A short, sweet, serious raft season on Class IV rapids of Tenmile Creek | SummitDaily.com

A short, sweet, serious raft season on Class IV rapids of Tenmile Creek

On the banks of the Tenmile Creek between Frisco and Copper Mountain sits a lone park bench. It's found about two miles downriver from Officer's Gulch in a section local kayakers know simply as Middle Canyon, placed in a peaceful opening surrounded by thick aspens, pines and brush, where cyclists often stop for rest after weaving and winding through the towering peaks of the Tenmile Range. On the opposite bank, a wall of underbrush even manages to silence all but the loudest, rudest semi-trucks on Interstate 70, which is no more than 100 feet from the water. It's the very definition of serene.

And then there's the creek. From our perch in an eddy on the I-70 side, the roiling, broiling rapids look more like lava than whitewater. It reminds me of playing tag on a jungle gym as a kid: step in the lava (aka ground) and you're out. Only here, on June 8 in the thick of a six-mile float down nasty Tenmile Creek, the consequences of a dip in the lava are much steeper than sitting out for a round of tag.

"Do we know where he is?" asks Jay Chambers, a veteran with KODI Rafting and our group's guide for the day. He's standing in waterlogged grass near the overgrown bank, joined by Dave McGrath, the new owner at KODI, and Mel Pareti, another veteran guide. The two shake their heads "no" and look upriver to a second raft, this one with three guides from KODI.

Just above the other raft, a blue speck of plastic emerges from the white-capped lava on our side of the bank and starts barreling toward their craft. The empty kayak passes them by, and then continues on a course to our raft. Pareti claws through the watery grass to a grouping of boulders — the dam for our eddy pool — and tries to retrieve the boat. It slips by her, nearly pulling her into the lava.

"I can't," Pareti says and nearly loses her footing. The boat cruises past us and, luckily, fills with water before getting wedged in a clump of twigs and branches in the shallows downriver from the eddy pool.

It's retrievable, sure, but that's hardly the concern at this point. Both rafts have been waiting about 15 minutes in the eddy pool, the bench and path and safety tantalizingly close and yet so far away on the opposite bank. The last we heard of the missing paddler was nearly two miles upriver in the first section of Class IV rapids, when someone in our group of eight kayakers and seven rafters blew a whistle — the universal signal for a swim.

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And, now, the sun was beginning to disappear.

Record flows in the Canyon

Tenmile Creek is the epitome of high-alpine whitewater. Like Steep Creek outside of Red Cliff — home to the invite-only kayak competition at this weekend's GoPro Mountain Games — the season on Tenmile is short, sweet and serious business. Most years, the creek is running at its highest in late May or early June, when the craziest of the crazy brave Class IV rapids and flows of up to 800 cubic feet per second during prime paddling hours early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Other years, the season lasts only a day or two, and, sometimes, there is no season. It all depends on snowpack and warming trends — the circle of natural life in the Rocky Mountains.

This season is an anomaly. Tenmile is running higher and faster much later than usual, says Matti Wade of Tenmile Creek Kayaks, a paddle shop found steps from the Frisco whitewater park on lower Tenmile. The creek didn't truly start peaking until early June, and, ever since then, flows have been jumping by 50 to 60 cfs daily, reaching a peak of 1,000 cfs on June 10 — an all-time record much higher than the previous record of 908 cfs in 1996.

Add the fact that Tenmile is a true "creeking" experience — tight corridors, fallen trees, shallow pools, jagged rocks — that's found just 15 minutes from downtown Frisco and, like all things slightly deranged in the mountains, it becomes a badge of honor to brave the whitewater and return home unscathed.

"Have you ever seen someone swim Tenmile?" one of the kayakers asks me before we put in at the Officer's Gulch bridge, located about halfway between Frisco and Copper. No, I say. I've never been on the creek before.

"Well," he says with a serious grin, if such a thing exists. "You just might today."

Upper Canyon

For the first few minutes of our trip, I couldn't stop smiling. Chambers pushed away from the bank at Officer's gulch, loaded into the raft and, within seconds, was yelling typical raft commands: "Front One!" "Back one!" "Front two!"

Like Wade, Chambers knows just about every inch of Tenmile. When we set raft to water at 6:30 p.m., flows were nearing 700 cfs and he was already on his fourth trip of the day — a marathon on Class IV rapids that get bigger and burlier as the day goes on.

But, then again, Tenmile is the sort of creek that doesn't always reward experience. Two years ago, Wade joined crews from the Summit County Sheriff's Office to clear fallen trees pulled into the creek by a new avalanche path. They had clogged traditional lines and created entirely new ones, which can make kayaking the creek comparable to blind skiing.

"There are times when I don't see anything but a white room, like powder skiing," Wade says. "You get submerged in those holes and hope to come upright."

From a raft perch, the water isn't quite as debilitating, but it's just as cold and crashing and intimidating. And insanely fun: For the first mile — before the whistle blow — whitewater pounded McGrew and I from our perch at the front, while Pareti kept balance and Chambers steered. I was lost in the moment, but the experts around me were hard at work.

"Have a good crew with you — that's the biggest thing (about Tenmile)," Wade says. "The more, the merrier on that stretch because you have more numbers to help if something goes awry"

At the bench

"Tenmile is the real deal," Chambers says about 10 minutes after the blue, man-less boat stopped below us. We finally got word from the upriver raft that the kayaker was safe, but he wasn't the only one to swim. Another kayaker was also forced to wet exit and both were now walking down the path. That meant both rafts must return to the opposite bank — the bench meadow, the not-so-serene serenity — and, to do so, take our raft straight across the lava.

We loaded inside and on Chamber's "forward!" paddled like mad to the opposite side. It was easier than expected, but when we arrived, we found that everything wasn't quite right. One of the kayakers had badly bruised his ribs on a submerged log — perhaps they were broken? — and could hardly sit in his boat. Instead, he loaded into the other raft for the final stretch: another two miles of whitewater, followed by about a mile of bridge underpasses when the creek arrives in Frisco and runs parallel to Main Street through sleepy neighborhoods.

By now, at around 7:30 p.m., the sun was dipping far below the western peaks. The whitewater was frigid — it was snow only 24 hours earlier — and flows were close to 800 cfs, Chambers estimated. The trip wasn't even close to over, and a few of the trickiest sections were yet to come in the Middle Canyon. The group was a little shaken, but everyone was safe and secure, and, sometimes, that's all you can ask for on Tenmile.

On Chamber's command, we pushed away from the bench and back to the lava.

This story was originally published August 2016.

Raft on Tenmile Creek

Want to take on the Class IV rapids of Tenmile Creek? Make haste — the full stretch from Officer’s Gulch to the Frisco Bay Marina will only be in season for another two or three weeks.

KODI Rafting of Frisco is the only local outfitter with commercial trips on the Tenmile. The trip takes about two hours and runs roughly six miles, from the put-in at Officer’s Gulch to the marina, passing through several tight sections of tree-covered pools in the Upper and Middle Canyon. The trip ends with lunch and drinks at Island Grill on the shore of Lake Dillon.

Be aware: this trip is only for experienced rafters. Minimum age is 16 years old and cost is $110 per person. Trips depart daily at 4:30 p.m. until the season ends in late June. To reserve, call KODI at (970) 668-1548.