What makes rafting Gore Canyon so different from rafting most other commercial whitewater in Colorado?
“The fact that you could die today,” said raft guide Keith Kirchner.
The Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting company guide was in a van with 11 clients, bumping down a dirt road to the start of the 10-mile, Class V run through some of the nastiest, most remote rapids in the state. And, perhaps, he realized his words didn’t sound so encouraging.
“No, actually, I shouldn’t say that,” Kirchner said. “Let’s just say this ain’t no pony ride.”
Gore Canyon is the third-toughest commercially guided stretch of whitewater in the country and by far the gnarliest in Colorado. It’s a staircase of frothing rapids dropping an average of 120 feet a mile through an almost sheer canyon.
The tumult is the result of a long geological argument between the Colorado River, which has been flowing through the area for roughly 30 million years, and the Gore Range, a jagged wall of metamorphic rock that rose like a dam in front of the river about 20 million years ago. Instead of flowing around, the Colorado sliced the mountains in half with a narrow, 1,000-foot-deep gouge.
In any state but Colorado, the awe-inspiring gorge would be a national monument. Here, few nonpaddlers have heard of it. It’s hidden far from major roads, and the season when it’s possible to run — August to October — is when most recreational raft riders have turned their attention to work and school.
In paddling circles, however, Gore is legendary. It is a proving ground. It is the zenith. It is a lair of angry boat-eating froth. It is home of the annual U.S. National Rafting Championships. It is also a rush anyone can experience for about $150. Well, almost anyone.
“You have to be fit. We tell people you have to run a mile or swim 10 laps. If they can’t, we steer them to a more mellow trip,” said Duke Bradford, owner of AVA, one of two regular guiding companies in Gore.
Even with the rules, the group of rafters piling out of the van at the Gore launch site didn’t exactly look hard-core. There was a couple from Kansas, two 20-something sisters from California, and a guy from Illinois who had said back home, “rafting means tying a few tubes together with a cooler.”
To go on a Gore trip with AVA, you have to be at least 15 years old. Matt Belec made the cut by months.
“I’m probably going to die. I’m totally freaked out,” said the skinny redhead from Minnesota who had come with his father and older sister. “But it was either this or do a Class II with Mom.”
“You marked the box that said ‘organ donor,’ right Matt?” his dad said, slapping him on the back.
It was only sort of a joke. About 17 people die whitewater rafting each year in the United States. Five commercial raft clients died on the Arkansas River in less than two months in the summer of 2007. It would make sense, then, that a stretch such as Gore Canyon, which is exponentially more dangerous than popular runs on the Arkansas, would have especially grim statistics. It does not.
In the 30 or so years people have been running the canyon, only two have died — neither on guided trips. Perhaps it’s because in the face of danger, people are more careful. (Most skiing fatalities are on green and blue runs, not expert chutes.) In addition, the guides are experienced veterans. Everyone wears a helmet. A safety kayak escorts the boats to sweep accidental swimmers out of danger. And clients have to swim a practice rapid at the beginning of the trip.
At the Gore put-in, rafters slipped their inflatable boats into the glassy water. The guides took advantage of the quiet water to give their safety talk: Hold on tight and paddle hard. If you fall out, grab the boat. If you can’t, swim to shore. Keep your head away from the rocks.
If the boat flips, do whatever you can to find a safe eddy.
“But we don’t want to flip. I haven’t flipped in seven years,” said Zach Hubbard, a 29-year veteran at the helm of one of the boats. He guides year-round in West Virginia, Colorado and Texas.
“A lot of people who go rafting get through the rapids and say, ‘That was it?’ They never say that in Gore.”
In the boat was Clay Roby, 21, a tourist from Illinois who had floated Royal Gorge the day before, and Browns Canyon the day before that.
“We told our guides there that we were going to do Gore, and they said, ‘Are you sure? We have guides who come back from there bleeding and bruised.’”
“It isn’t that bad,” said Hubbard.
The boat drifted through the natural rock gates of the canyon, and suddenly the glassy green tongue of smooth water shattered on a jumble of sharp rock. The canyon drops 300 feet in six major stair steps, and the first, called Fisherman’s Nightmare, was fast approaching.
“Forward!” Hubbard yelled, and his clients dug their paddles into the foam, pulling toward an edge where the river dropped away.
The boat bounced down a ledge of foam, rubbed up against a boulder, rotated and plunged again, landing in a roaring hole that folded the raft like a taco. Then they bumped out onto still water.
“Yeah, man, that was awesome!” Roby yelled.
In less then a minute, they hit the next rapid. Then another.
Just before each drop, the guide would lay out a game plan: “We’ll set up left, and there’s a nasty wave that’s going to try to bump us into some rocks, so we’ll ferry right fast,” Hubbard said on the way into a narrow, 10-foot waterfall called Tunnel Falls. “Just above a grabby hole, we’ll hook around that boulder, and then I’m going to tell you to paddle hard, and you better paddle like hell because we have to get across and hit the falls hard on the left side. If we hit right, we’ll flip.”
But Hubbard never flips. Clients in the hands of an experienced guide soon realize they are just the horse on the cart: They provide the muscle, the guide does the thinking.
Hubbard’s raft sailed gracefully over Tunnel Falls and landed on the foam beneath. The rafters got out at a particularly nasty spot called Gore Rapid, and sent the boats through empty.
“It’s not that bad,” said Hubbard. “But if something does go wrong in there, the consequences can be horrendous.”
Other rapids came: Pyrite, Haywire, Toilet Bowl.
Hubbard shouted directions. The paddlers paddled.
Each had a moment of foreboding at the start and a sigh of triumph in the eddies below. They were beginning to get the hang of it.
“What a rush,” said Roby’s father, Allen Roby.
Then it all went wrong. In a tight corner, the left front corner of the raft went high on a rock, the right back corner was pulled under by a pile of water, and the boat that hadn’t flipped in seven years flipped like a pancake. There were several seconds of spray, bubbles and confusion. Allen Roby came up under the boat and had to swim out. His son bobbed through big, icy waves that crashed over their heads.
Then their training kicked in: Stay calm, keep your feet downstream, breathe between waves, swim for shore.
Soon all passengers were gathered in a calm eddy, helping Hubbard pull the boat to the bank.
“Man, I’ve never flipped there before,” Hubbard said, his hands visibly shaking. “This means I’m going to have to buy beer for the other guides.”
But everyone was safe and only slightly banged up. As the group climbed back in and paddled to the hardest rapid yet, Kerschbaum, the Robys had huge grins on their faces.
“That’s the whole package,” Allen Roby said.
“Man, that’s what we came for,” Clay Roby said, smacking his closed fist against his dad’s. “Nothing will ever top that.”
A TRIP THROUGH GORE CANYON
Arkansas Valley Adventures: Full-day, $179, 1-800-370-0581 or coloradorafting.net
Timberline Tours: Full-day, $195, 1-800-831-1414 or timberlinetours.com
RAPIDS, BY CLASS
- I: Fast-moving with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions. Easy self-rescue.
- II: Whitewater with wide, clear channels evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering. Rocks and medium waves easily avoided. Swimmers seldom injured.
- III: Rapids with strong eddies, currents and irregular waves that can swamp open canoes. Complex maneuvers and good control required. Scouting advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare.
- IV: Powerful, turbulent rapids, large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages. Precise boat handling needed. Rapids may require “must” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting necessary first time. Moderate to high risk of injury to swimmers.
- V: Extremely long, obstructed or violent rapids with exposure to added risk. Large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes. Eddies may be small, turbulent, difficult to reach or nonexistent. Scouting recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous. Difficult rescue for experts.
- VI: These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are fatal. Class VI is often shorthand for unrunnable.
Source: American Whitewater
HOW DANGEROUS IS RAFTING?
Fatality rate per million people:
- Skiing: 0.59
- Scuba diving: 3.1
- Rafting: 4.5-6.7
- Hiking: 5-15
- Driving: 152
Source: Wilderness Medical Society study on Injuries Associated With Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking
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