Rafting and Roughing It on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison: Part Three

Day Two:  The Bigger Rapids Day

Day Two: The Bigger Rapids Day

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 part three of 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.  You can read all parts in (reverse) sequence in the category Outdoor Adventures.

The cowboy coffee tasted all the more delicious the next morning, grounds and all.  I relished this in my tin cup along with a plate of blueberry pancakes and ham as well as a slice of chocolate cake from the night before while gazing out onto the shimmering Gunnison.

This being morning, talk of “the groover” increased tenfold. I had already been cautioned that use of the groover was technically mostly reserved for Number Two. (Just like everything else, the groover was also pack in/pack out. Wow.) “Why do you call it the groover?” I ventured.

Decamping:  Could that be the Groover?

Decamping: Could that be the Groover?

“It’s actually an old army rocket box,” Rick replied. “Steel tight. In the old days people would sit on it and get well you know, grooves in their butt. We have ours set up though with a toilet seat.”

I was beginning to be more intrigued. They had it positioned up beyond the back of camp, but there was no way I was going to hike up there during the night even though my hunny had lined the path with glow sticks.  (You’re supposed to pee in the river, but I had ruled that out during the night as well.) I saw the roll of toilet paper (a true luxury in the wild!) placed at the foot of the path and knew that if it was missing, it signaled that the groover was occupied. More giggles followed until it was finally my turn to check out the set up. The T.P. was there, so I was good to go. I followed the rocky path fifty yards up to nearly the base of the canyon wall where I turned to see, beautifully poised beneath a box elder, the groover. A copy of American Angler, a fishing magazine, had been carefully sealed within a Ziploc bag beside it. Unlike at the outhouses furnished at the put-in and at a few other locations in the canyon, no nauseating smells emanated from this tranquil spot situated beneath this lovely shade tree. O.K., I sat down and all I’ll tell you is that from there—high up on the river’s banks—I saw one of the most sensational views of the journey. I felt truly on a throne overlooking a kingdom.

More chuckles followed when it came time to load the groover onto the raft along with our enormous mound of BCA-emblazoned dry bags.  Rick and Ryan took care of this and every other detail with the utmost of professionalism, a task they had clearly carried out innumerable times before. Steve and I folded up our encampment without much effort. He commended me on my adventuresome spirit. (Surely he was most impressed by my delightful reaction to the groover.) But then he stupidly pointed out a scorpion scrambling from beneath our bedding.  I, of course, then let out an annoying shriek. (I later learned that they’re apparently harmless, but still.)

At least I didn’t need to make any wardrobe choices since by now we were all on day two of the same bathing suit and PFD (personal flotation device). I brushed my teeth in the bush, ran a brush through my hair and another towelette over my face, applied layers of sunscreen and declared it good.

We sailed off as though we were all experienced rafters by now. Once on the water, Rick informed us that today would be “a bigger day,” that most of yesterday’s rapids were Class IIs and today there’d be some Class IIIs. Parts of the canyon walls gleamed brightly this early in the day. Alternating layers of Neapolitan ice cream were served up in front of us: This is how we came to know the mighty grey-black walls of the canyon and their creamy pink and beige fillings, referred to as intrusions. (These diagonal stripes were actually formed by molten rock that had forced itself in between other rock formations a gazillion years ago.) Even more so than in other parts of the West, here we floated down a geologist’s dream. We all traveled once again in Rick’s raft while Ryan manned the heavy load of gear.

A Gunnison Gorge Big Horn Sheep

A Gunnison Gorge Big Horn Sheep in the Shadow of the Canyon

Clearly Rick knew every nook and cranny of this geological wonder, pointing out rainbow and brown trout darting beneath the surface and cliff swallows and king fishers soaring above our heads. We got supremely lucky at one point when we spotted two big horn sheep grazing at the river’s edge. Farther down in the canyon, we gazed open-mouthed at a golden eagle soaring above us; indeed the craggy cliffs of this mountain gulf provide excellent nesting and hiding places for a great variety of wildlife. We longed to see a mountain lion basking on one of the rocky outcroppings but were told we’d spot a much smaller creature, a ringtail cat, at best and even those typically only come around the campsite at night in search of food.

The mood shifted from tranquil to uproarious as soon as we hit the rapids. I almost fell out of the boat at one point only to be yanked back in by Steve, an expert boatsman who was careful to keep his eye on his duties as well as me from the get-go. We all took turns being tossed about as Rick cautioned one side than the other to “look out for the rock wall!”

“Maintain your center of gravity,” I advised my fellow rafters during a lull in the activity. I learned this in ski training, a skill that I sensed definitely applied to rafting, particularly when launched through whitewater. Balance in any activity reigns supreme. Everyone looked at me in an affirming manner but no one seemed to want to give me any credit for any solid sporting advice. Why spoil my reputation as a super softy?

The raft cavorted and bucked through the Class IIIs distinguished by names such as Boulder Garden, Feather and Cable. “O.K., give it all you got,” hollered our oarsman as we all paddled furtively on command, careful not “to rock the boat” in any manner. “O.K., now three forward. One. Two. Three. Good. Now two back. One. Two,” Rick continued. By now we were all fairly good about staying in sync, everyone pretty much paddling in unison.

Approaching More Rapids

Leaving the Rapids

Finally we plummeted into Grand Finale, the last rapid of this fourteen-mile stretch of the river known as the Gunnison Gorge Natural Conservation Area. We floated through tranquil waters, craning our necks up the canyon walls a short distance more before arriving at a sandy beach, a well-known site called Smith Fork. Here we all piled out, left our life preservers behind and filled our water bottles up for a hike up into a tight, side canyon. Glenn had decided to stay back and cool off in the icy waters of the river while we headed out on our adventure. We climbed over rocks that varied in size from tiny pebbles to enormous boulders way bigger than our raft, passed cascading pools of pristine water lined with ochre-colored slabs to find our way to the biggest and most inviting basins of them all, deep lagoons fed by a series of charging waterfalls. I hopped right in and felt instantly delighted by the freshness, purity and inviting temperature of the water. Steve grabbed my hand and lead me beneath one of the pelting falls. Here we sat and enjoyed an exhilarating hydrotherapy experience like none I had ever sampled before. Then the guys wormed their way behind the falls, caving between the rocks, while Jen and I luxuriated in our open-air jetted tub. Beneath the brilliant blue skies of this hot and sunny Rocky Mountain day, the moments passed here felt beyond idyllic.

Glenn:  Our River Bather

Glenn: Our River Bather

We rock scrambled back only to find Glenn soaking in the chilly river, seated in a camp chair with the water lapping at his shoulders. (He later declared that he had plenty of body insulation that allowed him to tolerate such frigid water.) By now we were all ravenous, so we hit the Pringles (good camping chips) and lemonade while Rick and Ryan prepared lunch. That was to be the last of the many memorable and most delicious meals we shared together; our trip was drawing to an end.

Thank you to Ryan Gluek for some of the above images.

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