Battling the Rapids

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Adrenaline is a word that comes to mind after a raft trip through Moffat County's Cross Mountain Canyon.

Adrenaline that makes your hand tremble just a bit as you scramble back to the raft after scouting a wicked pour-over. Adrenaline that makes you set your jaw and recheck your purchase on the foot holster in the floor of the raft. Adrenaline that forces you to let out a howl of relief and excitement when you emerge from a Class 4 suck hole into the relative calm of a Class 3 wave.

"There's no free ride down Cross Mountain Canyon," Kent Vertrees said Friday. "It's a technical river and our paddlers (guests) have to help our guides out."

Vertrees is a veteran boat man who supervises the guides for Blue Sky West Adventures in Steamboat Springs. Cross Mountain Canyon is hairy. Some people believe it's not suitable for rafting because the rock-filled gorge is so technical and even overpowering some places.

Some are just intimidated by the names of the rapids Osterizer, Body Pizza, Death Fairy and Snake Pit.

But the river has vastly different personalities at different levels.

Vertrees said the range between 1,500 cubic feet per second and 2,500 cfs is ideal for experiencing all of the waves and splashing through all of the big hits without having to be overly stressed about the danger involved.

Between 2,500 and 3,500 cfs, the adrenaline level ratchets upward. The river is still raftable a little above 3,500 cfs, but Vertrees would be reluctant to take clients through the gorge.

Of course, expert kayakers, with their maneuverability and ability to take advantage of small eddies that won't accommodate rafts, like the river even bigger.

And it does get much bigger. As big as 21,000 cfs in peak runoff years.

Peak runoff is the only way to explain "Stamp Rock." The name of the rock implies that any raft crew that has the misfortune to impact it broadside is certain to remain plastered to it like a postage stamp.

But the most awe-inspiring feature of Stamp Rock is the giant cottonwood log perched atop it. The log was deposited there, more than 10 feet in the air, by one of the last epic runoff years.

Everyone who floats by is left to wonder what the canyon must look like when the river is that high.

In a typical year, the flows through Cross Mountain Canyon are just dropping to levels suitable for rafting on July 4. In the summer of 2001, the pattern was reversed and it appears that will be the case again this year.

Cross Mountain is perfect right now and may drop below raftable levels by July 4, just when commercial rafting companies see their first really big influx of guests to Northwest Colorado.

However, on May 17, in a season when whitewater sports are expected to be limited to a fairly narrow window, the canyon was just about perfect for rafting.

The Yampa was running 2,300 cfs, ideal for a raft manned by four adrenaline junkies and a guide at the stern.

Guides Kevin Owens and Pete Scully took two boats full of hotel front desk personnel from Steamboat through the canyon on Friday.

Owens has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a genuine enthusiasm for his work. He approaches each series of rapids analytically, rehearsing his moves in his mind before dropping into the current.

When it comes to letting his paddlers know what he wants from them, he isn't shy.

"I'd rather have a crew that paddles together and hears my commands, rather than the strongest crew," he professes. "But when I tell you to paddle forward hard, I want you to give me every ounce of strength that you've got."

Later he shows us what he means, barking out a string of staccato commands while the raft is being slammed by big waves.

"Back left! All back! Forward hard!" he shouts in a voice that carries over the thunder of the water.

When the pressure is off, he passes out praise like a fourth-grade teacher everybody gets a star on their paper.

After the river has been run, Scully acknowledges the danger in the canyon is real. He and Owens were joined by Vertrees in Salida earlier this season to update their certification in swift water training.

Scully said he's constantly preparing for himself for that day when havoc breaks loose on his boat.

Cross Mountain Canyon is a gorge that challenges accomplished kayakers and turns back all but the most skilled private rafters.

Only a handful of the many thousands of thrill-seekers on commercial raft trips will ever see it.

Anyone seeking an adrenaline fix might seek it out.

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