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Evan kayaking the Roaring Fork River in Colorado, looking downriver to snowy Basalt Mountain
Photo credit: —Thomas M. Wills

Wet and wild in the Roaring Fork Valley

~Evan Belknap

I love New Mexico with a faithful, jealous vigor, but after driving up to Aspen, Colorado, last Sunday, through Alamosa, Buena Vista, and Leadville, past 14,000 foot snowy peaks and over high-alpine passes, down Glenwood Canyon, and up into the Roaring Fork Valley, I had to admit that Colorado was, indeed, an exquisitely beautiful state. Rolling into Carbondale at sunset with Mount Sopris in the distance was borderline religious. My worry about spending a summer in an imagined yuppie world, faded away and was replaced by a feeling of wonder, about finding an Eden to play in—with new mountains to climb, frothy rolling rivers crashing down below, and a seemingly endless amount of rocky terrain to explore.

I’ve been up here for almost a week now, training to become a raft guide for Elk Mountain Expeditions. It’s the off-season right now, and the town is pleasantly empty and quiet. The locals—a surprising bunch of scruffy rafting-climbing-ski bums, including one of my oldest friends—are taking a few hard-earned breaths of air before the summer crowds arrive.

I realized last fall that it was important that I spend more time floating down a river. I was sitting by the Rio Grande when it hit me that surely, apart from climbing, there was hardly anything better in the world than being on a river in a raft, spinning in little circles, being surrounded by trees and birds, and that butterfly feeling of knowing a big rapid is around the corner. So I made it happen. I needed something new to do for a summer anyway.

It’s important to find challenging things to do, otherwise one can get cocky and stupid, or worse: bored. Yesterday, I learned the hard way, again, that this was starting to happen to me. Thinking that I would just naturally be a good kayaker, because I had gotten pretty good at rolling, I jumped on a big section of the Roaring Fork with some friends and got beat up good. I flipped almost instantly, smashed into rocks, flipped back up just to flip over again, was holding my breath, smashing and crashing and flailing. I eddied out below the first rapid, got out of my boat, and hiked the mile back to my car, dizzy and thoroughly humbled. I told my friends that I’d pick them up downstream. Being a good climber, rafter, and Ping-Pong player does not make you a good kayaker—it’s official.

I’m a beginner again and it’s lame to be a beginner, but that’s what I wanted.  Today, I tried again, except on some much smaller water. At first, shaken up from the previous day, my heart raced and my hands ached with cold from the snowmelt water. I didn’t want to go under again and I was sure I would. As the miles went by and I still seemed to be upright, I calmed down, and my body relaxed into the waves. I started to understand how you have to relax your hips and lean into the waves. Pretty soon we were cascading down Class Two and Class Three rapids, and I was finally having fun, blasting through waves and zipping into eddies.

I’m about to head back to New Mexico to lead a two-week backpacking trip in the Pecos Mountains with the United World College. It will be good to have some quiet mountain time to think about the upcoming summer and all the new adventures and hard-learned experiences it will bring. I’ll be teaching these kids about just that—how to adapt, how to try to make good decisions, how to survive, how to appreciate the good and bad times and learn from them.

After that, I’ll be up here, living and working in Basalt, Colorado, until the summer crowds fade away. I’ll be on the river every day until it feels as natural as climbing in the Sandias.

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