By Lea Johnson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The first rule of rafting is stay in the boat. However, if a rafter breaks that rule, the raft guides from Outdoor Recreation have the training and experience to get them back on the raft safe.
According to Casey Graham, Outdoor Recreation assistant manager, the Arkansas River is one of the most rafted rivers in the United States. The stretch of river that carved out the Royal Gorge, west of Cañon City, attracts between 250,000 and 500,000 visitors a year to raft the world famous rapids.
Rafting sometimes gets a bad reputation for being too dangerous. Graham agrees the activity does come with serious risks, but says most deaths on the river each year are caused by heart attacks or by people taking extra, unnecessary risks.
If a person can swim, paddle and follow instructions, Graham said rafting overall is a safe activity.
“Colorado is one of the only states that require guides to be certified,” Graham said. Guides are required to train a certain number of hours on different stretches of the river depending on difficulty of the rapids.
The nearly 25 guides Outdoor Recreation has available to guide rafts through the Royal Gorge are required to train a minimum of 50 hours on the river. However, most have close to 120 hours of training, including swift water rescue training. Guides are also certified in first aid and CPR.
Outdoor Recreation provides transportation, personal floatation devices, wet suits during cooler weather, and lunch for all rafting trips. There is a 50-pound weight minimum for children due to the weight restriction of the personal floatation devices. Children, like adults, also need to know how to swim and be able to help paddle the raft.
I recently had the opportunity to take a full-day rafting trip with Graham and a handful of his guide team. As a first-time rafter, Graham asked if I knew how to swim and to be prepared to paddle hard.
At Pinnacle Rock, our access point to the river, Graham led a safety briefing for our trip down the river, starting with the first rule of rafting followed by what to do if that rule is broken. Our group then got in the raft while it was still on land to practice different paddle motions. Then it was time to get on the river.
The first half of the trip goes nine miles down the Arkansas River through Big Horn Sheep Canyon. The rapids don’t go above class III, beginner-intermediate level, making it the perfect trip for someone who just wants to get a taste of rafting to see if they enjoy it, Graham said.
The boat guides are well versed in the history, geology and folk lore of the area and point out different features along the way.
Lunch is provided at the Parkdale access point. This is where the half-day trip patrons catch their ride back to Peterson Air Force Base and the full-day trip rafters continue to the Royal Gorge.
The second half of the trip is for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers. Class IV and V rapids can easily toss the raft around if the paddlers are not listening and following the instructions of the guide.
But rafting, Graham said, is more than getting an adrenaline rush. “You get to build a bond with people. You see how they act in fear and you see how they act in joy,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people come on rafting trips and walk away as really good friends.”
Safety is the top priority for the guide team, Graham said. If they don’t feel like it’s safe for the rafters, whether it is because of the rafters’ ability or the current water level, they will not take them through the Gorge. Last year, the Gorge section was closed for six weeks because the water level made the trip too dangerous.
Graham said he expects the water level this year to make a good season of rafting and encourages anyone to call Outdoor Recreation and give it a try.
“Rafting is really the way to see what Colorado is all about,” he said.
Half-day rafting trips are $50 and full-day trips are $80. For more information about rafting and other adventures like hiking, kayaking and rock climbing, call Outdoor Recreation at 719-556-4867.