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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 two 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 steep walls of the canyon towered over us. Rick explained that the Black Canyon of the Gunnison got its name from the blackness of the canyon walls, a darkness that’s largely attributed to the depth and narrowness of the canyon. Indeed the shadows cast on the steep canyon walls at times appear foreboding. Yet the crystal-clear waters that splice through this impressive channel were already providing ample sunny moments for me, especially from my vantage point perched high up on the edge of the raft. We felt instantly in awe of the raw beauty and remoteness of this site, one of the jewels of the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) system. Rick talked about how the canyon is managed for wildlife; the preservation of the solitude and wilderness of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is well guarded. Only twenty-four people are allowed to enter the canyon on commercial boats per day and only twenty-three camping sites are provided for hikers and boaters. And many of those sites go unclaimed since it requires such an effort to hike down into the canyon. (Imagine schlepping all your gear down yourself!)
We felt like kids floating along the river, laughing and shrieking as the whitewater splashed and tossed us about. We drifted a little farther and stopped to have lunch beneath a perfectly-shaped shade tree where Ryan had rowed ahead and set up a camp table and chairs. This is how it would be for the next two days: We’d paddle along and then stop at some idyllic place to for lunch, dinner and an overnight and breakfast and then lunch again until finally the trip would come to a close. The guys rowed and navigated the river with the utmost of expertise. They knew every rock, every dip, every rapid, every possible quirk of the river for every season. (This all changed greatly, of course, from early spring to late fall depending on the flow of the mighty Gunnison.)
We were called upon to paddle throughout much of the trip, a welcome assignment that prevented us from feeling like bobbing blobs in a rubber raft. “One forward, and then another forward, now back one,” Rick yelled, as we helped him to propel the boat along, especially through the tight spots that bore names such as Upper Pucker, Lower Pucker, Buckaroo and Zig Zag. Our seemingly indestructible boat—an extraordinary invention born out of World War II combat—bounded and bounced its way along the churned up river, squeezing through sections no bigger than the boat’s width, only to plunge safely into calm water where we all laughed and breathed great sighs of relief. I received a big splash on Buttermilk, screamed and heard Rick say “that was your baptism.” Rafting season was officially on for all of us landlubbers aboard.
A whole other adventure began when we pulled up to the shore of our designated campsite, Ute 2 in Ute Park, the widest and most shallow part of the Gunnison where the Ute Indians supposedly crossed the river back in the day. Here we settled in for the remainder of our day and night. Rick and Ryan teamed up to unload every last cooler and dry bag from the boats. Steve grabbed our bags, claimed a site and proceeded to set up our tent. Meanwhile the guys installed a full kitchen at the heart of camp, complete with prep table, dishwashing station and gas stove (no campfires allowed in the canyon since little wood is available for scavenging). In front of this chuck wagon tableau, our ever-so efficient guides installed another camp table for dining and dressed it with a blue-and-white checked tablecloth. Later on we’d use a jumble of blue-and-white enamel painted tin cups and plates as our table settings. Martha Stewart eat your heart out. Few people in the world have experienced such a homey table in such a dramatic setting.
I smoothed down our sleeping bags and emptied the last of my belongings from my bottomless dry bag and felt delightfully settled into our new digs. “It seems like you spend a lot of time moving stuff around when camping,” I exclaimed to Steve.
“Yeah, that’s what it’s all about,” he responded. “I guess that’s why they call it camping. Nothing’s permanent.”
By now Jen was calling to see if we wanted to venture out onto a hike, an expedition that would take us way up to the canyon rim where we were guaranteed even more spectacular views. (How much striking scenery could one take in in two days?) Glenn decided to stay back to read as did Ryan since he had some cooking to do. Steve, Jen, Rick and I bounded off with all the enthusiasm of scouts hitting the trail. It was close to four by now, but still I swayed beneath the sweltering, summer sun.
After nearly an hour of hiking I gave up and told the others to go on without me. I had the choice of heading back to camp or sitting at the top of a rise and waiting for them until they headed back down. I chose the latter, a personal experiment of sorts since I had absolutely nothing to do but sit on the rocks and take in the glorious nature that surrounded me. I didn’t read or write or even pay much attention to the thoughts that, of course, occasionally swirled in my head. It was as though I had decided to conduct my own Vision Quest, a personal challenge to myself to see how well I’d fare out in the middle of a rugged land with no sign of civilization anywhere to be seen. Thoughts of the pygmy rattlers popped into my mind a few times, then I chased them away. And of course I felt startled from time to time by a crackling noise behind me but still, I brushed it off, imagining that it was just a harmless little mouse scurrying about in this arid land. The others returned soon enough although I learned that more than an hour had actually passed. We all felt content with our accomplishments and trekked back down to camp, hungry and thirsty but beaming with contentment about having communed with nature in such an exceptional setting.
I sponged myself off with a moist towelette (how French!), changed into warmer, dryer clothes and padded off to the “kitchen area” where I marveled once again at the set up. Ryan seemed to have everything in control at the cook’s station where he had placed a huge pot of water to boil on the portable stove next to a heavy cast iron skillet. Not wanting to bother the master at work, I filled my water bottle with fresh river water that had passed through the gravity water filter hanging from the tree and joined the others at the camp table facing the river. We swilled beers and munched on shrimp quesadillas as the sun slowly slipped behind the high canyon walls.
Ryan, a real cutie that had it not been for his quiet charm and boy-next-door good looks, would have been over-shadowed by Rick’s presence as lead guide, served up a dinner worthy of three-star glamping (glamour + camping). His guiding experience in Alaska bequeathed him with numerous talents, most notably (at least to us that evening) how to cook salmon. He served up the most exquisite piece of fish, perfectly moist, delicately flavored with hints of lemon and orange and dressed with juicy, ripe mango. Pesto pasta and green beans accompanied this fine dish that we all savored as the sky turned battleship grey and the light drained out of the canyon.
In perhaps an effort not to be outdone, Rick whipped up a cake, poured it into a dutch oven, placed coals on top of it and left it to bake as we finished off the last morsels of our meal. Just as night had completely fallen, Rick proclaimed that the cake was done and then turned it out onto a large tin plate with great fanfare. He had succeeded at capturing our attention since we all marveled at his German chocolate upside down cake, topped with carmelized pears and walnuts, a true sensation, especially since it had emerged from the campfire.
Completely satiated from the day and such an outstanding meal, we kicked back and took in the shadowy sights and incessant rushing water sounds of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I found it somewhat odd that a lantern or some other sort of camp light was not illuminated by now, but I didn’t ask why. The reasons seemed fairly obvious: I was in the midst of “a real camping trip” and “real campers” don’t use wimpy lights. Just like the ancients, they were guided by the light of the stars.
By now Rick and Ryan had cleaned up the camp kitchen and lead us to the river’s edge to better take in the glistening glow of the night’s sky. Rick, an expert river guide with BCA for over sixteen years, began to point out the constellations, offering up a little dissertation on each one. Far from city lights or even from the visual interference cast from a small town, we all marveled at the luminosity and wonder of the stars and how little we knew about these celestial points of reference. How greatly our lives had changed from those of our ancestors. Still though, we were adapting nicely: No one seemed to miss their cell phone or their remote. Hey, after a week out here, we’d surely find ourselves looking up at the sky more than ever before.
Yawns set in, Ryan and Rick ambled off to claim their private sleeping spots beneath the stars while the rest of us headed to our tents. I took two Tylenol PM along with another special pain reliever, all with the hope that I wouldn’t have to wake up during the night to pee.
Steve and I slept in until nine, a seemingly ungodly hour for campers but the wee hours of the morning had been restless. (The near-numbing sounds of raging water, crickets and other unidentified odd noises created a soundtrack to nature that proved to be unsettling to neophytes like me.) And yes, I still stepped out of the tent countless times to pee, scared to death during each and every squat.
Thank you to Ryan Gluek and Rigs Fly Shop & Guide Service (another company that specializes in river trips on the Gunnison) for the above images.