Local kayaking duo tests Colorado's creeks for guidebook

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

DENVER (AP) -- It's been a long wait.

With spring snowmelt on the horizon, Colorado kayakers and whitewater junkies are itching for action. For now, they can get their fix via an action-packed 280-page guidebook.

First released in 1995 with about 110 river and creek descriptions, ''Colorado Creeks and Rivers,'' by Gordon Banks and Dave Eckardt, soon reached legendary status. Only 5,000 copies were printed, and each revered copy quickly became a paddler's most guarded resource.

Early March saw the release of the much-anticipated second edition. With 148 runs, hundreds of color photographs and precise descriptions of rapids, shuttles, put-ins and takeouts, the second-edition guidebook has been warmly received.

The pair of expert kayakers -- Eckardt is from Aspen and Banks is from Boulder -- added almost 60 runs to the second edition, all raging, steep creek descents that weren't even being paddled when the first edition was published.

The second edition is a clear example of the evolution kayaking has undergone in the last five years. In 1994, 4,500 people were on the waiting list for a permit to paddle through the Grand Canyon, with an estimated wait of 14 years. By 1998, when figures were last tallied, 6,750 were on the list, and the wait for a permit exceeded 20 years.

Why the exploding interest in kayaking and the recent quest for adventure that has followed? Banks credits new technology, more places to hone kayaking skills and a growing number of expert paddlers.

New short, high-volume kayaks allow paddlers access to more turbulent and steep flows; and new outerwear designs keep paddlers warm and dry in freezing water. Whitewater parks are popping up all over the country (four in the Denver area), giving kayakers access to year-round waves in which they can hone their technical paddling skills. A new breed of kayakers -- dubbed ''hairboaters'' -- has emerged on the scene, essentially redefining the sport.

Hairboaters paddle ''the gnar,'' what they call steep, narrow gorges and thundering waterfalls as high as 100 feet, considered unnavigable five years ago. These runs are so steep and so dangerous, they have been rated unrunnable or ''Class VI'' by whitewater's longstanding rating system.

These runs are no longer considered impassable, but the risks in paddling turbulent stretches of Class VI water remain the same. A single missed stroke, a miscalculated boat angle, even an overly aggressive paddle stroke can lead to a certain thrashing and sometimes death.

Even so, Banks and Eckardt included several in their guidebook: the North Fork of the Crystal Gorge, ''a hairboater's whitewater gem,'' as they describe it; Toltec Gorge -- a nine-mile descent that requires rope work as well as beyond-expert paddling skills; and Lake Creek, which roars down the east side of Independence Pass and is ''marginally runnable'' in their estimation.

''We didn't underrate anything,'' says Banks, who with Eckardt and other paddlers reached a unanimous consensus before rating a run. ''We found the Class V rating was just too huge. I mean, we are talking about a huge difference in ability needed to run rivers that were stuck in this Class V rating. So we bumped some of these runs into the Class VI category and bumped some others down a bit.''

Between 1975 and 1995, no more than five expert kayakers died each year, according to Charlie Walbridge, safety coordinator for the American Whitewater Association. Since 1995, as expert paddlers began venturing into uncharted waters, as many as 15 have died each year.

As more and more kayakers pour into the sport, and with whitewater parks across the state offering year-round paddling practice, can an increase in the number of yearly deaths be considered a given? Will Colorado rescuers find the new guidebook in victims' vehicles, hauntingly opened to the page that details the fatal rapid?

''There's a fear of that, yeah,'' says Banks, whose boating resume, when combined with Eckardt's, includes 140 of the 158 runs in the new guidebook. ''All we can do is stick with our disclaimer. ... There's going to be fatalities, but if we don't document what people are out there boating, then we are doing a disservice to the boating community. This book is about what Dave (Eckardt) and I have gotten out of the sport. We are not playing God. Our only goal is to provide a menu of options for what you can boat and for what is being boated.''

The disclaimer hammers the point that a creek run and river run are completely different. Creek boating requires specialized equipment as well as first-aid knowledge and rope-handling skills (to aid in extrication of pinned boats and, God forbid, pinned friends). Even more important, creek boating is a group activity, not the individualized play-boating/rodeo hybrid of kayaking that has emerged in recent years.

Like the gym climber heading for the multi-pitch big wall and the rodeo boater heading for the steep creeks, ''personal introspection'' is vital, says Banks, adding that he ignores ratings and personally views each big run he paddles and makes a decision only then.

''There's some drops in this book I will never run,'' he says. ''I don't care if it's rated Class IV. If it has a death sieve in it, I'm walking around it. If I'm not feeling my best, I'm walking. If I look inside and don't feel right, I'm walking.

''If you have a friend die on the river, especially if you are there, it will haunt you for the rest of your life. I hope it doesn't take death for people to realize that (steep creek) kayaking is a group sport that requires help.''

End ADV for April 22-23

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us