The mighty Colorado River is suddenly dropping into a great abyss as I approach the infamous Gore Rapid. This big drop looks extremely ominous, so I paddle as fast as I can and focus all of my mental and physical energy on the line that I have been paddling in my sleep. I am obviously quite apprehensive, because the entrance drop of this long class V rapid will demand perfection, and the consequences of failure are not very pleasant.
This thrilling day started in the campground/parking lot of the famous Gore canyon run where I had awoken early with a mild hangover. The hangover has become an almost mandatory feature of this infamous race, and I feel quite relieved to have escaped with only a minor one. Partying is an integral part of the whitewater lifestyle, and the reunion of extreme paddlers from near and far leads to a great social event.
It’s a beautiful morning, and I happily greet the brilliance of a new dawn in this awesome canyon. My head is a bit sore and I rub my bleary eyes as I try to sharpen my senses, and assess the reality of my planned endeavor. Do I really wish to to run this crazy river at a very high rate of speed and without scouting?
A few of my (more hung over than I) friends seem to share the same sympathies, but a large dose of black coffee revives the testosterone, and we start to chat and tell some old stories of previous misadventures.
The race won’t be starting for a couple of hours, so we enjoy a casual but not very relaxed morning of reorganizing gear and trying to remember our strategy.
I arrive at the start about an hour early and spend a few moments chatting with my nervous friends. But I really just want to be alone, so I wander up a nearby hillside to meditate and try to rationalize why in the hell I am here. What forces are driving me to pursue this intense adventure? After about a decade of practice and dozens of runs on this “challenging” river, I’ve finally mustered the courage to enter this unique (for its time) race. In less than an hour I will be paddling as fast as a can down a very challenging Class V river relying only on my skills and memory of the big drops.
“The Gore Race” is one of the first extreme kayak races and takes place in the steepest canyon of this mighty river. It was started by the famous Chan Zwanzig in the mid 80’s, when he invited his friends to show up for a free keg of beer and some friendly competition on his favorite local run. The race, involved paddling at high speed and without stopping to scout a section of whitewater that was considered extreme at that time.
As I wander up the nearby hill, my somewhat stressed out brain suddenly flashes back to my first run in this remote canyon with a legendary kayaker and boat builder named John Jaycox in the early 80’s. Birds of a feather flock together, and I had just recently met him through the friendship of a fellow paddler. Plastic boats had just recently been invented, and the standards were rapidly changing, but “Gore Canyon” was still considered to be quite extreme and was rarely run.
The Gore range is a somewhat remote and very spectacular section of the rocky mountains just north of Frisco, Colorado. It offers some great hiking and climbing, but it is most famous for the upper canyon of the Colorado River, that carves its way through the pristine range.
Lord Gore, along with the famous Jim Bridger had explored this range in the mid 1800’s, and Jim decided to name it after his friend.
The high volume waters of this mighty river are powered by the melting snow on the continental divide and meander slowly across the high plateau of the Middle Park Basin. But all the gentleness suddenly disappears as it meets a steep granite gorge with 500 foot walls, a gradient of about 100 feet per mile, and enough volume to create some thrilling rapids.
The flat water of the plateau was quite scenic, and gave us a good chance to warm up, but the tension gradually started to build as we approached a large cliff and a giant gash in the mountain that warned us of the upcoming adventure.
The first couple of rapids were fun class III’s and the cold water splashing on our faces was quite invigorating, but a sudden large horizon line drop found us scurrying to a safe eddie and scouting downstream. There was a clean line in the big drop, but the high volume water was really pushy, and the old long boats were much harder to steer than the modern short ones. So, we carefully plotted a line and chose a couple of land mark rocks in the raging river.
The careful scout had provided a very good view of the rapid, but the aspect from our boats was quite different, and all the rocks suddenly looked the same. My heart rate rapidly increased as I tried to remember the line and keep my course in the strong current. The water was moving faster than I had thought, and I was suddenly being pushed over the edge of a small abyss and right into a large rock. But a sudden reflexive stroke saved the day and I managed to skirt the rock and follow a clean but very steep line into a friendly Eddie. John nailed the line, and reacted with a big smile as we exchanged a set of jubilant high fives.
The recollections make the time move very rapidly, and suddenly it is almost my turn to go, so I very carefully crawl into my boat, and meticulously attach the neoprene skirt that will keep the boat from filling with water in the big rapids. I cautiously inspect the spray skirt again, and add a bit of wax to my old wooden paddle. It is a bit heavier than the modern fiberglass ones, but my appreciation for fine carpentry, and the trust in its strength make it worth the weight. It has also been my solid companion on many great rivers that span the globe, and has thereby gained my trust. I also nervously check my helmet strap and life jacket and complete a couple of eskimo rolls to cool off and improve my confidence.
I’m now third in line, so I carefully maneuver my boat toward the start and do my last mental preparations as I review the big rapids in my mind. The next racer leaves in a flurry of splashing strokes, and I’m now on deck, and wait anxiously as the next racer takes his turn and disappears down stream.
OK, next racer! Ten seconds, 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, Go! And I’m off!
The first drop is only class III, but the cold splashing water helps to calm my nerves and invigorate my spirit, as I stroke bravely toward the first big drop.
“Apple Sauce” is a big horizon line drop with one clean line that I’m confident about remembering, so I paddle fearlessly onward.
“OK; Just right of the giant boulder with some left to right angle. That’s it!” The surging water tries to push me into the big rock, but a strong stroke saves the day, and I follow a clean but very steep line into a gentle pool.
Acing this rapid is great for my confidence and attitude, and on a normal run, we would relax here and exchange some hi fives. But this is a race, so I quickly regain my composure and paddle on downstream somewhat apprehensively toward the infamous “Gore Rapid” which is the crux of the run.
The serenity of the stream suddenly disappears, and I can’t help but notice the throng of spectators that have gathered on the right side of the river, as I approach the ominous drop.
We had spent almost half an hour here on our first descent, as we carefully scouted and tried to memorize all the lines of this very long, steep and technical rapid. The entrance drop was the crux and demanded perfection, but the rapid continued for another three hundred yards and presented at least two more crucial moves. This is definitely the steepest part of the run and the first very challenging drop is followed very quickly by a pair of keeper holes with only a very thin line between them. We were extremely apprehensive of this section on our first run and thought very seriously about portaging, but we managed to psych each other up and decided to go for it, with pretty good success. I’ve now run this rapid at least a dozen times, but I still have a lot of respect for it, and know that it is very demanding.
But now I am alone, and on a race for time, so I can only rely on my memory and confidence from my past descents.
The “sneak route” that I am planning to take involves a boof, or kind of ski jump style of motion through a narrow slot with a ten foot drop. This one move demands perfection, because the landing is in a dangerous, turbulent eddie that is somewhat life threatening and can waste lots of time.
The approach to this narrow slot is guarded by a small hydraulic feature that must be negotiated smoothly to prepare for the narrow boof, because a sideways boat in the narrow slot would be a disaster.
My previous knowledge prevails and I arrive at the top of the sneak with a perfect line . My boat lands just where I want and I paddle very aggressively toward the left side of “Decision Rock.” This has obviously been named for a lot of very bad runs, but my immediate decision leaves me just where I want to be and I smile at a few friendly spectators, as I head on down stream.
The biggest crux is now over, but a gnarly pair of holes called scissors is anxiously waiting down stream. I know the line from many past voyages, but the clean line between this set of double keeper holes is thin and requires precise navigation. I was beginning to feel a bit tired, but the adrenaline from the last drop kicks in, so I manage to keep focused and nail the line. The river now eases a bit but it is not yet time to relax.
The next big drop is Pyrite, and it brings back lots of old memories. This is another one of the rapids that we used to scout in the early 80’s, and it feels a bit intimidating to blast down it at the fevered pace of the race. But, I remember the line, and pass yet another milestone.
“Four down, and only three big ones to go.” I tell myself as I approach the second most challenging drop of the race. Tunnel Falls has been named for its proximity to a big railroad tunnel, and is one of the most exciting places to watch. This is also the narrowest point in the canyon, and the huge granite walls tower above the narrow raging river.
Once again, I’m greeted by a throng of cheering spectators, as I try to work my way down the turbulent left channel that leads to the only clean line.
My nerves and strength are beginning to wain a bit, but the cheering crowd gives me a huge new source of adrenaline, and I paddle boldly down the last big drop. The end is now nearly in sight but two more challenging obstacles remain.
“Toilet Bowl” is a very dangerous hydraulic feature that was the source of my only swim in the early 80’s. It is a very innocent looking drop from upstream, and it is quite easy to miss if you know the line, but a mistake here would result in a race ending catastrophe, so I careful skirt its permitter and head down stream to the last big drop.
Kirschbaum’s is a long class IV+ that was named for one of the early explorers of the river. I’ve had a lot of exciting runs on this rapid, and never seem to pick the same line twice, so my heart and adrenaline level soar once again,
“OK left at that big rock. Whoops! wrong rock.” But I quickly see another line. My arms are tired and the current is strong and pushes me left against another big boulder. But I bravely grab it and push my kayak forward into a clean channel. The finish is now in sight, and a few hard strokes bring me to a cheering crowd of friends and a very welcome beer.
One of the favorite excuses I’ve heard for pursuing extreme sports is “ Cuz it feels so good when you stop,” but I think there are much better reasons. I really feel that adrenaline is a life enhancing drug and completing an event like this leaves the participant with an awesome feeling of satisfaction that is impossible to describe. Pursuing extreme sports also offers the rare opportunity to hang out with so many really alive people and that’s how I’ve met most of my good friends. The combination of adrenaline and a bit of alcohol and this camaraderie provides a high that approaches euphoria, and I quickly chug another beer. The after party and awards ceremony is another big event, and I remember why I’m here.