The Awesome Arkansas: River Rafter Tests Her Mettle

I had been lucky. On five previous rafting trips through Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River, most other members of the group took tumbles into the frigid waters. But, throughout the years, I’d always been able to maintain position on the topside of the raft.

I didn’t have that same sense of calm this year, the sixth annual trip on this particular 16-mile excursion guided by River Runners.

The gorgeous June morning began at 7:30 a.m. when I awoke to rally the troops. We’d camped the night before in the River Runners campground just south of Buena Vista. One of the biggest perks is that the outfitter’s campground is only 100 feet or so from the area where we put into the river, called Fisherman’s Bridge, so campers can sleep in to the last possible minute and then stumble over without waiting for buses or shuttles.

The author (far left with cowboy hat) and her fellow rafters take a break to regroup between major rapids.

Since we had used this company for the last few consecutive summers, we’d become familiar with some of its guides and had requested our favorites. My requirements were pretty basic, really. I wanted the guide I believed knew every inch of the river and could get me to the end without any mangling. Entertaining stories during downtime was also a plus. Kirby was the guide for me.

We had seven full rafts in our group this time. Six of them appeared to be the same size, while the seventh — the one Kirby stood next to — was strikingly smaller. I’d been rafting enough to know that when the water was as high and fast as it was this year, larger meant easier to control.

Kirby informed us that since he’d been specifically requested, he didn’t want to disappoint, so he opted to ensure a true thrill ride. Nope, not feeling as lucky this year.

We set afloat down the river and came to the first group of rapids, the Canyon Doors. They contain just enough white water to give you a taste of what’s ahead. Next came Pin Ball, one of my favorites. It offers the sensation of bouncing back and forth down the river in a similar manner to the age-old game.

By now the experience has allowed the opportunity to shut down the analytical brain and let one’s instincts take over. I looked around the group to see everyone exuding such strength, both physical and mental. People were no longer worried about work on Monday, but were aware only of this very moment and their immediate surroundings. The now-vibrant faces were all smiling, coming a long way from the sleepy, wary faces of this morning.

The next rapid, Zoom Flume, was one of the most important of the day. This is where a professional photographer stands on the banks shooting each raft, creating images available later for purchase. It is here that, while maneuvering through the white waters and trying to hear the guide’s instructions over the river’s roar, the repeat rafters know to also keep a tough “I’m in control” expression on their face. No adventure-seeker wants to be the amateur who gets snapped with his paddle far from the water with eyes closed while diving to the inner raft for safety, only to be permanently displayed in his fellow rafters’ scrapbooks for years to come.

The whitewater knocks the author’s raft into a rock wall.

The guides began preparing us for the upcoming rapids, which are rated Class III and IV, depending on the water’s rage that day. Just the names give an indication of what’s to come: Big Drop, Staircase and Raft Ripper. Anything called Raft Ripper doesn’t leave much question as to what’s ahead. Sure enough, a few people took spontaneous dips, and the rafting guides who had already passed through raced to catch the mutinying paddles before they were lost downstream.

After brief break for recuperation, the group headed on to Seidel’s Suckhole. Kirby was being very specific on the game plan for tackling this one, making it clear we were in for a ride. As we came upon the scene, the water didn’t look as incredibly intimidating as I’d remembered. Suddenly, we began moving faster with the current as Kirby yelled instructions to us, which were only half-heard over the deafening roar.

We were all paddling our hearts out, fighting against nature with all our ability and not necessarily winning. The raft went headlong into a massive rapid, and the middle section, right below where I was sitting, felt as though it was folding in half. A tsunami-size wave (in my mind) washed over the boat and knocked me off balance. It was at this point I become one with nature and allowed it to take me gently into the river.

No, wait … maybe that’s not exactly how it happened.

All right, there was a wave that came at me (and it really was huge), but while I thought I was leaving with it for a moment, I regained my footing and began to pull my upper body back into the raft. It was at this point the friend on the left middle, a 6-foot, 200-pound former military man, was catapulted toward the center of the raft and his paddle, still firmly in his hands, thrust into my upper lip, causing my balance to once again be thrown off. As I was knocked toward the water, I reach for the guy sitting ahead of me, a dear friend who, in another circumstance, would surely have had great concern for my well-being. However, as I reached for his hand, his hand was reaching for his beloved hat, which has been washed overboard as well. I threw my hand on top of my own beloved hat and went into the river.

Almost as soon as I went under, I was popped back up downstream and was floating in a calmer part. The hot rush of adrenaline had protected me against the shock of the icy water. While I could feel a warm hint of blood where my lip had been split, I knew I was just fine. I became aware of all the men in my boat yelling a confusing mix of instructions my way. I felt comfortable with my safety at this time, but could hear the panic in their voices, which made sense, considering my big brother, husband and father were in the raft. Who would want to explain to Mom how their little sister/wife/daughter was lost downstream on a sunny afternoon in the Rockies?

I was able to single out Kirby’s instructions and proceed to the raft, swimming with one hand still on that hat, which was now a little misshapen but still functional. As they pulled me in, the color drained from their faces as they saw the blood on mine. After a quick rinse and the assurance that it was just a lightly split lip, we proceeded down the river.

A view of Brown’s Canyon from the Arkansas River

My sense of calm had now returned, as I felt I had at last paid my long-awaited dues. We neared the final rapid of the day, Twin Falls. In past years as we approached the falls my heart had still been racing with eager excitement of one last challenge. This time, while still enthusiastic, I knew I’d already faced my big challenge of the day. Sure enough, it seemed a bit mild compared to my last little thrill ride.

We arrived at Stone Bridge, the 16-mile point, which marked the end of the trip. The seven rafts were lined up at the bank and we pulled ourselves onto land with sore muscles, smiling faces, a few minor battle scars and a satisfied sense of accomplishment.

If You Go

River Runners offers the 16-mile Brown’s Canyon trip for $86 per person. Children under 12 raft for $74. Group discounts are available.

River Runners, 24070 County Road 301, Buena Vista, 81211; 800-332-9100

Colorado River Outfitters’ Association

Sheri L. Thompson is a freelance writer/photographer. She lives in Denver. She is a fine arts graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and a journalism graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.