A Guide to Kayaking in Denver for n00bs



When I was 16, I got to go on a family vacation in the Virgin Islands. It was a tropical paradise littered with abandoned hurricane thrashed resorts and constant evidence of multiple ancient pirate sexual conquests.  The ocean that surrounds the island is so pure and warm that it is like looking through transparent and inviting glass.  The ocean floor can be perfectly viewed, even at depths of thirty feet.  When we were out there, at every opportunity I was out in the ocean, taking in every bit of its majesty.  I swam, sailed, snorkeled, and even tried surfing on it.  My favorite however, was renting a kayak and taking it out on the open ocean all by myself.  I used it to explore small caverns, rock outcroppings, and I was constantly using my paddle to club jellyfish (more technically known as “The Assholes of the Sea”) that were floating around everywhere.  There’s no feeling quite like pointing the bow of your boat into the crests of oncoming waves and journeying into the great blue by yourself as the beach you launched from fades away behind you.

After I came back from my trip, I really never gave a second thought to ever picking the sport back up.  It was more of a happy little snippet of an amazing two weeks exploring paradise and sneaking Heinekens.  Being landlocked and madly in love with the ocean does tend to drive a guy like me crazy, as I am always longing for the sweet thick smell of the ocean air and the crashing sounds of the pounding surf.  I’ve talked to the friends I have that have moved to the east coast and are living in close proximity of the Atlantic and they said they got bored with the mystery of the ocean within a few weeks of living there.  They then complained about how much they missed the mountains and the bears and that struck me as crazy because I’ve been bored with that shit since 1985.

That’s when I realized that I while I constantly pine for the ocean, I have overlooking a lot of amazing amount of nature that already surrounds me here in the Rocky Mountains.  I then tried to whittle down a list about the different types of ways I should enjoy it.  Off-road motocross is stupid dangerous and I don’t feel like compressing my spine or breaking multiple limbs at every jump that goes awry.  Mountain biking sounds fun too, but I habit of getting lost way too easy and would have a high chance ending up becoming bear poop. I remembered how much fun I had kayaking in the ocean and after finding out that Colorado has over 200 rivers running through it, I decided river kayaking was the path to take.

You too can look as bad as as this (Pasty chicken legs excluded).
You too can look just as bad ass (Pasty chicken legs excluded).

So I bought a multipurpose kayak and all the gear, and found a buddy who shares my enthusiasm to run rivers with me.  We both are complete beginners at the sport, and we take each outing as a learning experience and strive to improve each time we go out. We are still far from being professional (or even marginal), but we still attack everything with vigor and fearlessness in hopes of conquering the river with nothing but our equipment, muscles, and balls.

Instead of opting for a helmet, I wore a fedora which was immediately claimed by the river in disgust.
Instead of opting for a helmet, I wore a fedora which was immediately claimed by the river in disgust.

Our first trip out was too early in the season, so the South Platte was running far too low to even try floating an inner tube full of beer down it.  We ended up walking our boats for several miles through the river, which was really gross and got really old real quick.  There were a couple drops in the middle of it, but the water was so low, our boats scraped really hard on the bottom and we had to wiggle through them.  We were sunburned and exhausted from that adventure.  We covered about four miles in a lousy six and a half hours.

The second outing was a far better experience (at first).  We started in on the same river, but in Brighton headed north instead starting in the industrial sector of Denver.  It also went through lots of private land which was full of wildlife, silence, and was free of fishermen being assholes.  It had plenty of water and two drops in the run, which we whipped through like pros.  We actually made that run in better time than it took professional kayakers to finish.  That went extremely well, and we still had a lot of daylight and energy left so we decided to drive further north and drop in the city of Platteville and cover roughly the same distance as we already had.   The internet had no information about this particular stretch of river which brings me to these two very important points:

1)      Uncharted rivers are uncharted for a reason

2)      Never, ever kayak alone.  Especially in uncharted shit.  

The first chunk of the river was more of the same.  It was filled with complete silence, beauty, and quick-moving water and a shit load of abandoned tires.  But there was far more agricultural diverting going on in this section of the river and it was filled with lots of huge irrigation dams and giant drainage sumps.  We got our asses handed to us within the first forty minutes of this trek when I went over the first huge dam drop with my bow going vertical into the river and immediately capsized.  The vortex at the bottom grabbed me and got pulled under with my boat.  I had to fight with all of my strength to kick myself loose and as I looked back, Shawn had made it over the falls but had a boat full of water as well.

As we drained our boats, we looked back at the drop and saw a massive log the size of a 55 gallon oil drum and about thirty soccer balls being bounced around in the far end of the vortex.  Had we chosen to drop over the right side of those falls, we would have been greeted by a giant wooden face-smasher and then been pulled under.  We were pretty nervous from that point on, but managed to be aware enough to locate an abandoned kayak up in a tree in the center of the river.  We fought that bastard out, washed it out and attached it to my boat with rope we had salvaged to tow it.  I then proceeded to sing several verses of “I AM THE PIRATE KING!” from the Pirate Movie since I had just acquired a new ship through an act of brazen salvage/piracy.

But the merriment was short lived as we approached a drop that would have surely killed us had we not seen the huge plumes of mist floating up from the bottom of the falls.  We narrowly got to a sandbar on the left side before we were pulled over by the strength of the water rushing over what looked like the edge of the universe.  We then spent over an hour scouting a way to which ended up getting out of the river on the right side, up a cliff and down the cliff carrying three boats.  It was a pretty miserable experience that ate up a lot of useful time.

That is a full sized tree stuck in that entryway to Hell.
That is a full sized tree stuck in that entryway to Hell.

As we pressed on, the dusk began to overtake the sunlight and the river became stunningly gorgeous as it was bathed in the hazy purple light of the setting sun.  It may have been an incredible sight to witness, but at the same time, we were fully aware that if we did not get off the river soon, we would be surrounded in darkness paddling though an unfamiliar and remote river devoid of any roads, lights or civilization.  To top it off, our batteries on our cell phones were dying and they were used only to try and figure out our position, signal a quick S.O.S., and then immediately shut off to conserve power.

As night fell on two freezing and exhausted and inexperienced guys paddling down a river of darkness, survival instincts and hypothermia started to kick in.  We were considering stopping and building a fire on a sandbar and trying to make it through the night. We paddled hard and furiously to try to cover as much river as possible, only being able to see about ten feet in front of us.  We barely avoided a drop at the last minute as we could only hear it and could not see where it was.  Going over a dam drop by surprise while towing another boat would have been totally disastrous but we managed to beach out in time to walk around it.

As we pressed even further on, we started to catch glimpses of car headlights passing over the river from a sizeable distance.  We paddled with all of our strength but still made lots of mistakes from our overwhelming fatigue.  Shawn ran aground when we started going right and I tried changing course too fast around a tree.  I tried to push off of it with my hands, but the force of the river enveloped my boat and I got trapped in my boat underwater under a tree in the dark.  It’s pretty much the closest thing you can get to experiencing Mother Nature trying to murder your ass.  I kicked myself free (spraining my ankle in the process), and then pulled my boat angrily up onto the shore and started again to bail water out of it, scraped up and freezing to death.

We went a short distance from there and managed to find the only highway overpass in the whole run. We missed our pickup point because of massive cliffs on both sides of the river and had to hump three boats a long distance in the darkness to the awaiting headlights.

In short, it was as bad as it could possibly get and I almost fully expected the climax of the trip to involve those inbred freaks from Deliverance popping out of the woods at any time to rape us at gunpoint and put us out of our misery.

The third outing we took was the South Platte in town starting from Centennial Park and made it almost to downtown (the average CFS was around 500).  We absolutely killed that run, destroying all the drops with finesse, including the famed “Death Drop” at the Ruby Hill way point station.  That was, by far the most amazing kayak trip I’ve ever taken.  That run was full of manageable drops with a decent amount of paddling rests in between, some crazy rapid sections and little to no chance of dying in the darkness.

So from the good trips and the bad trips, I have tried to conceive new ideas to try to make the experience an even better one for anyone starting out.  I’m not sure if any of this technology even exists, or is even feasible, but from the trips I have been through would be seen as an absolute necessity for anyone tacking this sport with my level of experience, hard-headedness and constant bad luck.

And if you are lucky, you can pirate a boat of your very own!
And if you are lucky, you can pirate a boat of your very own!

5. Depth radar

Even when the river is flowing well, or at least flowing a few feet deep, there are tons of high points strewn along the width of the river that will run you aground and fuck up your hull. Most of the time, you can distinguish these from the ripples on the top of the water, but sometimes those aren’t enough and your boat will still get chewed up.   What we could use is one of those radar/sonar things that fishermen on boats use to find fish.  By avoiding the high points of the riverbed, you bring up your overall travel speed and keep your boat from taking unnecessary damage at the same time.

4. Build an outboard magneto that generates power like a hydroelectric dam does.

When taking on an extended expedition, or a trip that is taking a lot longer than originally expected, any personal electronic stuff you brought with you starts to run low.  This can be really bad news if you are lost or are running out of daylight.  If there was a way to stick a generator on the outer edge of your boat, you could charge these things as you pressed forward down the river.  Kayaks should also have an emergency headlight attachment for times you get stuck paddling in the dark.  Animals do some crazy asshole stuff under the cover of night, and it would be nice to see exactly what is jumping into the river instead of having your imagination come up with terrifying explanations.

3. Onboard sound system

Most of the draw of kayaking is a chance to get away from civilization for a little bit and once again get in tune with nature.  At times while kayaking, it was so quiet that the only sound that could be heard was the shoreline eroding. I don’t think paddling down the river while blasting Eazy E would improve the experience, but it would be awesome adding some Rise Against for getting pumped to hit a series of drops or rapids.  It would have been nice to have on our nightmare run to keep us focused to keep paddling, lot like the drummer that kept the slaves rowing on the old Viking ships.  And it would annoy scary animals into not messing with the guy in the kayak singing along to gangster rap.  A personalized set list would be good, as long as Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Ballad of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are not included.

2. Utilize a superior equipment setup

We usually travel with the basic safety kit which includes duct tape, whistles, sunblock, Gatorade and beef jerky.  I have a bungee tether on the front of my boat that I should utilize to carry extra “special case” emergency stuff that normally doesn’t cross your mind as being useful, but that will only work if I can stop capsizing my boat so much.  On the uncharted run, it would have been nice to have a decent towing rope for towing things you find on the river.   In lots of dangerous spots where we needed to hit the shore, both sides of the river were vertical cliffs that extended well past five feet.  Having a rope ladder that could be thrown over the tops of the cliffs for a quick escape would take some of the frustration out of trying to exit the river like Indiana Jones in an emergency.  And finally, a retractable turd shield would round off the equipment list.  When you paddle underneath a bridge or an overpass, the entire underside of the structure is lined front to back with small bird’s nests. Whenever the birds notice you are near, every single one of those bastards fly out to swarm around you.  The first time I ever experienced this, the amount of birds around me blacked out the sky and I was in awe, until I realized they were commencing a bombing raid with poo.  I paddled like crazy to escape the fecal fury of avian rage.  Having a protective type of cover to keep from getting hit would be a great thing to have, because all poop is disgusting, yo.

1. Utilize a scout drone for analyzing dam drops or any river features that are not able to be seen.

When you approach a decent sized dam drop, (as opposed to a shoot which you can see through mostly), it appears as though you are paddling towards the end of the earth.  You have no idea of the height of the drop, the intensity of the undertow, or the amount of river junk that has accumulated and is frolicking around waiting to punch you in the dick at the bottom of the falls.  Even if you are a seasoned kayaker, there are just some hits that can’t be run without risking serious injury or destroying your boat.  Being able to stop and fly a drone to look over the edges of what you can’t see can save lots of time instead of trying to scout around it when the edges of the river are covered in barbed wire fencing.  Plus, it would just look pretty damn awesome.

I am having serious problems getting drone ver. 1.0 working, though.
I am having serious problems getting “scout drone ver. 1.0” working, though.

Hopefully you I have not turned any potential new kayakers away with my horror stories, but if you are going to try and pick up the sport, follow these guidelines to maximize your enjoyment that kayaking has to offer-

  1. Never, ever kayak alone.  Bad stuff can happen at any time and without a trusty team mate, you can drown, lose your boat or vital equipment (like your paddle) and it always works best as a team effort.  The river can turn on you fast, and having someone with you greatly enhances your odds of survival. Always have a PFD on your body because one mistake will get you floating down the river without a boat under your ass.
  2. Always kayak within your limits, and know your limits.  We hit that third South Platte run with no issues whatsoever when it was running at around 500 CFS, but when that same exact stretch ballooned up to 720 CFS, we got pounded like chumps and went tumbling into the drink constantly.  It made for some hilarious and embarrassing video, but getting pushed along rocks at high speeds while desperately holding onto a boat full of water sucks pretty bad and always fails to impress the ladies.

    You will be doing this a lot.
    You will be doing this a lot.
  3. Always start small before taking on anything with a higher difficulty.  Utilize awesome river sites like https://www.americanwhitewater.org/ to plan accordingly.  They offer tons of useful information about several sections of river that are updated with new data often.  If there is no information about a stretch of river, then you should take that as a cue that it is a run that IS NOT RECOMMENDED to paddle down.  Trust me on this.
  4. Know the strengths and weaknesses of your boat and equipment.  Shawn uses a creek runner with a spray skirt and he fits inside quite snugly.  Always know how to bail if things go wrong and be prepared to if you can’t roll your way out of trouble.  My kayak has a gigantic opening in it which allows for a quick exit at any given time.  I don’t really have a lot of fear of getting trapped in it upside down because I am good at bailing out of it when I know I have been bested.  The downside to this style of kayak is that the boat can easily fill up with water from hitting waves and you can still capsize regardless.
  5. Take a class.  Practice using your boat on calm water like a pool or lake and learn the motions in a more static environment to where they become second nature.  Watching YouTube videos on how to roll and escape will do you no good when attempting these tactics for the first time on a fast moving river that wants nothing more than to crush you along the rocks.

Stay safe and happy paddling.  We will be trying to hit the rivers as many weekends as we can this season.  If you want to join us in our comical inexperience, we welcome anyone to join us.  You should not worry about us laughing at you because we will most likely be already flipped over in the river, hanging our heads in shame.


One comment

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