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North America : Colorado

Man Overboard! How I survived a Whitewater Rafting Adventure in Colorado’s Royal Gorge

by Hendson Quan

“We had sixteen hits yesterday,” Kiel said to our group of six, with such a big smile on his face I could tell a sense of pride and accomplishment in it. I knew he wasn’t talking about baseball. Kiel was to be our rafting guide and leader on the Arkansas River out of Canon City, Colorado. Those ’16 hits’ must have been something to do with this activity but, being the only first-timer in the group, I was too shy to raise my hand and ask, hoping that over the next two hours I could rely on my observation and listening skills to find out.

Kiel then asked each of us where from, occupation, whitewater rafting experience, adding a bit of small talk on each answer he got in an effort to get the group members to learn something about each other and also to loosen up for the upcoming adventure. Once finished, he placed Rob, from Atlanta, who had the most – 15 years – experience, at the front to ride shotgun. Next row, it was Matt on the right by himself . Then, Judy on the left and Patrick to the right of her.

Next, Brandon, an architect from California, got to sit alone, on the left side, behind Judy. And then it was me on the next row on the right side, in front of Kiel in the back who whispered quietly to me to relax, that he was going to keep an eye on me for being the “new kid on the block.”

Before all this, I along with some forty-five rafting enthusiasts had gathered at the headquarters of Raft Masters, a whitewater rafting outfit with a fine reputation for safety and service that has been in operation for over twenty-five years. There, we were issued wetsuits, splash jackets, river boots and given a ten-minute safety talk. The talk included paddling techniques, position to take when hitting rapids, what to do if the raft capsizes and how to get back in, and what to do if one falls overboard.

As our raft started out on the river, I was reminded of the George Clooney movie “The Perfect Storm” in which he and his crew set sail on the Andrea Gail. Cool and calm waters, beautiful blue skies, great anticipations of what was to come. For about the first twenty minutes, we enjoyed the tranquilty of the waters and the surrounding scenery. Kiel clued us in on the history of whitewater rafting in the area and engaged in friendly chit chats with us, along with describing by name and degree of severity, or ‘class or level,’ of some of the rapids the group was likely to come upon. He also called out paddling commands to us as the raft made its way through the running waters, to avoid rocks or going too near the riverbanks. I carefully listened for and followed Kiel’s paddling instructions. It was fun – I felt like a kid in a bumper car for the first time with his dad at his side giving him driving tips.

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Kiel alerted us of the first of many rapids to hit us, a little one to literally get our feet wet. We braced for it, but the water still hit our faces. “That was a pretty good hit,” Kiel said. It felt good. From that point on, we were to encounter some thirteen more, some in fairly quick succession, but who counts when you are having such fun. After a couple of “hits,” I became brave, telling myself, “Keep ’em coming, bring it on.”

About an hour into our trip, we got into an area of particular calm with the river waters virtually not moving. Kiel signaled us to stop paddling and look up. We were right under the magnificence of the Royal Gorge Bridge, its deck at some 955 feet ( 291.1 m) above, and billed as the world’s highest suspension bridge. What a sight to behold – for a moment everyone was just silently in awe, then each gave exclamations of wonder and amazement. Needless to say, our cameras got quite busy.

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Look Around!

River or rapid difficulty is rated using a class system, I to V, with the lower being appropriate for a beginner and V suitable for an expert raftsman. For the Royal Gorge region of the Arkansas River, all rapids have classifications of III or higher. Some of the class IV-V rapids on our route that Kiel mentioned have names of Boat Eater, Sledgehammer and Sunshine Falls. Class III rapid names include Lion’s Head, The Pipeline and El Primero. The availability of names certainly adds a personal touch to any recount of a rafting adventure trip.

In fact, it was at Sledgehammer that I literally got slammed and fell overboard into the water. Even with a warning from Kiel to the team, I failed to physically counter enough the massive wave that hit our raft on its left side and practically lifted it up some 45 degrees. Being on the right side, and unable to withstand the powerful wave, I instantly flipped into the water. Remembering the safety talk and using my quick reaction before the raging water could carry me away from the raft, I managed to keep my head above water and with my right hand instinctively grabbed the rope tied around the raft. Within a split second, Kiel with one hand grabbed me by my life jacket and in a continous motion pulled me up and out out the water back onto the raft. He asked, nonchalantly, “Are you alright?” I was all wet, but just fine.

During the trip, we experienced gradual drops ranging 10 – 30 feet that varied between 10 – 25 degree angles. However, near the end of our trip, there was a steep drop of practically 90 degree angle, but for just 5 feet. Luckily Kiel had alerted us about it coming. Indescrible feeling – akin to a ride on a water slide at an amusement park but this was straight down!

The Arkansas River enjoys tremendous popularity as it is the most rafted river in the world. At certain spots it narrows to just 25 feet (17.6 m) and cliffs can be as steep as 1,100 feet (335.3m). During late May through June, the water levels are at their highest, attracting the more experienced whitewater rafter or serious adventure seeker. For the less experienced or family groups, July through August are the best times to go. Whitewater rafting combines both anticipation and sensation, not to mention paddling skills, to give a memorable experience. Each year in late June, the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival attracts tens of thousands of enthusiasts. For two days, it offers “Boats, Bands, Beer” and plenty of food. With more than 20 different activities, attendees of all ages may choose to enjoy by being participants and/or spectators.

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Look Down!

Also Do: A jeep tour offers insight into the area’s history and geography, as well as its geological formations. Will Colon, an affable down-to-earth fellow and owner and operator of Colorado Jeep Tours, is the man to see. On selected scheduled jeep tours, one of the highlights is the chance to ride atop the deck of the Royal Gorge Bridge and be able to look below at the river and around for the gorgeous view of the whole region.

Also Visit: Wine connoisseurs would not want to pass up a chance to visit The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, just 12 miles (22.2 km) east of the Royal Gorge Bridge. Its signature wine is “The Revelation,” a meritage blend of equal amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. The Winery’s popular favorite among locals and non-locals alike is “Apple Blossom,” a very sweet fruity fermentation of Colorado apples.

Stay At: In Colorado Springs, the Old Town Guesthouse, an AAA Diamond Award winner, features fireplaces, hot tubs on private porches and steam showers. A unique attraction and amenity is its state-of-the-art waveless waterbeds in every room, for sleeping pleasure and therapeutic benefits. Another unique attraction, and more of an amenity, is its indoor elevator. Although this bed and breakfast inn of brick construction has only three stories, its elevator does add convenience and comfort to guests.

If you go:

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