Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rafting the Royal Gorge, Arkansas & the Colorado

Whitewater Rafting the Arkansas & Colorado Rivers
Now, you probably would never think to look on a map for the small town of Canon City, located in south-central Colorado, for your adventure related vacation. But once you have been there for the main tourist attraction - Whitewater Rafting - you will want to find it again and again. Over 200,000 people a year are rafting on this section of river which stretches over a hundred miles of some of the best whitewater in the world.

There are over five whitewater runs on this headwaters section of the Arkansas river: Pine Creek, The Numbers, Browns Canyon, Big Horn Sheep Canyon and the last is the pinnacle of Arkansas River rafting - The Royal Gorge.

Whitewater Rafting Through the Royal Gorge
The most exciting whitewater stretch on the Arkansas, the Royal Gorge section takes us into one of the world's deepest gorges. Over 1,000 feet deep and a mere 400 feet wide, rafting through the gorge is an experience to say the least. The Royal Gorge is also home of the world's second highest suspension bridge - built on a dare - that's sole purpose is for tourism. It goes to nowhere from nowhere. Standing at 1,053 feet above the water it is a sight like no other, especially from water level.

Know Your Equipment
In order to raft this section of whitewater, one has to acquire the skills and proper equipment for the job. First, you will need an inflatable, self-bailing raft - 12"-14" is preferable. If you want to buy one, it will set you back about $3000 for a good one. Then you have all the other requirements: PFDs, helmets, life insurance, etc. You are better off hiring an outfitter for the job. Mainly because the state of Colorado has stringent requirements on who can run this section. That and fact of not knowing the rapids can kill you!

The Float In
Trips usually start out at the old village of Parkdale; a state run river put in. After the boats have been "rigged to flip," you have a pleasant 20 minute float in until the first rapid. This is a great time to get situated and it also gives the guide time to practice with you.

He/she will get all of you paddling in sync and teaching you how to turn and what to do when paddle commands - not requests - are made. They will also teach you how to "highside" the boat in order to help prevent flips and wraps. When and if your guide yells, screams "highside" repeatedly, it would behoove you to get up on the side of the boat that is about to, or already has, hit a rock. The "highside" is always the down-stream side of the boat. If you're still in doubt, look for your guide, they will be on the "highside."

Know Your Rapids
It's important to know what kind of rapids you will face here. The Royal Gorge - or just Gorge - is a class III-IV and sometimes V, depending on water levels, section of river. Once you get into the "meat" of it, it's pretty much non-stop for 7 miles. So get your feet tucked in and get ready to paddle your little heart out.

El Primero
No duh, Spanish for "The First, El Primero," is a nice little class III that has a surprise inside. There is a sucking hole at the bottom that you can't see until you're there, that will easily flip a boat if the angle is wrong. Immediately after that, you have to do a little back-paddle to stay off the wall, followed by another hole. Total elapsed time: 10 seconds.

El Segundo
"The Second" is pretty straight forward and you can run it sideways on sunny days just to cool off. A baby class II, all that is offered is a nice wave train. Elapsed time: 8 seconds.

El Tricero
"The Third" is also straight forward except for that huge rock you are heading straight for called "sketch rock." Your guide probably misses it by about ½ an inch just to sketch you out. Jerk! Total elapsed time: 15 seconds.

Pumphouse a.k.a. That Dam Rapid
So, you've been floating for about 5 minutes and you're coming up on "Pumphouse" rapid, aka "That Dam Rapid" at lower flows, due to the remnants of a dam that used to be there. There is a scag on the bottom which formed the rapid and it can be a pain at lower flows.

While whitewater rafing here, you will enter just left of center to miss a big ledge, boogey right, to set up for the hard part, moving back to the left again, dodging rocks as you go and at the end is a "dump truck" hole that you can run at higher flows if you want to, then you and your crew, will end up in the ditch because the boat flipped, stern over bow. It's called a "dump truck" or a "yard sale" because everything (everyone) must go. Total elapsed time: 25 seconds to 15 minutes, depending on how many swimmers you had.

Don't let the warm and fuzzy name fool you! Sunshine is aptly named because of the lighting conditions - remember you're in a gorge.

Forget cooking with gas on this class IV, all the time, rapid. Now you're cooking with rocket fuel. Sunshine is the #1 cause of carnage on this section of river. It is known for its technical and dangerous run at ALL water levels. Chances are, if you are waiting on the top for turn and you've been sitting there a while, somebody got hurt or worse.

Depending on the water level, there are three ways to run this carnage queen.

Low Water
The low water run through Sunshine is very technical - and dangerous. Up top, you will start with a very slow approach at just right of center. You will either bump a big rock on the right side of the boat - intentional - or barely miss it. You're moving real slow now as the bow comes right, forward paddle one time to make the squeeze - if not you flip - then about 3-5 HARD back-paddles to stay off the wall - undercut - and then a sharp, drenching, left turn in to a wave called "Tractor Beam," which will draw you too far left if you're not careful - resulting in a flip. Hurray! You've just completed step one, called the S-move.

Now you have a choice to make in about .5 seconds - stay right and try the sneak, or boogy left to set up for the completion of the ever painful Double-S. Big, bone jarring, teeth rattling drop and then haul butt back to the right side of the river to set up for "Satan's Suckhole." You really want to be squared up and have some momentum for this drop - if not, it will pull you back in and "surf" your boat until it either flips or gets lighter from everyone falling out. Not too fast though, because you will hit a wall right after the hole and get bounced back into it. A quick 45° left to avoid getting "bow-stern" pinned - which has the name "rotisserie," because that's how your boat flips, like pig on a spit - now a whole boat load of strong back paddles to stay off the "hemorrhoid" rocks. If you run into them, people go flying and the boat gets stuck, hence the reference to the name of the rocks, a pain in the butt. Hurray! You're done, for about 10 seconds. Total elapsed time: 25 seconds to 2 hours, depending.

Medium Flow
Medium flow is a lot like low flow, only it happens twice as fast and there is NO room for error. The water is swift and very pushy. If you have swimmers at medium flow, it might take a couple of miles to get them back. Stay in the boat!

Faucet is Wide Open
It's okay to pee your pants at this point - nobody will know because everybody is drenched, except for the guide. They paid their dues and paid for the proper "splash gear." The water is really moving at this point - it takes about 5 seconds to run. You will be staying far left all the way, with a massive, all the way up your spine and every bone in your body, impact at the bottom. Be kind and look for your guide. Chances are they are either in the front of the boat or not at all, as he or she went flying over the front of the boat. Don't crack jokes now, they sit in what is called the "ejection seat" - the back of the boat rises up, forming a taco shape with the boat, and the guide gets thrown, so look around. You are thinking at this point: "Why am I here and why is my wet suit so warm?"

Grateful Dead
Immediately after Sunshine is a half mile long stretch of rocks and boulders, resembling a graveyard. Very technical with a lot of maneuvering, big waves and sideways drops, this class III "sorta" lets you catch your breath. Not too much though, due to all of the maneuvering, you will be doing some paddling. Total elapsed time: about 2 minutes.

What fun this will be! The behemoth known as Sledgehammer is a solid IV-V depending on flows. Some maneuvering up top; then comes "big drop." A very steep entry just left of center, it comes fast and chances are that the right side of the boat is getting a little rock rash as it is more like sliding down a rock, with water. The drop sends you back to river right and you set up a squeeze and fall into "bird drop." As you descend this one you will notice that you are headed straight for a rock, quickly. Hopefully you miss, just to the left of it, or you end up wrapping the boat around it. Congratulations, you've just extended your whitewater experience, by a couple hours.

Okay you manage to get through that one okay. Now it's time to set up on the river left for "Mt. Rushmore." A very steep and potentially deadly, last part of Sledgehammer Rapid. You make about a seven foot drop into a ledge rock that always wants to get you stuck against the right wall. Wow! What a rush! Total elapsed time: 25 seconds.

Car Crash
A little bit of slack water for about two minutes leads you into a class III called Car Crash. Mostly the rapid is just a big wave train with a "dump-truck" rock in it. Some guides will even flip here on purpose, just to cool off. Lots of slow water afterwards and the next rapids are a few minutes away. Total elapsed time: Who cares after the three previous rapids?

The Narrows
This were the river comes to a bottle neck and the rapids are vigorous and intense. Stay off the left bank at all costs. The railroad is there and they decided to leave a bunch of concrete and rebar in the ditch. Boats get torn and boaters get gored. If you happen to swim in the next three rapids, swim towards river right.

First Drop
Okay, here we go! Entering just right of center, there is a single, big drop, with maneuvering before and after.

Second Drop
Guess what? There are two drops here and you have to maneuver to get to them. But they're big and worth the effort.

Third Drop
Okay, somebody fired up the gas stove again! With a - you guessed it - a heart pounding three drops, chances of impalement and some hard maneuvering; Third Drop is a highly technical class III-IV.

Entering just left of center - remember the concrete and rebar? The first drop takes you by surprise and then, if that wasn't enough, tries it's hardest to throw you into the left impalement wall. You have to stay on the left or risk flipping. Holy crap! Why in the world is the guide point the boat left? Then you hear a gruff command of back-paddle as you attempt to ferry across to the right side of the river for second drop. Just when you think it's safe to catch a breath, the guide changes the paddle command to a hard forward. Has this guy had too much water forced up his nose or what? Then you see it at last, just before you take the plunge in to the third drop. Then the guide is yelling back-paddle again! Yep, the guides mind is cooked. But oh, wait, we're pulling over against the right wall and hanging out in an eddy, waiting for any possible swimmers. Whew! That was insane! Total elapsed time for all three: 1.5 minutes.

Wall Slammer
So now that you think you are a river god, it calms down for about 5 minutes as you enter an area the guides refer to as "Fish Bowl." You are directly underneath the Royal Gorge Bridge and an incline railway brings tourists from around the globe, down to water level. Everybody is taking pictures of you and using camcorders to document their vacation. Then it hits you. "I am going to be in some stranger's photo album or worse, family home video." That's why the guides call it "Fish Bowl." You end up feeling like a fish in a bowl that everyone and his mother are gawking at. Well enough of that, Wall Slammer is just ahead. Let's give them a show!

Wall Slammer is a classy class IV. Can you figure out the result of running it wrong? You start out just left of center, punch through a hole on your way the far river right. You punch an even bigger hole with a bow left angle, which causes the boat to rock like a cradle. The guide is screaming "forward, forward hard!" And with good cause - the river is trying ever so diligently to slam you into the right wall. Don't go there! There is a huge, underwater cave and going into it is a permanent game over event. Oh my! That wall is coming up on you fast. Then the water slows and you either totally miss the wall or barely scrape it. Now is a good time to look behind you and watch what not to do, as other boats might get wall slammed. Total elapsed time: 20

Pin Ball
The Pin Ball Rapid is aptly named due to the fact that if happen to hit one rock, you will probably hit them all. This class II-III is lots of wet fun at all levels. It is kind of long and has 5 big standing waves in it. However, it is just a prelude to the monster rapid, Boat Eater. Total elapsed time: 50 seconds.

Boat Eater
Justifiably named, Boat Eater has a reputation for...? Yep, you guessed it. Entering on extreme river right, you drop through a nasty hole with an advisable left bow angle lest you really want to run over the Boat Eater hole. Your guide makes you paddle your guts out as you try like hello to get to river left, making a sharp right turn just before you kiss the left wall. What the heck? You might be thinking just as look behind you and see the horrific keeper hole known as the Boat Eater. Boy, are you glad you didn't go over that! Back to reality as the guide is trying to get you back to paddling. That was only the top of the rapid. When you finally realize that the guide is screaming paddle commands that are changing every second, you dump into not one, not two, not three but four huge holes and you notice that every time you hit one, the boat actually travels upstream a bit. Hmm, maybe the guide is on to something here. And then it's over. Total elapsed time: 1 minute to two weeks, depending.

Splat Rock
It calms down for a second, yet you notice a steep left turn in the river straight ahead. The guide calls a strong forward. You're absolutely certain that Boat Eater Rapid has cooked the poor guide's noodle. The guide seems to be pointing the boat straight at a sloped rock wall, with some momentum. Sure enough, you hit it and the boat starts sliding up the wall, next thing you know, you're in the drink, but wait a minute, this feels sooo good! You didn't even realize how over heated you had become. You look around to see where everybody is at. Well, they're all in the drink too, including the guide, who has a huge grin on his face. The boat is upside down, but the water is slack and soothing. The guide hops back onto the inverted inflatable and rights it. Then you are told to swim to the left shore, where a bunch of boats have gathered. I dawns on you, a break area. It's time for everyone to chill out for a little bit on the shore. Total elapsed time: who cares?

The Float Out
Now that you are a river god - pat yourself on the back - it's time to wrap it up and get to the take out. Basically, you will have about 45 minutes worth of class I and class II to contend with, but hey, you just survived the gauntlet. Time to relax and take in the scenery for the first time, as you gently exit the gorge. Don't get too comfortable though, believe it not, a lot of people go for an unintended swim on the float out. Oh well, at least it won't drown you, maybe just bruise you now stately ego a bit. Thinking back on the trip, you realize, am I ever glad that our guide was here. Gratuities are always appreciated.

(Source: Paul Lessley)

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