Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 29, 2010

The dangerous (?) Colorado River

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:04 am
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In the "Alpacka" rafts on the mighty Colorado, 5/20/10

Floating the Colorado River is always fun, although the fun may take various forms. Last summer one raft trip of mine was complicated by stiff headwinds blowing upriver faster than the current was taking us down. That one needed a LOT of rowing. Today’s excursion would be more low-key. It was a pleasant day, some winds, moderate temperatures, and Matt and Ed and I wanted to get out on the water. The river was flowing at about 12,000 cubic feet per second, a medium flow; peak is still a couple of weeks away. Many tributaries of meltwater from the snowpack add to it, so the water was cool but not frigid like Lake Superior’s waters. Still, I had on a splash jacket to keep the goosebumps down.

Desert Highlights (the guiding company Matt owns and Ed works for) has some inflatable one-person “Alpacka” rafts that weigh less than five pounds and can be easily backpacked. The paddles break down, too, and it was a simple matter for us to pack it all upriver and carry them to our put-in spot for inflation. Canada geese with their goslings made way for us.

It hardly took ten minutes and all three of us were ready. Matt gave me (pretty much a novice) final instructions: “If you flip, grab your paddle and stay with your boat. Remember: point your feet downriver and keep your legs slightly bent so if you hit a rock, you’ll bounce off. We’ll come to you.” I nodded, comprehending only that I could flip. I realized now why Ed had loaned me an eyeglass retainer strap.

My guides selected a short portion of the river that had a nice mix of rapids and calm water. I deemed that the riffles that greeted us instantly were there only to make me go faster, and plunged out into the river. I suppose it is 100 yards wide there, and moving steadily along. I tended to follow where the other two went, as I knew little about reading the water and guessing what lay underneath the various swirls and humps.

It might have been our second rapids, I don’t know. I saw this swooshy thing shaped like a depression in the water surface, and it just seemed to suck me eagerly right into itself. I remember thinking, “It’s going to eat me alive,” and freezing up and completely forgetting to paddle (which is the cardinal rule: Just Keep Paddling!) before finding myself immediately underwater. “Geez, I hope this isn’t one of those holes that holds you under forever,” I thought with utter seriousness as I strained for the surface. Good thing that PFDs (personal flotation devices) were mandatory. Mine popped me up soon enough and the first thing I saw was my paddle floating downriver with me and with my boat. Matt and Ed were bee-lining it to the scene and I swam to my paddle, grabbed it, and only then heard Matt yelling, “Point your feet downriver! We’ll come to you!” Oh, yeah. Rocks. This Minnesota woman is accustomed to lakes; when your boat flips, you stay put. I turned myself downriver and realized with a small amount of trepidation how quickly the current was taking me.

Matt and Ed had only a couple weeks earlier taken a 3-day Swiftwater Rescue Course in Steamboat Springs, and later admitted that this was an excellent practice scenario for them. All I cared about was figuring a way out of my predicament, which was that I was being carried quickly toward Mexico without anything between me and whatever dangers lay beneath those brown waters. At least I still had my glasses and hat.

Hanging onto my paddle so as not to lose it, I swam for my raft, which Matt had already corralled. Once near his raft, all I could think of was to swing one leg up and rest it on the side, and let him paddle us to the edge where I could re-establish some order in my life. He got us to some boulders where an eddy made it easy to hold our positions while I dumped water from and re-entered the craft.


The massive walls of red rock merely observed the goings-on with detachment. They have seen thousands and thousands of boats flip.

Let me just say that the remainder of the trip was less eventful than its beginning. I learned a lot about kayak paddling, and stayed out of any place in the river that looked like it could eat me up. There weren’t many. Matt still teases me about this being like plunging my hand into a haystack and landing on a needle, but I maintain that the guys needed some rescue practice and I needed to confront my fears and this was good for us all.

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