Controlled chaos in Glenwood Canyon
Recent mudslides give whitewater rafters added nautical experience
A red life preserver is securely fastened around Kansas City resident Kelly Gartman.
Murky water is rolling in at about 1,300 cubic feet per second, and she’s sitting portside amidship on a hard rubber raft capable of withstanding encounters with the jagged rocks dotting the Colorado River like petrified chunks of larger-than-life chocolate.
With her young daughter sitting at the portside bow and husband starboard, Gartman said she’s a little scared. The nervous greenhorn is about to christen herself in the Class-3 Shoshone Rapids, which snake and cascade through a ribbon of river recently invaded by massive mudslides due to torrential downpours.
Moments earlier, in fact, Gartman got off a bus owned by Glenwood Adventure Co., one of the area’s whitewater rafting guide companies, that bypassed a sign marked “exit closed.”
Out of an abundance of caution, the Colorado Department of Transportation had recently shuttered Glenwood Canyon exits on Interstate 70. Any more rain and a mudslide could rapidly barrel down the side of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, blocking traffic east and west through much of Colorado’s high country.
But with reassuring laughs, smiles and playful words of encouragement emanating from 21-year-old rafting guide Nate Hassell, there was simply no going back. From astern, Hassell pushed the raft, and the party that paid good money to take on Mother Nature headfirst was adrift.
After about the first 40 minutes diving into violent whitecaps amid yelps of excited terror, it seemed as though Hartman’s worries simply drifted away with the current.
“I was scared of falling out,” Gartman said.
“I kind of wish there were more rapids, to be honest.”
It’s about a 10-mile float between the Shoshone exit east of Glenwood Springs and Two Rivers Park, which includes a riparian beach of coarse sand just after the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers and pockets of bubbling natural hot springs.
Rafters first met at Glenwood Adventure’s boathouse on the south edge of Glenwood Springs. They’re then fitted with life jackets and sturdy helmets before they’re given a quick safety tutorial.
“Should you guys happen to fall out of the boat today, you can just reach up and grab onto that perimeter line,” Hassell said. “It keeps you nice and close to the boat, and we can pull you in super quick.”
This time around, however, there is, of course, the added allure of getting one of the most unique, rare opportunities for boaters to see just how catastrophic a Rocky Mountain mudslide can be.
This past weekend saw sediment and debris created by the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire — something that scorched nearly 33,000 acres in the White River National Forest — absorb significant rainfall and slide down a mountain like an amoeba of slow-moving mud.
Because of this natural phenomenon, both eastbound and westbound lanes were intermittently closed down to traffic. Recent video footage taken by a rafter shows one of the mudslides flowing over Interstate 70 like a boiling pot of wastewater.
Glenwood Adventure owner Ken Murphy said the debris flows have added another level of complexity to their operation.
“People are still coming,” he said of visitors lining up to white water raft. “We just want to make sure that we don’t strand anybody and be straight with them and transparent and let them know.”
Once equipped with helmets and flotation vests, rafters are shepherded via bus ride toward their launch. Many anticipate touring through rugged beauty, but what some may not be conscious of is the childlike bliss that awaits ahead.
“It’s got it all, you know?” Murphy said. “The (scenery), the rapids. … It’s the most popular rafting section in our community, by far.”
Three rafts loaded with families visiting from out of state set out on the lively river.
After the guides gently maneuver the rafts toward a slightly still pocket of the waterway and deliberately use their paddles to splash everyone with chilly water to awaken the senses, it’s time for the first test.
Called “The Entrance Exam,” this rapid weaves through various rocks as the river spills into itself. If a boater falls out, they failed the exam.
From there, rafters journey through more disconcertingly named sections of the great Shoshone Rapids.
“From there, it’s ‘Tuttle’s Tumble,’ ‘Marty’s Diner’ … ‘Pinball’ has a bunch of rocks sticking out,” Hassell said. “And especially as the water gets lower, you’ll see more boats getting bumped around by it. At higher water, it’s not too much of an issue.”
After, the grand finale: “The Wall,” “Upper and Lower Superstition” and the “The Man Eater.” All provide the last jolts of adrenaline before rafters are greeted with a peaceful, 360-degree view of the canyon.
Meanwhile, between Grizzly and No Name creeks, visible debris stains on parts of Interstate 70 and the flanking mountains pan by amid a rabble of traffic zooming into the abyss.
“I mean, obviously, debris in the water could become an issue,” Hassell said of the recent mudslides. “It’s nothing we’re not used to. I mean, a couple years ago, we had such high water we had full trees floating through the river.”
Hassell later veered the raft bankside at No Name and asked if anyone wanted to go for a swim. Some takers plunged in for a moment and did their best to hoist themselves back onto the raft.
Soon, after a few more splash fights carried out among some cheekier riders on opposing rafts, the 10-mile drift ended at Two Rivers.
For Hassell, who guides about 100 times per year, it marked the end of just another beautiful day traversing the Colorado River.
“What’s not to love about it?” he said. “I mean, I get to be outside all day. I get to meet new people all the time. I mean, I have fun. I get water, I go swimming. … You can’t beat it.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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