The River Mutes the World: Canoeing the Gunnison, Colorado

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Autumn skies threaten in Utah

(State #49/50) I spent May and early June trying to shake a raw Northeastern spring. Finally, somewhere in Connecticut, I found summer. For months after, long warm days only proceeded more of the same. Then September arrived. Lingering rains soon eclipsed the more pleasant features of the season. With autumn nipping at my stern, I fled into the desert Southwest. But there was just no escaping fall. She caught me in earnest by October 1st on the Western Slope of Colorado, beside the banks of the Gunnison.

DSC_0853With my endless summer ending in a hurry, so were the favorable conditions for my last solo canoe. Driving to scout the river outside Grand Junction, gray clouds shrouded the sky, dispersing dim, even light over an otherwise striking landscape. The day grew colder when I saw a man wandering around his unkempt lawn with an older model assault rifle — any gun with a clip as long as my forearm, no matter what you call it, creeps me out in the hands of a civilian. I shimmied lower in the driver’s seat, applied the gas and drove on to the river.

The water at the put-in ran swift and muddy as I began the float. To the right, a Union Pacific rail paralleled the river below an exposed rock canyon wall. An undulating, sprawling valley ranged out to my left where dry stream-beds split the juniper-covered hills. The low sky, on the verge of brooding, gave little color to the brown waters beneath my paddle.DSC_0897 (1)DSC_0862

Wildlife, however, didn’t give a damn about the dreariness. Eagles, tons of eagles, soared above the bare-stone bluffs and sat atop the sandstone ridges. Both bald and golden dominated the high points, keeping all manner of smaller birds and scurrying furry things close to their river thickets and boulder burrows.DSC_0856

DSC_0866For half an hour the current carved its way between steep stone faces and red rock overhangs where cliff swallows built their river-mud hives. The canyon narrowed as the Gunnison swept against sheer red walls, flowing fast and creating standing waves. I dropped to my knees in a few sections, not wanting to even run the risk of swamping. In calm stretches I scanned the ridges for the desert big horns, hoping their white butts would betray them, but saw only boulders.DSC_0889 (1)

At five o’clock I opened a beer. Mother Nature did not approve — the wind kicked up from the west and blew headlong. If I took a moment off steering, the gusts would turn Rider around 180 degrees. Several times I had to wait for a lull to right the canoe and point her downstream. Frustrated and out of productive ideas, I cursed into the blowing, roaring void.DSC_0874 (1)

DSC_0895 (1)Finally, a campsite appeared below two large cottonwoods. A natural shelterbelt shielded the campground from the October nastiness. I erected my tent, put a fire pan in place and lit one up. As night fell, a light beam lit up the rocks on the other side of the canyon. The loudening churn of metal on metal crescendoed, cutting through the wind in the cottonwood trees, as the Union Pacific approached. Sitting by the fire, I watched as the freight train lumbered along, squeaking and chugging up the canyon until out of sight. What is this, 1869?

DSC_0900Once the eerie beam of the engine had disappeared down the tracks, my campfire was the only light around. There were no stars or moon that night. Darkness shrouded all else — the flowing water, the eroding outcrops above the stark canyon walls and coyotes hunting out on the rolling plateau. Alone but not lonely, I sat by a crackling, popping, warming fire, eating car-trunk pasta and drinking a poor excuse for a Rocky Mountain Bulldog.

The next morning gray skies spit light rain, pattering the top of the tent. The constant drizzle continued for hours and my mood mirrored the weather. This was the fall I dread. I boiled water for coffee and fried up a makeshift burrito. Ah, the restoring power of a warm breakfast and hot, instant coffee.DSC_0914

Autumn’s gloomy grip lessened as I walked up the trickling creek to the hills above camp. Low clouds hung on the ridges to the west. Junipers, pinyons and  yuccas peppered the rolling landscape covered in yellow bunch grasses. Glancing down, I noticed flecks of colorful chert and volcanic glass — the unmistakable signs of knapping. I spent an hour wandering, head down, looking for arrowheads. For me, the activity is equal parts treasure hunting, equal parts meditation — noticing minute details, studying the ground, DSC_0906 (1)searching more for color than shape while screening out all the world in the name of pure focus. I found one great looking point, which I was tempted to pocket, but it was federal land, an ancient artifact and it wasn’t mine. Besides, it would wind up in a box in a closet anyways, so I placed it back where I found it, tucked under the damp branches of sage.DSC_0913

I got a late start with six miles left to canoe before the real adventure — a sixteen-mile journey back to my car. The rain ceased, but the temperature fell as Rider carried me down the high-flowing Gunnison.

DSC_0917 (1)Fall seemed poised to give way to winter as I reached the takeout. The clouds clearing from the mesas to the north revealed a fresh silver coat of snow and ice. I locked my canoe to a pillar of a train bridge, kept my lifejacket on and started jogging. After a few miles my path became a four-lane highway. I walked backwards, smiling and pointing a finger out and down as fifty cars and trucks blew past. I couldn’t blame them; U.S. Route 50 is a busy stretch of highway where even I wouldn’t pick me up.DSC_0944 (1)

HitchCoAfter calculating the hours of light left, I turned and resumed running with my finger pointed to the side. Moments later, a white, duel-wheeled pickup pulled onto the shoulder. I jogged up, took one look inside the cab and climbed aboard. “Looked like you were in a hurry,” the driver, Chuck, said. Eleven miles down, the friendly roughneck from Arkansas dropped me at Bridgeport Road, un-murdered. Prepared to do sixteen, the three miles left were a breeze.

Deciding I’d best tell people I was alive, I turned on my phone to find several texts about Tom Petty’s death. I called my Mom. “Did you hear the horrible news?” she asked. “Yeah, I can’t believe Tom Petty died!” I responded. “Tom Petty? What are you talking about?” Then Mom told me about the shooter in Las Vegas, the 500 people injured and 58 killed. And just like that, with the push of a button, the greater world, almost always the worst of it, leaks out into nature.

As on most of my paddles, I had a 24-hour respite from any and all news. While the country consumed the horrific events of October 1st, I sat by a campfire, watching a train creek along a river, listening to the chirp of bats over the Gunnison’s river song while trying, in vain, to recall all the lyrics to Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” I’d have the next day, weeks and months to think about all facets of one of the worst mass shootings in US history. But on that night, my largest concerns were of the elements and the inevitable creep of autumn. Free of the modern information onslaught, I ruminated in thoughts of my own choosing.

Indeed, nature’s ability to mute the greater world and shrink outside distractions is incredible. It’s one of many undervalued benefits of the outdoors. I still revel in those empty spaces on the cell phone coverage maps, while network providers and the general public celebrate the closing of those frontiers as pure progress. Progress, yes. But progressing to what?

When staring at a screen to check emails and read headlines instead of staring into a campfire becomes commonplace in the wilderness, we’ll lose the goodness, the pureness of being alone in nature. It shouldn’t take Tom Petty dying and a killing spree to bring this point into focus, but that’s exactly what happened after one cold fall canoe in Colorado.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Gunnison River, Colorado
  • Dates Canoed: 10/1-2/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 12
  • Weather: Overcast, windy to cold and rainy. Highs from low 60’s dropping to high 30’s.
  • Put in: Dominguez Canyon Trailhead off Bridgeport Road (38.849303, -108.373054)
  • Campsite: Sheep Haven Campsite: (38.908686, -108.451235)
  • Takeout: Whitewater Boat Ramp (38.971273, -108.45459)
  • Songs Sung on River: Calendar Girl by Neil Sedaka, Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, Tell Me Why by Neil Young and Cold and Lonely by Slaid Cleaves
  • Books to Read: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Shelly Turkle
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Bald Eagle, Golden eagle, raven, magpie, songbirds, swallow, flicker, great blue heron, ducks
  • Mammals: River otter! Bats
  • Noted Species: Mountain lion and desert bighorn sheep
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus (20b), Shale Deserts and Sedimentary Basins and (20c), Semi Arid Benchlands and Canyonlands.
  • Trash Collected: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, styrofoam cup and micro trash at camp
  • Current Threats: Potential diversion of waters to Front Range sprawl, salt cedar and other invasive species. Check out this American Rivers article on the Gunnison River’s past and future.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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2 Responses to The River Mutes the World: Canoeing the Gunnison, Colorado

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great writing Eric!!

  2. uncleurnie says:

    “What is this, 1869?” Well, not quite back that far, but…….The railroad tracks along the Gunnison were first built as a narrow gauge line by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1882. They converted it to standard gauge in 1906. The Union Pacific acquired the line in 1996.

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