Monday, August 3, 2009

Rafting the Colorado River

Charlie MacArthur and his students at the 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonYesterday I joined my friend Kurt Beereboom and the staff and students of the Aspen Kayak Academy ( for a trip down the Colorado River from Westwater to Cisco in eastern Utah, northeast of Moab. Kurt and I manned his sixteen-foot inflatable raft while everybody else paddled high-performance kayaks, except Andy, who paddled the entire distance standing upright on a paddle board.

Kurt Beereboom and his whitewater raft in the eddy at 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonThis was my first-ever rafting experience so I didn't know what to expect. I had done canoe trips in the Boy Scouts, but the rapids we negotiated then were ripples compared to what I imagined we would be encountering. I wasn't wrong. There were about twelve sections of rapids, and each was at least a Class III on the whitewater rapid classification scale, which goes from Class I to Class VI. The names say it all: "Staircase," "Funnel," "The Wall," "Sock-It-To-Me," "Last Chance."

Aspen Kayak Academy student in the standing wave at 'Little D' rapids in Westwater CanyonOne of the principles I live by is to not participate in activities where a single mistake could kill you. So I don't paraglide, rock climb or kayak. I have known people who died doing each of those activities. Whitewater rafting is borderline. At a certain level, it's just a complicated way to drown. I would never sign up for a commercial rafting trip, but Kurt invited me to join him on his raft, with which he has several years of experience, on a stretch of river that he has done a few times before, with just the two of us on board. It sounded almost safe.

Charlie MacArthur doing 'Skull' rapids the hard wayThe first photo shows Charlie MacArthur, owner of the Aspen Kayak Academy, taking a turn on Andy's paddle board, along with three of his teenage kayaking students, at the first of the Westwater Canyon rapids, "Little Delores." There is a standing wave there that Charlie and his students took turns "surfing" in their kayaks. On his first pass, Charlie did a jaw-dropping kayak move: at the point where the water dropped into the hole in front of the standing wave, he flipped the kayak over its bow in a cartwheel that landed him in the hole facing back upriver. He followed this with moves where he balanced on the crest and spun the kayak around in circles. When he tired of that, he flipped backward off the crest and came up facing downriver. Unbelievable. The third photo shows one of the students using excellent form to hold himself in the trough of the standing wave, which is flowing left to right. Click the photos for full-size views.

Charlie MacArthur at the entrance to the 'Room of Doom' after negotiating 'Skull' rapidsThe highlight of the day was the "Skull" rapids, an insane Class IV stretch that requires perfect maneuvering to avoid disaster. After passing the large rock on the left that marks the entrance, a boater must row strongly to the left to avoid a dangerously deep hole and then stay left to avoid being sucked into the "Room of Doom," a small natural cove with a perpetual whirlpool that makes it almost impossible to escape in a raft. The fourth photo shows Charlie going the hard way, to the right of the deep hole and perilously close to the sheer rock wall. The final photo shows Charlie at the entrance to the Room of Doom, from which he successfully escaped. Of course.

So how did I fare? I laughed like a soaking wet idiot through every rapid. It was a hoot!

1 comment:

Heather said... looks like fun!!!