Brown Water Rafting on the Arkansas River, Colorado

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“If the raft turns over we’re in what we call a ‘group swim’ situation, so just stay away from the raft until your guide can right it, or find your own way out of the river. And while you’re in the water don’t try to put your feet down because you might get your leg trapped in a boulder”. This was one of the less reassuring pieces of advice we received in our safety briefing before embarking on our Royal Gorge Rafting adventure. In the event, no one fell out of our bright yellow raft – we were teamed with a father-daughter pair from Ohio – and our 10 mile voyage down the Arkansas River was an exhilarating, strenuous, but safe trip downstream, bouncing over rapids and sliding round curves, cradled in the rocky embrace of the 1100 foot high Royal Gorge. Between steering us through adrenaline-fuelled rapids with names like The Grateful Dead, The Narrows and Sledgehammer, our expert guide Ryan fed us some fascinating facts. So I learned that the difference between a gorge and a canyon is that the former is deeper than it is wide at the top.

The night before, one of Colorado’s famous apocalyptic thunderstorms had dropped cloudfuls of rain on the area, swelling the river from approx. 750 cfs (cubic feet per second) the day before to over 1800 cfs the morning if the day we went out. For rafters, this is good news, because faster flowing water makes for a more exciting ride. In winter, volumes can rise to over 5000 cfs, when the classification of this stretch of the river rises along with the water level from a challenging-but-possible-for-beginners IV to a leave-it-to-the-experts V. Even Ryan, who has been rafting here for 16 years, told us he had baulked at going down the river in levels above 5300 cfs in the winter. 

For our trip, the rain had also filled the water with sediment, so it was mud brown, and the frothing rapids were like chocolate milkshakes. We were quickly drenched, but yelping with excitement as Ryan calmly yelled out firm commands which propelled us down the river in fine style. ‘Forward two’ was the most common order, in response to which we leaned forward, dug our paddles into the churning water below – often far below, as the water fell off below us in huge sliding sheets – heaved back as far as we could and then snapped forward to do the same thing again as quickly as we could.

At the start my stomach had been coiled in nervous anticipation, which only tightened as we launched our craft onto the ‘flat’ waters at the beginning of the course to practice: to my eyes the mild ripples at that point looked like disconcertingly large waves, designed to knock us off our precarious perches on the edges of the raft. But it wasn’t long before I was eagerly anticipating the next rapid, awaiting Ryan’s taut instructions with paddle poised, ready to help propel us furiously across the pounding, churning waters as he steered expertly from the back of the boat. Having said that, I was glad I was in the middle of the boat rather than at the front, as I think it helped not actually seeing what we were headed into! While there was more brown water in evidence than white water, rafting was a new experience I relished and would be eager to do again.

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