Local recreation guide takes on monster paddle
|Bo Chirstensen heads up stream from 172 mile paddle from Westwater to Hite along the Colorado.|
We were hanging around the ramp at Westwater, waiting for the appointed hour. Bo Christensen was set to do something we were unaware of anyone else doing. He was going to embark on a 172-mile paddle on the Colorado River from Westwater to Hite, and he was determined to do it in 24 hours. And, he was going to do it alone.
Twenty-four hours and 13 minutes later, he paddled, exhausted but elated, onto the makeshift ramp just below where the Dirty Devil enters the Colorado. I pulled his kayak up onto the ground and he stood up. He just stood there with an exhausted look on his face. "I don't think my legs work," he said. During the 24-hour trip he had been out of the kayak three times for a total of about 45 minutes.
At Westwater the river was raging along at about 28,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and rising. The Green River was adding another 18,000-plus at the confluence. Adding a few small tributaries that are not calculated and taking into consideration a little evaporation, it's fair to say the mighty Colorado River through Cataract Canyon was flowing somewhere just shy of 50,000 cfs. In Cataract terms, that's huge. Certainly a level not to be taken lightly.
Rivers are rated class I through class VI. Each class is exponentially more difficult. Class IV is for very experienced people only. Class V is for experts only. Class VI is off limits to the vast majority of experts. Cataract Canyon at 50,000 cfs is serious Class V whitewater.
Bo is a 22-year-old adventurer. This is not his first epic adventure. At age 19 he rowed Cataract Canyon in a 17-foot cataraft from Potash to Hite in 25 hours. That is 100 miles. The river was about 55,000 cfs on that day. His goal then became to do that trip in less than 24 hours. His 2006 attempt was thwarted by "low" water. It was only 42,000 cfs (peaked at 44,573 that year). That is very high water for the vast majority of river runners. A level most people avoid. The wind came up and Bo realized conditions weren't conducive to do a 24-hour trip. He and Kellen Spillman, his rowing buddy, decided to do a leisurely trip. Took 30 hours. Three weeks ago he soloed Gore Canyon (class V+). A feat few people have accomplished.
The Westwater to Hite trip is something Bo had been thinking about nearly a year. The idea was hatched after Paul Gamach suggested he could kayak from Potash to Hite in less than 20 hours. He would ask for donations and do it as a fundraiser for American Whitewater. That was in July of 2007. The water was low and was a different proposition altogether. Gamach ended up easily making his goal, pulling up in 18 hours.
Gamach did his trip in a racing kayak, acceptable in low water, but not at 50,000 cfs. But, low water isn't Bo's style, and his mind started conjuring up other plans. The idea of Westwater to Hite was hatched. He would do it in a much larger kayak, capable of handling the very serious rapids, but not nearly as fast as a racing kayak.
|Bo as he steps out of his canoe after paddling for more than 24 hours in tough water. |
The plan. He would need to average more than 7 miles per hour for 24 straight hours. That means he would have to make 9-10 mph while on the river to allow for stops. The water had to be high. Very high. Since one must have permits for Westwater Canyon and Cataract Canyon, it was necessary to pick a date and hope.
Moonlight would be nice, but flow was more important. Bo decided May 29 was the right date. He later questioned that choice, because it was so dark. His headlamp only shined 30-40 feet directly in front of him. Without the headlamp he could make out things a little further away, but could see no detail and didn't know what they were. Add to that a lot of debris in the water, and conditions were far from perfect.
We met up in Moab, where I provided food and replenished water, along with a thermos of coffee. He was cold, so he dried off, changed clothes, and drank a cup of coffee in preparation for the very slow part of the trip. While his goal was to make Hite in 24 hours, his plan was actually to do it in 22 and a half hours. He left Moab 15 minutes late and later told me he was nearly two hours late by the time he got to Potash. The wind blew much of the night. Wind is a river runner's nemesis. Just a modest breeze can slow you by a mile an hour. That's 24 miles in 24 hours â the difference between being early and failing to make your goal.
Bo stopped at a camp early in the morning. The people were kind enough to provide a cup of coffee. From the confluence the flow was faster and it was easier to make time, although he wasn't able to make up the time he lost at Moab and from Moab to Potash.
He scouted the Big Drops, and rolled the only time on the trip in Big Drop Two. He came upon a ranger just below the big drops, who asked him whose name the permit was in and to describe his groover. As he walked away Bo heard him mutter something about insane, or some such . . .
Even after being awake for over 30 hours, spent by the intensity of the big rapids, and fatigue setting in fast, he was determined to make up the lost time. He went under the bridge at 23:58 and only then gave up, floating much of the remainder of the way to the ramp.
Having had no contact with him since 2 a.m., I was relieved to see him. I can now relax. I wonder what his next adventure might be.
Bo is currently working in the outdoor programs for Carbon County Recreation and College of Eastern Utah. His duties include kayak lessons and workshops (is an American Canoe Association certified kayak instructor) and offering river rescue courses. He is also the rock climbing instructor and coordinates all of the outdoor programs for Carbon Rec.