Lewis and Clark went out west to explore. They had a capable guide in Sacajawea. So when we went west to explore, we had two guides, Hunter and Nate.
Hunter, an Angola High School graduate, is a student at Western Colorado. During the summer, he works for the National Park Service maintaining and building trails. On his days off from work, he hikes and just recently summited Gothic Mountain, one of the 54 peaks in Colorado that is over 14,000 feet in elevation. As Hunter explained, “I was walking a ridge, sheer drops on both sides. I got dizzy. I sat down.”
We drove east out of Gunnison on U.S. 50 to Ohio City, Colorado, where we picked up a paved county road. The asphalt ended, the lane narrowed, and the incline tilted as we headed to the Gold Creek trailhead. We continued to climb and I watched for clearance of the van as we rumbled up and over rocks and ruts.
We spotted a moose tramping through a thicket near a stream as we passed by old log cabins and abandoned mining equipment.
We parked at the trailhead and loaded our packs. I stuffed in a ridiculous amount of water and sports drink, certainly more than enough to stay properly hydrated. There as no way I could ever gulp that much liquid.
Our destination was Lake Lamphier. The aroma of pine saturated the air. The only time I ever smell pine is the day that I take the tinder dry Christmas tree out the door, or use disinfectant to scrub a floor. Dust clouds poofed with each step. Every step was uphill, more like upmountain, as we climbed Fossil Ridge. We arrived at a lake. The only sound was a slight whooshing of pine boughs. Like a false summit of a mountain, this was not our terminal. Hunter consulted the topographic map and determined that we were at Little Lake Lamphier, and he never once said, “Recalculating.”
We traipsed on and crossed streams rushing with melt water. Fewer trees grew here so vistas were broader.
We reached the lake and set out to circumnavigate the lofty body of water. Every rock was a playground, a stepping stone, a stool, a statue, a monument and a marker. We scrambled up into the scree mounds of fallen rock to the snow on a sweltering summer afternoon. Hunter was mountain-goat nimble, warning us that a car-sized rock could have a lever/fulcrum ready to go with just a touch.
The effects of altitude include headaches and we had the kind that was on the old television commercials, jagged graphs, lightning bolts and hammers hitting anvils. We headed back. Our feet, formerly propellers, were now brakes.
We marched down; pack lightened, as every drop of from every container was used as fuel.
We ate at Secret Stash in Crested Butte. This was the first time in my life that I ever ate in a restaurant sitting on the floor, barefoot. This was in a town where Tibetan prayer flags hang everywhere and all babies are born riding bicycles.
We took a day to recover. We did not require the hypobaric chamber or oxygen at one of Crested Butte’s spas, but we did use their free public transportation. Our bus was adorned with a cow motif, complete with a rope tail. We crossed over the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. We were at Buena Vista, Col. to raft the Arkansas River.
Our first impression of Wilderness Aware was the spotless change room. Our second impression was the amount of news clippings from satisfied clients, from the statehouse to the big house. Past rafters had included politicians and recovering addicts. Our third impression was of our next guide.
Our skipper was Nate, a student from a different Western University, this one in Kalamazoo. Nate is from Chelsea, Mich., so he is used to two questions. One is about Jiffy Mix and the other is about actor Jeff Daniels. On Nate’s recent day off, he climbed a 14,000-foot peak, named after an Ivy League school. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, take your pick. Or as Nate put it, “Ten steps, rest 30 seconds.” Nate also told us the raft guides were different from mutual funds. “Mutual funds mature and earn money.”
Before our trip through Brown’s Canyon, we had our safety meeting. We learned what to do if one of our crew became a swimmer, and what to do if we became a swimmer. Aggressive self-rescue was the mantra. The crew and the guides would do everything to yank you back into the raft, but if you went overboard, you better not just float on downstream. You had better be Michael Phelps salmon upstream.
As soon we departed, the rain came. What better time? Rain was needed and we were on a whitewater rafting trip. The rain made the air heavy with fragrance. It was like the spice rack exploded. I had never been outside before and had a strong whiff of cinnamon.
Our confidence grew as we completed the simple tasks of paddle, stop, left, right and back. We even could switch sides, musical chairs style. As long as Nate didn’t expect us to parallel park the raft, we were OK.
Nate began to tell us about the upcoming rapids. One in our crew had eyes widen, thinking that all that we had already completed were the rapids. No, rapids have sound and rapids have photographers and rapids have names. Names like Pinball, Zoom Flume, Big Drop, Seven Stairs and Widow Maker. This stretch of the Arkansas River is rated between Class III and Class IV, putting it somewhere between a kiddy pool and Niagara. The dry summer had greatly reduced the CFS, cubic feet per second, the amount of water flowing. But less water meant more rock, more incentive not to become a swimmer. It also changed the hydraulics, just like there is a difference between driving in January or July.
We made it out of Brown’s Canyon and ate at the Eddyline Brewery in Buena Vista. The pizza was baked over a wood fire. Just like Sacajawea used to make.
IF YOU GO:
Wilderness Aware Rafting
12600 US Highway 285 and 24
Buena Vista, CO 81211