I've never been so happy to get on the L.A. freeway.
It's 4 a.m. and 90 degrees in the desert. Interstate 5 offers a straight shot to the coast and the first promise of a cool breeze since I left Aspen two days ago. Or was it yesterday? The driving days are all blurring together, without the paddling schedule I enjoyed in the mountains to break them up. I've been on a 13-day, whitewater-infused road trip, heading first for some R&R at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, then on to Steamboat Springs and the annual C&K edit conference, stopping at the new Glenwood play wave and picking off a new run on the Roaring Fork on the way home. Life is good.
First, about the vehicle. When Mark Twain said "there warn't no home like a raft," I'm almost positive he meant "there warn't no home like a 1980s model VW camper van." She's tricked out with a Westfalia camping setup (sink, stove, and fridge), fold down bed, pop-top, and 72-inch bars, complete with Yakima's new BigStack stackers. My boyfriend, Anton, and I reckon we could get six creekboats up there comfortably, but settle for the three we'll be hauling, at least for now.
The first stop was supposed to be Moab. The van thought otherwise, and deemed Green River, Utah, a good resting place. We coaxed her along, though, and four hours and 80 miles in the blazing sun later, limped her steaming carcass into Moab and promptly passed out in the shade. A new fuel filter (and another five hours, this time limping between the four auto parts stores in town while Anton sat at the put-in to the "Moab Daily" section of the Colorado) seemed to do the trick. Leaving the Westy at the takeout beach, I hitched a ride in a pick-up that was almost as ornery, sputtering around the curves along the river toward Fisher Towers and the put-in for the Class III stretch.
"There you go, baby," cooed John, the raft guide with whom I shared the exposed foam of the passenger seat, lovingly stroking the dashboard. He had two PBR cans in his lap and as many chipped front teeth. "See, you just got to let her know she's appreciated!"
Finally, we got on the water. I couldn't believe how well the cool, muddy current and awesome desert scenery soothed my tired, hot soul. After the swirling, crashing waves of the first rapid, Anton, who's an aspiring Class III boater, was as amped as I've ever seen him in a kayak. Things were back on track.
After a bath in the river at the takeout, it was time to head for Telluride. It was after midnight when we rolled into town, so we stealth-camped on a Forest Service access road near the roaring headwaters of the San Miguel River. The rest of the weekend was, well, festive—with plenty of jumping around in the dirt to some rollicking bluegrass tunes.
After dropping Anton off in his hometown of Aspen, I headed out to I-70 and up the Colorado again, this time to Wolcott, and on out to State Bridge. My next destination was Steamboat Springs—and C&K's annual editorial conference, where we editors meet with a few contributors and other magazine junkies to map out the content of the next year's magazines.
We chose Steamboat because if its central location to several of us, including me on the road. The nearby Yampa River and its tributaries added to the ski town's selling points, and after our first day of meetings I found myself at the put-in of Class V Fish Creek with C&K editor-in-chief Frederick Reimers, and contributing writers and Steamboat locals Eugene Buchanan and Joe Carberry.
"Why is rated Class V?" I had asked Eugene earlier. "Well," was his reply, "because it just doesn't stop."
Driving along the road to the put-in confirmed his explanation, as did a look at the gauge on the bridge, which read 2'8," apparently a stout level for a first-timer. Definitely a little stout for this first-timer; about two-thirds of the way down the three-mile run, after flipping over twice earlier with no eddies in which to recover, I washed into the crux rapid upside down and immediately lost my paddle in a big hole. After pulling my grab loop, if I thought that water was moving fast while in my boat, it was only going faster now, banging my bare shins into rocks and whirling me around until I finally managed to take a few strokes toward the left bank. Joe came flying by, and yelled to me, "Grab the branches, Kate! Grab the branches!" This snapped me into action, and I held onto a few impossibly thin tree limbs for dear life, got sucked underwater, but then, still managing to maintain my grip, clawed my way up onto a rock.
The rest of the trip was, comparably, uneventful. A few surf sessions on the Yampa at the infamous "C Hole" by the town library later, I found myself on the road back to Glenwood Springs and Nick Turner's latest play wave creation. There, I saw more board surfers than kayakers and even met a guy from the town where I live in Southern California.
The next day, I headed back to Aspen and the unexplored-by-me Roaring Fork drainage. One of my good buddies from my West Virginia raft guiding days is a Pitkin County sheriff, and volunteered to meet me at the takeout of the Slaughterhouse section and give me a ride to the put-in, where I was sure to find some local boaters on a sunny, hot Friday afternoon. Turns out, I waited almost three hours, and scouted the first rapid, Entrance Exam, several times before another group showed up. The four guys ribbed me a bit about paddling with the old guys, then asked if I looked at the first rapid. Of course, I said, heart pounding at the thought of the several tough moves it contained. Well, they said, if I didn't like it after that I could get out there. We went downstream and, despite some squirrelly moments in Entrance Exam, the run went off without a hitch—at a roiling 2,400 cfs. I thought it a genuinely classic piece of whitewater, with big waves and plenty of eddies to catch a breath or a peek around the next bend.
While we were enjoying a cold beer at the takeout, my friend Dustin pulled into the parking lot in the shiny black sheriff's SUV. No one could figure out why I was waving at the policeman with a beer in my hand until Dustin got out and gave me a high five. Then, it was time to start the long drive home.