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One more rush before winter

Alan Braunholtz

The Gore Canyon race is what I’d call a true festival. No marketing councils designing the perfect family tourist attraction and calling it a festival. This is the real deal, a tribe gathering for its own reasons to celebrate their lives with some arcane tradition. The loose-knit river community collects to share the alluring power of the river gods one more time before winter locks up Colorado’s rivers and disperses the tribe.Like all good festivals, it’s primarily a local event for locals. Rio’s carnival is for Rio. At Pamplona, it’s the Spanish young men who are truly insane. And the Onbashira log riders or the Cotswold cheese rollers couldn’t care less about tourists. Anyone’s welcome to watch, but participation is the key to the emotional energy of these festivals.The Burning Man festival, where 30,000 people celebrate a wide range of alternative lifestyles in Nevada’s desert, insists that everyone there participates.Gore’s a bit like that. Gore Canyon’s difficult access pretty much ensures that everyone either rafted, kayaked or waded and scrambled in to view the high points of the race. Only dedicated members put the effort in, but it’s worth it. For semi-insane acts of physical prowess, this is up there with bull running, cheese rolling and log riding – almost.Gore is a special place. Unexpectedly arising from nowhere, it’s intimidating, dark and beautiful, evoking similarly diverse emotions from all who paddle into it. On race day, a procession of rafts and kayaks launch themselves into the maw of Gore, which usually lives up to its reputation as one of the top three rivers to raft in the U.S.Crowds love carnage, but up at Gore the feeling’s a little less bloodthirsty than usual. Everyone watching has been there, and sympathy and telekinetic goodwill are beamed down from the rocky banks. Normally quiet and unemotional people “ooh” and “aah”; mumble, “Come on, come on”; and let rip ecstatic “yeahs!” as they will rafts flirting with disaster into a series of inspired recoveries down the sacrificial altar of Gore Rapid.This year Gore Rapid provided an impressive show of flips, ejections, multiple raps and carping swimmers. The power of a river is never more apparent as when watching helmets disappear and racers tumble down the frothy sluice before eventually dragging themselves to shore.Scouting Gore is nerve wracking. Bradford’s famous misquote, “There but for the grace of God go I,” feels relevant and few are judgmental up at Gore. After a run, you beam in the relief of one more bullet dodged.A 10-foot waterfall is the other great spectator spot. Tunnel Falls is a good celebration of the rubber train wreck. Running Tunnel reminds me of the Jackass supermarket trolley – pile in, roll off down a hill and hold on till you hit something, then pick yourself up and laugh stupidly with an ear-to-ear grin. Peeling out of the eddy is the moment of truth. Let go and see what your skills and god’s hands will bring. This year, some madly talented kayaker performed for the crowd by throwing repeated backflips off the lip into the boil below.The Gore festival is a party dedicated to another summer lived and fits perfectly with the young’s tendency to celebrate life by risking it. Us older folks usually prefer to buy a Porsche as a midlife crisis cure, but I haven’t saved enough and I’m still not convinced it’d match up. Gore is such a mix of emotions: excitement, fear, arrogance and “what will be will be” fatalism. Every year as we drift out, with the party at Pumphouse beckoning and the canyon walls softening, I always realize how good it is not to be dead. Melodramatic, I know, but still a good feeling and something that’s easy to overlook when too focused on everyday humdrum routines.Why throw yourself into narrow streets full of panicked bulls, chase a basketball of cheese down a 50-degree slope or ride a 10 ton log down a muddy hill? The feeling of being alive because you know you’re not dead is worth it. Or as Mallory implied with his “because it’s there” when asked about Everest – “why not?”Until the proposed Wolcott reservoir removes the need for water to flow down the upper Colorado, Gore Canyon will be there as one of our local little Everests if you feel the need to ask a few questions that don’t really have answers.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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