Black Canyon of the Gunnison

As has become usual for our blog, I will include a slideshow first, so that those with short attention spans will be captivated by the pretty pictures. The captions tell most of the story below.

Natalie, Conor and I first ran the Black Canyon back in 2007 or 2008. We showed up, found out that our shuttle/guide had backed out, but decided to run it anyway. With the shuttle complications, we didn't get to putin until about 1:00, and although we had a great day on the water, the portage wrecked us. We had no idea where the trail was, and it took forever. We finally limped into camp about an hour after dark, only to find that cave camp was already occupied by some other paddlers. Basically, it was epic, and we all told ourselves the many things we would do differently if we ever came back. Of course, none of us would be coming back until the memory of that heinous portage faded away.

Flash forward several years (I can't say exactly how many, because my memory has faded a bit). Nothing is running but Gore, the Mwave and the Black Canyon, and Natalie and I have a 3 (or maybe 4) day weekend. After some long debates, we decided to return to that cursed crack in the earth and carry heavy boats for a mile through poison ivy. This time, I started training early. Every evening, I would wait until after dark, then put a couple rocks in my creekboat and practice climbing up and over the roof of our house with the loaded boat on my shoulder while Natalie whipped me (to simulate the poison ivy). I was ready for the portage.

If by "training" you meant "fall asleep trying to do homework"... Black Canyon 2010

Okay, I may have exaggerated the amount of training I did, but the main point here is that we did the Black Canyon. Unfortunately, Conor had to work, so we brought Nathan Werner instead, and called him Conor Jr throughout the trip. We spent the first day of our trip ripping up the Mwave as a warmup. (We'll have a post with our best Mwave photos at the end of the Mwave season.) Then early saturday morning (early - That was lesson #1) we payed our entrance fee and drove down to putin.

Nathan trying to find room for a camp chair in his boat. Black Canyon 2010

We made good time through the rapids, despite the somewhat low levels (it was running about 600 cfs). Soon we were deep between the canyon walls, glad with our decision to return.

Just a few rapids left before the portage. Black Canyon 2010

Natalie Kramer, Ballcrusher. Black Canyon 2010

The last rapid before the infamous portage is "The Falls"; an 18 foot curtain waterfall with a rock on one side of the landing. With the low levels, Natalie and Nathan were a little dubious about the high consequence boof, but I was fired up after watching Natalie nail Ballcrusher just upstream. I shimmied out to the lip of the falls and decided that I wanted to give it a shot. It went great. The water was just deep enough that the rock couldn't grab me, and I launched a pretty good boof. I was especially impressed when I was scouting to notice that the thin ribbon of water going off the falls had been flowing there for so many eons that it had eroded a trough about 3 inches deep in the rock of the lip.

Monkey arm off "The Falls" Black Canyon 2010

After that little burst of excitement, we started the dreaded portage. We had planned ahead this time. Last time, we brought tyvek suits to ward off the poison ivy, but long story short, they didn't work at all. It's hard to find a disposable suit that covers your ankles when you're 6'7". This time, we lathered up with biodegradable dish soap before starting, to help deter the poison ivy oils. Also, we had gotten a lot better beta about the route through the portage. Stick near the wall, right from the start. It may sometimes look worse, but having tried both routes, I can assure you that the wall is the way to go. Even with this superior route, it was a pretty long portage, but we just kept truckin' until we reached cave camp - before dark this time.

Before starting the portage. Black Canyon 2010

3/4 of the way through the portage. Black Canyon 2010

Once we arrived, we washed off the sweat and soap and enjoyed a delicious dinner of mashed potatoes and dehydrated chicken teriyaki before collapsing into bed. Except me. I had brought my quantum field theory textbook with me in hopes of getting some reading done, so I stayed up a little later.

Reading one last chapter from the QFT book before breakfast. Black Canyon 2010

Nathan lost in the day 2 portage. Black Canyon 2010

In the morning, we got up and portaged some more. That's what I love about this Black Canyon portage. It's a two day portage. The cool new thing to do is to run the last waterfall of the portage, but when we looked at it, Natalie said that I couldn't do it. I figure it was probably because I had accidentally brought my zero degree offset paddle, which is just not quite right for boofing into narrow slots. I grumbled a little, but a couple miles downstream, when we got to Great Falls, (the other "new waterfall") we all agreed that somehow it looked a lot more possible, so I fired it up.

Firing up great falls. Black Canyon 2010

After Great Falls, shuttle began to worry us. We had gone with a sort of free-form shuttle option. In fact, we hadn't even decided where we were going to take out. There's the 600 foot climb out at Chukar trail, or there's the long flatwater paddle through the Gunny Gorge to Pleasure Park. We stopped for lunch at the Chukar trail takeout, and decided that the creepy name of the Pleasure Park was just a little too weird, so we would go for the hike out.

Not much traffic for that hitchhiking plan... Black Canyon 2010

If stark desert beauty could have filled our stomachs, maybe we would have been a lot less cranky during that long afternoon. Chukar trail was dead. There were a bunch of cars, but we could tell from their parking permits that none of them would be leaving that day. We settled in for a long wait.

...yeah, not much traffic at all... Black Canyon 2010

The wait got longer, and we busted out the cellphone we had packed, to beg for shuttle from every montrose paddler we knew - Alex and Milo. We quickly realized that we had brought the wrong phone, because we didn't have either one's phone number. After a little thought and some calls home, we were able to get Milo's number, but he didn't answer. We made dinner and settled in for the night.

After the quiet evening and night, we were shocked when a huge convoy of vans and cars pulled in right next to our impromptu camp and disgorged a load of neatly dressed commercial fishing clients. They eyed our disorganized camp with some trepidation and seemed reluctant to engage in conversation, at least until we all got dressed and got out of our sleeping bags. After some negotiation (somebody wanted $100 to give us a ride to Montrose!) we were able to find someone with a truck that was heading to Montrose and willing to give us a ride to town for free, and down into the canyon to putin for an additional $20. We jumped at the offer, and started the long trip home.

14 hours later, pow! Tons of cars! Black Canyon 2010

All in all, this trip came off with far fewer hitches than our first attempt back in 2007. I would say that the memory of the portage will only take about 14 months to wear off. At this rate, I might even make two Black Canyon runs in a single season, after a few years of training. I just can't wait to get back in there.


  1. Very cool adventure! Just stumbled on this, but I thought I'd add one bit of knowledge - Tecnu soap will take off poison ivy oil. I am extremely sensitive to poison ivy, and the usual creams after the fact are useless. But tecnu used when first exposed (or less preferably, at first symptom) is very effective.


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