The Great Gore Canyon Showdown


The Colorado River has a full-blown temper tantrum for nine miles. Right above the family float Upper C section, near Kremmling, is one of the most intense, ride-or-die sections of Class V whitewater in the country: Gore Canyon.

As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote: “I am perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder.” When people are involved, the river is always more than the river. Rafting is a social experiment. It’s about getting along, teamwork.”

Above Pumphouse Recreation Area, Gore Canyon

We were at the edge of the river, pumping rafts and arranging gear. The first thing I noticed about the other guides was their gear: helmets secured by tight chinstraps, full wetsuits with reinforced elbows, gleaming river knives, wraparound sunglasses. The guides were from River Runners, a rafting company with the tagline: “The Whitewater Professionals.”

I was sporting a dented helmet from the ‘80s. It covered my ears in such a fashion that I looked like the benchwarmer of a junior varsity football team. My rafting company was called Acquired Tastes and our splash tops had duct-taped gaskets. My friend Sarah donned an orange wrestling singlet with Converse high tops. Amie was making a flower crown around the helmet she had borrowed from a rookie.

The two rafting companies were crosstown rivals. We were doing the exact same thing—leaving behind society to chase rivers and overstaying our welcome in National Forests—yet this didn’t bring us together. The question was always which company did it best. We went to keg kickball and played on opposite teams. Danced in separate circles at disco night. We stared down each other’s sequined costumes, identical PBRs in hand. Had the same tan lines. Competed for customers and grew impatient with each other when there were traffic jams on Brown’s Canyon. But today, we needed each other.

We’d arranged to run Gore Canyon as a group. A single raft against this kind of Class V whitewater is straight-up dumb. There’s no rescue boat if your raft flips, no one to snatch you from the icy river. The guides rigged silently under the August heat, tying down rafts with first aid kits, extra paddles, and jugs of water. Fear turned in my stomach.

Gore is known as fast, cold, and steep.

These would be the biggest rapids I’d seen in my years of river guiding, but if I had to take a swim, I was ready. I’d done my share of panicked front crawl out of Brown’s Canyon, where I guided. Yes, I’d dumped a raft of Girl Scouts into Seidel’s Suckhole. Yes, I’d left one of my customers stranded on the beach as our raft pulled away after lunch. Sure, a senior citizen had called me a “lunatic” after we spun backward down Raft Ripper Rapid. But overall, I’d been causing fewer flips, my tips were getting better, and the other guides made fun of me less.

We were constantly together, a tribe of employed hobos working from dawn to dusk on the river, eating meatloaf at free dinners in a Baptist church, saving our quarters for showers at the laundromat, living out of truck, car, and tent.

Our guide was Pablo, the head boatman at Acquired Tastes and a twenty-year river veteran. I sat in the raft behind Bobby, who worked in Louisiana on his family’s crawfish and rice farm. His principal complaint with raft guiding was missing the annual “froggin’ season” back home. Beside me, Curt wore a purple women’s windbreaker and whistled the theme song from Chariots of Fire. Sarah and Amie rounded out the clown troupe. The Runners raft steamed five hundred yards ahead, ignoring our existence. One of the Runners crew, Brian, liked to remind me that his training to be a guide took over a month, and at Acquired Tastes, it took ten days.

I’ll admit I took the express highway to raft guiding. We were handed a crude map and a paddle and expected to figure it out. I remember my boss Chuck gave a tour of the company vans, suggesting the only thing known for sure was how to get to the river. I imagined the River Runners training had guest speakers, singalongs, and uplifting toasts with chia seed protein shakes. They were the Harvard of rafting companies, and we were the University of Phoenix online.

The first four miles of Gore Canyon are smooth flat water, providing ample time to consider the various ways one could die. Impaled on a glinting boulder, drowned in the dark undertow. I’d heard the stories of kayakers losing control, getting swept beneath boulders, their bodies found days later, miles downstream.

Granite walls guarded both sides of the river. We slipped past mossy boulders and aggressive whirlpools. Ponderosa pines grew out of cliffs. The water was deep green as if it had absorbed all the colors from the sky, trees, and rocks, distilling into one primordial juice. Curt craned his head back, admiring the canyon walls. Pablo yelled for him to Put your paddle in the river! A few yards downstream, the voice of our first rapid, Applesauce, rumbled and groaned, hacking up jets of water.

“Applesauce” because it’s supposedly easy, child’s play, compared to the other rapids in Gore. We pulled our rafts to the riverbank to scout. The Runners’ guides were already marching to the lookout point, looking as confident as the Hell’s Angels strutting into a roadside bar. They passed our raft without a word. Adam was digging a stone amulet out of his PFD that he always liked to kiss before rapids.

It was spring run-off, and the river flowed at 1,200 cubic feet per second. This meant that as I stood from my vantage point beside the river, 1,200 basketball-sized units of water surged past every second. I looked down at Applesauce. The river hit a choke point, blasting all of its force into a boulder as wide as a dumpster, which we’d need to paddle around and then stay right. On the left a patch of rocks spiked out of the river, begging to crack skulls. And then there was a ten-foot waterfall, which didn’t end in a calm pool, but rather, daggers of stone. I was no longer ready to swim.

I followed Pablo back down to our raft. His eyes were fixed to the river as if he could stare it into submission. I did not see him blink. As Pablo pushed our raft from the bank, Curt sang loudly, Do lord, oh do lord, oh do remember me.

We dug our paddles into the current, wind against our faces, and the raft picked up speed. Trees and cliffs flew past on the bank, beautiful but irrelevant. There were birds above and fish below. Waves pummeled on all sides, blinding us and swamping the raft. Pablo shouted through the waves, his voice booming: Forward, forward. Veering right, the raft heaved past the boulder with water blasting over it, no less than six inches between us and disaster.

The waterfall gathered us in and spit us out into the swift boogie water. We had checked the box of our first rapid with the raft upright and passengers alive, but we still had to face Gore Rapid, Scissors, Pyrite, Tunnel Falls, Toilet Bowl—all Class Vs. These rapids empty into a mile of continuous whitewater called Kirschbaum’s. There was no time to think. Pablo shouted commands with drill sergeant authority. Two bald eagles streaked across the sky and Adam started a “U.S.A.” chant that the Runner’s raft half-heartedly got in on. They had a measure of interest in us at this point, looking back to see Pablo’s clean line through Applesauce.

Gore Rapid, the meatiest monster, was a blur. We entered river right, dropped in, took a deep breath. Train tracks run along the side of the bank, and the California Zephyr zipped along, huffing past on its course. God, I love trains, but my eyes were reading the next line, checking Pablo’s work. It felt like we were racing the train, our raft blazing through a spray of white foam.

Once we dropped in, the rapid never really ended. The squirrelly water twitched and coughed. I thought it was cruel and unusual to name a rapid Scissors; what’s gonna slice me? The River Runners raft took the lead, avoiding a large hole in the middle of the river, pulling off a right line. Sometimes, I wondered why we were rivals. It had to be capitalism and its slimy, competitive nature. We lived for the same interests at heart. They looked back to check our progress.

Pablo called for two forwards, picking a direction and gaining momentum. I looked up to see a railroad tunnel, marking the beginning of the next rapid, Tunnel Falls. Pablo made a quick move to the left to pull over to scout, parallel parking behind a rock with expertise as there were no true eddies. We hiked up the slope of crushed rock to inspect our next obstacle. I leaned over the edge to see the swirling drop-off of Tunnel Falls. It was a river-wide ledge hole, so there was no choice but to hit it dead on with plenty of speed, offering our bodies to the beast.

Some say the river is a mother. I think it’s a blue creature with unhinged jaws and eyes everywhere. You can trick it once in a while. I wasn’t on speaking terms with Gore’s creature yet, not like Brown’s Canyon, of which I knew every bump and scale.

“There’s an undercut rock on river left, so kick hard to the right if you all end up in the water,” one of the Runners’ guides told us, which grazed the line between ominous threat and neighborly advice. Another guide gave us the slow nod as he slid past, friendly but with a certain edge. Adam kissed his lucky rock. We headed back to our rafts, ready to face our serving of unhinged nature.

My hands gripped my paddle, heaving forward with everything I had. The river’s tongue was green as sea glass. We reached Tunnel Falls, and Pablo yelled for us to get down. I yanked my paddle from the water, ducking to the floor. Impossible waves collapsed on top of me. Cold water ran into my eyes, down my chin. The immunity of adrenaline kept me from feeling anything; nothing could hold me. It was the feeling of flying. We soared over the drop and the raft dunked completely underwater. We flushed out the other side.

“Man down! Curt’s out!” Bobby yelled.

In the river, Curt kicked and stroked for his life. We paddled toward him, but he moved faster than us. The current swept him downstream kicking and yelling, ten feet, then twenty. He washed toward the River Runners’ boat, and the guides reached into the water, gathering him into the raft as if he were one of their own.

We paddled up to the Runners’ raft and Curt leapt to us like a flying squirrel. There was no time for hugs or high-fives. We still had Kirshbaum’s mile-long gauntlet. The raft tracked to the left, lurching over a rock. We broke free and dug back to the right, high siding against a boulder, scrambling and shifting our weight to keep from flipping. Waves crested over our craft as we broke loose. We threaded the needle and picked the right holes to hit. As we exited the rapid, we let out a cheer so loud the Runners couldn’t help but chime in. We were united by the river, singing the same song of relief.


Guest contributor Bekah Grim lives in Leadville, CO, and has been a raft guide on the Arkansas River for 10 years. She has an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She is a playwright, writing and directing comedies with her partner of nine years, Blue. Bekah has two dogs, a lab and retired sled dog. She also tends her community garden plot, backcountry split boards, and teaches writing at Colorado Mountain College. This essay is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, Rig to Flip. Find her on Instagram: @human_sequin

Editor’s note: Most photos are courtesy of a trusty disposable camera.