Night rafting paints Colorado's waterways in a whole new light.
My friend Will's face looks a little green. In fact, his entire body glows with a deep-sea, phosphorescent limeade hue. But he's not seasick. He's on the water and he's loving every minute of it. I can tell because, even though it's pitch black on the Upper Colorado River at 10 p.m., I'm looking at him through the night-vision monocle strapped around my neck.
Although our combined white-water skills were novice at best—he'd taken a multiday trip down Utah's Green River in college, and I'd shot some white water in Tennessee a few years back—we were both amped to try a little Navy SEAL-style rafting, which is what the Vail-based Lakota River Guides offers on its "night-vision" trips.
Our guides, Curtis Cook and Saralynn Neimi, rattle off introductions just before we hit the water, and explain that Lakota books night trips by request only. And tonight we're their only guests, which means it'll just be Cook, Will, and I on a churning, dark river for the next few hours.
Thirty minutes later, we pull into the parking lot at Rancho Del Rio, where other raft-toting vans are packing up for the evening. While the guides ready our ride, Will and I suit up in waterproof booties and oversize blue splash gear. Although we've been informed that tonight's tour will be on mild Class I and II rapids, the gear, which resembles giant blue tent tarps, adds another layer of warmth against the chilly night. Neimi hands us each a night-vision monocle tied to a lanyard and shows us how to turn on the unit's infrared spotlight. By directing The Spotlight at a specific point, she explains, Will and I will be able to point out things to each other in the dark.
As we glide away from shore, a handful of bats swoops over our heads, their busy wings carrying them in and out of our laserlike view. Although we've brought three paddles, Cook does all the work, encouraging us to literally lie back and take in the experience. We heed his advice, sinking into the raft's rubber crevices and exploring the twilight. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we begin to see outlines along the shore. Trees and bushes take shape, and we notice, simply by the shadows, how the thick vegetation along the river's edge thins as it crawls across the land. Because we don't have a lot of things to stimulate our eyes, our other senses perk up. We make out a faint rustling in the nearby bushes and go completely silent in hopes the noisemaker will reveal itself. Then, out of nowhere, we're startled by what sounds like someone doing a cannon ball into a swimming pool. I jerk back from my monocle and turn to Cook.
"Beavers," he says. "They're slapping their tails in the water—trying to tell us and warn the other beavers that we're venturing a little too close for comfort to their dams."
He motions toward their stick homes along the riverbank, and while I'm trying to scope out sets of blinking beaver eyes, I see The Spotlight on Will's monocle flash on. I follow his light until I see what he's pointing at: a beaver paddling just a few feet from our raft, a small wake twirling behind him. I smile and then lean back to drag my fingers through the icy water.
"You never see Colorado like this," I whisper to Will.
"Or smell it," he says, inhaling deeply.
I follow suit, whiffing in strong waves of juniper and blue sage. I can smell the soil, too, still damp from a recent storm.
Meanwhile, Cook points out the stars, which entertain us with a brilliant show. We easily spot the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and, through our monocles, the luminous rings of Saturn. I'm about to tell Cook how jealous I am that he gets to spend so many nights out on the river when I hear them: rapids.
As we round a bend in the river, the near-full moon shines down on the water ahead like a searchlight, and we can see the bubbling black water as we approach. In the safety of daylight, we'd call these rapids mere ripples. But the absence of sun makes them much larger in our imaginations.
"Should we grab paddles?" Will asks.
"No, no. We're going to have a little fun," says Cook.
I stare at Cook, waiting for his definition of "fun." It doesn't come. Instead, he points to the left of a protruding rock where the current appears to die out. He eases us out of the roller-coaster rapids and straight into the eddy's smoother water. When he lifts his paddle out of the water, the reverse current of the eddy propels us gently upstream. "Ready?" Cook asks. Will and I nod.
Cook arranges our raft in a ferry position so that it's perpendicular to the river and then peels out from the eddy into the upcoming rapids. The accelerating water takes hold and flips us around in a heartbeat, and just like that we're headed back downstream.
As we near the end of our journey, I feel like I've just had a massage: relaxed yet alert, with all my senses working overtime. The trip has been more of a float than a gnarly white-water baptism. I don't feel big or strong or unconquerable. Quite the opposite. Listening to the rippling water, smelling the dampness of the riverbank, letting the moon be my guiding light, I feel small. But that's OK. I find that I enjoy going with the flow—even if I can barely see it.
If You Go
From June through September, Lakota River Guides offers night-vision rafting trips along a seven-mile stretch of the Upper Colorado River. Cost for the two-hour tour is $116.55 for adults, $105.45 for children. Children must be at least seven years old for night trips. Call 970-845-7238 or visit www.lakotaguides.com.