Where: Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Canon City, Colorado
Cost: $30 Groupon, regularly $60 (and still worth every penny)
Link: Echo Canyon River Expeditions
Date: July 2014
Comments: The Bighorn Sheep expedition was an experience that I will never forget. The trip took a break midway through for us to stretch our legs and for the more adventurous folks to jump into the rapids. Make sure to know exactly where you are meeting up, as cell reception is spotty out there.
The first time you make the decision to go whitewater rafting can be more than a bit intimidating, where the potential for thrills is matched only by the feeling of danger. For newcomers, it’s difficult to know where to start and what to do. Luckily, there’s plenty of experienced rafters out there willing to share what they’ve learned over the years, including yours truly.
To help give you an idea of what you should and shouldn’t do the first time out on the water, here’s the story of my first time whitewater rafting out at Bighorn Sheep Canyon in Colorado.
One of the things I wish someone had told me before my first rafting experience was how to prepare for it. The biggest part of this is understanding the toll rafting can take on your body. As one of the most exhausting physical activities you can partake in, you should try to be be well-rested and in good condition before you set out on the water, because the water can eat you alive if you’re not ready for it.
Next up is the gear, both what to wear and what not to wear. Life jacket, helmet, and clothes you’re okay getting wet in are essential. Swim trunks are good to help keep you from chaffing while you’re sitting in the raft, too. But please don’t wear any kind of jewelry or dangley accessories out on the water, since even the slower rapids can swipe your wedding ring like it’s nothing, and you’re never getting that back.
It’s also necessary to have things for after the rafting, too. New clothes, a towel, and something to eat and drink should all be stored in your car for when you’re done. You’ll be exhausted, wet, hungry, and thirsty, so it’s a good idea to take care of at least a few of those things before you get back on the road.
Another thing that’s important to understand when it comes to rafting is the scale system. Rapids are classified from Scale I to Scale VI, with I being the tamest and VI being nearly impossible to run to the point businesses won’t even offer these kinds of experiences. Bighorn Sheep Canyon is located along the Arkansas River which, depending on the day and area of the canyon you’re in, can potentially have rapids ranked from Scale I all the way up to Scale V, meaning it’s a great place to check out whether it’s your first time rafting or your hundredth.
Also, wear your sunblock. This is a no brainer. Seriously, just do it and don’t get sunburned all over.
When you first get out there to the rapids and see both the river you’ll be rafting down and the canyon itself, it can be a bit breathtaking, not to mention kind of humbling. Nature’s power and majesty on display and you’re about to get in a big orange inflatable raft and ride down it.
I joined up with my group (three people and a guide) and we set out on the water right after. We were rafting from Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale, so the majority of the trip was around a Scale III. For a beginner like me, it was still a challenge, but I never felt like I couldn’t handle it. Our guide always seemed to be in control, too, so that was a real confidence boost.
At least, that’s how I felt until we came to the second set of rapids on the section. The first along the river a little ways out from launch is called Wake Up, and it’s a perfectly serviceable Scale III that does a good job of “waking you up” to what rafting is going to be like.
With Three Rocks, that seemed like what we were getting ourselves into initially, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Parts of these rapids are about comparable to what you can expect on the rest of the section, but there are some very extreme transitions into more wild waters all the way up to Scale V.
During these parts, I was flopping around like a ragdoll and trying my best not to get tossed out of the raft. To my own amazement, I managed to stick out into calmer waters in no small part to the excellent instructions of our guide.
For as terrifying as it was in the moment, I look back on that first experience at Three Rocks with fondness. It was a great challenge and a ton of fun to conquer, preparing me the almost as extreme Spikebuck rapids further down river and for even scarier rapids when I was ready for other rivers in the future.
In between the rapids was far from boring. It was these quiet moments where we could all really appreciate nature up close and personal. Though we didn’t exactly have time to stop and smell the flowers, being able to see all the plants and animals that live along the river while we rode down it was unforgettable in its own right well worth the trip all on its own.
Finally, after a full day of fun and more rapids than I can even count, we made it to Parkdale to begin the trek back to launch on land. I could pretend I had some kind of deep revelation about the world or some sort of reflection on the trip itself, but I was honestly too busy thinking about going back for more as soon as I could.
Whitewater rafting isn’t like anything you’ve ever done before. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s an unforgettable experience the first time you do it that keeps you coming back for more whenever you can find the time.
Hopefully this little story has given you an idea of what to expect, plus some good tips on what to do to have the best experience possible. Good luck and happy rafting! -Josh Spencer