“Wow! Look at that owl! That critter is huge!”
“Wow indeed!” Replied Gary, “It looks like the Great Horned variety, and
it seems to be checking us out.”
The gallant old bird did seem to be very amused by our presence, and circled around the falls for a few moments before disappearing back into the lush forest.
My longtime friend Gary Jenrette, his teenage son Mike, and I were paddling a remote section of the North Fork of the South Platte below Bailey, Colorado and had just stopped to scout the infamous “Four Falls” rapid. The sudden appearance of this mystical creature added some incredible new energy to the otherwise intense adventure.
“Hey! Maybe that’s Paul’s spirit!” I exclaimed with a tear, as the owl brought back sad memories of a great old friend, whose ashes had been spread in this river.
Pablo had been an awesome friend and a legend in our generation of extreme kayaking. He had drowned on a nearby river and a huge wake had been organized just upstream in his honor.
The wild sighting of this beautiful owl, brought us all to a few tears, and our hearts seemed to stop in unison as we embraced the moment in this spectacular gorge.
But the moment of ecstasy slowly waned, and we were suddenly back to the reality of what was waiting down stream. The class V “Four Falls” section alone offers an expert challenge, but the next 2 miles of class IV are extremely continuous and propose a very exciting challenge which is usually run without scouting. But, we had run this canyon many times with our friend Paul and the level was friendly, so we calmed our nerves and prepared to launch.
“Boom, Crack, Bang, Bam!” A powerful summer storm was quickly approaching and a large cloud suddenly darkened the mid day sky. An abrupt bolt of lighting lit up the nearby hills and sent a thundering roar through the canyon.
This is a common occurrence on Colorado afternoons, so it wasn’t too shocking. But the combination of the owl sighting and this unexpected storm left us in an even more acute state of mind. Another crack of thunder threatened to split the skies, and they abruptly opened with a down pour of rain and small hail stones. Our helmets and waterproof gear protected us from the hail, and rain, and the lightening seemed limited to the high hills above us, so we took another break and observed the natural entertainment in this awesome setting.
But the skies finally cleared, and we paddled on down stream. We all had good lines in the section that we had scouted, but the next rapid called “S-turn” was almost always a big surprise. It was really hard to scout and easy enough to survive for an expert boater, but it usually managed to challenge our skills. This trip was no exception and I had to make a mad scramble around a giant boulder that unexpectedly appeared in my path. Gary and Mike had similar runs, and we stopped to catch our breath at the portage or scout for a nasty rapid called “Super Max.” This drop had been considered too hard to run for most of the extreme boaters of our generation, including Paul. The new generation with better boats and bigger huevos have been gradually pushing the limits, but we decided to shoulder our boats and get ready for the remaining action that waited down stream.
The memories of Paul, and sighting of the giant owl remained deeply on our minds as we tried hard to focus on the challenges of the river. But, I couldn’t help to look back a few times to see if his spirit was following us.
The scenery of Bailey Canyon is truly stunning, as the path of the river threads its way through a remote wilderness of granite domes and lush forests. Deer Creek is a small tributary that joins the North Platte in a fabulous setting, and we needed to scout the rapid, so we stopped for a short lunch. The entire valley was void of humans and the threatening storm had passed, so we savored the solitude as we shared memories of our great friend.
“Deer Creek” was another challenging rapid, but it was the last class V drop, and marked the end of the most serious white water.
The rest of the run was still challenging but we could now relax just a bit and ponder the excitement of an awesome day. The cold fresh water splashed our faces and we felt constantly challenged, but the thought of our friend’s spirit followed us onward and we survived another great adventure.
The cold beer was patiently waiting, and we toasted his memory in great spirits!
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