By: Sarah Spalla
“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”
High water has a smell. I’m not sure how else to describe it. Much like how your grandma’s cooking, the lilac bush back home, or that perfume from the college ex can take you right back to a time, place and feeling…that’s what the smell of high water does for me. I’ve had plenty of amazing trips down many rivers but it’s usually the high flow trips are at the front of my memory.
There is something special about rivers at peak runoff; when the sun comes out and temps warm the snow melt comes crashing down into the valley. Every spring Mother Nature puts on a violent, churning, impressive show that is more addictive than caffeine for river runners.
This year is going on my 20th of being a river rat and while guiding trips is awesome, I think one of the perks I didn’t expect was meeting the amazing kind of people that are drawn to being whitewater guides. Working in the guiding industry bonds you with your coworkers in a way I think many jobs do not. When you’re relying on your fellow guides to have your back, every day, keeping you and your guests safe, a trust develops quickly. Many of my best friends I have met guiding and even though some of them have moved, started families, got a job with a retirement fund, etc. we usually find a few precious days each summer to get on the river together. Often, we shoot for some high water runs in the spring. Rivers can change drastically with different flows.
That scenic class three trip can have some serious teeth during spring runoff. I’ve seen many conditions, low water and high, rain, hail, snow (a few times) and many days of sun. 2017 weather conditions were just right for a week or two of above average river flow on the Arkansas river.
We scheduled an after hours trip with a few friends; my best buddy Erika and I planned on paddling our 2-person raft together. Paddling with just one other person can be an art sometime. Differences in strength, style and most of all opinions can interfere with a clean successful run. Erika and I work well together, usually chatting about work, life, or just anything but which way to go while we’re running rapids. We see eye to eye on reading whitewater so it was kind of a no brainer we’d be able to handle a high flow trip. When we got to the put in it was the usual scene, blowing up boats, laughs, and lots of catching up. As we got closer to launching though the game faces came out. The river had spiked that afternoon to 5800 CFS (cubic feet per second), a level only a few of the old schoolers in our group had seen. Erika and I were NOT part of that club, at least not yet anyway.
Entire trees were floating down and the river was the color of chocolate milk. As soon as we shoved off from the bank, we realized how fast and violent our scenic hometown stretch was that night. The riverbanks were underwater and the Arkansas river was on a mission to get downstream as fast as possible. Undeterred, we felt confidant since we had guided this section together for years and knew every rock in this river. The first 30 minutes went by without incident, the river was fast and exciting but the real rapids start a few miles in when the canyon walls rise and the river constricts. The first few were fast and challenging but smooth.
Around the next corner however was Zoom Flume, the biggest gradient drop on this particular section. At normal flows this is a straight forward, splashy, fairly carefree rapid; at these flows it was a different story… we could hear it before we saw it. The horizon line approached quickly and we dropped over the entrance move and into the mayhem.
The river has a way of reminding you to remain humble and it certainly helped Erica and I remember that day. An old raft guide once told me that rafting is just what you do in between swims. Remember the game you played in school with a paper triangle and you flick it to score a goal? Yeah, well the river decided our boat was the paper triangle…Yes, we exchanged a bad swim for a good story and bought our obligatory beer for our friends that helped put our boat back upright (a favor we have all exchanged with each other). After we coughed up half of the Arkansas from our lungs, talk immediately turned into if we’d ever get a second chance at that historic flow.
As I sit and write this, Colorado just received over 8 feet of snow in the last 2 weeks. It is definitely the biggest storm cycle I’ve seen in 18 years; it was so deep avalanches covered the interstate in multiple places. The ski town I live in pretty much shut down for a week. I’ve had some epic days on my skis this month but I keep thinking about the upcoming river season and as I watch the snow pack levels climb I think we might get our redemption with Zoom Flume just yet…I can smell it.