A river wild: Running Seidel’s Suckhole on Colorado’s Arkansas

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

“It’s big.”

“Fun. Exciting… A little scary.”

“It’s pretty rad.”


That’s St. Louis’ Bertelsman family talking, rafting guests with commercial outfitter Wilderness Aware on the Browns Canyon stretch of the Arkansas River Thursday.

They were looking at Seidel’s Suckhole – a Class IV rapid about 13 miles north of Salida that most companies scout after beaching their craft upstream on full-day rafting trips through the canyon.

As guests clambered up the sandy slope from the willows, their faces said it all. Formerly concentrating on maintaining footing on the trail with cold, wet feet and sea legs somewhat asleep from being tucked tightly in the boat, the rafters’ expressions quickly changed to varying shades of interest, nervousness, fear and terror as the sound of crashing water filled their ears and their eyes trained onto the whirling froth of the suckhole.

Blue, red and yellow life jackets and helmets dot the rocks daily at midday as guides take a gander at their lines and explain the rapid to their crews, including what could happen and what to do if the customers swim. Given the facts, crew members then have the option to walk to the other end of the rapid or ride it out.

On Thursday, Martha Riordan decided to walk.

“It’s too much for me,” the KODI Rafting customer from Milwaukee said, adding, “The other (rapids) weren’t bad. This just looks a little more wicked. You have to be pretty precise.”

Which most guides were that day – roughly two dozen boats went through clean, even through the meat of the hole, except one, which flipped. It’s not uncommon for crews to join the Arkansas River Swim Team when their rafts flip or dump paddlers in the rapid, particularly when water levels rise to between 1,400-3,500 cubic feet per second, Arkansas Valley Adventures owner Duke Bradford said. That’s when the rapid’s features become significant.

“More people go in the water there than anywhere else on the Arkansas River,” Bradford said, adding that a large eddy on river right allows other boats to run safety and guests to swim to shore.

“It’s part of the experience and the hype of the river,” he said of the formidable, beefy, daunting rapid. It’s like running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, he added – everyone talks about the excitement of Lava Falls.

But, as the river always is, the suckhole “can be unpredictable” at higher flows, Bradford said. Self-rescue for commercial and private rafters is crucial there and all along the river, particularly because swimmers are in alpine water, which is cold, strenuous and can quickly take energy from those both accustomed and unaccustomed to the temperature. As a guide regains control of an overturned raft, it’s up to crew members to swim to shore or other boats at the same time nearby guides team up to scoop those in the water back to safety.

Though Seidel’s Suckhole has a reputation that’s reinforced by its power when onlookers take it in, most guides run the rapid clean. But accidents do happen. About a week-and-a-half ago, a 38-year-old woman died downstream from the rapid after her commercial raft flipped in the suckhole, flipped again in the next rapid, Twin Falls, and she got swept up by the current into a pile of brush in the river.

Even so, from memory, Bradford doesn’t link the suckhole to mortality. Without specific data to draw from (Arkansas Headwater Recreation Area spokespeople weren’t available Sunday), Bradford links more river deaths in the last five years to other Arkansas River stretches than to Seidel’s Suckhole in particular.

KODI Rafting season pass holder and retired Summit County resident Terry Kryshak gets a little lump in his throat every time he takes in the might of the suckhole – which has been five times so far this season.

“I have a lot of respect for (the rapid),” he said. “I went skydiving last year for my birthday, and it wasn’t anywhere near running the river.”

Still, he and others in the KODI pod, including the Riordan family and Michigan’s Wayne and Bettie Jo Nunez were looking forward to the excitement.

“It looks very intense, but I’m looking forward to doing it,” Wayne Nunez said. He and Bettie Jo had rafted the Blue River earlier in the week and were looking to turn up the intensity dial.

And they got it.

Running from the left side of the river, the two guides teed their boats up to the wave and caught a piece of its left side, causing a wall of water to crash down on the front paddlers. Cheers and shrieks of laughter rose up with the deafening decibels of the rapid as the rafts exited cleanly and, after pulling over to pick up Martha Riordan, moved on toward Twin Falls.

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