River Wild

 Photo: Arkansas River Tours

Photo: Arkansas River Tours

Rafting pros share whitewater experiences

By Steve Graham

“How do you get the boat on the track?” That’s a question Garry Keller has fielded more than once in his 20 summers as a professional rafting guide. 

Keller has guided hundreds of boats on Colorado rivers from Durango to Fort Collins, and none were riding on tracks, despite some tourists’ expectation of some sort of theme park flume ride. Riding a wild river is a different adventure every time.

Julie Sutton has also spent nearly two decades rafting. She works all over the country, but spends every summer on the Arkansas River in Colorado.

She has worked with all ages and abilities of rafters, including her 3-year-old nephew and a group of feisty elderly ladies.

 Veteran rafting guide Julie Sutton, top, runs rivers all over the country, but spends every summer on the Arkansas River in Colorado.Photo: Arkansas River Tours

Veteran rafting guide Julie Sutton, top, runs rivers all over the country, but spends every summer on the Arkansas River in Colorado.Photo: Arkansas River Tours

“When he first got in the boat, he was not happy, and he loved Thomas the Train,” she said of the toddler. “He saw (train) tracks and kept saying ‘stop the boat, choo choo train.’ … When we finally got to the rapid, and the boat sped up, he just started giggling and laughing. We finished the rapid, then all I heard was, ‘faster, Julie, faster.’”  

On the other hand, the older ladies were ready for anything from the beginning.

“One of the ladies fell out in a class 4 rapid,” she said. “We pulled her in really quickly, but she had hit her hand. She literally licked where it was bleeding, and said ‘let’s go.’” 

Later on the same run, a thirsty lady reached into the river and cupped her hand for a mouthful of somewhat fresh water. 

“I told her, ‘oh no, don’t do that. You can get giardia.’” Sutton recalled. “She said, ‘honey, I’m 67 years old, I’ve been exposed to a lot more dangerous things than this water. If it ain’t killed me yet, it’s probably not going to.’”  

She kept her health advice to herself for the rest of the trip, but run is a new experience.

Keller agrees. “Working as a commercial river guide, it’s never the same day twice,” he said. “It starts in the shop, watching people put their wetsuits on backwards, and it just continues on the river. Someone falls out of the raft, for them it’s the end of the world, but everyone else is laughing at them flailing for their lives.”

As long as you have a professional guide, “It’s never the end of the world” to fall out of a raft, Keller said, and quoted a rafting maxim: “There are those who have swam and those who are going to.” 

In addition to the questions about rafting tracks, he also fields some funny wildlife questions.

“I used to have people ask what elevation do deer turn into elk,” Keller said. “I used to tell them ‘it’s the same elevation that chickens turn into turkeys.’ You realize that people never get out. Those people you can really have a lot of fun with.”

He catches other customers burying cigarettes or other necessities at the put-in, expecting to return to the same spot and perhaps not understanding why a river rushing downhill can’t loop back to the beginning.

Other misunderstandings can be caused by simple miscommunication. Keller struggled to give paddling instructions to a group with limited English skills.

“We just spun and turned all the way down the river,” he said. “I thought for sure I was going to dump the raft over.”

But he managed to get everyone back safely — just barely.

He was even more concerned when a blind group showed up, canes in hand. He thought his prankster boss was playing a practical joke, but soon realized they were legitimate customers — and surprisingly capable rafters.

“These guys ended up being some of the best pilots I ever had,” Keller said. “They showed up and totally rocked it.”

He also took some extra time during the trip to chat up a woman relaxing by the river. The blind men later asked if he landed a date, but had missed that she was sunbathing nude. 

Of course, rafting Colorado’s rivers is not all fun and games. A group of young men once passed him focused more on their beers than their raft. The raft tipped, and one man became trapped between the boat and a bridge pylon. He tried to rescue the man and called in Flight for Life, but the man drowned.

Even pros can make dangerous mistakes, though. Sutton once became trapped in a shifting and dangerous rapid, and broke her leg while rafting the Grand Canyon.

“The smartest thing you can do is respect the river, and that’s what I hope to instill in my guests,” Sutton said.  

Both guides urged rafters of all temperaments and abilities to try a trip that makes them comfortable. 

 Garry Keller, pictured below with his wife Becky, is an experienced summer rafting guide in Fort Collins. Photo: Garry Keller

Garry Keller, pictured below with his wife Becky, is an experienced summer rafting guide in Fort Collins. Photo: Garry Keller

“Jumping on a raft is the quintessential Colorado experience,” Keller said. “There is rafting for all levels. If you’re looking for a lazy river trip, that’s doable. Those tend to be the most memorable.”

He added that the best way to avoid turning a rafting trip into a swimming trip is to relax and get into the action.

“It tends to be the person that is most timid in the raft will end up swimming,” Keller said. “They don’t put their feet where they’re supposed to or they don’t paddle.”

Instead, enjoy the experience and work with the professionals.

“Listen to what the guide tells you and follow directions,” he said. “Put a little effort and enthusiasm into it, and things will end
up OK.”

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.