It was only our second day in Colorado, but it was shaping up to be a long one. It was almost ten o’clock and we were already supposed to be at the put-in, but instead we were stashing a bike behind some bushes at the Corral Creek trailhead. The shuttle plan was to hike our boats and gear 3.5 miles up Corral Creek trail from the river to the bike. Then someone would ride the single speed mountain bike the 17 miles back to the truck to retrieve it for the rest of the group. Without a doubt it was going to be a long day, but for our crew it was our chosen celebration of Independence Day.
Joey Jarrell, Jordan Sherman, Matt Wallace, and I (Adam Goshorn) had departed Chattanooga, Tennessee in the afternoon two days earlier. We drove 22 hours straight through and immediately put on Clear Creek of the Arkansas outside Buena Vista, Colorado. After a couple laps we began setting up camp at the take-out and putting the plan in place for the following day. Calls to friends confirmed that Cheesman Canyon had well above the minimum recommended water level and the call was made to schedule access through the private land at the put-in. Moments later we were joined by longtime friend Mike Tavares, who had driven up to meet us after getting off work in Salida. Mike and I went up for another quick lap on Clear Creek before joining the rest of the group for the first of many campfires, beers, and good times our visit to Colorado would include.
Paddling the South Platte through Cheesman Canyon was high on our “hit list” for our time in Colorado this summer. This section of river didn’t see boatable flows often and didn’t seem to get paddled that often when it did. However, several things we had heard about this section sounded particularly inviting to us. First, that the access issues of past with Sportsman’s Paradise, a private community at the put-in, had been resolved through an agreement set up by American Whitewater. Secondly, that the granite landscape was reminiscent of California, but with a much shorter drive.
We arrived outside the gate at Sportsman’s Paradise more than a half hour late, but the caretaker who met us was incredibly friendly and didn’t seem the least bit annoyed at our tardiness. He chatted and joked with us as we dressed out and loaded boats into his waiting truck. As we piled in and began the ride I couldn’t help but ponder this seemingly strange arrangement that allows access through the community of vacation homes and cabins lining the first couple miles of river. What at one point had been described as “the worst access situation in Colorado” was now the only place I’ve ever been where kayakers were treated to a personal shuttle courtesy of the formally hostile land owners (thanks American Whitewater!). This convenient arrangement cuts out a couple calm miles of river and allows access at the back gate of the Sportsman’s Paradise community. This is where the caretaker dropped us off and left us to slide into the river and point our boats downstream towards the canyon.
The river started off lazily between green grassy banks which soon gave way to rocks and boulders as the gradient began to pick up. The group quickly fell into that familiar pattern of scouting and problem solving that wilderness river running requires. After a few stout rapids and a the first portage we were making our way deeper into the canyon and realizing the water was significantly higher than pictures and video we had seen. Higher water sometimes has a way of “cleaning up” chunky rapids, but this wasn’t the case here. The water level wasn’t “cleaning up” anything, it was just making them run together with less places to stop or recover. Slow, but steady downstream progress continued with lots of scouting and a mixture of running rapids and portaging. Collectively only two of the named rapids went unrun, with Matt charging more rapids than anyone else.
We utilized the fisherman’s trail high on river left throughout the day for scouting and portaging, but had to keep reminding ourselves that our vantage point made everything look much smaller than it actually was. Once such example was when what looked like a stretch of boogie water from the trail turned out to contain one of the signature drops of the run. Slide for Life is perhaps the easiest of the named rapids, but drops at least fifteen feet, not generic “boogie water” by most people’s standards.
We worked our way through the remaining rapids after Slide for Life and the difficulty began to ease. Before long we found ourselves back on a meandering valley stream, looking much like it did at the put-in. The next challenge was to recognize the take out and Corral Creek trail that would lead us out of the valley. After a couple false stops we found what we were sure had to be it and we climbed up to the trail for a short break. Matt had volunteered to do the bike shuttle so we decided to completely empty the lightest boat for him to hike out. Carrying Joey’s Medium Burn, Matt took off, charging uphill while the rest of us divided up all of his gear. After a snack and some water we began our hike at a much slower pace with the assurance that there was no need to rush since the only thing at the top of the trail was a patch of dirt to sit and wait for the truck.
As we began to hike a thunderstorm moved in, then it moved out only to be replaced by heavy fog. The uphill trudge continued with each individual moving at their own pace and focused on their own progress. Matt was long gone before we began and after deciding to stash their gear and make two trips, Jordan and Joey were soon far ahead of me carrying empty boats. I continued making slow progress and resting when need be. As the fog began to clear, I finally reached a short downhill section of trail. At this point Joey, followed shortly by Jordan returned down the trial and informed me I was about a mile from the top. They headed back down to retrieve their gear and I continued pressing forward, reaching the top about the same time my legs started to cramp up.
I was glad to have stashed water at the trailhead that morning and as I rested and rehydrated I wondered how Matt was fairing on the bike ride. I wondered if he had to deal with the brunt of the thunderstorm while hiking or biking. It would be dark in less than an hour and it occurred to me that it was going to get quite cold, quite quickly for three wet boaters sitting around after dark. After resting a bit I began gathering twigs for a fire as the light began to dwindle. Just as darkness closed in Jordan and Joey arrived back with their gear and headlights toped a hill in the distance almost simultaneously. Matt had stomped out the hike and the ride and returned with the truck about an hour after I finished the hike, a stellar performance.
The truck arrived almost ten hours after we put on the river that morning. Ten hours of kayaking, scouting, portaging, hiking, biking and pushing forward to complete one of the major goals of the trip. It didn’t take long for our exhausted group to decide to camp right where we were and within an hour we were asleep, our Independence Day celebration complete. Day number two, Cheesman Canyon, check.
Until Next Time...