Floating Through Fire


“In the darkest, hottest part of the float, surrounded by that black smoke, my eyes watering, I called an ‘All Stop.’ The guests wanted to know why. I didn’t know why. I think I just needed 20 seconds to think. We weren’t trained for this. I had no idea what would be around the next corner.”

On August 10, 2020, the Grizzly Creek fire started in the median of Interstate 70, and quickly grew to a 33,000+ acre blaze. The fire would climb up both sides of the Colorado River, consuming the dry, dense pine forests of the White River National Forest around Glenwood Springs, threatening the town, and forcing the closure of Interstate 70 in both directions for 20 days. The rest stops along the highway which also serve as the only access to that stretch of river remain closed as of this article being written.

Karlee Cashel, a commercial guide with local outfitter, Blue Sky Adventures in Glenwood Springs, Colorado was the last person to row through the flames.

When she sat down with me to talk about her experience it was October,  and fires were still raging across the state. While the highway was open again, and the choking smoke was no longer present in town, the Grizzly Creek Fire was still only 83% contained, waiting on the winter snows to fully extinguish it. The largest fire in Colorado history, the Cameron Peak fire, was also still burning, and would eventually burn over 200,000 acres. And what would become the second-largest fire on record, the East Troublesome Fire had started just two days earlier, on October 14.

The fire season had been brutal in Colorado, and the rest of the year hadn’t been all that wonderful either.

“Yeah, the season had been shit,” Karlee emphasized. “COVID killed at least two months of summer income for all the guides. August was starting to make up for it, though, and because we were understaffed, I’d been running two or three trips a day for a few weeks. On that day, when the fire started, I was coming in for a 12 o’clock, out of the Glenwood Canyon Rafting base, a two-boat trip. We didn’t know there was a fire until we were on the highway and got a call from the owner, Patrick Drake.”

The decision had been made to move ahead with the trip, because even though the management had heard about a ‘brush fire,’ brush fires had been very common. Glenwood Springs recorded multiple weeks with temperatures over 100 and the whole Western Slope was experiencing the second-driest year on record. Everyone knew the fire danger, but if trips didn’t run every day there was a brush fire, the companies might as well have just closed for the season.

When the bus entered the canyon on I-70, a timeline of split-second decisions mixed with bad cell phone reception began.

Glenwood Canyon itself is renowned for the engineering feat that is the split-direction, raised highway that carries travelers through the Rocky Mountains. It’s the major artery for East to West travelers across the state. In the canyon, the towering limestone and granite cliffs interfere with cell reception, and many of the twists and turns of the river and highway block the views.

Patrick Drake, owner of Blue Sky, shared with me his experience of receiving information about the fire after Karlee’s bus had hit the road.

“The first I heard of the fire was after the phone had rung twice, and both calls dropped right away. We knew something was going on. About a minute later, [another guide] Wyatt, who was on the earlier trip tried to call again. This time he got through, patchy, and all we could hear of that call was ‘fire’ and ‘grizzly creek.’”

“I instantly thought of the GCR trip, and I called Sean [the bus driver and manager] right away, and the first call didn’t go through, less than a minute later, the call went through. I warned him that there was a fire just before Grizzly Creek. He said, ‘I don’t see anything, I don’t see anything.’”

Then they came around the corner after the No Name exit. As they drove past, they saw the fire for the first time. The flames had not yet left the median between the eastbound, westbound lanes, but were burning aggressively in the dry scrub oak.

Glenwood Guide Karlee on a typical float through Glenwood Canyon.

“Right between the No Name and Grizzly Creek exits, the brush fire flames were probably 20 feet high. We had slowed down. Sean and I both kind of looked at each other wide-eyed and then I don’t remember who decided or if we talked or what but one of us was like “Gun it,” and we drove past. It was super close to us and I remember being like “Holy shit, that was hot,” Karlee said, adding that most of the guests were just excited, as though it was part of the trip. “They were saying, ‘Whoa! We get to see a fire.’”

Patrick, back in town, had made the call to get the boats launched right away. “My thought was I didn’t want to keep customers on the bus, possibly getting trapped on the interstate. Just get on the water and get going instantly. At least then they were making progress in the right direction on the river. Not stuck on the bus on the interstate.”

While he told me that he regrets not re-directing them to the Grizzly Creek put-in which would have been farther downstream, he had no way of knowing what was actually going on at that exit. “You make the best call you can. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t see what was happening. But I knew the river was a safer place to be.”

His perspective was also colored by his own experience of guiding on the water, eighteen years earlier, when the Coal Seam Fire had jumped the Colorado River just downstream of where he was rowing his own boat of customers. “I remember—so clearly—the helicopter, I think it was a Huey. It was so loud hovering over the river doing a bucket pickup. The pilot had a dark visor helmet, a huge Santa beard, and he was peering out the window as the bucket filled. Such a badass.”

The Coal Seam Fire had felt more immediately threatening to the town of Glenwood, roaring down toward town from the western side, with the prevailing winds behind it. “The Grizzly Creek Fire was at least going to be pushed away from town.”

From the boat ramp above the Shoshone rapids, the smoke was visible, but not major. The bus left, and Karlee and the other guide, a second-year named Tatum, went down to the water’s edge for an accelerated paddle talk.

While they talked about t-grips and all-forward, the smoke continued to rise. The yellow boats of another local rafting company launched right before them, and a small private trip was waiting to use the ramp.

The rapids of the Shoshone section are rated at a III- for that water level, but swims are nasty and some technical moves are required. Karlee estimated that sometime during that summer, she had made her thousandth run down that stretch of rapids after guiding for Blue Sky Adventures for 11 years with at least 100 trips a year.

But she told me that as she dropped into Tuttle’s Tumble (the first technical rapid of the section), she knew it was going to be rougher than usual. “I couldn’t get my eyes off the sky. It wasn’t a clean run.”

After the major rapids section was over, they were floating up to the Grizzly Creek boat ramp and had a decision to make, again. Should they try to take out before the fire which no one could see from there?

The smoke was now a towering column of white and dark gray. In front of them, the yellow boats of Whitewater Adventures, the group which Karlee had been told to follow had gone past the takeout.

“I had caught up with Whitewater upstream and chatted with one of the guides, asking if they were pulling out at Grizzly. His response was “I sure hope so,” but they had already floated out of sight downriver when we got there. We wouldn’t see them again until Boxcar Eddy.”

There was hardly anyone at the normally busy rest area and boat ramp, and Karlee had to make a decision.

Get out at the ramp, or charge forward, hoping to pass the fire before it grew much more?

“An ex-NY cop in the boat helped calm me down and reminded me that I was in charge, but there is nothing that prepares you for making this kind of decision. We didn’t know if anyone could pick us up if we stopped, or what would happen if we went around the corner to where the fire had been when we drove in.

“So, I called all-forward and we just kept moving downstream. I started rowing hard, and the guests were paddling and just stopping when they needed a break.”

Back in the Brewpub, a plate of fries almost finished, Karlee took a moment at this point in the story before continuing.

“Right after we lost sight of Grizzly Creek, the wind changed, and out of nowhere this wall of black smoke rushed up the river toward us. I was already having trouble using my guide voice, but now everyone was choking and coughing. I called an all-stop in the middle of it. I just needed to think.”

At that moment, the rest of the town of Glenwood Springs, the Emergency responders and the Department of Transportation were trying to scramble resources to react to a fire that had already crossed both the east and westbound lanes and was quickly climbing the steep, timbered limestone cliffs.

Down on the river, in a cloud of smoke, Karlee could not see her next move as clearly.

“I think I said something like ‘I think downriver is where we need to go but I want us all to agree.’ It was starting to sink in that we could be taking a serious risk by continuing in the direction of the fire. The guests on my boat were great, even though I’m not sure they really got it. It didn’t seem like they were all that worried, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is not how I want to die.’”

They paddled on, every guest paddling for as long as they could and taking breaks when they had to.

“COVID protocols were forgotten, and we were sharing water. [No one was COVID positive, and all the guests remained healthy.] And around the corner, it was like an alien landscape with the scorched trees.”

Karlee described the flames to me as 40 feet high on the river-right side. The fire had just crossed the Colorado River, and the bushes on river-left were starting to smoke and flicker.

“I’ve felt heat like that before once when we were visiting Hawaii. But the lava fields weren’t unpredictable, and it was the smoke that made everything so scary. That and the noise of the wind. Once we got into sight of the tall flames, the air was being sucked up by the fire, and it was roaring through my ears. It was silent, except for that roaring. I didn’t even know what we would see on the other side of the smoke. We were paddling as hard as we could, but there was no way to see whether the fire had run toward town or away from it.”

“It was so hot that getting in the water definitely crossed my mind as an absolute last case scenario. I didn’t express it with my guests. I remember thinking of all sorts of dumb solutions, like leaving the boat and running east on the train tracks. My brain was all over the place while we were paddling. All I could clearly think was, ‘We need to not be here.’”

As with any high-adrenaline moment, time seemed to drag on. “It felt like we were in it all for 20 minutes, but it was probably more like 4 or 5.”

Fortunately, Karlee and her guests made it through, and the fire hadn’t run eastward much at all. She made contact with Patrick on the shore. He had grabbed an E-bike and sped along the path which parallels the river to where the fire engines were now gathering. Karlee told him that she was worried about the private boat which had been on the water behind her, but after a short investigation, and calls with other raft company owners, Patrick learned that those people had taken out at Grizzly Creek.

It turned out that she had made the right call. If they had tried to take out at Grizzly Creek, no one would have been there to pick them up. The highway had already closed in both directions, and the bus which had dropped them off would end up being left on the east side of the canyon for three weeks until the highway opened again. The private trip boats behind her had decided to get out at Grizzly Creek, but the boaters were stuck until they caught a ride with the driver of another commercial company who shuttled them across the two-hour detour in his private vehicle. There would have been no room for the fourteen people on Karlee’s trip.

Around a few more corners, with sirens screaming up the highway past them, and the column of smoke taking on the shape of an atom cloud, Karlee tried to process what she had just seen with Tatum who had been rowing the other boat.

Despite her constant worry that she had not displayed the right kind of leadership, or that she had made a wrong decision, Karlee’s guests expressed support for her. In fact, they did not seem to understand the full weight of it and requested a stop at one of the natural hot springs just before the entrance into town.

Karlee laughs, “I don’t know why I said yes. But I think I had had to make so many decisions so quickly, that one more just felt like too much, so yeah, we sat in the hot springs for a few minutes and watched the firetrucks race up the canyon.”

Patrick saw it differently, “Their desire to stop at the hot springs afterward is a compliment to how the guides handled the situation. As a guide, you might think you’re just navigating a boat, but it’s bigger. People look at you for decisions. For safety. Karlee stepped up.”

Nearly eight months later, it’s April, and this popular stretch of Glenwood Canyon is about to re-open to commercial and private boaters. Those who float down from Shoshone or Grizzly Creek itself will see the blackened husks of pines climbing up the steep canyon walls, and the dense stands of gambol oak trees stained gray when they would usually be putting on their first hint of green. Locals, river runners and the Colorado Department of Transportation will be watching the weather forecasts carefully, as intense spring rains and runoff could lead to damaging mudslides. Local water conservancy experts will be monitoring the alkalinity of the river because the scorching of the fire was so intense that the healthy layers of biomass that filter out harsh chemicals were destroyed in large parts of the canyon.

But despite the uncertainty regarding the full extent of the damage from this fire, plans for recovery are already underway. Local non-profits, businesses, and municipalities are teaming up to re-vegetate as much of the burn scar as possible through volunteer planting days. The popular canyon hike, known as Hanging Lake, was spared the worst of the damage, and tourists are already booking for the summer months. With a few more snowstorms in the forecast, the summer rafting season could be a good one.

The Grizzly Creek Fire was just one of many wildfires in the nation last year, and it was not the largest by a long shot. Climate change is a reality that river runners and residents of the western states will be facing down every summer season for the foreseeable future. River guides will find themselves having to step up to leadership roles and make tough choices, whether in the face of actual flames like Karlee, or as community voices ready to speak up for the health of the waters they love so much.