With the rhythmic stroke of our paddles, we leave the city of Glenwood Springs, Colo., behind and continue our float down the famed Colorado River. Ahead, a trio of herons stands at the water’s edge on a small grassy island that sits mid-river, temporarily dividing the Colorado in two.We paddle for the channel on the right, hoping we’ve made the correct choice.As we enter the channel—well past the point of no return —we’re confronted by a big rapid and tall waves.
Pointing our kayak resolutely downriver, we paddle hard into the rapid. Two waves crash over the bow, soaking Kelli (my wife), Altai (our dog) and me. The cold water is a momentary shock to our systems.We’re drenched, but we make it through, exiting into calmer water below the rapid. Altai turns around to look at me, a shocked expression on his face, and seems to be thinking, What was that? Kelli and I, for our part, are elated. This is what whitewater rafting is all about.
Eight months earlier, Kelli and I had adopted Altai as a twomonth- old puppy from a local shelter.His name, which means “golden mountain,” was both a reflection of his coloring and the embodiment of our wishes for what he would become as a fullgrown dog. Kelli and I are passionate outdoor adventurers, and we hoped that Altai would become our companion in the mountains— hiking, climbing, camping, snowshoeing. Early on, he proved to be a more-than-able adventurer, romping in the snow, hiking on trails and scrambling over rocks to lofty summits. But when whitewater rafting season came around, Kelli and I had concerns. Could we safely take him with us? Could we merge our passion for river adventure with our newfound responsibilities of puppy parenthood?
I called Eren Howell to find out. Howell is co-owner of Dog Paddling Adventures, an Ontario, Canada-based guide service. Since 2000, DPA has been teaching people to run whitewater with their dogs on Ontario’s Madawaska River, and Howell seemed to be the definitive source of wisdom on the topic. My primary concern, I told him, was how much whitewater was too much whitewater? When did rough water become too rough? “If you’re concerned about swimming it yourself, then definitely worry about your dog,” he told me, referring to that undesirable situation of being flipped out of the boat. “On the other hand, if you’re confident doing it, then your dog definitely can.” I had secretly hoped that, in response to my question, Howell would offer me a definitive grade on whitewater’s sixlevel classification system, taking the guesswork out of the equation. Now, it seemed, Altai’s safety rested squarely on my shoulders and my judgment.
I scoured the rivers of Colorado for an appropriate whitewater run, and ultimately settled on a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River on the state’s Western Slope, starting in Glenwood Canyon, running past the town of Glenwood Springs and finishing humbly at a pullout along Interstate 70 known as Tibbet’s Takeout. I chose the route for its scenic beauty—it is a transitional landscape, in which the evergreens and high summits of the Rockies slowly give way to the sagebrush and red rock of Utah’s canyon country—and also for its whitewater. Predominantly Class II with a series of Class III rapids thrown into the mix, it would offer Altai an introduction to whitewater rafting that wouldn’t scare him off the river for life, but would still give us a challenge and excitement.
In the weeks leading up to our planned adventure, a photograph I found on the Internet became our inspiration.Taken on a stretch of Arizona’s Upper Salt River, the photo showed a solo whitewater rafter using a pair of oars in oarlocks to navigate his raft through a tumultuous, foaming rapid. In the bow of the boat, his yellow Lab stood smiling into the spray.With any luck, Kelli, Altai and I would be doing much the same thing, or having at least as much fun.
The Big Day
Then, suddenly, it is Saturday morning and the day of our river adventure: The inaugural day of whitewater with the puppy has come.We gather our Hyside Padillac (a durable, inflatable twoperson kayak), lifejackets and paddles, and drive to the Grizzly Creek put-in on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon.