The Colorado River's secluded Gore Canyon boasts world-class rapids - and no crowds.
By Phil Lindeman
Within moments of floating her first Class IV rapids, Sheree Sutton was having second thoughts.
“My heart is pumping so fast right now,” Sheree said after rafting a quarter-mile section of the Colorado River’s legendary Gore Canyon. “I keep thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’ve put my family in danger.’”
Sheree’s assessment sounds macabre – I sat directly in front of her and wasn’t yet having visions of watery death – but it was punctuated with bursts of laughter as the bright-blue raft exited the rapids and skirted along an eddy to a calm pool. The small, blonde Texas native sat near the back of the inflatable, clad like the rest of us in a full wetsuit, red life vest, bucket-like helmet and tennis shoes. She was separated from her thickly-built husband, Gary, by Billy Mattison, the co-owner of Timberline Tours and our group’s personal savior.
We had just floated “Fisherman’s Nightmare,” a stretch near the mouth of the seven-mile-long canyon, when Mattison told us to head ashore. I was at the front of the raft with Tyler, the Sutton's son, and the four of us paddled in sync as Mattison steered and explained the art of “swimming,” a last-ditch skill for people who get tossed from the rafts.
On many of the state’s most harrowing commercial routes – Shoshone in Glenwood Canyon, portions of the Arkansas River near Canon City – rapids are on the easy end of Class IV, and swimming is an anomaly. In the Gore Canyon, though, it’s a guarantee. As the river winds through the gorge, it leads to five straight miles of Class IV and V waters where victims (as the Timberline guides called us) are regularly dumped in the drink.
Sheree looked slightly pale when we pulled our raft into the rocks and lined up for "swimming practice." The Gore Canyon excursion was her idea – “I wanted something different and challenging,” she said - but the idea of willingly darting through rapids without the safety of a raft was making her stomach turn.
“I actually tried to talk her out of it,” Gary replied as our small band met up with about 30 other rafters and guides. We walked across dark rocks to a pool, where Mattison gave quick pointers on swimming. One by one, people stepped into the relatively warm July water and drifted downriver to waiting guides, passing by boulders the size of sofas and VW Beetles.
“I really hate swimming,” Sheree said. “I never thought they’d make us do this. I don’t think I’m ready.”
And then she dove.
The Colorado River’s best-kept secret
For raft companies across the state, it’s been a bizarre season. Disappointing snowfall left favorites routes like the Royal Gorge woefully low – Class IV runs are barely high enough to qualify for Class III – but the Gore Canyon north of State Bridge is enjoying its best season in years. The Colorado River has remained immune to water woes, thanks in large part to the Shoshone Hydro Dam in Glenwood Canyon, a man-made failsafe the Arkansas River and other waterways don’t enjoy.
“This year has been good. Typically, we don’t get on this trip until August when everything is cooler,” said Mattison, a guide of more than 25 years who led the first commercial group through Gore Canyon in 1990. “We just have the area to ourselves. It’s a classic stretch of whitewater that gives you solitude, beauty and challenge.”
In the fledgling years of running the canyon, Mattison would only take two or three people at a time. Timberline is now one of five outfits to regularly run the route, but the canyon remains obscure enough that floats are rarely interrupted by other rafters. It's not that the canyon is discouragingly remote - railroad companies have used it as a thoroughfare for more than 100 years, and the Denver to LA Amtrack train passes through every afternoon. But even locals tend to overlook the rapids, leaving it open and waiting for a handful of in-the-know kayakers and guide companies. The trip is overwhelmingly favored by thrill-seeking visitors like the Suttons – our group was rounded out by a trio from Louisiana and a bachelor party from the East Coast.
“A lot of people just don’t know about this trip,” Mattison said. “But it really isn’t for everybody – of the rafting community at large, a small percentage of people are going to run this stretch. It’s the real deal.”
On the shimmering mid-summer morning of our trip, we were practically alone once we pushed off onto the calm, meandering waters above the canyon. The trip is about 11 miles from start to finish, with four miles of easy paddling before a barrage of Class IV and V rapids.
When we come to the mouth of the canyon, a safety kayaker pulled alongside our raft. These auxiliary guides follow the rafts to grab lost gear or help disoriented swimmers. Their skills are hardly in question: Timberline boasts several members of the U.S. Whitewater Rafting Team, and like Mattison, most have been guides for a decade or more.
“Looks like we have the P90s in here,” the safety kayaker said to our crew. Tyler, a former college football player who’s muscular like his father and soft-spoken like his mother, looked confused.
“What’s that mean?” he asked.
The kayaker chuckled.
“The big guns.”
Enter “The arena”
After the mandatory swimming practice – Sheree made it through fine, letting out whoops of laughter the entire time – we piled back into the rafts and pushed into the canyon’s jagged guts. The first obstacle was intimidating: Gore Rapids, made of smaller lines given nicknames like “Scissors,” “Rodeo Rock” and “Pyrite.”
When he first started guiding in the canyon, Mattison would take groups from start to finish without leaving the water. But with flows of close to 1,000 cubic feet for second, it’s safer to walk around a quarter-mile stretch near the top of Gore Rapids. With enormous jutting boulders and only a handful of passable lines, it's the river equivalent of a pinball machine. Raft guides are incredibly cautious and professional, so when Mattison told us very few dare that portion in a raft, no one argued.
We pounded through a few more rapids before reaching the aptly-named “Foreplay,” a Class IV section that leads to the canyon’s marquee feature: Tunnel Falls, a narrow chute of whitewater surrounded by a rocky amphitheater known as “the arena.”
“Tunnel Falls is the big one,” Mattison said. “There are always people watching, there’s good adrenaline and you never know what’s going to happen.”
As a precaution, everyone exited the rafts and checked the falls before making a descent, like scoping a powder line in the backcountry. The sight of gushing water and towering rocks was too much for Sheree and Gary; they opted out of the falls, leaving Tyler, Mattison and myself in the boat.
To a novice rafter like myself, the drop through Tunnel Falls felt like a stop-motion film: One second we were paddling for speed, the next we were tumbling through a rocky vise, and the next Tyler was swimming to the shore, with Mattison and I not far behind in the miraculously-upright raft. The whole surreal experience took less than 15 seconds, but the residual adrenaline lasted until the remaining four crews had tackled the falls.
Of the entire group, only one boat flipped completely, a nearly unavoidable hiccup on large trips. No one was hurt (the majority of injuries occur when portaging over rocks) but the guides have a way of ribbing each other for spills: Anyone who flips a raft buys shots for the whole team at the Minturn Saloon, Timberline’s traditional post-float haunt.
After Tunnel Falls, the elder Suttons rejoined our raft for the final two rapids – “Raceline” and “Toilet Bowl” – before ending in a sedate two-mile stretch of Class II waters. Our crew was soaked, tired and sunburned, but ecstatic to the point of loopy giddiness.
Over lunch, we recounted the past four hours with awe, although Sheree admitted once through the canyon was probably enough. But for a whitewater junkie like Mattison, the route continues to satisfy, even after 20 years.
“This is real guiding,” Mattison said. “A lot of raft trips are just entertaining. This trip is a real challenge – you don’t have to tell stories about one-eyed Willie or something. The water and scenery speak for themselves.”