Finally, after what felt like a frozen lifetime, the guides decided the other raft could continue and we were off again. We still had a huge portion of the trip left. As we got closer to the Royal Gorge bridge, the skies that had threatened us for so long gave in and started pouring on us. Icy raindrops chilled us further as soon the cold waves over the side of the raft felt like warm bath water on our skin. We were able to laugh about that fact in between waves. It poured and poured, it was so heavy we could barely see ahead.
Then it started hailing on us. Really. It was small at first, then grew to pea sized and larger. We shrieked our way down that portion of the river, our bare arms and legs getting stung over and over by what felt like a cloud of hornets to the point that it was hard to concentrate when our guide yelled directions. I thought, a little incoherently at the time, that it was great we had helmets on to protect us from the danger ABOVE. After about ten bruising minutes, it let up into rain again and the sun came out, shining brightly through the rain. The rapids gentled and we threw bits of ice particles at each other, laughing in amazement although shaking so bad from the cold that we could barely hold our paddles.
Up on the sides of the steep canyon, waterfalls made by the torrential rain were everywhere. It was surreal and beautiful, ribbons of water snaking their way down the steep side then turning into dazzling waterfalls of whose droplets were caught by sunbeams. We gaped in amazement, turning to look, our eyes delighted by the breathtaking beauty at every angle. We came upon the Royal Gorge bridge finally and the views were amazing.
Too soon, we went around another bend and ahead was a rock slide coming off the side of a cliff, plunging down into the river like a muddy waterfall. The clouds had re-gathered overhead and darkened the sky ominously. It was cold. The raft ahead had pulled over, we followed suit and watched at the debris-choked river with chunks of rocks started hundreds of feet above came cascading down in front of us. There was no way around it. The guides spoke, and decided we wouldn’t die. There really wasn’t another alternative, the water was slowly pushing us forward into more rapids. Lizzie told us to listen hard to her directions; this part of the rapids was called the “raft eater” and with the mudslide above it was going to be hard enough to maneuver.
The gravel, dirt and rocks hurt worse than the hail had for several long seconds and we screamed. I was so scared a bolder would smash my skull in. Lizzie screamed directions and spit out dirty water and we all tried to paddle hard. On the other side, our faces were streaked with dirt. We pulled small rocks out of our shirts. I felt amazed to have survived that far and wondered if I should have updated my will after all, as I had joked about before going on the trip. We watched as the raft that had flipped upstream narrowing avoided another dunking in the river, they were still to fearful to do the correct thing and their guide chewed them out. Their faces were miserable, I didn’t see a smile on their faces for the remainder of the trip.
We went over another small section of rapids and that was it for the class 3 and 4 rapids. I felt an intense sense of euphoric relief and disappointment that it was all over. The sun came out. We lolled down the river, enjoying the views. The water churned and swirled from all the rain, little tributary creeks dumped milk-chocolaty colored water into the Arkansas. It was obvious that it had rained hard upstream, creeks had flash flooded over their banks stained with the rich colors of the soil they had passed through. The guide looked in amazement, never seeing the river this muddied before. Orange water poured in from the agriculture fields, redish water from another. We passed a creek pouring in what looked like molten chocolate, its temperature much warmer than the river.
Finally we reached the end or our epic adventure, feeling relieved and not just a little deflated that it was over. We were silent on the bus ride back, processing and re-living our adventure, teeth chattering away.