By Matt Hauhgee
Kyle “Scooter” Burkart and I took a break from shredding the slopes of Crested Butte in the middle of a heavy snowstorm to escape to the Arizona desert for a much needed whitewater fix. We met up with our good buddy Jeff Smith; a long-time Crested Butte local kayaker who led us down the Black Canyon of the Gunnison this past summer, as well as our old friend Tanner Tilley in his “new-to-him” Blackfly Option. It was his sixth time ever paddling it.
We had a great team in place and were really excited to get on the water. The 50+mile section of river did not disappoint. From the put-in rapid to the stunningly beautiful paddle out; we had an amazing time on the river and camping out on its banks.
We put in the morning of February 13th after carefully packing all of our gear and food into our canoes. We had our personal gear in Watershed dry bags tucked along the bottom of the boat resting against the front and back of the saddle. This kept the weight as close to the center of the canoe as possible.
Admittedly, coming off the couch in the middle of ski season and paddling a boat full of gear down a river we had never seen (besides Jeff) at a healthy flow (appx. 3500 cfs at peak) was a little intimidating, but once we pushed off and rounded the first bend the nerves settled and it was all smiles.
Day one our crew of four paddled just over 16 miles through some really fun rapids and wave trains. The highlight of the day was Mescal Falls. This was the first rapid we scouted, and I’m glad we did because it was a pretty big hole.
Scouting Mescal Falls
Tanner searching for the worm in the Mescal Falls Hole- Photo credit Jeff Smith
We then entered into a really cool white granite gorge. This section was pure fun. We paddled through the gorge for a couple miles before finding a great beach to camp on. We broke out the collapsible fire pan that Jeff made, and hung out under the stars.
White Rock Gorge View- Photo credit Jeff Smith
Camp site 1
In the morning, the gauge rock I had picked out was nowhere to be seen. The river was rising! We got back into the flow and paddled another 12 miles or so through some awesome wilderness. We ran our first of the bigger rapids, called Black Rock. It was a fun ride through crashing waves and had a big-water feel.
Scouting Black Rock
Our camp on day two was equally as cool as the first. We set-up our shelters and hiked up a nearby wash and found some clear water to boil for our dinners and water supply. We all got a good night sleep since day three was the biggest whitewater of the trip.
Camp 2 Sunset –Photo Credit Jeff Smith
Hanging by the fire
Day three we entered Jump Off canyon. The walls came in on both sides of the river and it was more constricted than we had seen before. We paddled through Pinball and The Maze (Very unique rapid names) and when the canyon walls started getting more and more dramatic, we knew we were approaching Quartzite falls and Corkscrew; the most notorious rapids.
Approach to Quartzite
Quartzite Falls- Photo credit Tanner Tilley
Quartzite falls- Photo credit Jeff Smith
It was a lot of fun running through Quartzite and Corkscrew, and finally Sleeper. This rapid name was pretty spot on.
Our campsite on night three was my personal favorite. It was a huge sandy beach across from Cherry creek. We watched the sunset that night and the stars came out in full force. The next morning we hiked up through cactus fields to a big rock structure atop a hill. Jeff and Scooter had an encounter with the infamous Teddy Bear Cholla; a very touchy-feely cactus that seems to almost jump out at you.
Cholla looking mean
We found a way up the 30’ high rock tower using steps that had been carved out by Native Americans long ago. Once on top the views were amazing. We could see in every direction and really got a feel for the depth of wilderness we were traveling though. We even found some pottery shards that had paint on them.
Cherry Creek overlook
The paddle out on day four was much different than the three prior. No one even noticed the extra weight in the canoes anymore. We had made it through the heart of the canyon, and our trip was coming to an end. Everyone was pretty quiet as we paddled through more beautiful country. We listened to the river and the birds, and just tried to take it all in while we still could.
Eventually we made it to the take-out and back to our vehicles. We loaded everything up and headed straight to the nearest Mexican restaurant. None of us really wanted the trip to be over, but that’s part of the fun. The reward of paddling through wilderness for days at a time is truly a life-enhancing experience. I can’t wait for the next trip. Hopefully in a Condor…