Paddling

Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking in Colorado, Summer 2019

By Dom Nozzi

The snowfall for the 2018/2019 ski season in Colorado was so epic that it left a snowpack that was 529 percent of normal. And as several media sources and whitewater vendors trumpeted several times in the spring, that epic, enormous snowpack means there would be a epic season for whitewater rafting and kayaking as well.

And that gave me a golden opportunity to sample some of the wild-eyed whitewater that rages in Colorado!

On June 7, 2019, Maggie and I rode the 12-mile Mishawaka Falls section of the Upper Poudre River with Wanderlust Adventures. The river that day was relatively high (and therefore barrels of churning, chaotic, hair-raising fun, at about 1500 cfs.

The Poudre is the only designated National Wild and Scenic River in Colorado, and flows through a beautiful canyon. We were fortunate to spot a group of longhorn sheep along the way.

The big surprise was that I was flung out of the raft at a notorious rapid called “Guide Hole,” where the raft guide often falls out (just a short distance downstream there is another demanding rapid called “Customer Hole,” which is where you would think I would have fallen out).

I blame Maggie for not grabbing my arm to keep me in the raft. :^)Maggie and Dom Poudre River whitewater June 2019 (1)

In any event, it was the first time I was the only one in the raft to fall out. I’ve fallen out a number of times in the past on whitewater trips, but only when the entire boat flipped. Others in the boat had to rescue me by pulling me back in. Because falling out in a big rapid is so exhilarating, that one event made my entire ride worthwhile, although the overall trip was a lot of fun. In fact, Maggie was surprised by how much she enjoyed it, after initially thinking that Dom was going to once again lead her into something too scary and way over her head.

Sadly, the photographer — who had shot many photos of our day on the raging Poudre — learned when he got back to the shop that all of his photos and videos were corrupted, so we didn’t get any pictures or video. It was the first time that had happened to him in his 3 years of being the company photographer.

Our next Living-on-the-Edge ride was battling Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River in Central Colorado. It was a warm-up for taking on the roaring, churning, angry Clear Creek whitewater in a few days. Browns Canyon was at a very high water level (3720 cfs), but we avoided casualties and no one went swimming. This short video shot with my helmet-mounted camera shows us early on at Browns. https://youtu.be/kh8fFvQyux8

For our next whitewater sample a few days later, Maggie and I rafted the “Advanced Express” run on Clear Creek just west of Denver with the Clear Creek Rafting Co. The Creek, which is quite demanding at high water levels due to the large boulders and narrow channel, was running at a relatively high level of 700 cfs. We conquered the following rapids: Upper Beaver Falls, Lower Beaver Falls, The Nixon Rapids. We then paddled hard as we dropped into Guide Ejector, Double Knife (particularly nasty), Hells Corner and Terminator.

I shot this video with a chest-mounted camera. https://youtu.be/mafm77QAoUU. And here is a photo montage I assembled with photos shot by the Rafting Company during our wild-eyed ride. https://youtu.be/pGThwtp6tB0

Then, before we even had a chance to catch our breath, we stormed down the rampaging Boulder Creek, which was running at about 235 cfs. It was the maiden voyage for the 2-person Inex inflatable raft we had recently purchased.

It took us a while to get our whitewater skills honed, as Maggie had never whitewater kayaked, and my whitewater kayaking skills were very much at the beginner stage, as my 25 years of kayaking experience included 20 years of flatwater kayaking in Florida (which is nothing like whitewater kayaking), and a few very short and very tame whitewater kayaking forays in Colorado in recent years.Dom and Maggie kayaking Bldr Ck, June 27, 2019

It was truly a trial by fire experience.

Adding to the difficulty was that Maggie sitting in front of me meant that most of my view of approaching rapids was obscured by her back. In addition, at 235 cfs, Boulder Creek is rather swift, and as a very narrow creek, there is very little margin for error. In ski difficulty terms, it was running as a single black diamond.

The Inex, fortunately, behaved well for us in the swift wave trains and drops on Boulder Creek. It’s upturned head and tail made the kayak ride over and through each of the rapids we encountered. I shot this video of our kayaking starting at the kayak playpark just upstream from Ebon Fine Park to the Justice Center. https://youtu.be/GReOZNZejHk

This video shows us kayaking from the Justice Center to the Library: https://youtu.be/xvFRF1PMkbY

The swift, narrow creek finally caught up with us near the end of our ride. As you will hear in this video my chest-mounted camera recorded, I was boasting to Maggie about my superior kayaking navigational skills and how the most fun to be had was when the boat flipped in the rapids. Maggie had never been in a flipped boat and did not believe me. Sure enough, soon after my well-timed comments, we approached a drop which was creating a powerful rapid and I was unable to keep the nose pointed downstream. Instead, I committed the cardinal sin at a hydraulic by entering it with our kayak sideways. As you will see in the video, our kayak quickly and somewhat unexpectedly flipped, sending us into a “swim” mode. I come up under and inside the upside down kayak, and Maggie is alarmingly floating downstream out of the kayak. https://youtu.be/1X2X5P5O7OI

Overall, though, we had enough fun that we plan to saddle up again for another kayaking ride down Boulder Creek in a few days. We had planned to kayak again on July 1st, but the cfs was at 565 (!!), which is the highest, fastest water level all year.

Insane, death-zone conditions on the Creek

 

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Whitewater Rafting the Upper Poudre

Maggie and I took a wild-eyed whitewater rafting ride on the Mishawaka Falls section of the Upper Poudre River. The Poudre is the only designated National Wild and Scenic River in Colorado, and flows through a beautiful canyon. We were fortunate to spot a group of longhorn sheep along the way.

The water level was a relatively high 1500 cfs, which made the river particularly hair-raising.

The big surprise was that I was flung out of the raft at a notorious rapid called “Guide Hole,” where the raft guide often falls out (just a short distance downstream there is another demanding rapid called “Customer Hole,” which is where you would think I would have fallen out). I blame Maggie for not grabbing my arm to keep me in the raft. 

In any event, it was the first time I was the only one in the raft to fall out (I’ve fallen out a number of times in the past on whitewater trips, but only when the entire boat flipped). Others in the boat had to rescue me by pulling me back in. Because falling out in a big rapid is so exhilarating, that one event made my entire ride worthwhile, although the overall trip was a lot of fun. In fact, Maggie was surprised by how much she enjoyed it, after initially thinking that Dom was going to once again lead her into something too scary and way over her head.Maggie and Dom Poudre River whitewater June 2019 (1)

Sadly, the photographer — who had shot many photos of our day on the raging Poudre — learned when he got back to the shop that all of his photos and videos were corrupted, so we didn’t get any pictures or video. It was the first time that had happened to him in his 3 years of being the company photographer. 

As I pointed out to my rafting group yesterday after we defeated the Upper Poudre River, the most dangerous part of even a big water rafting trip is the drive to and from the river (and our driving in general), not the trip on the river.

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Dom’s Adventure Tour of Southwest Colorado (September-October 2013)

A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.

We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name. Buena Vista beautiful view from town, Sept 2013 M

I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.

Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.

After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!

Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.

Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GreatSandDunesColorado

Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biHF_0lpPLE&feature=c4-overview&list=UUr3Iyrr6_pzCS56wz0_ELGA

On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…

On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.

Treasure Falls, Rt 160, Colorado, Sept 2013We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.

Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SouthernColoradoSept2013

Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.

The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.

We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP2, Sept 2013

At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.

After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.

Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MesaVerdeNPAndSanJuanMtns

Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary San Juan Mtns hike near Highland Mary Lakes trail8, Sept 2013Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.

Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SanJuanMtnsHiking

The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.

On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.

I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.

In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.

I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.

Overall, a VERY close call.

Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.Dom on Ice Lake hike41, Oct 2013

We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/IceLakeHikeOct2013

On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?

I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?

The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.

Yellow Jacket Mine ruins, Bear Creek hike58, Oct 2013We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/BearCreekHikeOct2013

On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.

During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”

Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!

Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.

In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…

We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!

After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.

A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.

Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnyGorgeKayakingCurecantiNationalRecreationalArea

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Miscellaneous, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paddling the Gunnison River between Escalante and Whitewater (July 2013)

Ann and I sign up for an adventure company group canoe trip along the 26-mile stretch between the Escalante bridge and the town of Whitewater. This section of river is mostly class I, with small amounts of class II water. We pass through both Gunnison River canoe trip70 July 2013Escalante and Dominquez Canyons, where we find extremely impressive canyon walls up to 800 feet tall, and an arid, desert-like landscape.

The 26-mile paddle takes two full days. We tent camp along the river for two nights, with our three guides providing river guidance, water and wine, three cooked meals each day, and dishwashing.

Along the way, we stop in Dominguez Canyon, where we hike into the canyon. There, we enjoy an extremely refreshing waterfall and pool of water, spot several Bighorn Sheep, and find a number of “pictographs,” which are ancient boulder drawings dating back to 400 AD. The drawings are called pictographs because the artists picked small depressions into the rock to create relatively permanent art.

While at this canyon, we learn of Billy Rambo, who has lived alone in Little Dominguez Canyon for most all of his 93 years. The Bureau of Land Management has granted him a life-lease for the 2.5 acres he lives on. His nephew is said to deliver him supplies each week.Gunnison River canoe trip41 July 2013

The river during our two days of paddling was a chocolate brown color due to a severe thunderstorm that struck the region the day before our trip, and the many flash floods the storm created had deposited a great deal of silt into the water. Nevertheless, the water cooled us down many times as we often slipped into it for a swim.

The canyon walls are fascinating because they clearly show many layers of rock, sand dune, and sediment deposition over the millions of years of the creation of the canyon. The black gneiss rock found in the Dominguez Canyon is exceptionally rare, and both the layers and the gneiss make these canyons a superb place for geology field trips and study.

The Gunnison River is formed by the confluence of Taylor and East rivers at Almont in eastern Gunnison County.

Here are the photos I shot during our trip. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnisonRiverCanoeTrip

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Strained by Boulder Creek Whitewater

Having spent over 20 years paddling nearly all of the navigable flatwater creeks and rivers in Florida, the over two decades of kayaking experience I had would be of little use when I relocated to Boulder, Colorado, a city abutting the Rocky Mountains. Here, the younger, steep mountains deliver high velocity waters due to a more abrupt force of gravity. And when rivers delivering this water do so at high water volumes, the force can be terrifying for kayakers and canoeists.

There is very little time, unlike in the gentle Florida waters, to react when paddling in the Rockies. The often rampaging current can be quite unforgiving to those who do not make split-second decisions (decisions that must be accurate), and those who do not have the strength to battle the powerful flow of water.

But my passion for kayaking would be too high for me to be dissuaded by the more risky waters found in the Rockies, so my search began for rivers and creeks that I could run.

In my first few years trying to develop the new and much more challenging task of kayaking in Boulder, my few attempts are made much more difficult by making the mistake of purchasing an expert-level “playboat” kayak, which is faster and more responsive than I am prepared for, and which would regularly flip me upside down – even in relatively gentle waters.

Eventually, I discover on a guided trip at the Colorado River with a rented kayak that an inflatable kayak is much more forgiving, and better suited to my skill level, without compromising on my adventure and adrenalin needs. Therefore, over the course of the next year, I search far and wide for an affordable inflatable kayak to buy.

Finally, I find a Stearns inflatable being sold by someone in Tacoma, Washington. The boat arrives just as Boulder is starting to see elevated water levels from spring snowmelt in 2013. Stearns Inflatable Kayak I bought in May 2013

Here in Boulder, the most popular creek for whitewater kayaking and tubing is the relatively narrow Boulder Creek. From its source at the confluence of the North and Middle Boulder forks, Boulder Creek races down Boulder Canyon and through downtown Boulder. On the east edge of the city, the creek joins South Boulder Creek, which originates at Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide, just south of the Moffat Tunnel.

After leaving the city, Boulder Creek flows northeast into Weld County, where it joins St. Vrain Creek, and on to a confluence with the Platte River. Its waters ultimately flow into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the lower flows, Boulder Creek is a technical run with lots of boulders and eddies. At higher flows (over 400 cfs), there are waves. There are small, unforgiving, man-made holes. And there is faster water.

In my research for information about running Boulder Creek by kayak, I find one description that noted that when the creek goes under Arapahoe Avenue for the second time, the river turns into a Class I-II run (much easier than upstream of that location). The description went on to point out that the creek is not very deep, which means that when higher-velocity waters are running, less skilled kayakers will be beat up if or when they flip. The creek, as this person mentions, lacks good shore eddies for novices, especially for rescues.

Given that, I am careful to scout the creek by bicycle along the Boulder Creek path. I investigate the portions of Boulder Creek within the city which I am considering running. As a relatively new whitewater kayaker, I want to avoid any big drops or big wave rapids.

In my survey, I discover that there is a section of creek that starts at 30th Street and Scott Carpenter Park and runs to the 55th Street bridge that is free of drops (waterfalls where kayakers find more challenging, scary waters).

With my new inflatable kayak, I decide I would christen the boat using my relatively novice whitewater skills in this easier this section of the creek.

For a number of days, my plans to try out my boat keep being put off by my busy schedule. Finally, on a sunny mid-June day in 2013, the opportunity arrives.

I had earlier learned that Boulder Creek at 150-400 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water flow is the best range of volume discharge for kayaking. This generally occurs in May and June. Today, however, it was running at its highest level so far for the season: 420 cfs. A level that is a bit worrisome to me. Here are two short videos I shot of what Boulder Creek looked like during the spring snowmelt run-off in June of 2011 (to give you a good idea of what I would be up against today):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKtn14pe3hc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy3rZDikwUA

My girlfriend Ann repeatedly tries to talk me out of it, thinking this high level would be too dangerous for someone with my lack of skills on a brand new, untested boat. Not only that, but I’d be paddling a stretch of river I had never been on before. And would do so without a buddy watching my back…

Generously, however, she agrees to accompany me to scout the creek by bicycle after our Sunday pancake breakfast ritual to see what the water looks like, and whether others are crazy enough to kayak or tube it. Seeing no others, we opt to bike to a kayak and tube rental shop nearby, and learn that while the creek is running too high for tubing, the shop manager and a few others had just kayaked the section I was considering the night before, and found that it was reasonably free of “strainers,” which are low-hanging tree branches that can snag kayakers and trap [and sometimes drown] them.

He convinces us that the section I am electing to run would be a good, fun idea. Ann thankfully agrees.

Ann drives me to a good put-in spot at Scott Carpenter Park. Through trial and error, I eventually figure out how to inflate my kayak to proper firmness. I then carry my very bad-ass kayak – bad-ass because it is painted in camouflage patterns to allow stealth activity and avoid having the kayaker look like a dork — to a place under the 30th Street bridge that had relatively gentle waters. Ann and I agree that she would meet me an hour later (our wild, conservative guess as to the longest possible time it could take me to navigate the distance) at an agreed-upon take-out point that we had earlier scouted. A place that raised worries as to whether I could manage to navigate to a gentle eddie where I could step out of the river – a navigation that was questionable due to the relatively high volume and velocity of the creek water on this day, and the relative lack of eddies on this creek.

Back at the put-in point we found, I slip into my camo bad-boy kayak under the 30th Street bridge. Ann bids farewell and bicycles down the creek path, hoping to catch (worried) glimpses of me (and jealous because she can now see that the creek water looks like a lot of fun). I happily and confidently inch forward with my paddle, and the current soon grabs me.

I’m off!

Very soon, I am feeling as if I perhaps got myself into more than I bargained for. The water and waves are bigger and faster than I had anticipated. The current is so strong (particularly compared to the quiet Florida waters I was accustomed to) that I quickly realize I would have to rapidly and strongly paddle hard to avoid being sent crashing into tree branches. Two unexpectedly large S-turns require me to quickly learn how to dig in with my paddle and steer into the middle of the current. PAY ATTENTION, DOM! YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS (Florida) ANYMORE!

My breathing is coming hard, and worry is in my head. Would the boat repeatedly flip like my earlier kayak had done – sending me into the icy cold snowmelt waters?

Fortunately, my new boat turns out to be very stable and never gives the impression that it is on the verge of flipping.

Several times, the strong current disconcertingly forces me under small tree branches that harmlessly brush over and past me. Whew! Boulder_creek_colorado

No big tree limbs yet. Nothing strong enough to catch me in a deadly strainer.

But I do find myself at this point beginning to question the accuracy of the claim that this stretch of the creek was relatively free of strainers and other obstacles. And I realize that because I am on much faster water than I had expected, I would finish running this section in what seems like 3 minutes. NOT an hour!

Another hair-raising, unexpected discovery then appears. I have not one, but two drops and big waves in front of me! I had seen no drops while scouting the section twice. What are these doing here? Am I ready to navigate over them? Probably not, I decide. Here comes trouble…

But again, my inflatable shows impressive stability and I go over both drops so free of incident that my confidence level soars.

Until I come to the next turn.

In front of me is a seemingly impenetrable wall of vegetation. I immediately spot two small gaps in the vegetation on both edges of the creek channel. Which one to take? I choose the one on the right.

Bad decision.

The “gap” is surprisingly choked with relatively large branches, and my kayak is instantly squeezed and trapped by the pushy water under one of them. I am unceremoniously dumped out of my boat and into the madly rushing current. It is my first-ever experience with a “serious” strainer.

And I must, without hesitation, decide how to save myself. Instantly. No time to think. The current is too fast and too strong to give me even a second to figure out how to solve my problem. Instinctively, I realize I must somehow stay with my boat to save myself from the furious current – a current which is a mighty force trying to tear my frantic grip from the tree branch I have grabbed in the strainer of caught branches.

I am situated slightly ahead of my stuck kayak – so stuck that I cannot budge it. With all my strength, I try to pull myself back to my boat. But after several minutes of trying, it is no good. I am not making any progress against the 430 cubic feet per second of snowmelt water bearing down on me, and seemingly fighting me to prevent me from rescuing my kayak.

The problem is made worse by the fact that I can only use one hand to pull, as my other hand must hold onto my paddle. Without the paddle, I will be utterly unable to navigate the fiery whitewaters downstream from me.

Then an idea occurs to me: Instead of working directly against the current by taking the shortest route back to my boat, I opt to GO AROUND the current by working my way into the tangle of tree branches to the left of my kayak.

It works.

After several minutes using my new tactic, I somehow manage to get alongside the kayak. But the inflated portions of my boat are tenaciously being held by the branch stubs. Nevertheless, through a series of strategic lifting of branches and pushing my boat in various directions, I free my kayak from its tree prison. Because I am now separated from my boat by a large branch, I decide I must pull myself over the branch and hop (flop?) into the kayak. I must also align myself within the kayak quickly enough to be able to immediately and strongly navigate in the angry, high-speed waters.

To my horror, a relatively large tree branch has somehow managed to perch itself across the front of my kayak bow. I realize I cannot continue with this monster log on my boat, so I take a moment to flip it off with my paddle.

Another mistake.

Not even a second is available when creek water rages below me. With terror in my eyes, I turn my head in the downstream direction and realize that I am only a few feet from ANOTHER drop. And this is the biggest one I’ve faced so far. No time to right my boat to face downstream. I immediately and unintentionally find myself going over the drop and rapids. Backwards. Not a good maneuver for a whitewater novice in a new boat. In an angry torrent of rushing water.

But again, my kayak stays upright and I am shocked to find myself passing the drop and rapid as if I was an expert.

After some worry that I have inadvertently passed the agreed-upon take-out bridge (and the thought that doing so would doom me, as I have no way to inform my girlfriend that I had passed her by), I spot the familiar bridge I had spotted earlier that would signal I was at the take-out point. I confidently and calmly steer my kayak to the eddie I had spotted while scouting.

Another unforgettable, adrenalin-pumping adventure has come to a successful end. And I can’t wait to ride that snake again…

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hotpooling & Hiking Steamboat Sprgs, Then Kayaking the Colorado River (May 2012)

Ann and I decide to initiate the summer 2012 adventure season with a multi-day and multi-sport trip to northern Colorado. Sounds very good to me, I tell her appreciatively.

First stop: Steamboat Springs. Never did I think that this small skier paradise town would be of any interest in the warm months. I soon discover how wrong I am.

We drive through town and follow a long dirt road seven miles upslope into the mountains. My first thought is that this road must be impossible to navigate in winter with anything less than a large snowcat mountain vehicle. A steep, unpaved road like this would be unthinkable to drive in a passenger car when the route is buried in several feet of winter snow – as it surely must be for much of each winter.

Our destination is Strawberry Hot Springs. Ann has been here before. Her last visit was on September 11, 2011, the day of infamy where she first learned of the plane attack on the World Trade Center towers.

The hot springs were long ago used by the Ute Indians, who believed that the steam rising from the Strawberry Park Hot Springs contained their creator’s essence. The Utes soaked in the springs to rejuvenate their soul.

The area surrounding the hot springs was eventually settled by Europeans around 1870. The first owner grew tired of chasing off trespassers, and sold the springs to the city of Steamboat Springs for $1 in 1936.

In the 1970s, neighbors regularly complained about loud, wild parties at the springs, which contributed to the City deciding to sell the property to a private owner.

During our day and overnight camp at the hot springs, we are to learn that private ownership has resulted in an impressive, luxurious, classy restoration of the springs.

Today, one finds high-quality tent camping, “covered wagon” cottages, cabins, a clean and pleasant bathhouse (containing showers, sinks, and toilets), stone masonry walls forming edges for walkways and the numerous hot pools, created waterfalls, very warm mineral water pools, sandy pool bottoms, and pine lounge chairs. Overall, the park is very well done. I am particularly impressed by the fact that unlike so many of the hot springs found in Colorado — which tend to be little more than artificial, concrete and hokey swimming pools – Strawberry Hot Springs is rather charming, romantic and tasteful.

While there, I am amused to learn that after dark, clothing is optional, which apparently explains why I notice such a large group of pool users arriving as the sun sets. The next morning, we find a bra hanging from a shrub near a pool, which leads me to speculate that at night, the pools are not only populated by nudists, but also by, shall we say, “adult activities.” I was sorry to have turned in to our tent too early on our night at the springs…

At our arrival, the first order of business is not to set up our camp, but to get into the soothing warm mineral pools. We relax in the pools for hours of therapeutic soaking. We feel our stress and worries (and the soreness of my muscles from just having run the Bolder Boulder 10-kilometer road race) melting away.

We set up our tent, which is on a wonderful unpaved pad sitting next to the hot springs stream. I chuckle at the swinging wood door that sits alone without connecting walls at the “entrance” of our camp site. First time I have ever camped at a site with a wooden “front door.”

After our tent is up, we quickly head back for another leisurely soak in the pools. AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!…

The next morning, we make oatmeal and tea. We then take our third soak in the pools, and then break camp.

On this sunny Wednesday morning, our plan is to hike all day. We’ve been told that there are many wonderful trails in the Steamboat Springs area, so Ann decides to randomly stop at a trailhead just down the road from the hot springs park entrance. At the information kiosk, a map of the “Bear Creek Trail” is posted, but it is the most uninformative trail map I have ever seen. All one sees is a crooked dashed line from the “you are here” arrow to some destination off to the right edge of the map. There is no distance stated. No elevation profile or gradient mentioned. No natural or human features noted along the trail.

Since our intended hike for the day is relatively short, we opt to add this rather unknown, featureless trail to our day hiking. “There must be at least a Bear Creek along the way,” after all.

As I expect, for our few hours of hiking on the trail, we come across no features of note. The trail is almost entirely uphill from the trailhead. It follows pleasant forest and low-lying scrub trees and sagebush. Perhaps the leading reward for the hiker on Bear Creek Trail are the expansive, impressive views of hills, valleys and ski mountains in the Steamboat Springs region.

Each of the stream beds that we find along the way are dry, by the way. Perhaps they are intermittent streams. But perhaps we are seeing the effects of a winter snowpack that is only seven percent of normal levels for the winter that has just passed…

We drive down the road, where we find the highly touted Fish Creek Falls Trail, which is also north of Steamboat Springs. This trail is highly touted for good reason, we are to learn. There are two major falls along the trail. Lower Falls is a very short walk on a smooth path from the trailhead parking. Perhaps the most spectacular falls in all of mountainous Colorado. This is a big WOW falls. Don’t miss it.

The trail then becomes a 2.5-mile hike up a rather steep incline to the second Upper Falls. This trail alternates between being smooth and level, and somewhat rocky. Great views of the valley and canyon are found along the way. Much of the trail follows pleasant aspen and pine forest. We spot a gorgeous, extremely colorful small bird along the way that we have never seen before (later, I learn it is a Western Tanager). The Western Tanager sports a dayglow fire engine red head, and a black and yellow body.

Midway up the trail, a woman on her way down the trail approaches me and asks, “Are you from Gainesville FL?” She informs me that she remembers seeing me working out at a fitness center in Gainesville. It occurs to me that Gainesville is 1,750 miles from this remote northern trail in Colorado, and I have not worked out at the Gainesville fitness center for at least 8-10 years. We live in a small world…

Our final adventure for this late May excursion in central Colorado is a half-day inflatable kayak trip from the Pumphouse Recreation Area put-in to the Radium Recreation Area on the Colorado River. This will be my first-ever taste of paddling the mighty Colorado River and it will be my first experience trying to shift from 20 years of rigid-body kayaking to an inflatable kayak.

During our drive down to Kremmling CO from Steamboat Springs, we pass by several antelope grazing near Rt 40, which I have never seen before in the wild.

I am excited because I have never been on the Colorado, and because I have recently learned that the inflatable kayak (IK) may be just what someone with my skills and paddling needs requires to enjoy kayaking in Colorado (given my being an adrenalin junkie who has spent his kayaking career on the relatively placid flat waters of Florida).

The start of the paddle finds me feeling surprisingly uncomfortable, despite the gentle ripples I am floating over, and despite my handful of prior experiences with some whitewater paddling last year. The IK is relatively short and rounded, which means I find great difficulty remaining stable, holding a straight line, or guiding the boat in directions I desire.

But not for long.

Soon, I am confidently and comfortably paddling. I am no longer timidly following our trip leader to know where to safely paddle. Instead, I am strongly and purposefully out front, picking good lines and enjoying the wave trains – gentle as they may be (but just right for a Florida flatwater kayaker out for his first time of the season). I quickly vow to seek out more in the way of Class II+ and Class III water, and on an IK of my own.

Also helpful in reducing my embarrassing anxiety on this day is that the Colorado River is a very, very low 330 cfs (compared to over 1500 cfs this time last year). As I noted above, the very tiny snowpack from the recent winter season is creating quite disappointing conditions for paddlers throughout the state as we head into the summer whitewater season. Another comparison of how 330 cfs is bone dry for this stretch of the Colorado: The record volume for this location at the Pumphouse was 11,400 cfs in 1984.

Our river section turns out to be rather scenic. We pass through the impressive Little Gore Canyon (the more tame and doable version of the forbidding, Class V Gore Canyon just upstream, which hosts the national whitewater kayaking championships). We stop for a quick soak at a lovely little hot spring that borders the river along the way.

Because we are out of the water earlier than expected, we opt to drive Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park on the way back to Boulder. This is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. From Kawuneeche Visitor Center where we start our drive at the park’s Grand Lake Entrance, Trail Ridge Road follows the North Fork of the Colorado River north through the Kawuneeche Valley. There are several trailheads along this section of the road, notably the Colorado River Trailhead, which is the western terminus of the road segment closed during the winter.

The road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elev. 10,758 ft) and reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 ft, near Fall River Pass (elev. 11,796 ft).

Near the start point of our drive at Grand Lake, we encounter a pair of enormous moose which are feeding on the tender spring leaves of brush near us. The males sport their young, fuzzy antlers.

Further down the road, we drive sections that induce vertigo, as the narrow road drops several hundred feet abruptly on both sides of us. The snow-capped mountains standing at over 12,000 feet in elevation on either side of us are awesome as they jut into the sky they dominate.

Our final taste of the National Park is our encounter with a large number of elk, which we find lazily grazing alongside the road in several locations.

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during this trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKeNQAir1Hs

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking, Biking, Rafting Buena Vista and Salida, Colorado (2011

Ann and I have just returned from a 3-day trip to central Colorado. Our departure is mid-morning on a Tuesday, and Ann wisely has us drive the highly scenic Route 285 from Denver. We enter a broad, expansive valley of ranches. To our west/northwest loom the stunning, enormous, snow-capped peaks of the “Collegiate Mountain Range” in the Rocky Mountains. It is the stereotypical image of Colorado. Exactly what one pictures when thinking of Colorado and the Rockies: Ranches bordered by rustic wood fences, and a flat valley floor that so abruptly juts to the sky from a flat plain with huge, snowy mountains—snow that seems to glow iridescently in the bright western sun–that it does not seem real. I have Ann pull over so I can snap a few photos of the incredible scene before us.

The mountain range is called “collegiate” as many of these 14,000-plus mountains in front of us have names such as “Mt Yale” and “Mt Princeton” and “Mt Harvard.” To our northwest rises Mt Elbert, which, at 14,443 feet, stands as the highest point in Colorado.

We arrive in the quite charming town of Buena Vista (pronounced “Boona,” oddly, by the natives). To get settled, we check in at the “Liars Lodge B&B,” named because the B&B has a fisherman theme, and fishermen love to tell tall tales about their alleged fishing exploits. The lodge is spectacular. Vaulted wood ceilings, great deck and room views of the river and mountains, cookies and wine provided to guests throughout the day, and a hearty breakfast of omelets, juice, tea, and French Toast in the morning.

We park at the town’s River Park adjacent to the mighty Arkansas River, a river that makes Buena Vista (and Salida, a short distance to the south) ground zero for some of the best whitewater rafting and kayaking in the Western Hemisphere.

Here, we are in awe watching several “playboat” kayakers playing in the powerful “play holes” of foaming, boiling, hydraulic, stationary waves rolling back against the water flow, where the kayakers eddy back and forth and sometimes do back flips with their kayaks. As a lifelong – and flatwater — kayaker, I am astonished by the skill we see. It looks impossibly acrobatic and sometimes suicidal. At 3,500 cubic feet per second (due to an ENORMOUS runoff of a HUGE snowpack in the Rockies this season, the Arkansas is a dangerous beast. Indeed, the run I am hoping to raft – The Numbers – is closed to commercial rafts because it is so over its banks, so powerful and so rampaging with a long, continuous wave train of rapids.

After observing the paddlers, we hop on our mountain bikes, cross a river bridge, and are immediately having a ball riding on the single-track Barbara Whipple mountain bike trails just across the river from Buena Vista. Fun and rather technical riding is found on the many loop trails here. Some relatively steep uphills that leave me GASPING for air. I’m in relatively good shape after just having trained for and run the Bolder Boulder 10K, but here in the Buena Vista valley, we are at 7,965 feet of elevation, where very little oxygen is found – even less than the relatively low-elevation of Boulder at 5,430 feet.

After the mountain biking, where we are treated to spectacular views of the Buena Vista valley and the “Collegiates” looming to the west, we ride a short distance along the river and are stunned to see the power of the rapids along the river – just a downslope (granite) stone’s throw from South Main Street in Buena Vista.

We peddle up to Main Street and immediately come upon our pre-trip Buena Vista target: Eddyline Brewpub. We sit at the outdoor café where I enjoy a fabulously tasty, full-bodied Pine Creek Porter brewed by Eddyline, as well as a delicious, chewy calzone. So enjoyable is the ambience that Ann strolls across the street to check the prices of some newly-built homes.

We could live here…

Later, we dine at The Asian Palate, a nice, flavorful Thai restaurant on Main Street.

After a peaceful night of sleep at our B&B, we arise Wednesday morning and drive up a dirt road to catch a glimpse of The Numbers section of the Arkansas. It is clear to us, when we get out to have a look at the roaring fury, why this section has been closed. Fast, strong water that would lead to major, life-threatening worries for any rafter unfortunate enough to be dumped out of the raft and then in need of having to save his or her life by desperately (and probably hopelessly) swimming to back to the boat or shore.

We eat lunch on the river bank and drive to the American Adventure Expeditions rafting company location, where we had earlier made a reservation. Two paddlers that were supposed to be on our boat have left to find an ATM due to a faulty credit card. They don’t return in time and are replaced by three “rookie” raft guides. Because Ann and I have both rafted fearsome rapids in the past (Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for Ann, and the dreaded Gauley River in West Virginia for me), our raft is filled with highly skilled rafters who have previously experienced extreme conditions. As it turns out, our guide (Henry) is an excellent raftsman, and he guides us through the now harrowing “Canyon Doors” rapid, “Pinball” rapid, “Zoom Flume” rapid, “Graveyard” rapid (one assumes this to be an aptly named stretch), and “Widowmaker” rapid through Brown’s Canyon of the Arkansas River. With over 100 miles of rapids and 200,000 rafters per year, the Arkansas is the most popular whitewater river in the world.

Unfortunately for adrenaline junkie Dom, because our raft contains so much navigational skill, our raft remains upright for our entire journey, which disappoints me, as I’ve learned that the most fun one can have in whitewater rafting is to have the raft dump all of its occupants into the fierce, unforgiving waters. Nevertheless, I enjoy the wild-eyed experience of paddling in the front part of the raft (where my paddle speed must be matched by the other paddlers in our synchronized paddling). Up front, I take the brunt of the walls of whitewater that frequently come crashing down on us as we charge into the oblivion of huge waves of rapids. My left hand ends up being shredded into several open blisters by the strong paddling I do (one needs to paddle as if your life depends on it – which it does…).

We end up at Amica’s, another brewpub with excellent calzones, later in the day in Salida (a delightful historic town 24 miles south of Buena Vista).

On Thursday, we set out for a hike just east of the continental divide near Cottonwood Pass (12,126 feet in elevation). Our first option is the Ptarmigan Lake Trail, which we are told is gorgeous. Unfortunately, this north-facing trail is still under several feet of snow despite our being here on a sunny, warm day on June 9th (only 12 days from the official start of summer). The second recommended trail we opt for is the Hartenstein Lake Trail nearby. But again we are thwarted, as a raging creek is too wide and treacherous for us to be willing to cross to continue on the trail.

Instead, we head back to Buena Vista for another Eddyline beer. Ann perches herself on a large boulder on the river to read a book, and I return to the mountain bike trail for another hair-raising, technical ride down trails I have no business riding on so recklessly.

Next time I return to this area, I intend to hike the two trails we were turned back from (later in the year, such as July or August), and also to sample the Monarch Crest Mountain Bike Trail west of Salida, which we were told is ranked 10th in the world for scenic mountain bike rides (fabulous views of the Rockies, valleys and lakes).

This link shows a photo movie of our trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rasbmWaNKg0

 

 

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Bicycling, Colorado, Hiking, Paddling | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking Boulder Creek, Colorado (2010)

My adventure buddy, who has kayaked with me on nearly all the navigable water in Florida, is visiting me in Boulder CO. Unquestionably, that means I am going to initiate him in the art (danger?) of whitewater (rather than FL flatwater) kayaking.

Fortunately, I have recently been fortunate to meet a new local friend who is a long-time veteran whitewater paddler in Colorado. In my recent experiences with him, I find that he is a patient, safe, knowledgeable instructor. I am thrilled that he is available to introduce my friend to the ins and outs of whitewater.

We have breakfast at Foolish Craig’s on Pearl Street, then head to the Boulder Creek Playpark.

The park is ideal for beginner and intermediate whitewater kayakers. It starts with a rather intimidating-looking six-foot slide drop into a huge pool. We opt not to start out with that drop (or try it at all during our time at the Creek) during our initiation. The park also includes 4-5 other, smaller drops into smaller pools of water.

As is my trademark, I spend most of the day successfully navigating the drops, and flipping upside down numerous times in the downstream eddies, which are treacherous for us new kayakers who make the mistake of relaxing and not paying attention to the dangers of this strong, swirling water.

While the creek level is down considerably from just a few days prior, it retains a current that we Florida paddlers are not yet accustomed to. As I approach a drop on my first run, the surprisingly strong current whips my kayak around just at the precipice of the drop, and I am suddenly horrified to find myself unintentionally kayaking down this whitewater drop backwards. Despite my never having taken a whitewater rapid backwards before (and my extreme terror), I somehow am able to successfully negotiate it.

I shout in triumph as I find myself unexpectedly upright downstream.

The last drop is chillingly called “Widowmaker.” We successfully run it twice, then become grade school boys again by using the rope swing to plunge into the pool a few times.

The creek begins along the continental divide and flows through the town of Nederland into Barker Meadow Reservoir, a water supply for the city of Boulder. From there it flows down Boulder Canyon and through downtown Boulder. After leaving the city, it flows Northeast into Weld County, where it joins St. Vrain Creek and ultimately flows into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Whitewater Kayaking at Lyons Playpark & Poudre River, Colorado (2010)

I have kayaked for over 20 years on nearly all navigable waters in Florida. And they are all calm, gentle flatwater experiences.

But I am also an adrenaline junkie.

So when I moved to the mountain-rich town of Boulder CO nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains this past December, my mouth has been watering countless times when I catch a glimpse of vigorous whitewater creeks and rivers. I vow to myself to ride that exciting, churning water as soon as I can.

Then, on a beautiful Saturday morning, fate smiles down at me. Sitting at a yard sale is a cute little Necky whitewater kayak, an item that I had optimistically placed on my “buy” list a few months ago. Along with it comes a mint $150 paddle, a spray skirt, and a life vest. And they are nearly giving it away.

Asking price: $25.

I nearly scream to myself in ecstasy.

Quickly, I pay for it and pick it up to walk it home. A photo of it is below.

The search for a way to get it in the water for a test run is on.

Good fortune is soon paying me another visit. My new friend, Ann, knows a guy who is an experienced river guide and whitewater kayak instructor. Would I be interested in meeting him?

ARE YOU KIDDING ME, ANN??? OF COURSE!!

Appropriately, the instructor proposes we start off getting my “sea legs” by testing out me and my new little boat at the Lyons “playpark,” a place that is known throughout the region for novice whitewater kayak fun.

The playpark contains a section of the St Vrain Creek. The St. Vrain is a tributary of the South Platte River, approximately 40 miles long, in north central Colorado. It drains a part of the foothills north of Boulder and the Colorado Piedmont area in the vicinity of Longmont. Middle St. Vrain Creek rises along the continental divide, west of St. Vrain Mountain.

On this sunny Thursday morning, the St Vrain is running at 400 cfs in Lyons. My day of paddling as a newbie whitewater kayaker is a bit humbling, but nevertheless quite enjoyable. Early on, the nimble, eight-foot Necky flips me upside down, but I quickly scramble out of the cockpit with a wet exit.

While my comfort level grows in negotiating whitewater drop zones, ferrying across the current, and catching eddies over the course of the day, I find the current to be stronger than I had bargained for. Certainly, 400 cfs coming out of the Rockies is a challenge for a flatlander like me. I ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The next day, Friday, finds us heading to the gorgeous Poudre (pronounced poo-der) River. So attractive that the river is the only designated Wild and Scenic River in Colorado.

The headwaters of the Poudre are in the Front Range in Larimer County, in the northern part of Rocky Mountain National Park. The river descends eastward in the mountains through the Roosevelt National Forest in Poudre Canyon. It emerges from the foothills north of the city of Fort Collins. It flows eastward across the plains, passing north of the city of Greeley, and flows into the South Platte River approximately five miles east of Greeley.

The name of the river means “hiding place of the powder” in French. It refers to an incident in the 1820s when French trappers, caught by a snowstorm, were forced to bury part of their gunpowder along the banks of the river.

As the skilled instructor he is, my new kayak friend patiently scouts each of the rapids and whitewater with me, carefully explaining how to best run each whitewater section, the dangers of each, what to avoid, and how to avoid the hazards (occasionally, though, I glance around for the gunpowder…)

I am comforted by this scouting guidance from my new friend.

Until he shows me the most demanding whitewater on this “Filter Plant” section of the Poudre: Mad Dog Rapids.

Here, he suggests a route through the rapids, but it would require my entering the angrily churning whitewater at an angle so that I can strongly, aggressively power my Necky away from dangerous big water on the river right side. River left through the rapids is simply blasting straight through. To safety.

He points out that I can either try to run the Rapid, or portage around it if I am uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable, but am too proud to show it. Besides, I’ve come to this river with my whitewater kayak to immerse myself in the thrills of battling wild-eyed waters coming out of the Rockies.

So I commit myself to running it. After all, I’ve previously informed Ann that my will is updated. I wonder, fleetingly, if this will be my last day. Even if I die, I decide it would be an honorable death doing what I love doing.

Let’s ride this bad boy…

Starting off at Gateway Park, we enjoy several minutes of relatively calm waters. Disconcertingly, though, the current feels even stronger than it did yesterday on the St Vrain, and I don’t feel as if I have much control in guiding the direction of the kayak. Instead, the strong (“pushy,” as my friend calls it) current is mostly deciding where the kayak will go rather than a decision from me. I am a cork wildly and fiercely being jerked up and down like popping popcorn.

And the little Necky, with its sharp, unforgiving edges, constantly feels as if it is going to flip upside down.

I work hard, though, to keep that from happening in this river, which today is running at a powerful 1500 cfs.

Indeed, in the relatively calm sections of the Poudre, I twice flip the boat and must drain the heavy water out of the cockpit.

I keep repeating the instructions from my friend in my head.

“Lean downstream!”

“Lift your upstream leg to tilt the boat away from the current!”

“Watch your lean!”

Then, suddenly, my buddy announces The Approach. Next section to negotiate: Mad Dog Rapid.

I do what I can to calm myself and recall his many instructions about safely running through the roaring maw of tumultuous whitewater. “Stay river left, Dom!”, I tell myself, fully aware of the uncomfortable fact that I well know this rampaging current controls where my boat goes much more than I control it.

Before I know it, I reach the upstream edge of Mad Dog. I gasp. And hold my breath. “Paddle hard!,” I remind myself from the instructions. “Lean forward!”

Furiously, I dig my paddle hard and fast. I lean forward – fighting the instinct to lean away from the coming jaws of whitewater death.

After what seems like infinity, I reach relatively calm water. Somehow, the boat and I are still upright. As folk singer Grant Livingston learned from his grandfather, I kept the “pointy side up.” I am immensely relieved. And proud of my unlikely accomplishment.

Dipping the boat upstream is the natural instinct in the same way that inappropriately leaning back on a ski slope is a dangerous yet natural instinct. Leaning upstream into the current significantly increases the tendency of the river current to build up on the boat deck and force the boat to flip upside down.

I feel like a deer in the headlights. Hyperventilating the entire one hour route. The stress and strenuous, physically demanding efforts to keep from flipping drain me of energy. But at the same time, it is an exhilarating experience. I vow to one day reach the goal of being able to confidently whitewater kayak without constantly having to think about what to do next. To avoid catastrophe unthinkingly.

To lean instinctively in the correct direction.

Yes, the Poudre River boasts spectacular scenery worthy of its Wild and Scenic designation. The canyon walls impressively tower over the kayaker. But on this day, I’m too distracted to enjoy it as fully as I would like.

All in all, my verdict as an experienced flatwater kayaker and one who has rafted big whitewater in the Eastern US is that here in the Rockies, kayaking Class III whitewater feels like rafting in Class V whitewater.

And my little Necky is not, as my garage sale seller told me, a “beginner” boat. It is a quickly responding “playboat” that likes to flip and spin whenever it can.

When can I ride again?

Postscript

Two weeks later we are back on the Poudre with my Florida adventure buddy. During one of the rapids we must negotiate, my kayak flips upside down. With my head pointing down, my forehead gets whacked by a boulder at the river bottom. I emerge to find lots of blood coming from my surprisingly unpainful wound.

Despite the fact that the dreaded Mad Dog rapid is our next river feature to negotiate after my incident, I opt to press on and run that bad boy…despite the blood and daze…

Unfortunately, the timing of my injury can’t be worse. Two hours later, I make a previously scheduled presentation in front of a Fort Collins audience about SAFETY, of all things. What can be worse than getting up in front of an audience to speak about safety when you have a bloody bandage on your forehead? “This guy doesn’t know the first thing about safety!!”

When we started our paddle earlier in the day, I had accidentally put my helmet on backwards. Our instructor points this out to me, and I turn it around to avoid looking like a dork. Ironically, had I NOT turned my helmet around, there is some chance my forehead would have been spared, as the back of the helmet extends lower than the front.

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Pellicer Creek, Florida (December 2007)

I fly to Jacksonville to deliver a speech about suburban sprawl and traffic congestion. The venue will be the UF Whitney Lab. My audience is the South Anastasia Community Association.

Generously, my host offers to show me his old boyhood stomping grounds, since he grew up in Crescent Beach. He offers and I readily accept a quick motorboat trip up the Moses Creek. The creek feeds into the Intercoastal Waterway at Crescent Beach, and we depart near dusk.

We pass the tallest tree along the shoreline, and as one can predict, the king of eagles has set up residence at the treetop with the best view of the area — the magnificent bald eagle.

Soon, we beach our boat and ascend to bluff that provides us with an impressive vista view of the estuary before us. My host then brings us back to a quiet campsite, where we sit before a crackling campfire, drink a few beers, smoke a few cigars, and discuss important ideas and childhood reminisces.

First thing the next morning, I arrive at a fish camp concession, where kayaks can be rented. I have changed my mind overnight. Instead of a long, arduous paddle across the sometimes intimidating Intercoastal, I have decided the much better approach is to drive to an upstream put-in point for the Pellicer Creek, thereby bypassing an unrewarding paddle and starting much closer to the wilderness I seek.

The problem with the plan is that I have a small rental car. Not willing to let that stop me, the concession attendant and I fashion a way to carry the kayak on the little vehicle. Carefully, I drive off to Faver Dykes State Park, where a boat ramp awaits me.

At 9 am, I put in at Faver Dykes. I paddle upstream for about 1.5 hours through a zig-zagging esturine creek system. Happily, I do so without other boaters in the vicinity. A great many flying mullet and bait fish leap in the air in front of my kayak.

I cross under the I-95 and US 1 bridges.

That is when the paddling becomes superb.

I enter an exceptionally narrow, wilderness-like creek channel. A channel that does not appear to have every seen a boater before. The creek here seems so remote and so much like a wilderness far from civilization that I start getting the disconcerting feeling that should I get lost, I may never be found.

Certainly, the fact that the creek here is somewhat braided and presenting me with forks (which way should I go?) lends more anxiety to my trip. “Will I be able to remember this fork well enough when I paddle back to recall which direction to go?” I make a major mental note of any sort of creek landmark. “Remember that chain-sawed palm tree and turn right when I come back. Don’t forget. I ain’t gettin’ out of here if I forget.”

Along the way, I am treated to two otter (one playing in the water just in front of me, and one scampering along the creek on dry land to my left – otters are not the most graceful animal when running). I also spot a red fox darting through the cypress trees.

One also is able to enjoy an enormous number of heron and ducks along the Pellicer Creek.

I recommend it, and plan to return for additional exploration in the future (hopefully with a GPS…).

 

 

 

 

Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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