It all came together perfectly.
BLM increased the flow in the Gunnison Gorge to simulate a spring runoff.
Kurt was wrapping up his big tour in Durango.
Mike dropped me an email. Packraft the Gunni Gorge, tomorrow?
I dropped Kurt a text – want to float the Gunni Gorge tomorrow? He was somewhere up on Indian Trail ridge when I sent that. “Sure” was his reply.
I missed out last time, with a bum knee preventing me from doing the hike down to the river. Not this time. I had seen photos and video from Mike that made the Gunnison Gorge an absolute must-do. I didn’t ask any questions, just knew I was in for whatever it entailed.
really? we’re going down there?
I had vaguely recalled talk of a couple mile hike down. Enough that I couldn’t fathom it a few weeks ago. But I figured I could fumble my way through it this time.
As we entered Black Canyon National Park Mike began describing the day, eventually admitting we weren’t doing the easy approach — that this hike down was the crux of the day. He described how he and Doom had first done it with snow, and that Doom had said it was the sketchiest “climbing” he had done all year. Hiking poles were recommended, as well as grabbing onto any and all vegetation possible.
There’s a bit of trail, then it’s just a route down a gully, heading straight down to the river, losing several thousand feet. It’s pretty amazing this kind of travel is sanctioned in a National Park. Even more amazing that these routes down to the river exist, and don’t get cliffed out.
I made a strategy error. I favored my bad knee all the way down. Why? Because it still hurt. I couldn’t support myself with just it. So my good leg did all the work. And work it was — and sweating we were, all from a downhill hike. It was brilliant.
It was a relief to finally get near the river, and the cold water was calling me, ever so loudly.
Putting the pack in packrafts! This was the first time I’d used one to run a stretch of river otherwise completely inaccessible to other craft.
We aired up the boats and readied ourselves for some rapid fun. I fooled myself into believing that the hike down really was the crux. I knew it wasn’t, of course, but it was useful to believe that before we put in. That way the roar of the water below us didn’t redline my heartrate… yet.
We were off and scouting very quickly. Nothing too serious, but enough that lines needed to be examined. Especially for river newbs.
Mike showed us how it’s done, going first and making it look smooth enough that we were tempted to give it a run.
Only Kurt ran this one, and he ran it well. It was early enough in the day that Skippy and I decided to not risk a swim.
The twenty mile run had a very nice flow to it. Calm sections would only last a few minutes, leading to rapids that required attention, followed by a few more minutes of calm.
During the calm our heads would be spinning, trying to take in all we were experiencing in this deep and mysterious canyon. I think this is the aspect of running rivers I enjoy most — the unique perspective and means to see places otherwise impossible to access. Dodging boulders and getting adrenaline spikes is fun and all, but there are many ways to achieve that. There’s only one way to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Speaking of adrenaline: the last rapid, a class 4 (not that I understand what that actually means!). Kurt and I watched Mike and Skippy roll off the drop and pop up still afloat. I couldn’t see where Kurt was readying himself, since I had missed the first eddy for the scout. As I pushed off from the rocks, I saw Kurt in front of me. “I’ll follow him,” I thought, stalling a second, then going for it. There was a lot to negotiate, especially to hammer over to the far wall from my last ditch eddy. I dug in hard and made the turn, rounding a boulder just as I caught a glimpse of the drop. I looked at the pool below it, in the split second I had, and saw Kurt’s boat, upside down, but no Kurt. Not good. Better pay attention or you’re going to end up upside down in the water too, dummy! I paddled as actively as I could, came too close for comfort to the wall, then hit the drop at what Mike had described as the correct angle. Sure enough, the drop flipped me about 30 degrees, which had me going off it straight. Woo hoo!
As soon as I could focus on anything else, I saw Kurt’s boat again, and could see his head floating along side it. He swam off to an eddy and got himself back together, shivering the whole time.
Two rapids later, and twenty yards from the last flat water to the take out, I was dodging boulders and riding waves just as I had been doing all day. Then, before I realized what had happened, my brain realized, “Ummm, we’re upside down and underwater here!” “Not good.” “Issue new command!” Uhhh, kick and swim! I was very quickly out of the boat and next to it, head above water. I lost the paddle, and my dry bag. I swam to the side and stood up in an awkward spot, then realizing that I couldn’t really see anything. Uh oh, my contacts are gone. But, I was fine otherwise. Blinking around I thought they may have just rolled back on my eyes, and pushing them down I got some sight back. OK, no dry bag. Mike signaled to let my boat go — he’d catch it. I could then scramble backwards over some rocks to look for my paddle and dry bag. They were circulating in an eddy. Just as I thought my dry bag was going for a ride down the river it spun around and shot right back to me.
Adrenaline. Near life experience. It was pretty awesome.
As we floated the last miles, feet dangling over the edges of the rafts, Skippy summed up the day, “I like doing rescuing, not being the one rescued.” We owe both Mike and Skippy for their patience and the amazing opportunity. We wrapped up the day with a lot of driving and a divine DQ blizzard, just as the video promised.
I summed up the aftermath of the day – “I’m not sure what’s going to be sore tomorrow, but I think it may be more a question of what’s *not* sore.”
Sure enough, I was pretty worked over, especially my good leg, which grew to be as sore as I have ever experienced. I made the call to skip the Durango Dirty Century after a painful and sloppy rim trail ride. Kurt went on to scorch the DDC for 3rd place, tour legs, Gunni Hike and all.
Eszter and I went to go explore Engineer Mountain instead.
More accurately, I climbed a while with her, then turned off to do a shorter ride. Pedaling was weak, and downhill very difficult. My leg was destroyed.
Leg destroyed, trail divine.
I kept expecting the singletrack to get steep, choppy, brake bumped, rutted, or something, but it was nothing but a pleasure cruise all the way down.
When Eszter came down from the same trail, she was bubbling and asking me what front tire I had. “Do you still have a Rampage? A Rampage?! I really hope you got to ride that trail, that was the best!” New favorite trail in Colorado.
So good, we went back the next day to climb it. It’s pretty dang climbable, but still steep enough to cause suffering for those of us in less than showroom condition.
backside of Engineer
Small price to pay for where it takes you.
Land of rainbows and unicorns.
And acrobatic caterpillars, spinning themselves a cocoon. This guy was hanging right in the Engine Creek trail, where we watched him do his dance, slowly growing his ball of fuzz as he went.
We’ll definitely be back to Engineer, hopefully many times over the rest of the summer. Luckily an extremely sore leg heals much faster than a bashed knee. A small price to pay for a memorable day in the Gunnison Gorge.