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Grizzly Creek Fire: Local rafting companies trying to navigate river closure

Two rafting companies lent support to firefighting effort

Defiance Rafting Company staffers work with firefighters at the Shoshone Ramp to unload boats for an attempt to ferry firefighters across the river on Tuesday. The mission was aborted, however, after it was determined it was too dangerous.
Charlotte Hanks | Special to the Daily

The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon hasn’t just impacted businesses that rely on Interstate 70 to ferry goods and customers to them.

Local rafting companies on both sides of the interstate closure have also been drastically impacted by the shutdown of the Colorado River through the canyon, which is one of the most popular whitewater sections in the state.

“We’ve been booked out like a week out on Shoshone pretty much all summer,” said Cole Bangert, the owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures, which operates whitewater trips out of its Dotsero location. “When the fire started, and obviously the river and the highway shut down, we had hundreds and hundreds of people booked on Shoshone trips.”

Gregory Cowan owns and operates Defiance Rafting Company in No Name, off exit 119, with his wife, Heather Montross-Cowan. Cowan’s wife was heading westbound on I-70 on Monday afternoon after dropping off a trip at the Shoshone boat ramp when the fire broke out, forcing her to abandon the van she was driving on the deck of the interstate.

She was scooped up by a Colorado Department of Transportation truck — one of many that Cowan said were working to pick up stranded motorists while shutting down the highway for emergency responders.

Later that day, Cowan said the rafting company assisted with ferrying firefighters across the river to try to put out spot fires and the company was able to secure the van and get it back to its home base in No Name.

“It burned right up to the shoulder of the road where that thing was parked,” Cowan said. “We were surprised to see it still. It’s a tough van. It’s got ember burns on the seats inside because the windows were left open, but it lives, man.”

Cowan said his staff was also able to get all of the day’s customers back to their cars in No Name and then safely out the canyon.

An aborted mission

On Tuesday, Defiance supplied firefighters with a boat and a guide at the Grizzly Creek recreation area before a call came in for 10 boats to help assist teams with spot fire work along the river. Cowan said Defiance supplied the boats and another company, Whitewater Rafting LLC., in Glenwood Springs, offered up some guides to help with the effort.

“We were able to scramble and get back in No Name and load up and bring up the additional rafts and Whitewater Rafting provided a significant assist as well by providing some guides to help us staff these boats in the event that we need to deploy them,” Cowan said. “That was a pretty cool team effort there. And yeah, we were standing by at both Grizzly Creek and Shoshone through mid-afternoon up there.”

Firefighters and raft guides prepare to embark at the Shoshone boat ramp on Tuesday.
Charlotte Hanks | Special to the Daily

The call to deploy never came, however. The conditions were just too dangerous for on-ground firefighting in rough terrain along the river, and the fire eventually jumped to the south bank.

“Just too dry. Too fast. The embers caught up too high, just resources being spread thin,” Cowan said. “We were told by our guides that they were loaded with firefighters and equipment, with toes in the water getting ready to push up when the order came to stand down because it’s just not safe.”

A blow to business

Cowan said about 95% of Defiance’s business is on the Colorado River, so with the highway closed with no access to No Name, and the river closed, the business is closed.

Bangert said Sage Outdoor Adventures has kept about 80 percent of the business of clients who booked Shoshone trips by switching them to another trip. The most obvious alternative is the stretch of the Upper Colorado above Dotsero that features Class II rapids.

“We call it the pinball section, which is actually a pretty freaking awesome section really,” he said. “It just doesn’t have big Class III rapids in it, but it’s in a really pretty canyon and it’s eight miles on the water. It’s a similar trip time-wise and scenery wise and all that, and many of our customers are opting to go for that because they realize there’s just not many other options around and it’s still a great way to get out and see, you know, rivers and wilderness.”

A view from the Colorado River of the destruction caused by the Grizzly Creek Fire.
Charlotte Hanks | Special to the Daily

But Bangert said the 20% who are cancelling are those who were dead-set on rafting Shoshone.

“We’re being fully transparent with our customers,” he said. “I mean Shoshone is kind of the go-to Class III rapids in all of central Colorado and that’s off the menu now … 20 percent of cancellations still hurts.”


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