Black Canyon, river trip, adventure, kayak, Salamander Paddle gear

Black Canyon Boogie

October 24, 2021// Leave a comment

 I'm not sure it's ever going to feel 'comfortable' when you find yourself completely out of place, more than a little over your head, and yet somehow exactly where you want to be.

That thought passed between my ears while catching my breath, high on the portage above Sieve City rapid within the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

I lived in Colorado for almost 30 years.  I'd been there for 20 before ever setting foot within the Gunnison Gorge, and couldn't believe what I'd been missing.  I completed many wondrous trips via the Chukar route before meandering upstream to find new and novel views.  And it is so quantitatively different up there that I was never quite satisfied.  My favorite number is more.

But the gradient and geology forming the rapids within the Black Canyon create a very different beast from the Gunny Gorge.  Ask anyone -- I'm simply not good enough for the Black.  Knowing that hasn't dissuaded me from aspiring to see it.

A few years ago I found and inhaled Duane Vandenbusche's historical anthology on the Black Canyon.  Of particular note was the first full descent of this river corridor over 60 (70?  Can't remember: I loaned the book out and it hasn't made it back yet...) years ago, using inflatable mattresses.    Reading that made me laugh out loud at the drive and pluck, but it also made me realize if they could do a "raft" assisted hike to see the whole canyon, then so could I.

Not long after that, an experienced paddling partner shared that most people don't paddle much harder than class III within the Black.  Why?  Sieves.  So many enormous rocks have fallen into the narrow river corridor through millennia that in places the river isn't even visible, so deep is it buried beneath boulders.  During this conversation I learned that many have a special rating for the rapids within the Black: III++.  Much of the paddling may not be harder than intermediate level, but it's often immediately above a sieve, so you simply can't make mistakes.

That thought -- and those consequences -- festered in my head for years before the opportunity and timing finally aligned to spend a few days deep down in there.

Those that would run the Black normally drive down the East Portal road and launch a few steps from their vehicles.  That road has been closed for construction all year, meaning that in order to access the river we needed to find a different way in.  Paddling Crystal Reservoir and then portaging the dam sounded like a fine adventure -- until we were told by the Bureau of Reclamation that setting foot on the dam was illegal and that we would be prosecuted.  Easy choice to hike down the Tomichi Route.  

That route drops ~2000' in one mile, which explains why there were still permits available on a gorgeous Saturday morning, as well as why kayakers don't use it.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it exposed, but you definitely had to stay engaged to keep from kicking rocks down onto your friends.

And once at the bottom?


I went in knowing that I was going to shoulder my boat a lot.  I was surprised how much "a lot" ended up being.  I was tired, sore, beat-down for 4 days after.  I was equally surprised how many times there wasn't really an option to portage.  I definitely didn't run anything that anyone would ever call class V.  But I felt like I ran a few aggregate miles of busy IV, most of it without scouting.  If it wasn't a named rapid, then my compadres -- all of whom had been here before -- would rally through, calling over their shoulders as they dropped in, "It's just boogie!".


And yeah -- boogie is what you call the in-between.  But some of that boogie turned out to be the hardest stuff I'd paddled this calendar year.  My point is that even Spiderman is going to have to paddle more than class III in the Black.  If you're giving thought to heading in, give a second thought on whether you're really ready.  I'm not sure I was.

We had 600cfs.  This crew said that was the lowest they'd bother going in for.  It felt junky, with hundreds of barely covered rocks in play.  That said, the gradient + this flow gave it enough juice that I think I'd have been yet more on edge with higher flows.  They assured me that it was much, much cleaner at 1k.  Would I go back for that much more?  Grub for thought.

We were all paddling Alpacka Valkyrie's.  They sold a limited run of ~50 for 2021, but my understanding is that they are going to be (more) widely available for '22. 

I've embedded two vids: one from my 'boogie' perspective, and one from Jeff who ran a lot more.

Thanks to Ben Phillips, Jeff Creamer, Dan Thurber, and John Baker for holding my hand and ushering me through an indescribable, otherworldly place.

Thanks to you for checkin' in.


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