An Adventure on the Arkansas, in which I tackle my own River of Doubt.

I like to think of the great explorers of our age whenever I’m out in the wilderness. I’m certainly a weenie compared to Teddy Roosevelt, but his adventures are perhaps the most inspiring to me. After sorely losing the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt, his son Kermit, a Brazilian Colonel, and a troop of assorted adventurers set out to chart the River of Doubt, a tributary of the Amazon flanked on all sides by dangerous flora and fauna and choked with impassable rapids. Roosevelt nearly lost his life, and the story of his expedition to the River of Doubt is one that will render your most gut-wrenching outing completely moot. You could argue that Roosevelt was the last great all-around adventurer of our time, and you might very well be right. Adventurers today aren’t nearly so versatile.

Most of the outdoor educators I know would agree that outdoorsy people come in two types: you can be a climber, or you can be a paddler. This is kind of a complex dichotomy, and one I had trouble understanding for a long time—lots of climbers like to paddle, and surely plenty of paddlers are proficient climbers, aren’t they?

Perhaps the highest compliment you can be paid in my social circle is to be called a “sandbagging son-of-a-b,” a refrain reserved for those who advertise their skills as mediocre, then surprise and delight with their actual abilities. Sandbagging is a subtle and nuanced art form, and it’s important to be able to recognize it because most Alaskans, transplanted and otherwise, are proficient at a wide range of skills. In outdoor ed, it’s sort of expected that you can ski, that you are able to kayak, that you are capable of making your way up a sheer rock wall, etc. You can never know how to do too many things, right?

Despite this universal competency, though, most of us identify more strongly with one skill set or the other. Each subset has its own little culture, its own unwritten rules. I like to run and I own a mountain bike, but I’m not a runner, per se, or a cyclist. Is this making any sense?

I am better at a lot of things than I am at climbing, but that’s where I identify; it’s the group whose culture makes me feel most at home. I feel even more emphatic about this identity when faced with the climber-or-paddler question: I’m afraid of open water. I hate swimming (I mostly dog paddle). I don’t like the smell of fish, and I certainly don’t like being wet. Regardless of the alternative, I am decidedly not a paddler.

The Arkansas from Ruby Mountain to Hecla Junction, with named rapids. (Photo: Wilderness Aware Rafting.)
The Arkansas from Ruby Mountain to Hecla Junction, with named rapids. (Photo: Wilderness Aware Rafting.)

It’s sort of funny, then, that I’ve spent nearly as much of my summer thus far on the water as I have on rock and ice. A few days after my trip to the Harding Icefield, I met up with two of the instructors from that course, Mik and Heather (perk of being the only female student on the Harding trip: lots of time for bonding with the girls), for a few days of sea kayaking out of Seward. I had fun despite the constant drizzle, and so when one of my oldest friends invited me on a rafting trip scheduled for the weekend after I arrived in Colorado, I found myself saying yes almost immediately.

My friend Hannah’s family used to own a whitewater guiding company that ran raft trips on the Arkansas River, and some of my best summer memories are of rafting with the Crimminses there and on the Colorado. Hannah and her three siblings all grew up guiding boats down the river, and by the time we were in high school, we were loading rafts into the backs of our parents’ cars and heading up to the Colorado for trips on our own, which made us feel extremely grown up. Her dad sold Rio Expeditions in 2003, but the family still spends lots of time on the river in various capacities.

One such capacity, as it turns out, is the FIBArk Festival, which stands for “First in Boating on the Arkansas.” America’s “oldest and boldest whitewater festival” takes place in Salida, which is in my favorite area of Colorado and possibly the world. Salida and its neighbor, Buena Vista, are at the foot of the Sawatch Range, which contains eight of the twenty highest peaks in the Rockies. Both towns are also flanked by the Arkansas River, thus the festival. (Bonus: FIBArk was sponsored this year by Eddyline Brewing, which makes my very favorite beer, the Crank Yanker IPA. Win.)

Hannah and I drove up on a Friday morning and met up with an assortment of longtime family friends of the Crimminses for an afternoon paddle. We planned to do Browns Canyon from Ruby Mountain to Hecla Junction, a popular, ten-ish mile stretch of the Arkansas with a few Class III and IV rapids. Thanks to a weeklong stretch of unseasonably hot weather, most of the snow on the nearby Sawatches had melted into the river, making for conditions described to me by Hannah’s dad as “crankin’.” “There will be no shortage of excitement,” he told me nonchalantly as we pumped up the boats. Hannah looked up from her phone, which she had just used to look up the current water level (nearly 3,000 cfs, or cubic feet per second—imagine a river of 3,000 basketballs rolling past you every second), and grinned.

I'm in the white hat. Thankfully, my similarly colored legs are hidden here by the somewhat-sporty Zoom Flume.
I’m in the white hat. Thankfully, my similarly colored legs are hidden here by the somewhat-sporty Zoom Flume.

For reasons I cannot explain, though, I find rivers much less frightening than lakes and the ocean, and the promise of adventure on the Arkansas was alluring.

Our party of two boats floated gently along the first three miles or so of the run, then pulled up to regroup just before we reached the Canyon Doors Rapid, the first in a series of ominously named rapids we’d encounter before our take-out point at Hecla Junction.

Things heated up a little when we entered the aptly named Pinball Rapid. It was so hot out, I was glad to be soaked in the cool river water. A few more rapids—Zoom Flume, Widowmaker, Seven Stairs—stood between us and the take-out, and I wanted it to last as long as possible. I could have sat in the boat all afternoon, chatting easily with old friends and new, letting the sun beat down on my already glacier-weathered face and burn my vitamin D-deficient legs, occasionally pausing the reverie to paddle hard through a sporty rapid.

The thing about rivers, though, is you don’t get to choose how quickly you go down them. I’ll minimize my waxing philosophical here, but suffice it to say I had some things to think about during the few quiet moments on that trip. There’s something about the river, about its infinite, eternal nature, ceaselessly sending its contents to the ocean since time immemorial, that felt almost comforting. Despite the inauspicious start to my summer, I felt invigorated by the idea that my own loss is tempered by the seemingly endless possibilities that lay before me, and that my life, like the mighty Arkansas, refuses to stop or even slow down.

Spending the weekend paddling down the Arkansas, shooting the shit over Crank Yankers, and, because I’ve spent too long in the Land Where No Logic Prevails and have lost the ability to make sound decisions, running a 10k, felt like a second start on summer. I’m back, and while I’m tempted to never cross Colorado state lines again as long as I live, I feel strangely homesick for the place that nearly ate me alive. I have many mountains there to climb.

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