Into the Heart of Darkness
Virgin rapids will soon be a thing of the past on Colorado’s Gunnison River, thanks in part to the fearless exploits of a trio of Colorado kayakers. The 12-mile stretch of Class V-VI whitewater that courses through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has long been a badge of courage for elite paddlers, dropping up to 230 feet per mile between soaring, mile-plus-high walls. Scattered throughout its length are several “unrunnable” sections, including a mile-long portage and monster rapids, one of which took the life of world-class kayaker Chuck Kern in 1997. Local paddlers Tom Janney, Christian Cook and Rolf Kelly are slowly chipping away at its puzzle by running rapids never before run. We spoke with Tom Janney to get the Black Canyon lowdown.
Which rapids have you pioneered?
My friend Christian Cook and I ran the drop at the bottom of the SOB gully just downstream from the cave camp. It’s called Next Generation (from old-timers who thought maybe the next generation would run it). I think that name has stuck pretty well. A few weeks later, we did another trip in which Rolf Kelly ran a drop that had always been called the Great Falls portage. Rolf was the first to run the whole thing.
How did the run feel?
For Next Generation, we had scouted the drop beforehand, so we had some time to think about it. It’s a two-stage rapid. The first drop is a boof that you have to drive hard from left to right to make it through a slot. Then there is a short pool before a tight, 15-foot boof, leading into a bad pin spot on the right. From here it’s a Class V runout for a few hundred yards. It’s an amazing feeling to run a rapid that drops 60 feet through a boulder garden. The entire Great Falls drop has been run by Rolf twice, and by Ben Luck and Nate Klema in the fall of 2011. It’s a few hundred yards of boulder gardens full of sieves.
Sounds like there’s good reason nobody’s run them before.
Most people do the Black with veterans of the river, and they just walk them automatically rather than scouting the rapids themselves, and at first look, they’re pretty marginal. We ran them, because we were looking for more out of the run. But they’re definitely on the harder end of what’s being run with any regularity nowadays. I’d put both drops among the hardest in Colorado.
Any naming rights come with them?
Christian and I made up a funny name for Next Generation that really isn’t appropriate for publishing. I think the names of the drops are pretty fitting. Both of them were told to us by Milo (Wynne, a local legend) and are named as such on his canyon “cheat sheet,” so I figure they should stay.
Does the canyon’s remoteness make it harder to run?
It makes the trip way more enjoyable; the Black offers some of the best expedition kayak training in the region. I’m not sure if it makes it harder, but you have to take it into consideration when firing up some of the drops. My brother swam on Next Generation and ended up tearing his MCL; but he’s tough and was able to make it out. But someone recently broke his ankle on a waterfall deep in the heart of the canyon, and he required heli rescue.
Do you think about Chuck Kern when you’re in there?
It’s strange to walk by the spot where Chuck died; it’s scary to think about how such an innocent looking spot could take the life of one of the best paddlers who ever lived.
How would you rate the caliber of the rapids you’ve been pioneering?
I’d say they are some of the only Class V+ rapids in Colorado; they are certainly on another level from some of the other big drops in the state like Big South Creek’s Double Trouble.
What’s the next piece of the Black Canyon puzzle to put together? Will anyone ever run it all?
I would enjoy trying to pick apart the big portage. I’ve scouted it pretty well, and there are a few good drops in there, but also lots of rapids that just sieve out. I’m not sure if anyone will ever run it all. But that is what I love about this stretch of river—you can make it a pretty mellow Class V trip, or a full-on scary Class V run.
This Q+A first appeared on Paddling Life.