once it became clear we were going down, as then we'd have stood a chance of making the run. Here's a YouTube video of a raft making the same run we made, though they stay upright and manage to scrape along the rock without getting stuck in the Room of Doom. (Language warning on the video).

The big hole is right under the camera here. The Colorado is running about 6000 cfs in this video (according to one of the author's other videos from this trip) whereas we were on the Colorado at about 12000, which made that wave train they crash through all the larger.

One sure-fired hangover cure is to start your morning off with a nice rapid. The combination of gallons of cold water crashing over your body and a good spike of adrenalin works to shrink your brain right back to size, get your heart pumping, banish any fuzziness, and leave you ready for the rest of your day.



raftingcolorado said...

Have you done the Arkansas River through the Royal Gorge yet?

mdmnm said...

We haven't been through the Royal Gorge yet, but we've been on the Arkansas through Numbers, Narrows, and Brown's Canyon. Number and Narrows were particularly fun as it was a small, light raft and we had four experienced paddlers along with a really good guide, so we bounced all over the river with no problem.

Steve Bodio said...

You know Libby is an old river hand, and Jackson (Peculiar) was one of if not THE youngest guides both in the Grand and in Idaho among other places?

mdmnm said...

River people! I always enjoy spending time with river guides.

raftingcolorado said...

The Numbers is a great section of river! Quite a bit different than the Gorge. I always enjoy going up stream for the high mountain ecology. The Royal Gorge is more of a desert canyon environment. If you enjoyed the Numbers you would definitely like the Gorge. It is by far one of my favorite runs in the country! There are a lot of great rapids in there. It should be really good this year as we are at 187% of average snowpack! Sorry for turning your blog into a forum...but I love to talk whitewater!