“Forward one!” Muppet shouted as we approached a bulge of water coursing over a submerged rock. I had no time to look back at our river guide, but as our raft slipped expertly between two rocks to land right in the swirling water below, I realized just how technical his job was. As a part of this raft’s crew for a day, it was my job to paddle exactly when and where he told me to. Muppet, as he introduced himself, had a range of commands he taught us including forward strokes, back strokes, and “Lean in,” which meant if you don’t want to fall out, crouch towards the middle of the raft.
In the beginning, we paddled back and forth across the river, getting acquainted with the strokes and our companions. I almost forgot where I was as we floated across a particularly calm patch. In central Colorado, the Arkansas River flows through a deep gorge that was formed by tectonic plate activity. The sheer rock walls are studded with bands of dark, metamorphic rock, indicating places where lava almost got to the surface and seared the granite along the way up. And in some places, the distinct striping of the rock layers tilts almost vertically upwards, reminding me that we are indeed in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, formed by a huge geological uplift when two tectonic plates crashed into each other.
And then we saw our first rapid. “This one’s called Wakeup,” Muppet informed us as we drifted towards the rushing water. “Now, we’re not playing around anymore. This is a Class III rapid. If I tell you to paddle, you paddle. I’m counting on you guys to get us through this.” Paddle at the ready, I felt all the muscles in my body tense.
Later, I learned that a guide always picks out three routes through a rapid. The first route is the ideal situation, avoiding all the dangerous spots and hitting all the right turbo boosters (fast-flowing areas of water) to get us through. The second route is the whoops route—if something goes wrong and we end up hitting a rock we shouldn’t have. The last route is the absolutely not route that includes all the most dangerous spots in the rapid and can end in us flipping the raft. Some rapids are more naturally dangerous than others because of their technical difficulty, identified by a Class level between I and VI. I’m not sure who named the rapids, but they apparently thought it would be funny to give them all ominous names like Wall Slammer, Boat Eater, Hey Diddle Diddle Don’t Go In The Middle, and Satan’s Suckhole.
Plunging into a rapid is both terrifying and exhilarating. Often Muppet would have us paddle right as we approached a large rock so that our momentum could propel us over the swirling water below. This makes sense when you think about it logically, but when you are hanging on with all the muscles in your legs and shifting your center of gravity constantly, leaning down to thrust a paddle into the roaring water sounds like a bad idea. But Muppet’s word was law, so we paddled anyways.
The raft bucked and bounced like a crazed horse, but no one fell off. I attribute that to our guide’s superb knowledge of the river and upper body strength. As important as the crew is for the success of the raft, we wouldn’t make it past the first rapid without the guide. We provide the power; he provides the finesse. While we usually got to relax between rapids, he continued to dig his paddle into the water to steer us down the river. And during the rapids, he not only navigated us down the ideal route, but he also shouted commands for the crew with perfect timing.
During a Class IV rapid, my edge of the raft slid up over a protruding rock. I think we probably hadn’t paddled how Muppet wanted, because right after the rapid he had us practice more. As we teetered on the edge, the right side moving quicker than my side in the flowing water, I looked down into the white water below. I did not want to fall off. The raft succumbed to gravity and went over the edge. I leaned back as far as I could, a wave of cold water showering my glasses, as the raft slid down at a steep angle. Immediately we hit the water below and the raft buckled upwards. I shifted my torso forward to counteract the change in motion; if I hadn’t, the sudden impact would have thrown me off the back. “Woohoo!” Muppet shouted. “Great job, you guys.” My heart pounded hard in my chest, my legs muscles ached, and my feet were numb from the cold water. I shook my head, trying to clear the droplets off my glasses, and I found that I was grinning.
Thank you to Whitewater Adventure Outfitters for providing us with a unique experience. Thank you to Greg for encouraging me to be adventurous. Thank you to Muppet for being professional, knowledgable, and awesome.