Tag Archives: whitewater rafting

Why I Love Whitewater Rafting

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The raft meanders down the river, passing through sections that are both relatively calm, and sections that are quite rough.

In the calmer sections, the smell of the trees adjacent to the river bed activates memories in the brain, of other outdoor adventures. In these sections, the people in the boat laugh at ridiculous anecdotes, point out the unique natural features around them, and congratulate one another on navigating the raft through the most recent set of obstacles. The group camaraderie is alive, as we enjoy each other’s company.

In the rougher sections, the raft jolts, left and right, up and down, and spins around. It even occasionally spins in a full 360-degree circle due to water currents, eddies and rocks. Around every turn is a genuine feeling of adventure, the element of surprise, and even some level of danger. The water, the people, and the raft, are all in motion.

I love whitewater rafting because…

It is outdoors.

It is social.

It requires teamwork.

There is physical activity involved.

The canyons and valleys the rivers wind through are often breathtaking!

It is a fast-paced event. It is impossible to feel stagnant inside the raft.

It is one of the few activities left in this world that requires we separate from our phones and other portable devices.

It is wild, raw, and unpredictable. Yet, there is some degree of control, as we paddle, steer the boat, brace for impact of all kinds, and look out for one another in the roughest sections.

It feels like life when it is being operated correctly. Not over idealized, yet full of “life”. Surprises are expected, and responded to in a healthy manner with a smile. And, people are constantly improving in both skill and character.

Glenwood Springs: Where Canyon Country Begins

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When people think of the American West, certain images often come to mind:  the unique natural features of Yellowstone.  Iconic mountains that tower over the nearby landscape, such Rainier and Hood.  The canyons that carve through the American Southwest, creating popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is not the only canyon of the American West.  In fact, it is not the only canyon carved out by the Colorado River, the continent’s fifth longest running river.  The river, has its source at Rocky Mountain National Park and snakes through the west carving out  numerous canyons.  In fact, there are some that believe that the canyon in Southern Utah that was flooded when Glen Canyon Dam was built, a couple of hundred miles upstream of the Grand Canyon, was even more scenic than the Grand Canyon itself (some are even looking to remove the dam despite the Wests water needs).

An overly simplified model of Colorado’s geography, is that of the three flavored boxes Neapolitan Ice Cream.  Colorado’s three sections are the Plains, the Central Rockies, and a region generally referred to as the Western Slope.  While the Western Slope is officially defined as anywhere west of the Continental Divide, culturally, we tend to think of it as west of Ski Country, which also happens to coincide with where canyon country begins.

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On the above map, the two yellow stars are Denver, where the Plains end and the Central Rockies begin, and Glenwood Springs, where, traveling west the terrain transitions from tall peaks to canyons, mesas, and plateaus.

The official reason for the trip to Glenwood this year was whitewater rafting, a group trip that I organize every year, with a different destination each time.

This year, the trip was a little bit later in the season, early July, rather than mid-June.  The later date allowed more of the mountain snowpack to melt, particularly this year, as the period around the fourth of July was quite hot across the state.  As a result, the rapids were not nearly as intense as the previous two years.  However, the trip was not without its moments.  This time, everybody stayed in the raft!

As was the case last year and the year prior (this is the third year of my annual trip), we camped.  We selected a somewhat peculiar place to camp this year, on top of the White River Plateau north of town.

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To get to the Plateau, we had to follow a road called Coffee Pot Road, a bumpy road that rose up out of the Colorado River Valley below us and onto the plateau several thousand feet above it.

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Here is where I fully came to the realization that I was on the border of two of Colorado’s “stripes”.  Looking east from the campground, in clear view are the tallest peaks of the Central Rockies, the Sawatch Range, which includes Mount Evans, Colorado’s tallest peak.

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A mere mile to the west of our campsite sits Deep Creek Canyon.  I had no idea this canyon existed.  Deep Creek is a tiny creek, carrying very little water at the time we saw it.  Yet, it manages to carve a 2100 foot deep crevice in the landscape in a manner similar to Black Canyon and other Western Canyons.

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What really made this feel like a peculiar place to camp was the range of temperatures we would experience over the course of the weekend.  We spent the middle part of the day in the valley, first rafting in the Colorado River than in town, all at elevations below 6000 feet.  Daytime temperatures soared well into the 90s!  At night, we returned to our campground, above 10,000 feet in elevation, where nighttime temperatures fell into the upper 40s.  If one were looking to experience comfortable temperatures, it would make sense to do the exact opposite, spending the daytime hours at higher elevations where it is cooler and then returning to the valley at night.

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The town of Glenwood Springs is a touristy town.  Everyone around, from the rafting instructors to the bus drivers describe it as such.  However, it is touristy in a different way than some other places I’ve visited.  I didn’t see 50 ice cream shops like I do in South Haven, MI.  I did not see anything like Ripley’s Believe it Not or the other places I see at the Wisconsin Dells.  And, I certainly didn’t see 150 T-shirt shops as I do when I visit Cooperstown.  It seemed like more bars and restaurants than anything else here.  And, of course, one of Glenwood’s other main draws, the hot springs.

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Maybe Glenwood’s tourism industry is simply trying to accommodate a different mix of people than those other places, or maybe they are simply trying to stay true to their own unique identity.  After all, there are a lot of activities in the area, and a lot of reasons for people to visit.

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Just east of town, is the area known as Glenwood Canyon.  Due to the narrowness of this valley, there are sections of I-70 where the speed limit drops to 50 miles per hour, the westbound lanes are stacked on top of the eastbound lanes, and parts of the highway are tunneled underneath rock that goes right up to the River.

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It is in this canyon, several miles east of town, where Glenwood’s signature hike, Hanging Lake Trail draws so many tourists, that the parking lot is commonly full.  In fact, both Friday and Saturday, highway signage indicated that this lot was full anytime we drove by it.  We were able to get parking spots in the later part of the afternoon, around half past four, after the rafting trip, and lunch in town.

Hanging Lake is a short but challenging trail.  Only 1.2 miles long, it climbs 1200 feet in elevation.  This, both made sense and surprised me at the same time.  Being in a canyon, I knew that any hike in the area would be steep, and this one sure had its steep parts.  What surprised me was, how far up the canyon hanging lake is.

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I had seen pictures of this lake before, and knew the trail was short, I just pictured it being much shorter and much closer to the bottom of the canyon.

The trail was crowded, which should not be surprising, given that the parking lot was still almost completely full when we arrived.  What surprised me was the ethnic diversity of the crowd hiking this trail.  On the way up to hanging lake, which probably took a little over 30 minutes, I heard people speaking all sorts of different languages!  I enjoyed seeing so many different kinds of people enjoying scenery, nature, and, as I speculate, a weekend away from it all.

There is only one area attraction I did not get to, the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.  It’s hard to get to everything on a short weekend trip.  I guess there is still a lot more for me to see here in Glenwood, where Westbound travelers leave the high peaks of the Central Rockies and enter the land of deep canyons.

 

Flooding on the Arkansas River

RoyalGorgeRaftingRowdyCelebrating my half birthday with Whitewater Rafting has become somewhat of a tradition for me, even though this is only the second year that I have organized such a trip.  And, this year’s trip was a doozy!

Mid June is typically prime-time for rafting in Colorado, as a combination of snowmelt from the mountains and periodic spring thunderstorms create the faster moving waters that adventurers seek.  This year, however, an unusually rainy May across Central Colorado created rapids on the Arkansas not seen in a generation.  According to our raft guide, this is the highest the water had ever been on June 20th, and the highest the water had been since 1995!  And, of course, the river reached what is referred to as “flood stage” the day before the trip.

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Even the calmer parts of the trip were quite rapid.  The trip we signed up for was Performance Tours’ Royal Gorge half day trip.  With the speed that we were moving downstream, we covered the 10 mile distance in a little over an hour.  As is the case with nearly every commercial rafting outfitter, we began our trip on somewhat calmer waters so we could figure out our paddling rhythm and review some commands prior to tackling the bigger rapids.  Last weekend on the Arkansas, this was about as calm as it got.

It was not long before we were fully in rapids, ones that would be considered class 3 and 4.  The raft frequently bounced up and down during this entire middle section of the journey.  The roughest stretch came about 2/3 of the way into the trip.  It was a section of rapids that the instructor said some consider class 5, which is the highest rating navigable.  Unfortunately, we were not quite so lucky here.  In this section of rapids, our raft was quickly flung to the right bank of the river by a powerful burst of water.  The raft tipped sideways, dumping all six occupants (including the raft guide) into the rapidly moving river.

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I did not even believe it was happening at the time.  On these rafting trips, many people look out the bus window, at the rapids they are about to take on, with a feeling of terror.  I had always believed I could conquer anything, as, well, for some reason rafting just never really scared me.  I just handle the bumps, lean in when necessary, and enjoy the ride!  But this time, we were all really going down.  Before I knew it, I was directly underneath the raft for what felt like an extended period of time (but in reality was only about 3 seconds).  Getting out from under the raft, and being able to pick my head up out of the water and breath was quite the relief.  It was an even bigger relief when I was able reach out and grab the paddle that our rafting guide extended towards us to pull us to shore.  And, although only three of us were able to grab onto that paddle, all five of us got out of the river with little to no injury.  After recovering my breath after all the water I swallowed while taking the unplanned dip into the river, all five of us got back on the raft and finished the trip.  It was quite the experience, one that the rafting guides told me, makes you “a pro”.

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Perhaps the craziest aspect of the rafting experience was having the trip all to ourselves.  Almost every whitewater rafting trip one will take on, particularly on a popular river during a popular time of the year, is shared with strangers, basically, whoever also booked this particular trip at this particular time.  However, on this particular tour, perhaps due to sheer luck, or perhaps due to people canceling their trips due to the enhanced danger, my group of 16 ended up having the trip all to ourselves, which made the back and forth banter between the three boats on the trip interesting.

The one real drawback to having the water levels as high as they were was that it prevented us from physically rafting through Royal Gorge, which could not be entered (by raft) safely under these conditions.

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It would have been amazing to actually traverse right through this gorge on a raft.  And, on a calmer year, or in a calmer part of this year (say, August), it will be possible.  But, since I really wanted to see Royal Gorge, after the rafting trip, we picked up and drove the four miles to Royal Gorge Bridge & Park.

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This park offers a variety of crazy ways to get across this gorge, from the red gondola, to zip lining across, to simply walking across the bridge.  Unfortunately, walking across the bridge costs $23.  Any of the other activities would surely add to that price.  None of us really thought it was worth it to pay $23 just to walk across the bridge, but looking around, we saw plenty of people on that bridge.  I would probably rather experience this gorge by paying only slightly more money for the scenic railway, or by rafting through it on a calmer weekend.

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For free, we were still able to get on a short trail in the parking lot, to a nice over look.  It is really quite an amazing place, almost reminiscent of the large canyons one will find farther west, at places like Glenwood, Moab, and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

The craziest thing about the remainder of my Saturday was how little I had been “shaken up” by the entire experience.  Rather than being scared, and not wanting to continue (or ever go rafting again), my first instinct was to want to re-do the trip, and get it right this time (i.e. handle the rapids correctly).  If there is one thing I can take from this entire experience, it is the importance of being resilient, and taking experiences like this in stride.  If anything, I was far more upset about how much it costs to walk over the bridge ($23) than about falling out of the raft.  Hopefully this means I am still young and resilient, and not that I am actually crazy.

Whitewater Rafting on the Poudre

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One of many things that makes June a phenomenal month, is that it is typically the best month of the year for whitewater rafting in Colorado.  Snowmelt from the higher mountain peaks combine with fairly frequent thunderstorms to create higher water levels and faster rapids along many of Colorado’s rivers.  And, while sometimes river flows associated with the spring snowmelt peak a bit earlier in the season, by mid-June somewhat warmer air and water temperatures makes for a more pleasant experience.

After weeks of training for, and then subsequently riding the Denver Century Ride on the June 14th, I figured that the following weekend, June 21st, would be an ideal time for some whitewater rafting.  Colorado offers a lot of great places to raft.  I hope to try as many of them as possible.  Based on the time constraints of all the people involved in this trip, as well as the quality of trips offered, I opted for rafting in Poudre Canyon, just to the west of Fort Collins, Colorado.  Here, along the Poudre River (technically Cache la Poudre River), average June streamflows produce many sections of class 3 and class 4 rapids.  Sometimes, higher water produces even rougher waters.  And, had we opted to raft a bit earlier in the season (late May/ early June), higher water would have actually prevented us from doing part of the journey we did on Saturday due to safety concerns.

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Friday night we camped at a place called Kelly Flats, slightly farther up the river from where our whitewater adventure would occur the following morning.  Because of how long the days are in June, we were able to work a full day on Friday, and still make it up the campground in time to set up our tents before it got dark.  YAY June!  Seriously, if I could find a way to not sleep for the entirety of June, and make up for it by sleeping extra hours in a lamer month, like December, I would do so in a heartbeat.

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Saturday’s rafting trip was a half day trip called “The Plunge”, through an outfitter called Mountain Whitewater Descents.  This is considered one of the more intense trips.  But, hey, go big or go home.

For this trip, we met at 8 A.M. to discuss safety, expectations, and technique.  There have been stories in the news about people getting seriously injured, or even killed, on this river this year.  Going with a guided tour like this one all but eliminates this risk.

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Then we get our equipment, wet suits, jackets, helmets, etc., and ride in a big school bus for about half an hour to our starting point.  Arriving a bit after 9, the trip itself, as in time in the raft on the river runs for 2.5 to 3 hours.

I do not have any pictures of my group rafting.  I did not feel like taking the risk of bringing either a camera or my phone onto the raft where they would probably fall out into the river.  Pictures and videos are taken of every group by Mountain Whitewater Descents.  And, while I found the trip itself to be more than worth the $70 per person we paid, obtaining the pictures of our group’s excursion ended up costing more money than I wanted to spend.  So, I selected a couple of pictures from Mountain Whitewater Descent’s photo gallery to capture the essence of the experience.

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The trip starts with a mile or so of easy rapids.  This is so that the group in the raft can get into a paddling rhythm, and get aquanited with the guide and her commands.  After the warm-up part, when we started into the rougher rapids (first class 3 and then class 4), I felt that our group had gotten into a really good rhythm while paddling.  The video we saw after the trip revealed to me that we were actually quite out of synch.

Still, I really enjoyed the group that I got to raft with on Saturday.  My group consisted of 10 people.  With each raft holding 8 people (including the guide), our group was split in two, with 5 members of our group being joined by two other people.  Of course, with two boats belonging to the same group, it is common for water wars, as pictured above, to break out between the boats during downtime.  The two young ladies that ended up riding with us in our raft were very good sports about not only our crazy discussions along the way, but ending up in the “crossfire” of our “water wars”.  Additionally, I felt like our guide did a wonderful job, and would definitely recommend this trip to anybody.

The oddest aspect of this excursion for me was that I was never scared.  NEVER.  NOT AT ALL.  And, our rafting guide told me that Saturday’s rapids were amongst the most intense rapids that they would legally be permitted to enter as a commercial recreation business.  I really just felt exhilarated.  I felt, well, alive.  And, this made me think of the oddest thing- billboards.

Right around the time we first figured out that we would be moving to Colorado, billboards like this one starting popping up around Chicago.  These billboards are designed to get tourists to come to Colorado, with “Come to Life” being the slogan.

Suddenly this became the only State tourism slogan that made sense to me.  I have seen a lot of state tourism slogans.

Some of them are nearly completely nonsensical.

Pure Michigan; What does that even mean?  Do I want something to be pure?  What makes Michigan Pure?

Great Faces, Great Places, South Dakota; I don’t even think Mount Rushmore is South Dakota’s best attribute.

Some of them don’t deliver what they promise.

Wisconsin, You’re Among Friends; Wisconsin has been a non-stop political fight for a decade or so.  And if you are in Madison, they are not friendly about it.

New Jersey and You, Perfect Together; If you think the odor of landfills and refineries, a strange combination of old money suburbs and random ghettos, and the desire to go to any extent possible to avoid making a left hand turn is my ideal match, then I have an expletive for you.

But, Colorado’s slogan, “Come to Life”, which originally sounded like complete nonsense to me, suddenly made sense, as the opportunities provided by Colorado simply made me feel alive.