Crazy Water People of Gore Fest '05

As Rom, Adam and I made our way up canyon along the banks of the Colorado River, we asked other spectators where they would recommend sitting. Everyone responded with "The Tunnel is where you'll see the most carnage" or something similar.

Hmmm... how odd. I thought I asked where to sit, not where to see "carnage."

Soon I would discover that spectators watching the Gore Fest are all about the carnage. Huge Class 5 rapids, with massive drops into swirling pools of violent white water, cause rafters and kayakers to fly out of their boats or overturn and smash on submerged boulders. This was the "carnage" people were referring to-- and apparently the spectacle everyone on this trail was hiking up river to witness.

Cody wasn't hiking up river with the rest of us. Why? Because he was busy making his way to the put-in point miles up stream. Being the resident kayaker in the 4am Crew, he had suggested this race/river festival and was dead-set on "running" the river with all the other potential victims.

A couple miles into our hike, we came to a section of river where a raft shuttled people across to the opposite shore. While waiting for the yellow inflatable boat, I witnessed several guys, dressed in life vests, getting hauled from the water by a couple of medics. One of the medics was inspecting a waterlogged rafter who had apparently fallen out upstream. The medic patted the guy on the shoulder and said, "It's a pretty deep cut, but nothing life threatening." He then walked away to assist another guy who was so dazed that he could hardly walk through 10 inches of water and make it to shore.

I glanced at the guy's deep cut on his shin and asked if I could snap the following picture. He agreed, proudly noting that the cut was "all the way to the bone."

Having witnessed our first carnage, the three of us were shuttled across the river and continued our hike to "The Tunnel."

The Tunnel is so named because a train track runs high above the river and enters a tunnel next to some of the gnarly rapids. At this point, the river narrows through a field of boulders, some house-sized, and creates an area of white water perfect for carnage. Spectators congregate on the boulders, many sitting only feet away from the raging water, to watch rafters and kayakers (and a few wackos in inner tubes) attempt to make it through in one piece.

Since this is a Class V section of rapids, and the river district opened the reservoir upstream to increase water flow for the event, only the most skilled were attempting to run The Tunnel.

Kayakers were descending the rapids when we arrived on the scene. They would plummet off the falls and momentarily disappear in the white water before bobbing to the surface. If they planned their line well, and hit it correctly, they cleaned the section with minimal effort. Those who messed up, however, became carnage.

One kayaker flipped while going over the falls and was upside down for quite some time. Glimpses of the yellow hull would appear in the churning water, then disappear. Precious seconds passed. After half a minute or so, people in the crowd were becoming visibly restless. Suddenly, another glimpse of the hull and a tip of the oar. Then gone again. More long seconds came and went.

On the shore, people grew silent. A couple of rescue personnel, sporting bright yelllow vests with "safety" printed across the front and back, prepared to jump in.

Then, like a magic rabbit pulled from a hat, the kayaker popped to the surface ...still in her boat! With her mouth stretched wide she sucked in a huge life-breath, then threw a fist in the air.

The crowd erupted in applause.

Apparently, this was the excitement people lined the shores to see-- watching others test their skills against the river and, hopefully, come out on top. Kayakers who fared poorly were destined to "swim" and become "carnage." Either way, there was entertainment for the masses.

Rafters faced a different challenge, trying to avoid being bounced out of their craft as it dropped then rebounded. Occasionally, one or more members of the crew would find themselves flying through the air and disappearing in the white water. Momentarily they'd be lost. Then the craft, and the tossed crew, would clear the falls and reemerge down stream.

After watching several rafts maneuver this section of river (some successfully, and others not) I determined each went though a well-defined protocol, which included these steps:

1) aim the raft towards the falls...
2) whether or not the raft is tracking a good line, grab both your oar and
    the raft with nothing less than a death grip
3) plummet over the falls and get blasted by a massive spray of angry water
4) bob out of the white water and float clear of the falls
5) take a census (head count) to see who is lost or unaccounted for
6) recover bodies, as needed.

While rafts that made it with all their crew received applause, rafts that lost one or more crew members received huge applause.

And somewhere in the midst of the carnage, and the anticipation of carnage, there was a race. (shrug) I'll be damned if I can tell you a thing about it ...or even who won.

Later, we walked back down the trail, having never seen Cody run the falls. Either he failed to launch or perished somewhere up river. (eventually, we discovered he was late getting going and we missed his run over The Tunnel. - Sucks.)

I managed to bum a ride with a group of rafters who had competed earlier and were momentarily parked at the finish line. Sans life vest and sans oar, I sat towards the back of the raft as they steered it down a section of class 3 rapids. Fortunately, the worst of the river was long gone and, as we floated, I listened to a story of how two of the members been cited for marijuana possession the night before.

The guide, a guy who referred to himself as the "cock swain" (he was a mix of Jeff Spicoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Jay from the film Clerks), managed to avoid getting busted by performing a Jedi mind trick and slipping away. "The cop said 'I can smell the weed on you'," Cock Swain explained while making a slow sweeping hand gesture, "And I said 'you don't smell any weed'."

Apparently, the cop briefly turned to someone else. When he turned back, much to the amazement of the others, Cock Swain had beamed himself out of there. He escaped, while his two crew members were cited and their herb confiscated.

We all laughed at his story of escape and merrily floated down the river.

Thus was my day at Gore Fest 2005.

(note: "Gore" is in reference to the Gore Mountain Range and the Gore Canyon where the race/festival is held, not the gore you see as a result of the carnage)