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Why we love it: It’s a beginner-friendly way to experience kayaking without the steep learning curve of rolling or bailing out of a spray skirt.
When to go: In the mid-summer to early fall when the water level is more forgiving.
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I’ve rafted the Arkansas River many times and it provides an adrenaline rush with high water (plus, it’s usually quite safe when I’m tucked inside a big, self-bailing raft piloted by an experienced guide). But I’ve often looked longingly at the nimble, independent kayaks—so sleek, so fast, so buoyant—that pass us, and this summer I had a chance to ditch the big boat for my first kayak run down the Ark. Sort of.
Instead of a traditional kayak, I opted for a ducky boat, an open inflatable that looks like a cross between a raft and kayak, and that is user-friendly (read: perfect for beginners). Several Colorado outfitters run ducky boat trips, and I launched with Noah’s Ark outside of Buena Vista for a five-mile paddle down the Milk Run, a stretch of Class I and II water.
We eddied out and got right down to some quintessential kayaking fun: surfing. The trick is to slide the nose of the boat right into the drop of the rapid, give it a few hard upstream strokes, and find the perfect balance that allows you to float in one spot above the foaming wave—or so I’m told. I clawed my way into the rapid and immediately washed backwards.
At least ducky boats pivot quickly, so it was an easy turn to get reoriented downstream. As we headed down river, I was struck by how low to the water I was. The flow seemed closer, the current more tangible. Our pod of ducky boats stayed close together, but our guide drifted from front to back, which gave me time to read the river by myself.
By the last little hole, I caught a wave. For a brief few seconds, I felt the stationary suspension as the river rushed beneath me. Then, after one twitch too far, I washed out, caught in the flow, which would take me to base camp. But it was enough. I’ve sipped from the slipstream in a brand new way. I’ll be back for higher water.
Quick tip: Paddling can keep you warm on a hot day, but rent a splash jacket or wetsuit if you’re worried about getting cold.
Getting there: Take U.S.-285 south (which feels like west) toward Fairplay. Go about 102 miles. Turn left at the three-way intersection at Johnson Village; the road remains U.S.-285 south. Watch for Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting Company on your left after three and half miles.
—Image courtesy of Noah’s Ark