It was in tents. This is what my latest adventure was, a Circus Fire. It was intense.
I’ve been wanting to write for a while, really. I wanted to tell you all about the food I made ahead of time for this river trip. I wanted to share all of the inspiration, recipes, and excitement of the planning process, but I didn’t. So, today my friends, you get to hear about our river trip down the Gunni Gorge in retrospect. In all honesty, it’s way more exciting this way…..
River rafting is a sport many people only see on pamphlets in hotel lobbies and restaurants, perhaps they’ve tried it in summer camp or on family vacations. There are also the extreme river enthusiasts – the ones that make being on the river a full-time job as guides, fisherman and recreationists. It is their livelihood; they live, breathe, eat and sleep with the river. I have friends on either end of the spectrum, each of them perfectly happy where they are. I’d like to think that Nate and I fall somewhere in between and over the last few weeks we have moved more towards the extreme end of the spectrum.
In an effort to alter his career path, Nate became a river guide last month. He took a course that taught him how to navigate, communicate, have tons of fun and still be safe on the river. We both love being on the water, fishing, rowing, relaxing… and now I feel like he’s earned a legitimate spot on the local rivers. Water is one of nature’s most powerful forces. Many people underestimate her ability to take a boat (or a person or belongings) on a wild ride to never be found (in tact) again. This isn’t water’s mission, most of the time things go smoothly, but being prepared is of utmost importance when playing in her flows. Earlier this week we embarked on our biggest rafting mission yet – three days and two nights on the Gunnison Gorge.
Coming to school and making a life for myself in the Gunnison Valley has meant hearing about the Gunni Gorge for most of my adult life. The fishing is amazing, the landscape of one of Colorado’s deepest canyons is remarkable. The trip is one of a lifetime and is reveled as such in this community. The shuttle takes hours of extreme 4×4 muddy roads, paying for mules and horses to pack coolers and rafts down the steep canyon walls. The hike for us and the rest of our gear strapped to our backs was hot, steep and long. By the time we met our gear at the river’s edge it was time for shots of tequila before pumping up the rafts and rigging our boats with all of the camping, cooking and fishing gear we needed for 3 days of big water. The Gunnison River is dammed in a few places before it meets the Colorado River in Grand Junction. The stretch of water that we floated was below the last dam and is commonly flowing high this time of year to compensate for the amount of water flowing into Blue Mesa Reservoir up above the dams (straight off the slopes we skied all winter!). This particular stretch is also home to a massive salmon fly hatch that happens in early June every year. The fishing is typically amazing and the class II-IV (class I is hardly any whitewater, class VI is waterfalls – typically not navigated) rapids along the way are constantly shifting and changing due to the water rising and falling throughout the day – making it quite the adventure on all fronts. There is no cell service, only one (mostly unoccupied) Ranger station along the way, rescue is close to impossible. We packed every single thing out that we brought with us, including our own personal human waste.
Our group of four consisted of myself and Nate and two other friends from school that no longer live in the valley. I’ll refer to them as Old Pro and Rookie for this story since I never mentioned I would write about this. Old Pro had his own pack-raft. A vessel that looked awfully dinky for such a trip, but proved to be extremely stable and quick when operated by an old pro. Rookie had rented a ducky from a shop in Denver and this was his first big over-night river trip. His vessel seemed sturdy and after a great safety speech by Nate, our rookie was ready to brave the rapids ahead. They each carried their own personal bag of extra clothes and sleeping gear. Everything else was carefully tied down to our raft, along with the two of us and a couple of fly fishing rods.
Day 1 was amazing. The three rapids we encountered before our camp were all fairly straight forward, we didn’t have any mishaps or concerns. Rookie seemed to gain confidence with each one and we reveled in our success over homemade (a couple of days prior) shrimp curry before getting a great night’s sleep under the stars. In the morning, we took our time, waiting for the sun to reach our side of the canyon to warm and dry our camp from the dew. We had a very quick three rapids again the second day before finding our camp in Ute Canyon – a stretch of the river that opens up to more sandstone and less steep canyon walls. Again, Rookie gained confidence and understanding with each rapid we passed through. Old Pro’s pack raft held up beautifully. All rigs were packed well and floating perfectly down the river. Nate was catching an occasional fish and the bugs were everywhere. We hit camp #2 pretty early in the day which allowed for some good resting in the shade and then a hike up to the canyon walls before the sunset. Pre-cooked chicken fajitas with green chile sauce were delicious and another night under the stars left us rested and ready for our big day of rapids on Tuesday.
The last day out of the canyon for us was our biggest day for rapids with 11, two of them being class IV. We had a hearty breakfast of egg and quinoa cakes and the last of our Camp 4 coffee then loaded up the raft under the hot desert sun. The water was calm for the first few hours, I rowed mostly, so Nate could fish – he caught perhaps his biggest rainbow trout ever just after our first rapid of the day – which went smoothly like every rapid so far had. It wasn’t until Boulder Gardens, rapid #8 that we ran into some trouble. Rookie, in all of his bravery and confidence, accidentally hit a rock at the very top of the rapid and began to swim, leaving his boat and his belongings pinned to the rock with water rushing over top, keeping it there. Talk about scary… have you ever had to swim through a class III rapid? He was lucky to have a helmet, life vest and wet suit on. We quickly came behind him and pulled him into our raft before finding a place where we could collect our group and figure out what to do about the now stuck raft. I can’t have words for Rookie and how he was feeling at this point, but I’m sure something along the lines of “oh shit, what happened?” and “thank god I’m ok, but what about my boat and my stuff?” were going through his head.
We worked for almost 2 hours to somehow attach a rope to his boat and try to free it, but with no success. Eventually, hunger and fatigue crept in and we decided it was in our best interest to continue down the canyon towards the rest of the 9 rapids while we still had energy and daylight. It was not an easy thing to leave in the river…. a rented boat with a bag of belongings including cell phone and wallet. These are the kinds of risks we take with this type of a trip. We were grateful that we were dealing with a pinned boat instead of a broken leg or other serious injury. Rookie piled onto our raft (which was not rigged for 3 people) and we made our way through the next few rapids without incident. Carefully stopping at each one to scout, and Rookie even walked a couple of them to keep his nerves at a comfortable level.
When we reached the steepest part of the canyon and the final 7 rapids things got a little more intense. We stopped and scouted the first of the canyon rapids, S-Turn, and made it through safely. The next rapid, The Squeeze, crept up on us and we didn’t manage to stop before to scout. Rookie was on the front of the boat and I was perched on top of most of our gear behind Nate, who was rowing. Old Pro managed to stop and scout, but by the time he got to a place were he could see the river he was witnessing the oars flying into the air, all of us swimming and the bottom of the boat. It was scary, I cannot lie. We weren’t able to choose a path around a big boulder in the middle of the rapid and we high-sided, throwing me off the boat first, but then I was able to scramble up to a rock with the help of Rookie while Nate stayed with the flipped boat. He moved it really quickly to an eddy, still upside down while Rookie and I watched a couple pieces of gear float through the rest of the rapid, never to be seen again. We had to swim the river to get off of our rock and to the boat where the real work began. Getting under the boat to unstrap enough gear to be able to flip her back over was difficult. I was shaking with adrenaline rushing through my body from the cold of the river. The risk of being in whitewater, the fact that we were all right there and no one was injured was only slightly comforting. Nate was a proud guide when he knew exactly how to flip his boat back over by himself. Then we took inventory and realized his favorite fishing rod was lost to the rapid… at least he caught that huge trout just before!
Otherwise, our losses were not that bad – a 6-galon water jug that was almost empty, a crazy creek chair and the laminated river maps we were using for the rapid info. Sorry environment, I hope someone found all of that and got it out of the river for us! We also broke an oar, but we had a spare. Time to pack up the raft again and keep heading down stream. The tequila was gone by then, but we still had whiskey and wow, was that a welcome treat when we were finally floating again. We still had 5 more rapids to get through, the first class IV had flipped our boat, and we still had another class IV to come… but now without our maps we didn’t even know how close we were. Wait! I picked up a park service map at the trail head, let’s see what it says…. Sweet! It has all of the rapid info with a map, phew!
Three Drops rapid was just below us and we made it through all three of them without incident. Our final class IV was just below that, Cable Rapid, the biggest of them all – the one we had all heard about before getting on the river. Rookie walked the side of the river after we scouted it, I can’t blame him for not wanting to get wet again. With a tiny tinge of worry, we loaded into the raft and approached the rapid. This time we nailed it. Smooth sailing for us, but when I turned around to check on Old Pro right behind us he was already swimming next to his boat. Turns out that little pack-raft needs to have the perfect line in that big of a wave and Old Pro may have missed that line by about 6 inches. Luckily, his boat stayed close and he was able to get to shore to empty it by himself. We picked up Rookie in the same eddy and took a deep collective breath. Only 3 more rapids to go before calm water for a couple of miles to the take-out. We began to day dream of cheese burgers and cold draft beer…..
We made the take-out well before sunset. Luckily no more swimming, but the outfitters were already closed so we couldn’t tell anyone about our lost boat. Not knowing what else to do, we packed up what we had and made our way to the closest town for that cheeseburger. Low and behold, our server knew the guy who would probably end up retrieving the ducky and he made some phone calls for us. Hope was not lost! It’s been a couple of days, now, and all we know is that the boat is still there, buried deep under a wave of water. It’s been rainy and the water levels continue to rise, so the boat continues to be stuck. It may take a few weeks for the levels to come back down. Rookie has since flown home and Old Pro is back at work. Nate is on the river today and I’m on a mission to catch up with school. All of our gear has been cleaned off and is drying in the garage…. waiting for the next adventure.
The next over-night trip may not be the Gunni Gorge, but rest assured we will get out there again, probably even this summer. It’s kind of like finding a restaurant that you love and you suddenly don’t want to go anywhere else. The Gunnison River is where all of our snow goes. The water that flows down our streams and creeks ends up in that river; it is precious to us, to our entire community. That water is powerful beyond belief and our respect for it continues to grow alongside our desire to continue to play in it. We made it out alive, unscathed by the canyon walls and rushing rapids. We left a few things behind that we didn’t intend to, and we will learn from those mistakes. To say this trip was intense is an understatement, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Want to come?