By the time we reach Zoom Flume rapid about halfway through Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River, I’d swear our guide is dousing me on purpose. As our raft plunges through the Class III chute, a wave of water splashes over the front of the raft and delivers a brisk slap of Rocky Mountain snowmelt right in my face. I keep paddling through the swirling foam as the guide, Wes Harper, calls, “Forward two!” We bounce through the watery maelstrom and leave the roar of that rapid behind. Sure enough, my suspicions are confirmed downstream when Harper deftly spins the boat to run a rapid backward and make sure my wife in the back row can share in the soaking (though I’m sure he takes it easier on her).
Don’t get me wrong—this is what we’ve come for: The thrill of outdoor adventure. The chance to laugh together and make family memories. An escape from the pandemic that has overrun our previous sense of normalcy. And, yes, an opportunity to get wet in one of Colorado’s greatest rivers and take in the scenic beauty of Browns Canyon National Monument.
Out there, the river knows no coronavirus. It just keeps rolling and flowing—as all the great songs and literature remind us—undisturbed by the ups and downs, the sickness or health of human history. And Colorado’s Arkansas River outfitters are paddling along with it, giving cooped-up locals and visitors the socially-distanced adventure of whitewater rafting. With social distancing and health precautions in place, this is a great summer to go whitewater rafting.
“As people are getting more comfortable practicing social distancing and best practices, I think people are looking for experiences like rafting,” says Chuck Cichowitz, owner of Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting and Adventure Company in Buena Vista. “It’s actually been profound. You can see it on families and households and friend groups, the joy and exhilaration they’re having being able to be out and do something for two to six hours on a boat or river trip. To be able to have that more normalized life experience and have the joy and laughter and the interaction and fun has really been quite extraordinary.”
SINCE OPENING IN LATE MAY as part of Colorado’s Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors phase, Noah’s Ark and other members of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA) are following strict health guidelines as directed by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those include daily symptom screenings of all employees, wearing face coverings, no-contact check-in whenever possible and increased sanitization of all equipment, from life jackets and helmets to paddles and boats. Shuttle vehicles are operating at 50% capacity to allow more distancing within. Cichowitz tells me that Noah’s is rotating all of its gear after each use and on a three-day cycle to allow extra time to disinfect.
Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment have emphasized the importance of outdoor recreation throughout the pandemic. AROA agrees that the fresh air and sunshine are benefits in diminishing the risk of coronavirus. “We have the uniqueness of being outdoors and having ultraviolet light, which has come to be one of the best allies we have in sanitizing,” says Bob Hamel, executive director of AROA. “Covid doesn’t last in ultraviolet, bright sunshine. [Outfitters] are using different solutions. We’ve always had to sanitized wetsuits, life jackets, helmets, rafting equipment … you just have to go another step with the types of cleaning solutions to mitigate COVID.”
The river has cooperated this year with good flow levels for rafting. Despite some early melt-off of the snowpack due to a warm and windy May, water flows rebounded and stabilized by early June, Hamel says.
“As we come into July, I’d call it a typical flow profile through probably the third week of August,” Cichowitz says. “So it’s going to be great boating.”
The day we are there, the Arkansas is flowing at about 1,400 cubic feet per second (cfs)—imagine 1,400 basketballs flowing by each second. It’s an overall moderate flow for the Arkansas, strong enough for a fun, rollicking ride. No one falls out of the boat, but we all get wet.
MY FAMILY HAS COME TO RAFT at Noah’s Ark on a late June weekend. It’s a sunny Sunday morning, and while there is plenty of activity at Noah’s headquarters, it’s far from overflowing. As requested, nearly everyone is wearing masks—mostly buffs—from the outdoor check-in and health screening, through the normal rafting safety briefing, until we load onto the rafts where we’re allowed to take them off.
We’ve chosen a half-day trip through Browns Canyon National Monument. It’s a popular run, full of boisterous Class III rapids, and our pod of six rafts is filled mostly with families from Colorado. With approximately 28 guests, each family or friend group has its own boat.
The farther we float downstream, the more normal this adventure feels. Harper, 23, laughs with our kids, asking about their interests, telling jokes and animated stories. He points out interesting rock formations and describes the approaching rapids, directing us through various paddle strokes as we bounce and splash through them. Having worked at Noah’s Ark seasonally for seven years, he knows this river well.
According to Cichowitz, Harper and this summer’s crew are among his finest staff. Like most of the AROA outfitters, Noah’s Ark is operating on a smaller scale, with about 50 seasonal staff instead of a usual 175. “We took the most experienced—kids that understood if you come this summer, you’ve got to be willing to work in the campground or help in the kitchen or help in another program as needed,” Cichowitz says. “It’s very similar to what it was like when we started the company. These men and women have all come in with such great attitudes: How can I help? What can I do to make it work this summer?”
After navigating the likes of Pinball, Zoom Flume, the Seven Stairs, Widowmaker, Raft Ripper and more, we’ve traveled about 10 miles through Browns Canyon. At the takeout, the kids and I submerge in the river for a final baptism. It’s a cold 50-some degrees, but it’s a refreshing jolt—a souvenir to carry in our memories as we don our masks again for the bus ride back to basecamp.
Before heading home, we stop for lunch in Buena Vista. Tip: Don’t miss the elevated burgers of the Buena Viking. The food truck shares a courtyard with Deerhammer Distillery, which has its own walk-up window. There’s open air space for social distancing, but both spots are buzzing during weekend lunch. So we take our burgers to go and opt for picnic style in the Buena Vista River Park.
Driving home, the familiar wide-open spaces of South Park are another scenic reminder that it has been months since I’ve been this far from home. I’ve missed the satisfying emotional uplift that always comes from Colorado roaming, even a couple hours from home. Cichowitz’s words echo in my mind:
“I think people are incredibly appreciative for the opportunity to be outside and to be able to connect in that kind of environment. To go out and engage with the river and the experience has been like a rebirth for people, and their expression of joy and freedom to be able to go do that has just been heightened.”
I know just what he’s talking about.
Fast Facts About the Arkansas River
“The good thing about the Arkansas River is there’s something for everybody,” says Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association. “If you’re a family with little kids, Bighorn Sheep Canyon or Browns Canyon, if the kids are over 8 years old, are great stretches. If you’re looking for more adventurous trips, we suggest the Royal Gorge or the Numbers stretch. So there’s something for everybody, and it’s all within easy driving from Colorado Springs, whether you come through Canon City or Buena Vista.”
More than 100 miles of Colorado’s best whitewater can be found from Granite to Cañon City, Colo., all within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management.
With an elevation drop of 4,650 feet along its 152 miles, the AHRA is located within Lake, Chaffee, Fremont and Pueblo counties, and runs through some of the state’s most stunning natural features, including Browns Canyon National Monument, Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and The Royal Gorge, aka the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas.
Located between Leadville and Buena Vista, this steep, technical 13-mile stretch of whitewater is widely considered the best Class IV run in the state. It’s a favorite among experienced paddlers and adrenaline seekers, with commercial trips usually open to the public mid to late summer.