Get Out and Go: Rafting on the Arkansas

Rafters hit a Class II rapid during a journey down the Arkansas River in May. The Air Force Academy's Outdoor Recreation office offers full-day rafting trips to Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge for $55 and overnight rafting trips starting at $80. Call Outdoor Rec's Outdoor Adventure Program at 333-2940 for more information or visit http://www.usafaservices.com/oap.htm. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Rafters hit a Class II rapid during a journey down the Arkansas River in May. The Air Force Academy's Outdoor Recreation office offers full-day rafting trips to Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge for $55 and overnight rafting trips starting at $80. Call Outdoor Rec's Outdoor Adventure Program at 333-2940 for more information or visit http://www.usafaservices.com/oap.htm. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- It had been a while since I visited Cañon City, and even longer since I'd done any rafting, so when the Outdoor Recreation office invited me to go on a rafting trip in May, I eagerly said yes. 

We met in the parking lot behind the Academy's Outdoor Recreation Office on a cool Wednesday morning. Everyone checked out wetsuits, helmets and floatation harnesses, and the guides offered some safety information. We headed out the South Gate around 8 a.m., bound for Chaffee County, about an hour and a half southwest. 

The trip down Highway 115 offers wonderful scenery, including a close-up view of the Front Range and a peek of the training areas on Fort Carson, where an Army unit was taking advantage of the balmy weather to conduct parachute training. We got onto Hwy 50, passed through Cañon City and kept going west, past Royal Gorge, until we reached the drop site. 

As we disembarked and changed, the guides gave us another safety briefing, including what to do if someone got knocked into the river. Everyone in the group paid close attention -- the current that morning was so fast and so deep that it could easily have moved a semi truck, so we had to know how to survive in it. Rule number one, don't panic; rule number two, keep your feet pointed downstream so that if you do hit a rock, you don't split your skull open. And, above all, respect the power of the river. 

Our original itinerary included rafting through Royal Gorge. I had been there once before and had seen it from the top. Rafting it lets you see it from the bottom. Unfortunately, we wouldn't get to see it -- the river level was too high, with more than 3,400 cubic feet of water moving through the gorge per second. Imagine flushing out and refilling two Olympic-sized swimming pools per minute, and you'll have an idea of how much water was moving through the river that day. 

So instead, we continued upstream to Bighorn Sheep Canyon and rafted that portion of the Arkansas twice. The trip was a little different each time, but each offered opportunities to relax ... in between furious bouts of rowing under the guides' command. 

Anyone who didn't know about teamwork and followership already learned all about it on the trip downriver: those two principles kept us afloat as we traversed Class III and Class IV rapids. Teamwork also helped us recover our raftmates on the very few occasions when the river knocked someone out of the boat. 

As for me, I made it through both trips unscathed ... mostly. Toward the end of our second voyage, a current pulled the raft into a spin, and our craft bounced off the water's surface. I bounced with it and fell, upside down, into the water. I relaxed and let my floatation device pull me back up to the surface when my head hit the underside of the raft. I was stuck, and the river was carrying both of us in the same direction at the same speed! And did I mention I can't see underwater? 

Rule number one: Don't panic. I reached up with my hands, feeling my way along the underside of the raft. All I had to do was pick a direction and start moving -- I had a lot of river to work with, and not much raft. On my fourth reach, my hand pierced the water's surface, and elated, I kicked upward, recovering my breath. My teammates were a few meters upstream of me; one of them held out an oar and called out to grab on. I did, and the others helped me back into the raft. 

As frightened as I had been for the first couple of seconds, I look back on it now as an exciting highlight of the trip. The river tested me, and I passed. And having kept a level head in that circumstance, maybe I'd do okay if I ever found myself in combat. 

After we reached the shore, we changed back into dry clothes and headed back to the Academy. We'd been on the river for four hours, during which time we experienced the force of nature that is the Arkansas River. One of our guides, who's rafted for more than 20 years, describes riding the river as an almost religious experience -- as if rafting is a way to connect with the river's spirit. Having learned to respect the river's power that day, I'm ready to do it again.