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Friday, September 4, 2015 : Colorado raft trip


This morning, we have to get up early one more time. After breakfast, we drive straight to the Tag-A-Long office, a litle further down the road in Moab, less than 2 minutes away.


After signing the liability waivers, we meet our raft companions for the day. Gunnar is our guide, with 3 young trainees he has affectionately nicknamed the hooligans. There is also a couple from Maryland and 4 young men from New York City, with a second guide.


We will be sailing with two boats :


  • A paddle boat for the 4 young men, the couple from Maryland and their guide, on which everyone is supposed to row in pace,
  • And a classical inflatable dinghy for Gunnar, the hooligans, Marie and me. Gunnar will control the boat, we do not have to row, which is exactly what we wanted.


While we're chatting, the technical crew securely ties the boats on the trailer, behind the old, battered former school bus that will take us to the start of Westwater Canyon. It's a one-and-a-half hour drive, Gunnar takes all his time to comment the trip with a luxury of details.


The 4 guys from New York City are already downing beer. They came along with a 48-pack. Sounds promising !

Colorado raft trip, preparing the equipment

Colorado raft trip, preparing the equipment


The first part of the trip goes thru Utah State Route 128, which we will talk about again toward the end of the day. Gunnar, who knows the area like the back of his hand, almost describes each and every rock. The second part, still on Utah State Route 128, meets Interstate 70 for a few miles. And a small road finally takes us to Westwater Ranch, on the bank of Colorado River, where we will leave from.


On the way, with Gunnar and the hooligans, we compare the number of States each of us has visited. I'm not too sure of my 30 or 31, but by far I'm the one who has visited the most. I have a hard time telling them that it's no real feat, that I chose, that it took me 36 years to get there, that ... who knows what else, Gunnar yells everywhere in the bus "Hey folks, you know what ? That guy has been to 31 States !!!"


While the technical crew sets up all the equipment and checks each item multiple times, I watch how launches are done. A ranger on duty next to the launch point checks that each crew has a valid permit for the day, that guides are properly certified, that all security equipment is on board, and so forth. No doubt, nothing is left to chance, which is reassuring.


Then it is our turn to launch.


Contrary to what I thought, Colorado is not a very wide river, much less than, say, the Seine in Paris. But, judging from the current, the flow seems really high. And still, we are at the end of the season, it has not been raining for a while, and this is a quiet day by any standard. I mentally attempt to figure out what Colorado may look like, say, the day following a storm, in spring, during snowmelt.  Later, during the trip, Gunnar gives me a few hints : he shows me a high water mark a few months old ... about 25 feet above current surface.


Colorado raft trip, lunch break

Colorado raft trip, lunch break


The trip is 17 miles overall, divided into three roughly equal parts. The first part is very tranquil, with class 0 or 1 rapids, which means hardly noticeable. After lunch break, things get slightly more entertaining, with class 2, 3 and 4 rapids. To give you an idea, a class 4 rapid is a rather impressive beast, moving in all directions like a wild horse, high as a truck and, to top it all, with huge rocks in the way. We are rookies, we stand an absolutely nil chance to escape such a thing unscathed without an experienced professionnal guide. For the record, there are class 5, and even 6, rapids. A class 6 is supposed to be absolutely hellish, but tourists are never taken there. The third and final part of the trip is quiet again, and we can enjoy the beautiful Westwater Canyon landscapes.


Today's excursion is called whitewater rafting. White water ? I assume it is a reference to the foam that forms in the rapids.


We stop for lunch on the bank of the Colorado. Since we are in a highly protected natural area, instructions are very strict : there should be no trace of our passage after we are gone. Gunnar has even brought along a portable toilet, with a roll of paper. Americans know how to be organized in any circumstance. For men, it's ... pee in the river !


Gunnar and his teammate prepare a mixed salad with corn, cheddar, ham and many other colorful ingredients. Too bad they get a little loose with mayo. But never mind, the preparation is basic, but also nourishing and pretty decent for a riverside picnic. Then, they fold corn tortillas and stuff them with the salad, preparing tasty sandwiches. After eating 3, I no longer feel hungry. Of course, since we are not allowed to make fire, there is no warm dish.


During the preparation, the 4 New-Yorkers invite me to share a tequila with them. I gladly accept, only once, 2 fingers deep. With no more than marginal help from the hooligans, they empty the botttle !


Colorado raft trip, first rapids

First rapids


While Gunnar and his teammate repack all the equipment, we have a look at what we are supposed to sail thru. The rapid on the picture is hardly a class 1, which does not even begin to compare with the monsters we are going to cross in a moment.


Very soon, Marie realizes she is not willing to drown her pricey camera, which we need for the rest of this trip. So she gives up taking pictures, which is why you can't see any. She stores her camera in one of the waterproof bags, designed to survive perhaps not a full drowning but at least a wild shower. And there is no shortage of wild showers, during the next two hours.


I compensate with the GoPro, which has a waterproof box. The only trick is not to lose it in the Colorado, because it would be kind of hard to pick it up. But we have anticipated : I have a head harness onto which the GoPro is securely fastened, which allows me to use my hands to firmly grasp the ropes. Several times, our boat is totally submerged by water, along with us. But the GoPro holds tight, still filming inside the maelstroms. Now, we have to mount the videos into a clip, which I will post as soon as possible. It should be rather dramatic !


Colorado raft trip, calm before the storm

Calm before the storm


Rapids show up in groups. At times, like the picture shows, we enjoy some calm.


At some point, Julie, the lady from Maryland, asks to come on board with us. The 4 young New-Yorkers' increasing alcohol intake has seriously worn out her patience, and is beginning to really worry her. She is a nurse, and she seems to know quite a lot about what kind of havoc alcohol can wreak. And perhaps she is also willing to enjoy a different kind of company. Her husband, more unflappable, stays on the paddle boat.


The situation is gradually getting more perilous. After two capsizings in highly uncomfortable places, the 4 young are now almost unable to coordinate their moves, and their guide has some very hard time to make them row in a straight line, or at least keep the paddle boat out of the most hazardous places. So there are crew changes. The hooligans, who are still able to row correctly, climb with the second guide to bring the paddle boat back home safely, while the 4 young from New York City climb with us on the raft.


This improvised arrangement gets us thru the last series of rapids. One is called Skull, another one Last Chance. Those names say it all !


Colorado raft trip, our guide Gunnar firmly in control

Our guide Gunnar firmly in control


With more than a lot of strength, while always cool, calm and collected, Gunnar steers our raft with a firm hand in the middle of rapids, at times normally forward, at times in reverse, and even sideways at other times. I'm absolutely stunned by his total mastery of a relatively heavy boat, especially with 6, and later 8, people on board.


I'm stunned as well by his extensive knowledge of the river, with otherworldly accuracy, to the tune of "OK, here in this rapid there is a big rock in the middle, that we can't see too well underwater, so I turn the raft sideways to pass left in the current, because it flows this way when it has not been raining for that many days" ... and so on.


At some quieter moment, I ask him if I am right in assuming some Viking ancestry on his side. His reply is pretty straight : "I'm from Grand Junction, Colorado, but my grandparents both came in from Norway". Indeed, Gunnar does not lend to that much confusion. Good pick !


Westwater Canyon, after the rapids

Westwater Canyon, after the rapids


After the final rapids, the river somewhat widens. We are still in Westwater Canyon, but water is a lot more peaceful. 


The young from New York City go for some swimming. Good idea, it freshens up their minds. I go along for a while. Contrary to what I assumed, Colorado water is cool but not cold. Gunnar talks of 60-odd °F, but I think he's a bit pessimistic. The only caveat is not to stray too far away from the raft, because with such a current, it would be hard to catch it again. Of course, bathers have to keep their lifevests on.


Anyway, we are already soaked to the bone, and a 10-minute swim is not going to change anything.


Even in a narrow canyon, sunshine somewhat shows up. And since the weather is pretty nice, we eventually all dry up quite fast.


Westwater Canyon, close-up on the red cliffs

Westwater Canyon, close-up on the red cliffs


The last part of the canyon crosses landscapes of gorgeous red cliffs, typical of limestone formations of the region. One of the four New-Yorkers pretends to see dog heads just about anywhere in the rocks. His consumption of beer and tequila is probably for something in his extremely fertile imagination. Nature knows how to be generous, and booze even more.


Later, we exit the canyon, the river widens, and we soon reach landing. The crew stores the equipment away, and, miracle ... we are dry ! Who would have told, after such a rodeo in the middle of the rapids ?


We leave in the same old, battered former school bus as this morning. Our route passes thru a ghost village, Cisco, where a few film scenes have been shot, including some from Thelma and Louise, once again. A ghost village named Cisco ? Network engineers will love it. I relish the irony.


On our way back to Moab, we take Utah State Route 128 again, like this morning. Postcard Alley is still as beautiful but, behind the dirty windows of the bus, pictures are nowhere near good enough, so we promise ourselves to come back. Well, why not right now, since we have plenty of time ahead of us ?


Utah State Route 128, Postcard Alley

Utah State Route 128, Postcard Alley


It's exactly what we do. After exchanging a few last words and saying goodbye to our companions of the day, we take the Camaro, remove the hood and drive back up to Postcard Alley. Our plan is to drive up 20-odd miles, then slowly drive our way back while enjoying totally unknown Western landscapes ... with the obvious exception of westerns, of course.


Why this exact way ? Simply to enjoy a better light under the already declining late afternoon sunshine.


Utah State Route 128, red cliffs

Utah State Route 128, red cliffs


We drive up the narrowest part of Utah State Route 128, where landscapes are absolutlely gorgeous. On the way out, we do not stop a lot. On the way back, however, we take all our time.


Since the weather is really bright, sunlight colors the cliffs with various subtle shades of red, that Marie does her best capturing with the camera.


The upside of driving without the hood is that Marie can take pictures without even getting out of the car.


Utah State Route 128, Fisher Towers

Fisher Towers


Fisher Towers are a set of red needles that were formed by roughly the same processes at work everywhere else in the area, erosion by water and wind, and freeze-thaw cycles. The front ones can pretty well be seen from the road, as shown on the picture.


The storm that seems to be brewing behind Fisher Towers is in fact a little further, above La Sal Mountains, and it is staying there. We enjoy a really bright weather.


Utah State Route 128, Postcard Alley

Postcard Alley


We make a last pause on the side of Utah State Route 128 to take a picture of this typical western landscape. Were it not for the road that can be seen in the foreground, we could expect to see a settlers' convoy, a pack of yelling Indians (OK, Native Americans) or a cavalry regiment, which always shows up on time, as anyone knows, popping up from anywhere.


We then drive back to Moab. We have dinner at the Blu Pig (spelling is correct), a place both bar and restaurant, next door from our hotel.


After a few postcards, Marie's diary and my blog update, it's time to have some sleep.

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