By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 11/15/2019
Posted: 7/4/2010
Topics/Keywords: #WildernessAware #BuenaVista #Colorado #ArkansasRiver #BrownsCanyon #Zachary Page Views: 6433
Zach and I raft the Arkansas River in Colorado!

Happy 4th of July! Although the day did end with fireworks, it began with "hot action" on the Arkansas River.

After a cool night in the tent, morning dawned fair and clear.

View from the tent.

Zach and I had a breakfast of grapes and bananas, then hopped in our rental car for the five mile trip to the Wilderness Aware Colorado headquarters.

Wilderness Aware headquarters. Zach in shades.

As we walked into the building's side entrance, I heard an enthusiastic voice call, "Paul! It's good to see you, man!" It was Greg, one of the WA boatmen I knew from the Upper Salt. He wasn't expecting me, as far as I knew, but had recognized me instantly. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit as he was herding passengers onto a bus for a 9am trip, but I really appreciated this proof that guests aren't just warm bodies to Wilderness Aware guides—we're real people to them, as they are to us.

Inside were the makings of a light, "continental" breakfast. Zach had an apple, and I ate a hard-boiled egg washed down with a cup of hot cocoa. Okay, and a mini crumb cake. We were handed our waivers and filled them out.

Our trip leader was a female guide named Kelli O'Keefe. As trip leader, she had chosen to row the single oar boat in which Zach and I would be passengers. The other guests were going to be paddling in paddle boats, six guests and a guide per raft. Zach and I would, therefore, be getting much more personal attention.

The put-in on the Arkansas River.

I had given Zach the choice of a paddle boat or oar frame. He asked for my input before he made up his mind. Last year's trip was in a paddle boat. I offered that the main downside to paddle boats is that you have to paddle and therefore it's hard to work a camera, which affected me but not Zach. On the upside, it's harder to fall out if you are huddled in the middle of the raft hanging on to every rope within reach. So, weighing his options, and knowing I would want to take pictures, Zach chose to go on the oar frame this time.

Your blogger, ready to raft.

The rafts were waiting for us at the put-in and each guide made final adjustments to his or her raft, then helped the passengers to board. As instructed (and as I already knew), we did not wear cotton on the river—wet cotton sucks the heat right out of a body. Both Zach and I wore synthetic workout shirts and bathing suits; I had my river shoes and Zach wore my old sandals with the straps tied up snug. And, of course, we wore our fitted life vests (excuse me, "personal flotation devices") and helmets ("personal cranial injury avoidance caps"). The guide who helped adjust my life vest to fit me had to let it out to embarrassing lengths to accommodate my stomach ("personal fat-soluble toxin storage facility").

Zach was so ready to go!

Zach, on the river.

Our first rapid was a Class IV, Beaver Falls, less than a half-mile from the put-in. Most rivers in the world (the Colorado through Grand Canyon is the only exception I know of) rate their rapids on a scale of Class I through Class VI, where I is a barely-noticeable riffle in the water, and VI is virtually unrunnable by any but world-class kayakers. The huge rapid at the climax of The River Wild would be a Class VI if it really existed. The standing joke is that Niagara Falls would be a Class VII.

Almost immediately after Beaver Falls we hit The Silver Bullet, another Class IV with a ten-foot drop. It's usually a seven-foot-drop, but it's relatively late in the season and the flow was only around 1100 CFS. With less water in it, we had farther to fall. Zachary later declared this rapid to be his favorite.

The Arkansas River runs over 1400 miles, between Colorado and Arkansas.

This part of the river, before we entered Browns Canyon, was lush and forested. However, it was not remote. We could occasionally see houses, and the highway that runs along the river. It was hard to believe, though, that fourteen thousand miles away, this very water, which originates in the melting snows of Colorado, would eventually make its way to the State of Arkansas (hence its name), before pouring into the Mississippi.

Zach and Papa Paul on the Arkansas River.

As the river twisted and turned, for a time we had a terrific view of a snow-covered peak Kelli told us was Mount Princeton, one of the "Collegiate Peaks", a series of mountains here in Colorado, all over 14,000 feet high, all named after famous colleges. She shared with us the annoyance of a group from Dartmouth when they discovered none of the mountains was named after their school. To assuage them, their river guide bestowed the name "Mount Dartmouth" on some other peak. No one outside of the Dartmouth guests and Wilderness Aware knows about this name change, but it seemed to make them happy.

Kelli O'Keefe, our guide and lead boatman.

On quiet stretches of the river, I shared some of my river stories with Kelli: tales from Grand Canyon, Alaska, and the two Maine rivers I've run. On paddle boats I have to be careful not to monopolize the conversation; but here, it was just the three of us. And Kelli expressed her gratitude. "I love rowing an oar frame," she said, "and I was delighted when I learned there would be oar guests on this trip. But sometimes I wind up with guests who don't say a word no matter how much I encourage them, and it gets pretty boring. You're much more fun!"

And in exchange, Kelli told us about the journey that led to her ignoring a degree in marketing to get a second one in Parks and Recreation Management so she could be a full-time river guide, one of only six female guides among the 35 full-time guides Wilderness Aware employs. Still, as I observed, that's 'way better odds than you'd have found anywhere 15 years ago.

Around noon we moored the rafts at a spot suitable for lunch. The guides efficiently worked together to create an "hors devours" table with fruit and crackers, then presented us with deli meats, cheeses, and breads from which to assemble sandwiches.

Our lunch break.

Zach made himself a sandwich of the whole wheat bread, and the peanut butter and jelly from the hors devours table (intended, apparently, for either crackers or celery—I saw people use them on both). While munching it, he wandered over to my side and leaned against me. "Thank you so much for taking me, Papa! I'm having such a great time, so far!"

I made sure not to laugh at Zach's careful qualification. He is the only person I know who is as careful with his word choice as I am. All I could do was hug him and assure him that I was very glad he was with me.

Entering Browns Canyon.

After lunch we re-boarded our rafts and entered Browns Canyon. According to Kelli, it is not named after a person (as for example, my grandfather, famed optometrist Vernon Paul Brown) but rather for the shades of brown its conglomerate rocks display.

Through much of the trip, Kelli had one of the paddle guides, whose nickname was Jimbo, go ahead of us. Consequently, his raft is featured in most of my river pictures.

Jimbo and his crew on the Arkansas. Zach on the Arkansas.

My pictures were shot using my trusty Canon G10 digital camera, which in turn was kept dry by a custom waterproof bag with an optically-clear glass lens cover. The only problem was remembering to keep the lens cover wiped free of water drops with my shirt, which I didn't always manage.

Clouds began drifting overhead, and I hoped the weather would hold. We had opted to not rent wet suits or splash jackets; I've worn them before (and was glad to have them in Alaska) but generally they get hot and sweaty. So far, the weather had been perfect, neither too hot nor too cold. But an overcast would change that balance.

And I'd already made too much fun of the guests who did rent wetsuits to start shivering now!

Paul, Kelli and Zach going through a Class III rapid.

If a rapid looks flattened out and "safe" when photographed from afar, I can assure you that they appear far more dynamic from within the raft, especially when dropping into a standing wave that then crashes over the bow.

Wave crashing over the bow of our raft.

When we weren't being inundated with 45F water, we were treated to the exquisite views that are a reason for trying to preserve this stretch of river from condo and shopping mall development.

Leaving Browns Canyon. The scenic Arkansas River in Browns Canyon. The dreaded recirculating hole of Widow-Maker.

One of the final rapids we ran has the ominous name "Widow-Maker", Of course, rapids are always named by rafters; and rafters are prone to overstatement. This particular rapid, however, did have a deadly feature: A recirculating "hole" that had to be avoided at all costs, else it might suck the raft (and us) into it, where we would be pulled to the bottom, pushed back up to the top, pulled back down again, and so on until rescue or body recovery. Kelli expertly rowed us along the safe line, but I've never before gotten such a clear picture of a hole as I did this time.

By this time the clouds were hanging heavy and a strong wind was blowing upstream, making Kelli's job of rowing quite a challenge. A challenge she was more than up to, I should add; I'd have given up after about five minutes but she seemed to enjoy the workout.

A storm a-brewing over the Arkansas.

Despite my worries, though, the rain held off and Kelli's muscles held out; and eventually we were at our take-out. All the guests, including Zach and me, assisted in unloading the rafts and getting them loaded on top of the bus. Assisting made the task go faster, of course; but also seem faster. During our return on the jouncing vehicle, Kelli and Jimbo entertained us with jokes, and passed out the trip evaluation cards as Wilderness Aware always does at this time. And, as always, under the question "What advice would you give the owner to improve your trip experience?" I wrote: "Don't ask guests to fill out these cards on a moving bus!"

Jimbo commented that the boss reads the cards while sitting in a vibrating chair.

Back at the Wilderness Aware compound, I met another guide, Liz Krenzer, who had been lead boatman on my most recent Upper Salt trip in Arizona. She also recognized me and it was pleasant to see how she was doing in Colorado.

Princess Fiona

I actually did have one close encounter with river rocks on this trip, but it wasn't on the raft. The dirt parking lot had rows of river rocks, about one-foot-high, rounded stones, laid out in lines to create parking rows. I had parked in front of a couple. But when it came time to leave, I forgot about the rocks, and tried to pull forward. The stones were exactly the right size for the little Hyundai to roll over—and get stuck. I checked, and the front drive wheel was literally in the air, about an inch above the ground. Chagrinned, I returned to where Kelli, Jimbo, and some others were storing gear from their trips.

"You know about those rocks in the parking lot that divide the rows?" I asked.

"Yeah," Jimbo replied.

"Well, I didn't," I said. "And now I'm stuck…"

Immediately I had three gorgeous men and two powerful women trotting out to the car, where they basically lifted it up and placed it down beyond the rock.

I can see the appeal of being a damsel in distress, even if, as damsels go, I look more like Princess Fiona from the Shrek movies.

(The women were also gorgeous, of course, but sadly their beauty was lost on me…and possibly on the male river guides as well. On the bus, Jimbo told a joke: "What's the difference between Big Foot and a female river guide? Simple. One's a hairy beast, and the other's a mythical creature.")

So, I said goodbye again, and Zach and I returned to our campground to change into dry clothes, then returned to town for dinner. Zach picked a place called Pizza Works. It took more than the promised 20 minutes to prepare our custom pizza, so we entertained ourselves by watching another patron drive into his Stromboli with such enthusiasm that bits of it flew everywhere: On his clothes, the table, and even neighboring diners, much to Zach's merriment. Finally, our pizza arrived and was delicious enough to be worth waiting for.

Zach constructs a campfire.

Back at our campsite, Zach got to build a campfire (his favorite part of camping). As on the previous night, I was too tired to stay up and party, even though it was Fourth of July and we would be able to see the Buena Vista fireworks from the top of the hill on which we were camped. So I sent Zach up to watch with his new campground friends from Belgium while I went to sleep.

Before long I was awakened by Zach getting into the tent, and realized the wind outside was whipping about something fierce. "I can't find my cellphone," Zach said.

"What happened to it?" I asked, which is what everyone says in this situation even though that has to be the most stupid question in the history of the world.

"I had it in my jacket pocket," Zach explained. "And the wind whipped my jacket all around, until I zipped it. The phone must have come out of the pocket before I got it zipped, but I didn't realize it until just now."

"Well," I said, trying to rouse enough to care, "let's look for it in the morning. Because with all this wind, I'm afraid if we both leave the tent, it will blow away."

And so, amidst enough wind to carry Dorothy's house to Oz, but snug and dry inside, Zach and I crashed until morning.