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The Denver Post – June 22, 1994

You Can Count on The Numbers
By Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Writer
June 22, 1994, The Denver Post newspaper

Arkansas stretch offers heart-pounding ride

BUENA VISTA – Whitewater rafting is many things. Exhilarating, challenging, even dangerous.

Almost never is it listed under the heading of aerobic exercise.

That was before anyone began running that half-dozen miles of relentless, churning froth on the Arkansas River known as The Numbers.

Whether from the sheer exertion of hard, steady stroking for long minutes though extreme turbulence or the contortions one performs simply to stay attached to the boat, a paddler has a heart-pounding experience.

Twist and shout.

“We only take people who are in reasonably good physical condition, who have paddled with us and are at least 18 years of age,” said Bill Dvorak, the veteran river guide who helped pioneer a route that has been run commercially for less than 10 years. “If you miss any strokes, there’s trouble.”

Unlike the jazzy handles given most white-water hazards, these rapids simply are known by their numerical progression: one, two, three, all the way up to eight. The first five come in a rapid-fire order that leaves a crew straining for breath and orientation.

This is serious water, evidenced by the fact that a rafter with another outfitting company was killed here two weeks ago. Dvorak’s caution is not misplaced.

“The Numbers is solid Class IV water,” Dvorak. “It isn’t to be taken lightly.

Dvorak, the acknowledged guru of whitewater sport on the Arkansas River and a guide since 1969, began running The Numbers in 1985. But it wasn’t until the advent of self-bailing boats that it gained significance among the many commercial outfits operation on the state’s most popular rafting river.

“There’s so much water coming into the boat in continuous fashion, it just wasn’t feasible to run it, certainly not with clients paddling,” Dvorak said.

There are two basic ways to do a commercial rafting trip: with a guide who does all the rowing or with active paddlers providing the propulsion and direction of the craft. In the first, you are little more than cargo with the singular task of simple hanging on.

Paddling, the choice of most enthusiasts, requires a fine balancing act, not unlike riding a bucking bronco while trying to shoot straight. John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” comes to mind.

The guide barks cadence, demanding power and direction. The paddlers try to comply and stay in the boat. Sometimes it’s touch and go. In The Numbers, the challenges come often and very quickly. From Three to Five, the pace is frantic. Does the heart beat so wildly from the extreme exertion of large muscles or from sheer excitement?

A brief respite ends with the onset of Six, then another rest comes just before Seven and Eight. The concluding segment of the dozen miles that constitute a half-day float is know generally as Boulder Narrows. Less relentless, it is not without invigoration, particularly with the river running at it s present level of 1,500 cubic feet per second.

As daunting as The Numbers may be, it cannot match the challenge of Pine Creek Rapids just upstream, a quick-and-dirty stretch of very turbulent and technical water that merits a Class V rating, one of a very short list of Colorado waters so distinguished.

Dvorak treats Pine Creek Rapids with ultimate respect.

“I won’t take anyone who hasn’t paddled with me personally,” he said. “There’s no room for mistakes. Every stroke has to cunt.”

Pine Creek drops 115 feet per mile compared to 75 for The Numbers and just 55 for Brown’s Canyon.

“It’s a helluva piece of water,” Dvorak said.

This has been an unusual rafting season on western rivers. A long spell of warm weather greatly accelerated the progression of runoff lowering many rivers past the point of excitement, if not comfortable navigation. The Arkansas is one of the more pleasant exceptions.

A fair amount of snowmelt still is coming down from the high country around Leadville and the flow later will be maintained at 700 cfs at least until Aug. 20 through a reserve held in Twin Lakes as part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area plan.

Meanwhile, Dvorak, The Numbers will grow more technically demanding with each drop in the water and Pine Creek will be at its best. There’ll be no trouble working up a sweat.

SEASON: May to October, with a peak in mid-June.
THE RUNS: Pine Creek Rapids, and The Numbers above Buena Vista; Browns Canyon near Nathrop; Royal Gorge near Canon City.
ACCESS: Numerous points are available as part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area as well as the town of Buena Vista.
CONTACT: Dvorak’s Whitewater Rafting Expeditions (800)-824-3795.
COST: Pine Creek Rapids $100; The Numbers $45 for half day; Browns Canyon $65 full day, $34 half day; Royal Gorge $86 full day, $45 half day.