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Story and photos by Larry Turner   August 1, 2010


Karen Tucker lives in a suburban cul-de-sac with her longtime significant other Dave Kauffman. It is private, quiet, safe.You can hardly believe that two blocks away is the modern Americana of Starbucks, Sonic, Denny’s and a plethora of other chain stores…along with the same old city song of asphalt, traffic and people. Karen and Dave are avid gardeners, love dogs, like to entertain, yet value down time for reading and relaxing.Their street is wide and they have good neighbors.This is their domestic side. On their wild side, they love to run angry, moody and beautiful rivers and explore untamed land.

In a way, Karen has the perfect job for this as she is the Area BLM Manager of the Gunnison Gorge NCA (National Conservation Area). The multi-personality Gunnison River is the Gorge’s crown jewel with a world-wide reputation among river runners, whether it is by raft or kayak. “The Gorge has some of the West’s most spectacular, wild and diverse landscapes,” says Tucker. “It is famous for whitewater boating, geology and fishing.” The NCA also offers other activities such as hiking, biking, equestrian, and motorized riding adventures. “These are on primitive roads and trails that wind their way through imposing adobe badland formations, scenic sandstone canyons, and diverse plant communities,” she explains.


"The most challenging aspect of my job is when you manage a wilderness, you have to make it look like no one is there. That takes a lot of management. With the BLM’s concept of multiple uses, there are a lot of stakeholders involved with the management of the Gunnison for the benefit of all,” says area manager Karen Tucker.


  Trail to Gunnison River  
Trail to River
  Entering Chukar Put-In, Gunnison River   Registering at Chukar on the Gunnison River  
Entering Chukar Put-In
Registering at Chukar
  Preparing to Embark on the Gunnison river   Refresher Before Departure in the Gunnison River  
Preparing to Embark
Refresher Before Departure


My lady friend Lynette and I visited Karen and Dave as part of a long weekend reunion of the Condor Kids—Cal Poly roommates and friends that once worked on a condor project together. As part of the weekend festivities, Karen arranged for us to be volunteers with two of her River Rangers: Jeremy Mallock and Shawn Folkerts. I rode shotgun with fellow Oregonian Jeremy in the oar raft and in the other raft with Shawn at the helm were Karen, Lynette, Sid and Rich. Dave and Mary walked down the trail to the Chukar Boater Put-In with us (just over a mile), hiked back out and spent the day exploring other parts of the NCA.

Our route into the gorge was rather fascinating and comical as the last miles of paved road lead through Mancos shale country inhabited by folks that live in a zone of no county planning (shall I call it Mancosstan?)…better known as ‘anything goes on your personal property’, which included some ‘interesting’ human landscape architecture sites. I was particularly amused by the graveyard of used and disposed house trailers stacked like Wonder Bread side by side, leading up and over a hill. At the far end, a vehicle was placed on top of one trailer like a yeast bubble. A member of our group named one area Palletstan with a fence of pallets, a labyrinth of pallets leading to God doesn’t even know where, pallet sheds and an a sundry of pallet structures framing other pallets and some occasional equipment. This ‘scenic’ human landscape was a poignant contrast to what would lie before us.


The Gunnison Gorge NCA is located 10 miles north of Montrose, Colorado in the west-central part of the state. Comprised of 57,725 acres, the 17,000 acre Gunnison Gorge Wilderness encompasses 14 miles of the Gunnison Canyon’s 48-mile length. The Wilderness is the downstream continuation of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Early day explorers called the gorge the black canyon because of the lack of sunlight penetrating the steep, sheer, narrow canyon walls. Black granite and red sandstones predominate in the canyon. In 1901, daredevils Abraham Lincoln Fellows and William Torrence floated 33 miles of the canyon over nine days on a rubber mattress, leading Fellows to say, “Our surroundings were of the wildest possible descriptions. The roar of the water…was constantly in our ears, and the walls of the canyon, towering half mile in height above us, were seemingly vertical. Occasionally a rock would fall from one side or the other, with a roar and crash, exploding like a ton of dynamite when it struck bottom, making us think our last day had come.”

To place this formidable canyon into perspective, in 48 miles, it loses more elevation than the 1500 miles of the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

With that in mind, after the safety talk by Shawn, we slipped into our rafts, all snug and life jacket tight, and prepared ourselves for our river daytime story.

  Sweet Light Departure on the Gunnison River   Jeremy at the Helm on the Gunnison River  
Sweet Light Departure
Jeremy at the Helm
  Gunnison White Water   Diggin in on the Gunnison River   Gunnison Chute  
Gunnison White Water
Digging In
Gunnison Chute


Walking down the Chukar Trail in the golden morning light was the perfect preface for the white water float day ahead. The Condor Kids were like kids in a candy store, traipsing down the trail, sharing their knowledge of plants and geology and, of course, talks about the good ole college days at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Karen is a tour de force of the Gunnison with her vast knowledge of all aspects of the NCA region. Not much over five feet of height, she’s ten foot tall and nearly bulletproof when talking about her beloved river. River Ranger Jeremy says, “We love her. She’ll walk on water for us…and we’d do the same for her. And if we get dumped, we’ll share the music and the travail of the current together.”

The trail ends at Chukar Boater Put-In. I gasped at first viewing the river. ‘Hollowed ground, I said to myself. Hollowed ground.’ Looking up river in the sweet light, the canyon walls were layered subtlety, a wilderness cathedral within and beyond my view.

By horseback from a local packer, the rafts were brought in earlier. The River Rangers topped them off with air; we loaded up our equipment and embarked on our day journey.

The river was running 650 cfs (cubic feet a second) today, making it very technical. Ideal flows are 800-1000 cfs. Flows on the Gunnison go as high as 10,000 cfs (Karen floated it once at this death defying rate) and no lower than 300 cfs (there are three dams on the Gunnison above the National Park).

Just up the river from Chukar are Margaritaville Boater Camp and Margaritaville Hiker Camp 1 and 2. Sounds like a relaxing first day on the river to me! However, our strongest drink was root beer and Dr. Pepper. Parties floating the river (guided or personal) are only allowed two night stays in the wilderness with each night being in separate camps. There are eight camps on the river, half for hikers (river left) and half for boaters (river right). Only two commercial rafting companies are allowed down the river each day with parties not over a dozen. Private crafts are not allocated. “So far, we haven’t had to regulate this,” says Karen. Many are fisherman. “A misconception is that there is only great fishing during the stonefly hatch during May and June,” says Karen. “Fishing is good however anytime.” I tried my luck and was successful on several occasions. September is one of the better months for fishing the Gunnison. The river is noted for nice browns and rainbows. On the day of our float, we encountered many fishermen along the way. Some had come in by hiking, others by rafts.

Over 10,000 visits the canyon each year but what I found, because of the long float season and the staggered put-ins, the canyon is a true wilderness experience as we would see few people the day of our float. We felt like we basically had the canyon to ourselves. ‘That’s the kind of experience we want folks to have,” boasts Tucker.

  Gunnison Gorge   River Passage on the Gunnison River   Picking a Line on the Gunnison River  
Gunnison Gorge
River Passage
Picking a Line
  Wild Gunnison   River Ranger Jeremy on the Gunnison River   Changing Course on the Gunnison River  
Wild Gunnison
River Ranger Jeremy
Changing Course


Leaving the quiet stretch at Chukar Put-In, our first rapid was the single drop Class 111 Chukar Rapid. My senses came fully alive and I was in a full-tilt river boogie mindset with that run, done flawlessly by Jeremy. Jeremy was excited, too, as he had just come back on the job after a four month shoulder injury. River Rangers are in a class by themselves…a solitary group of solitude loving, fun loving, and technical loving white water aficionados. They’re far more comfortable in the bowels of a canyon, running a wild river, than they would be anywhere else. They are in remarkable physical and mental shape. Jeremy was a track and field state sprint and mid-distance champion back in my home state. This day, we talked about women, relationships, no wine, little song and the river. Jeremy and Shawn would occasionally pull up beside each other and banter. “Heard you stayed up and partied late last night,” states Shawn. Jeremy replies, “Ya, thanks for setting me up with your sister.” They laugh.

The solace and beauty of the canyon immediately put me at ease and my cares dropped away like autumn leaves. This day was for the moment and moments only. ‘Be here this day and nowhere else’ I said to myself…and I was.

After a series of white water, there would be slack water and time to gaze and marvel at this geologic mosaic. During the white water, I busied myself photographing and hanging on. In some instances, I had to store my gear, protecting it from the water. A good waterproof camera is perfect for these types of endeavors. I had one but because of Jeremy’s skills, I seldom used it. He made it look so easy, I felt like I was in the back seat of a Rolls Royce. Our other party had a great workout throughout the day as they had to paddle through all the rapids.

Memorable runs included Run One Miler (111), Improvise Rapid (111), Upper and Lower Pucker (11 plus), Buttermilk Rapid (111), Red Canyon Rapid (111), Boulder Garden (111 and 1V), Paddle Keeper (111) T-Dyke Rapid (111), S-Turn Rapid (111), the Squeeze (111plus), Three Drops (111), Cable Rapid (111 and 1V), Run Jumpin’ Jack Splash (111), Gate Keeper (11 and 111) and Grand Finale (111).

  Author Fly-fishing on the Gunnison River   Running it Tight on the Gunnison River  
Author Fly-fishing
Running it Tight
  Lunch at Buttermilk on the Gunnison River  


In a shady glen, beneath old box elder trees, we made a lunch stop, setting up a portable table and placing lunch sandwich fixings on it. For dessert, we had slices of yummy summertime watermelon. I drank my first soda in years: a root beer. It took me back to my childhood when root beer was my soda of choice…and for splurgin’, in those days, a root beer float. Karen actually had packed ice cream for a surprise treat for us, but the wrong placement of dry ice had created a vanilla meltdown. Temps were perfect on the river, especially since the Montrose Valley was hovering near 100. I fished a bit and all of us took a river plunge before boarding the rafts for our second half of the journey. Buttermilk is at Mile 4 on the river. We had nearly 10 miles to go and the most difficult sections ahead of us.We passed Ute Park which was a historic crossing for the Utes who roamed this region before the arrival of white man. Ute Park is a great fishing stretch on the Gunnison. Aptly named Caddis Camp exists here. The Ute Trail leading to this spot is one of Karen and Dave’s favorites because of the spectacular geology.

River Mile 9 S-Turn to the Grand Finale is the most difficult rafting stretch of the Gunnison. At S-Turn Rapid, rafts are thrown into the cliff on the left. Jeremy’s A game was working as he negotiated it perfectly. “Better tuck away your camera on this one,” he said. I did and held on for the thrill. Quickly following was The Squeeze. Many a raft and kayak have been pinned here. We went through though like a knife in soft butter. Shawn’s raft also, followed by high fives between the Condors.

Lunch at Buttermilk
  Mergansers on the Gunnison River   Hall of the River King on the Gunnison River  
Hall of the River King
  Smith Fork Red Rock on the Gunnison River   Smith Fork Slot Canyon on the Gunnison River  
Smith Fork Red Rock
Smith Fork Slot Canyon
  Smith Fork Canyon on the Gunnison River   Smith Fork on the Gunnison River  
Smith Fork Canyon
Smith Fork
End of the Day Soak on the Gunnison River
End of the Day Soak
  Gunnison River Fisherman   Forks takeout on the Gunnison River  
Gunnison River Fisherman
Forks Take Out
  Author’s Last Plunge in the Gunnison River  
Author’s Last Plunge


After Grand Finale, we quietly slipped into the Gunnison River sanctuary named Hall of the River King, a narrow, high canyon walled stretch of slow water and sparse light penetration. It was quiet and peaceful, leaving one speechless, gently floating within the calm heartbeat of this remarkable river. I photographed a mother merganser with her fledglings. We came across one other rafter inside, nodding to them as they had taken repose against a rock in a slow eddy to enjoy the peace and poetry. Emptying out, we beached our crafts at the Smith Fork where this small stream spills into the Gunnison. Karen and the Rangers took us on a hike up this slot canyon where she gave us a geology lesson. We followed this by frolicking in the warm water, perfect massage pools of cascading water, some deep soaking pools and also some hidden small waterfall caves. It was refreshing and enervating, a perfect way to culminate the day.

Below Smith Fork, the river widens and becomes gentle again. It was an easy four mile float out to our takeout point at Mile 13.5 at the North Fork confluence where there is a day-use area administered by the BLM. In this stretch, we saw a number of fly fishermen as they were plying the Gunnison waters for late afternoon hatches.

We took out the rafts and gear, deflated them and loaded them, followed by one last swim in the Gunnison. With content hearts and tired bodies, we loaded into Karen’s SUV and headed back to Melrose. There were margaritas to be made and Fosters to drink and a river to toast.

Looking back at the day, after floating this wild and hauntingly beautiful gorge, I think that it would silence—at least for moments—the most boisterous and obtrusive humans, and effect a change in their lives…in anyone’s lives. This is a place that humbles your soul before the deep voice of geologic millenniums, the timbre made greater by the diversity of plant and animal life, and earth murmuring so deep—Black Canyon deep—and distilled that poetry, even in its most profound eloquence, cannot adequately describe what one views.


Gunnison Gorge NCA: 970-240-5300,

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: 970-641-2337,

Where to Stay: if not in the canyon, contact the Montrose Chamber of Commerce at or

Books: Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Postcard of America) by Duane Vandenbusche; Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park by Rose Houk ; The Essential Guide to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Jewels of the Rockies) by John Jenkins and Paul L. Zaenger; Colorado's Incredible Backcountry Trails by David Day;




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