By Hendson Quan
“We had 16 hits yesterday,” Kiel said to our group of six, with a big smile on his face. I knew he wasn’t talking about baseball. Kiel was to be our rafting guide and leader on the Arkansas River out of Canon City, Colorado.
I along with some 45 rafting enthusiasts had gathered at the headquarters of Raft Masters, a whitewater rafting outfit with a fine reputation for safety and service that has been in operation for over 25 years. We were issued wetsuits, splash jackets, and river boots and given a 10-minute safety talk. The talk included paddling techniques, the position to take when hitting rapids, what to do if the raft capsizes and how to get back in, and what to do if one falls overboard.
As our raft started out on the river, I was reminded of the George Clooney movie “The Perfect Storm,” in which he and his crew set sail on the Andrea Gail. Cool and calm waters, beautiful blue skies, great anticipation of what was to come. For about the first 20 minutes, we enjoyed the tranquility of the waters and the surrounding scenery. Kiel clued us in on the history of whitewater rafting in the area and engaged in friendly chitchat with us, along with describing by name and degree of severity — or class or level — some of the rapids the group was likely to come upon. He also called out paddling commands to us as the raft made its way through the running waters, to avoid rocks or going too near the riverbanks. I carefully listened for and followed Kiel’s paddling instructions. It was fun — I felt like a kid in a bumper car for the first time, with his dad at his side giving him driving tips.
Kiel alerted us of the first of many rapids to hit us, a little one to (literally) get our feet wet. We braced for it, but the water still hit our faces. “That was a pretty good hit,” Kiel said. It felt good. From that point on, we were to encounter some 13 more, some in fairly quick succession — but who counts when you are having such fun? After a couple of “hits,” I became brave, telling myself, “Keep ’em coming; bring it on.”
About an hour into our trip, we got into an area of particular calm with the river waters virtually not moving. Kiel signaled us to stop paddling and look up. We were right under the magnificence of the Royal Gorge Bridge, its deck at some 955 feet above, and billed as the world’s highest suspension bridge. What a sight to behold. For a moment everyone was just silently in awe, then each gave exclamations of wonder and amazement.
River or rapid difficulty is rated using a class system, I to V, with the lower being appropriate for a beginner and V suitable for an expert raftsman. For the Royal Gorge region of the Arkansas River, all rapids have classifications of III or higher. Some of the class IV and V rapids on our route that Kiel mentioned have names like Boat Eater, Sledgehammer, and Sunshine Falls. Class III rapid names include Lion’s Head, The Pipeline, and El Primero. The availability of names certainly adds a personal touch to any recount of a rafting adventure trip.
In fact, it was at Sledgehammer that I literally got slammed and fell overboard into the water, even after a warning from Kiel to the team. The massive wave that hit our raft on its left side lifted it up some 45 degrees. Being on the right side, and unable to withstand the powerful wave, I instantly flipped into the water.
Remembering the safety talk and using my quick reaction before the raging water could carry me away from the raft, I managed to keep my head above water and with my right hand instinctively grabbed the rope tied around the raft. Within a split second, Kiel grabbed me by my life jacket with one hand and in a continuous motion pulled me up and out of the water back onto the raft. He asked, nonchalantly, “Are you all right?” I was all wet, but just fine.
During the trip, we experienced gradual drops ranging from 10 to 30 feet that varied between 10 and 25 degree angles. However, near the end of our trip, there was a steep drop at practically a 90 degree angle, but for just five feet. Luckily Kiel had alerted us about its coming. Indescribable feeling — akin to a ride on a water slide at an amusement park… but this was straight down!
The Arkansas River enjoys tremendous popularity as it is the most rafted river in the world. At certain spots it narrows to just 25 feet, and cliffs can be as steep as 1,100 feet. During late May through June, the water levels are at their highest, attracting the more experienced whitewater rafters and serious adventure seekers. For the less experienced or family groups, July through August is the best time to go.
Whitewater rafting combines both anticipation and sensation, not to mention paddling skills, to give a memorable experience. Each year in late June, the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival attracts tens of thousands of enthusiasts. For two days, it offers “Boats, Bands, Beer” and plenty of food. With more than 20 different activities, attendees of all ages may choose to enjoy by being participants and/or spectators.
A jeep tour offers insight into the area’s history and geography as well as its geological formations. Will Colon, an affable, down-to-earth fellow and owner and operator of Colorado Jeep Tours, is the man to see. On selected scheduled jeep tours, one of the highlights is the chance to ride atop the deck of the Royal Gorge Bridge and be able to look below at the river and around at the gorgeous view of the whole region.
Wine connoisseurs would not want to pass up a chance to visit The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, just 12 miles east of the Royal Gorge Bridge. Its signature wine is The Revelation, a Meritage blend of equal amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot.
In Colorado Springs, the Old Town Guesthouse, a AAA Diamond Award winner, features fireplaces, hot tubs on private porches, and steam showers. A unique attraction and amenity is its state-of-the-art waveless waterbeds in every room, for sleeping pleasure and therapeutic benefits.
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