The raft buckles upon impact.
Back becomes front, and the 12-foot drop shatters the six-pack of paddlers like struck bowling pins. Chins smash the back of helmets as bodies, raft, paddles and river all bend into one.
The split second ends, the raft pops back to shape and you hear the cheers from either bank. Check that everyone's still aboard, then for blood - maybe a loose tooth. Then shout back to paddling positions for the next big drop, this one much more retentive and not so forgiving if botched.
Such is race day at the Gore Canyon Whitewater Festival. This third-weekend-in-August staple was always the final hurrah for our crew of guiding buddies.
We weren't the only ones racing down the imposing three-mile drop in gradient. There was a division for every imaginable craft: playboats, two-man Shredder rafts, boogie board-like sledges, triangular canopied "un-flippable" Creature Crafts and even a couple of bold tubers.
Car-camping river runners packed the overflow Pumphouse Campground (10 miles southwest of Kremmling). A live band on a bus, a projected carnage reel of the day's action captured on video and a truck full of New Belgium signified true festivities.
Chan Zwanzig started it all, "with seven or eight people, some safety boaters, a couple of watches, pen and paper," in what he estimates was a year or two after creating Wave Sport Kayaks in Oak Creek circa 1987.
Every year since, the race has grown in size and complexity, often playing host to the U.S. Rafting Championships. The canyonland to the campground belongs to the BLM (with a Union Pacific right-of-way on the busy tracks parallel to the west shore) and in the festival's most busy recent years, Mark Joffe of Rapidpulse has volunteered to cover the details - lining up sponsors, timing the races and, most importantly, filing the Special Recreation Permit with the BLM.
No cash sponsor stepped up this year, so Joffe pulled out and no organizers filed the permit in time. No one in Steamboat, however, needs to be reminded of the contention between land management and nonorganized users without special permits.
The BLM closed the overflow group campsite and urged boaters to not race, threatening organizers with citations. BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner Andy Windsor cringes at the nightmare scenario of a deluge of vehicles at the campsite and an accident on the Class V section needing evacuation on the congested railroad. Who would be accountable?
But Zwanzig will be the first to point out, "it's not against the law to paddle, and it's not against the law to paddle fast."
Hopefully the debate will be settled when only the core contingent shows for a one-year relapse to a basic grassroots gathering of kayakers who can competently paddle (fast, even) without need of organized safety, logistics and car-camp bacchanalia. If no bridges are burned with an agency "committed to having the race happen in the future," the unique Colorado event can return to its full late-summer, high-water, all-hairball-inclusive potential.