Updated: June 8, 2013 at 8:43 am
CHAFEE COUNTY - This rapid is called "Canyon Doors."
River features were named ages ago by the thrill seekers who first ran them, with a touch of practicality and a touch of humor. On this stretch of the Arkansas River, you'll pass rapids named "Widowmaker," "Raft Ripper" and "The Graveyard." The imaginative river rat likes to think there is a story behind each name.
But "Canyon Doors" is simply that, two rectangular rocks on either side that welcome a boater into the 20-mile stretch known as Browns Canyon. It's the gateway to the most popular whitewater run on the nation's second-most rafted river.
It used to be the nation's most rafted river, but the Ocoee River in Tennessee recently surpassed the Arkansas. That's one of the reasons we're here, on a brisk May morning on an ice-cold river starting to swell with snowmelt. Environmentalists, rafting guides and others have pined for a federal designation to protect the area permanently and to create a landmark to draw more visitors.
After several failed attempts to make Browns Canyon a wilderness, they now are pinning hopes on a proposal by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, to create a national monument.
"People have forgotten how pretty Browns Canyon is and how good it is," says our rafting guide Bill Dvorak, who at 63 has been leading trips down the river longer than anyone else in the Arkansas Valley. "One of the things a national monument would do is to get that recognition, get that star on the map."
The proposal has changed, but many of the old hurdles remain. Off-highway-vehicle users are opposed. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican whose district includes this stretch of the valley, is not convinced. Partisan gridlock in Washington could mean a path for legislation as rocky as the river itself.
Dvorak has invited me on this journey to let the river do the talking, to experience firsthand what makes Browns Canyon a unique and beautiful trip, and why he says it would make an ideal national monument.
* * *
The Arkansas begins with melting snow in the mountains around Leadville and runs parallel with U.S. Highway 24 through Buena Vista before leaving the highway and disappearing in scrubby, dry foothills.
The source of the name "Brown" is murky. Maybe Brown was a person or maybe that was the railroad workers' remark on the color of the rocks, with an "s" added by some map-maker over the years.
The railroad no longer is used, but humans' impact on the area is on the increase. As we float down the gentle prelude to the canyon, Dvorak points to new houses on the river banks and areas now closed off to boaters. We pass Rainbow Rock, where he used to take people rock climbing until it was sold and new owners shooed them off.
We pass an old fish hatchery where Nestle Waters is drawing spring water to sell in plastic bottles. We pass Ruby Mountain, where rock hounds have been collecting garnet and topaz for a century.
Browns Canyon is a more mellow trip than some other whitewater runs in the area, where guides take boaters when the flow is too high at the more difficult run The Numbers. The scenery is as big a draw as the adrenaline rush, and numerous backcountry campsites line the river.
That does not, we are soon to find out, mean we will stay dry.
* * *
"This is 'Pinball' rapid. The ball is yellow. The object is not to score points."
That's Dvorak's warning as he maneuvers us through gaps barely wider than our yellow raft, past boulders the size of houses that tumbled into the river from the cliffs above. Entering the canyon, the river gets loud and the wind blasts in your ears. You feel far from civilization.
More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management designated the area a wilderness study area, meaning it has wilderness qualities and the same prohibitions on vehicle use but that its status is temporary and could be altered by Congress.
These wilderness qualities are in full view in the placid stretches between rapids. High canyon walls and desolate, scrubby bluffs tower overhead. There are about nine miles of trails in the wilderness study area, but the vast majority of people experience Browns Canyon as we are, by boat.
We pummel through the rapid known as "Zoom Flume," laughing as a wave of water hits us like a brutally cold slap in the face. We slide past Hemorrhoid Rock. Says Dvorak, "If you don't make the curve, you get the rock right where you don't want it."
After about 2.5 hours on the river, Dvorak guides us to the take-out spot. It's a run Dvorak has done countless times, but it still puts a smile on his face.
"That's the great thing about the river. Every time you come down, it's different," he says.
It remains to be seen if the latest effort at federal designation will be any different.
* * *
"We've just been down the river so you've seen the unique beauty it has, but for me it's the uniqueness of the ecosystem," says Keith Baker, executive director of the Friends of Browns Canyon, who joined us on our trip.
"Especially in Colorado, we have lots of wilderness that is at alpine or sub-alpine levels, but we don't have anything that is at a low elevation like that, with a river through it," he says.
It's the same argument supporters have made since the early 1990s and the group has made since forming in 2003. In 2005, it nearly worked.
Then-U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, was an enthusiastic supporter of making it a wilderness, and it nearly came to a vote until the National Rifle Association came out against it, saying the closure of a four-wheel-drive road would hinder access for older hunters. The measure died, as did a similar bill introduced in 2008 by then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colorado.
Hefley retired in 2006 and Lamborn, his successor, was cool to the idea of a wilderness and is uncertain about the national monument proposal. After attending a public meeting in April, he told constituents in a newsletter, "I would like to see greater consensus from the community before supporting such a dramatic change. Such a designation could lead to increased federal regulations on the land and further restrict its use."
Lamborn spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said last week the congressman "is studying the proposal at this time and neither supports nor rejects it outright."
Udall's office stresses public access would not be limited under his proposal. Turret Trail, the road of contention in earlier efforts, would remain open to vehicles and mountain biking trails would remain open, though little biking is done in the rugged area. The 22,000-acre national monument would be managed as it is now, by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. About half of the land would be wilderness, where no new roads or biking trails could be built. Camping still would be allowed along the river and rafting would not be more regulated.
Dvorak acknowledges outfitters have a financial incentive to draw more people to a national monument.
"Areas that are near permanently protected public lands, the per capita income goes up, the overall economy of the area goes up and obviously people who outfit in those areas are going to see an increase in their business," he says. "They buy food. They buy gas. They buy meals. They stay in motels. It's like a rising tide floats all ships."
He hopes it can be a catalyst for the commercial rafting industry here, which hasn't recovered from the 2002 Hayman fire. The Arkansas saw 252,213 commercial user days in 2001 and 169,486 last year.
Despite the long string of failures, Dvorak hopes persistence will pay off.
"I'm actually pretty optimistic. One way or another, we're going to get it done," he says.
Comment on the national monument
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, is asking for public comments on his proposal to make Browns Canyon a national monument. Visit markudall.senate.gov/brownscanyon