There’s something special about rafting or paddling a new section of river. You can read about it beforehand and imagine how it will run. You can hear stories from other people, but nothing beats that moment when you’re approaching the rapids. First you hear them. The echoing sound of rushing water magnified to a roar by the canyon walls ahead. Then you see the river drop off downstream, like a horizon.
For a raft guide or a kayaker it’s a moment of shear focus and concentration, a moment to take a breath and find your mental zone, then scan for a line to run. To the seasoned rafter it’s pure adrenaline.
But for those new to rafting it is likely an unsettling feeling, nervous excitement, not knowing quite what to expect. That’s the look I saw on Breanna’s face. The young high school grad from Colorado Springs was smiling as we set off from the put-in above the Royal Gorge. But it was a nervous smile. The kind that looks as though she was probably clenching her teeth behind it. I saw that same look on my Dad’s face the first time I took him skydiving.
The lead up to the Royal Gorge is a gentle float, as the gorge walls rise and narrow beside you. There is time to wonder about the rapids ahead. Our guide, Graeme, from Royal Gorge Rafting, shared a little of the gorge’s history as we passed an old rundown house and the remains of a large pipeline. The old pipeline, made of redwood, was used to run water out of the gorge to Canyon City, and the house precariously close to the rapids belonged to the pipeline’s caretaker.
As we passed through the first light rapids at the mouth of the gorge, that forced smile remained on Breanna’s face. She was on the trip with her friend Tre from school, and her aunt Tammy and uncle Ron, who were visiting from Ohio. It was Tre’s first time, too. He was quiet, but he didn’t seem to have the same nervous smile. Tammy and Ron had been rafting before a few times, once on the New River in West Virginia. It was clear they had an idea what to expect and were excited to run a new river.
The sound of rushing water increased as we approached the bigger features of the gorge. As we progressed,the walls rose more than 1,000 feet on either side of us, with no way out but downriver.
I could see the river drop off ahead. The excitement and anticipation rose.
“I don’t want to swim,” said Tammy looking ahead.
Graeme prepared us for Sunshine Rapid, a Class IV at that water level. The line involves weaving through a boulder garden, with current raging around big rocks as the river angle drops sharply. The plan was to paddle toward the river’s right side. He called out a paddle stroke, then repeated the call as we floated sideways toward a rock.
Seeing that we hadn’t paddled hard enough, Graeme quickly shouted an order to lean in. Eyeing the rock I braced myself. Tammy, seated in front of me, didn’t react fast enough. Before I could reach for her she popped out of the boat as we made contact with the rock.
She surfaced in a slightly calmer spot below and before a bigger section of rapids. We came around the rock toward her. Well out of arm’s reach, she put herself in the downriver safety position, floating feet first. Graeme yelled for her to swim toward the boat. Tammy didn’t immediately respond, then paddled without enough urgency, as if swimming in a pool.
“Harder” Graeme shouted. She made little progress. The current got stronger, Tammy couldn’t fight it and started to drift toward a narrow gap between two rocks.
Springing into action, Graeme called for the rest of us to start paddling, The gap was wide enough for a person, but not a raft.
Tamme squeezed through and bobbed under water. As we paddled hard around the rocks, she popped up close to the boat, almost behind it. I turned the handle of my paddle toward her, but she was still out of reach.
Graeme made quick adjustments, as we reached the heart of the Class IV. At one point he tried to get the boat to surf a wave in hopes of getting Tammy close enough. The maneuver failed.
Tammy went under again. This time she drifted under the boat.
The most important thing to do when out of a boat in rapids is to stay calm, take a second and collect yourself. Those are instructions any raft guide will give prior to a trip. Remembering instructions from earlier, she pushed off of the boat and popped up again. By now her husband, Ron, was contemplating jumping in after her, a move that is not recommended in the middle of a rapids. It makes for one less paddler and one more to rescue.
Graeme made another manuever. Finally, through the burliest part of that rapid we were close enough for Tre to grab Tammy and try to pull her in. I reached forward to help him get her the rest of the way.
Breathing heavily and somewhat shaken, Tammy sat in the raft as we pulled into an eddy. Quiet at first, Tammy motioned that she was OK but needed a minute. One of the saftey Kayaks caught up to us to check on her. With more than half the trip still remaining, we paused as the other raft in our group caught up. “That was some swim,” someone remarked.
With more Class III’s and another Class IV still ahead, Tammy collected herself. It didn’t take long before she was laughing and making jokes again. We pushed on downriver.
“You’re the first swimmer I’ve had all season,” Graeme later remarked.
The rest of the trip was an adrenaline-filled ride through the canyon without incident. Tammy learned her lesson, albeit the hard way: When the guide says lean in, lean in.
The scenery around us was surreal. We passed under the Royal Gorge Bridge, suspended almost 1,000 feet above us, and eventually on to calmer waters as the canyon widened.
Back at the White Water Bar and Grill Tammy recalled her harrowing swim.
“The disorientation was the worst part,” she said of being tossed around by the rapids. She commended the guides’ response. “They knew what they were doing that’s for sure.”
The average guide on the Arkansas goes through a rigorous training in safety and how to run the river. New guides often spend more than a month training and running the river before they are checked off to guide customers.
“It was a wild ride,” said Tammy of her Royal Gorge adventure. “I’d do it again.” Without the swimming, she clarified.
“It was bigger than anything I’ve ever done,” said her husband, Ron. His wife’s swim notwithstanding, “This is the funnest rafting I’ve ever done,” he said.
Breanna agrees, though her face might not have shown it. She, too, enjoyed the trip, and said she hopes to do it again.
Before leaving, Tammy pulled Graeme aside in the bar and complemented him on his guiding. “You made the ride,” she said with a smile and a thank you.
Rafting the Royal Gorge is a truly stunning experience. It is a rush, start to finish. But it may not be ideal for a first-time rafter. Anyone nervous about whitewater may want to opt for the less intimidating Sheep’s Canyon tour nearby, or Brown’s Canyon, near Salida. Those routes offer a tamer stretch of river that is also scenic, with enough splash to be an exciting ride.