20 Sep 2010, 11:00am
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Rafting and Roughing It on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Part One


Black Canyon of the Gunnison River

Black Canyon of the Gunnison River

Only a handful of experiences in life—at least ones that occur over a forty-eight hour period—may be considered transformative. The below is one of mine. My journey on the Gunnison River gripped me with so much passion and awe that I’ve chosen to share it with you in its unabbreviated version. I’m posting this story in four parts. I hope you’ll be with me and enjoy it throughout.

I looked in the mirror and dabbed mascara onto my remaining lashes. I peered at myself and sighed about how much grey belied my younger-than-my-years appearance. Oh, what the heck, I thought. I carefully pulled the mascara wand through the patches of grey at my temples and along my hairline right at my part. I knew this was chance-y. Tomorrow I’d be on the river and I’d surely look ghastly with streaks of brownish-black running down the side of my face. Too bad I didn’t have waterproof mascara. Too bad I hadn’t had time to have my hair colored before it got this bad. Too bad I had to pack vanity along with me on a wilderness adventure.

My boyfriend, Steve, didn’t bother to comment on my appearance when he picked me up for our trip. But that’s fine, I really didn’t require any compliments. I knew that what mattered most to him would be that I’d get through it all O.K. I already told him that I had camped just a handful of nights in my life and that I had gone river rafting—all half-day trips—only twice. This, combined with the fact that I had a propensity for luxury hotels and only stayed with friends or family under the best of circumstances (no couch surfing, thank you very much), indicated to him that chances were I wouldn’t be much of a camper. Steve on the other hand was an expert outdoorsman. (This was revealed to me through many of his stories including one about roughing it on a surf trip in Baja for a month without having taken a single shower.)

The Peach Farm

The Peach Farm

After just over two hours of driving from Telluride, we found ourselves surrounded by an odd, lunar-like landscape outside of Delta, Colorado. It was hard to believe there was a deep, coursing river nearby since the landscape here is composed mainly of rocks, sand and barren hills. Nary a tree nor bush sprung forth from this bone-dry terrain. We turned off at the Black Canyon Anglers sign and cavorted along a dirt road a short distance until the orchards came into view. The trees appeared full with fruit. Peaches and nectarines hung from the branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The river meandered lazily in the distance. The lodge sat firmly at its edge skirted by flowering bushes, tall, centuries-old cottonwoods and gravely walkways that extended out to a variety of outposts including cabins, sheds and a huge garage where all the river excursions were staged.

Black Canyon Anglers Lodge

Black Canyon Anglers Lodge

Somehow it felt as though we had left the big city trappings of Telluride (Ha! How do New Yorkers feel?) and arrived at a waterside oasis. Steve and I dined with Rick, lead guide of Black Canyon Anglers (BCA), and his companion, Barbara. We exchanged pleasantries throughout the evening commenting on such things as the fine quality of the wine (a local production) and what kind of people took the river trips.

“Texans, lots of Texans,” Rick said. “But really people come from all over, mostly just to get away from it all.”

I learned that most of BCA’s river trips were for fishing, a not-so negligent fact that for me conjured up images of bunches of guys getting down and dirty in the wild. As though he was reading my thoughts, Rick began to debrief me on the upcoming two days we were to be spend on the river. Somehow Rick had been clued in that I wasn’t much of an outdoorswoman. He carefully provided a bit of an orientation, speaking slowly and softly about certain matters that he imagined might be of concern to me.

“No bears,” he quickly replied. And I could tell that with that news, even Steve breathed a sigh of relief.

“How about snakes?” I queried.

“The only one that could harm you would be the pygmy rattlesnakes,” he answered in a seemingly matter-of-fact, supposedly reassuring manner. Then he saw my jaw drop as I imagined a smallish rattler slithering toward me on the riverbanks. Somehow the stunted-growth version appeared even more horrific.

“I’ve only seen two in the sixteen years I’ve been on the river,” Rick quickly added.

Steve and I finished off our perfect evening outside in front of the fire seated on benches made of old wagon wheels with Farm Kitty, the resident fluffy, black and tan tabby, on our laps. The sound of the river whooshed in the distance. I gave little thought to what lay ahead. Tonight we’d sleep in the cabin.

Farm Kitty snuggled in with us for the night and then we all enjoyed breakfast the next morning at the same spot where we’d gazed into the fire the night before. I still felt pretty relaxed. Then it was time to sort out our belongings and pack all that we needed for two days into a dry sack, a large, elongated and totally waterproof duffel bag of sorts that would be carted along on our travels. Panic ensued as to what to bring and what to leave behind. (The idea of spending close to thirty-two hours in the wilderness with just one small bag—with access to little else—seemed daunting.) I put my padded, underwire bra aside but not my makeup case. (I didn’t plan on wearing any makeup but it just seemed too radical to part with it entirely.) Steve folded the plastified canvas bag down for me and hauled it off to the guys who were readying the van that would take us to the put-in way up the river, a distance from the lodge.

By now Glenn, a friend and business contact of Steve’s, and his twenty-something year-old daughter and graduate school student, Jennifer, had arrived. Glenn, an accountant from New Jersey, who had taken the trip eight times, was the motivating force behind our going. The heat was on for me to totally buckle everything up. I did one more bathroom stop, relishing it so much that I even sat on the seat in the public restroom at the lodge. I had already been informed about the toilet habits of the back country and I was quite sure that dealing with the lack of modern facilities would prove to be my biggest challenge. (There had been considerable talk about “the groover,” the camp toilet installation that ended up being a big topic of conversation throughout the trip. More on that later.)

The four of us, Rick, another guide, Ryan, and the driver piled into a large van that had been packed with all our stuff. We chatted convivially and snacked on freeze dried peaches from the orchard as we drove back beyond Delta toward Montrose. Here we turned off at the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness Area. We regained the lunar-like landscape of before, passing by enormous gumdrop-shaped mounds, monolithic anthills scarred with ATV and dirt bike tracks. It could have been the stageset for “Mad Max.” Farther along sage brush, pignon, juniper, cedar, cacti and sunflowers pushed through this sun-scorched earth, leaving me to believe that the river’s edge was nearing.

Approaching the Canyon

Approaching the Canyon

“We’ve got to climb up to the canyon rim there,” Rick indicated as I gazed out at this spectacular panorama of high desert landscape backdropped by the Uncompahgre Plateau and some of the most majestic peaks of the Rockies. We bumped and jostled more than half the way over the dirt road of this 45-minute drive that lead to the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Gullies, a foot wide and just as deep, tossed our van from port to starboard, stern to aft. I prayed I didn’t have to cry out for a bathroom break since I sensed that there were surely unsavory critters lurking in this hostile environment. Finally, we arrived.

The Canyon Road---The Smooth Part!

The Canyon Road—The Smooth Part!

Mules gathered near our drop-off point, ready to descend the steep canyon yet another time so that we would only be taxed by the burden of carrying down our personal belongings, our own dry bags converted into backpacks of sorts. The driver of the van had already dropped off most of the gear for our two-day river trip the day before; this way the beasts were already packed and ready to go upon our arrival.

I switched out of my flip flops and into my sporty Ralph Lauren sneaks. I had to bother Steve with undoing my dry bag so that I could add my last-minute incidentals into the sack. He hoisted the fifty-pound satchel onto my shoulders and gathered up his own, a considerably larger load since he was also carrying our sleeping bags and pads. By now, half the crew was headed down the steep slope. Steve, Glenn and I set out along the rocky trail, a supposed fifteen-minute hike that would lead us to the base of the canyon. I gingerly stepped over, on and between the rocks, careful not to injure myself so early in the game. Steve slowed up as much as he could until I gave him the O.K. to forge forward as Glenn and I teetered along at our own secure pace. I had never hiked with such a charge and beneath the heat of the nearly noon-day sun, it was feeling as though I was lugging a hundred pounds on my back.

Glenn, a 260-pound guy, that was surely in no better shape than I, huffed and puffed the whole way down. Except for the fact that I worried about what to do if he expired, I took solace in this—it was nice to have someone in sync with me.

“There’s no need to go any faster,” he exclaimed wryly. “The sooner we arrive, the more work we’ll have to do.” Boy was I beginning to love this guy. I knew from the get-go that I’d fare O.K. on this trip with Glenn along.

The distant clinking and clanking of the animals finally caught up with us and then we let them pass. These hard-working beasts descended (and ascended!) this rugged trail, loaded down with recreationalists’ wares, two to three times a day. I spotted a neatly folded rubber raft on one of the animal’s backs, the frame for the boat on another’s, while another one of these kind-faced mules was loaded down with coolers and other random supplies. No wonder these river trips were so expensive. The horse packers themselves required a good amount of compensation for their efforts.

“Let’s wait a while for the air to clear,” I yelled to Glenn, as I choked on the stream of gas that trailed the animals down the mountain.

“Good idea,” he shouted back in his thick Jersey accent. “Remember there’s no need to go any faster.”

Glenn told me “it’s right around the corner” at least three times before he, too, seemed frustrated that we weren’t there yet. Rick appeared, offering to carry one of our sacks. Glenn quickly turned his over and gave me a droll smile, saying “age before beauty.” That was fine by me since I didn’t think having Steve see Rick show up with my bag was a good way to start the trip. I knew that Steve would be hoping for more than that from me.

Once at the beach (about a half hour from the start of the hike), we all gathered beneath the shade of a clump of trees while Rick and Ryan proceeded to blow up the rafts, place the frames, load the coolers, dry bags and a plethora of other stuff that was surely essential for two fun and safe days on the river. Squashed into our life vests with paddles in hand, we were finally ready to board the raft. (All four of us traveled with Rick, while Ryan navigated alone with the gear.) I requested one more look into my dry bag and fished out a sunscreen and lip balm that I tucked into the pockets of my quick-dry shorts. I nervously watched as my dry bag was buckled down into Ryan’s boat. Steve and company couldn’t help teasing me about separation anxiety about my stuff. I made a mental note to bring a purse-sized dry bag with me (in my boat) if ever I was to do this trip again.

The Put-In

The Put-In

Thank you to Ryan Gluek and Black Canyon Anglers for the above images.

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