First family of whitewater: Into roaring Browns Canyon with the Foleys of Performance Tours Rafting (video)
July 22, 2017
Kevin Foley is taller than expected. Much taller.
It's not like there's a height limit for raft guides, but at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, the founder and longtime owner of Performance Rafting Tours is an unlikely figure in a river community dominated (for the most part) by short, quick, nimble types.
Then again, Performance Tours itself is something of an unlikely figure in a constantly evolving industry. I first met Kevin in person on a soon-to-be-cloudy morning in mid-July at the company's Buena Vista headquarters. Now dotted with yellow school buses, red rafts and tan-sided buildings for lockers, wet suits and office space, the plot of land was vacant when Kevin purchased it in 1995. Back then, the Connecticut native had already been guiding in Colorado for nearly 15 years and river water was flowing in his blood. He and a business partner launched Performance Tours in 1986 with four boats — two per owner with trips on the Arkansas River, Blue River and Upper Colorado — and in '95, after nearly a decade, it was time to expand when his business partner moved on to different pastures.
At the same time, raft technology was improving — self-bailing craft meant that clients no longer had to unload buckets of water to stay afloat between rapids — and this opened more commercial routes on the famed Arkansas: The Numbers north of Buena Vista, the Royal Gorge outside of Canon City. Kevin felt his fledgling company was in the right place at the right time with the right mentality: do it all for the river.
Faux family reunion
To get a taste for three decades of river expertise, I wanted to spend a few hours on the water with Colorado's first family of rafting. The original idea was to paddle the classic Browns Canyon stretch of the Arkansas with the entire Foley brood — Kevin, wife Mary Jo and their two children, Kathryn and Dan — but the best-laid plans started falling apart.
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Dan couldn't spare time from his summer gig with Grand Lodge at Peak 7, while Kathryn might or might not be around. Mary Jo is usually up to her neck in reservations and office work in July, the thick of rafting season, and so Kevin was probably the only Foley who could make the trip.
Then, duty called. Something came up with a bus driver soon before our trip, and so Kevin had to fill in by driving a jam-packed bus of clients, plus rafts, to and from the boat ramp on the Arkansas south of Buena Vista.
To make up for scheduling issues, Kevin paired our group with a member of his extended rafting family: Stu Schaefer, a 67-year-old Leadville native whose ties to the historic mining town run three generations deep. He's been with Performance Tours since nearly the beginning and guiding in Browns Canyon for 35 years — longer than some raft company owners have been around, Kevin said. Schaefer has a deep-seeded respect for the water and the Foley family.
"This company is family," Schaefer told me in a signature halting cadence, when I asked why he comes back to Performance Tours and the Foleys year after year, season after season. "It's not just a dollar. It's a place where everyone strives to be the best and where people can hardly wait to get back to it."
Kevin knew we would be in good hands with Schaefer. It wouldn't be the family outing I expected — there wasn't a single Foley in our raft by the time we pushed off under billowing clouds, with nothing but welcome sun and rapids downriver — but it soon turned into a lesson about the wild world of Browns Canyon, taught by the guides who know it best.
River runs in the family
It would be easy to say something cute like, "The family that rafts together, stays together," but with the Foleys, it's true. Kevin and Mary Jo started their kids young on the water, beginning with family floats on the Blue River. The company still operates outposts in Breckenridge and Frisco. From there, they took their son's second-, third- and fourth-grade classes at Breckenridge Elementary School on free surprise tours. Well, they weren't exactly a surprise — Dan's birthday is in September, about the time commercial trips taper off after a busy summer and his parents had time to play.
"He'd take the whole second-grade class out, mom would bring a birthday cake and we'd spend the whole day on the river," remembered Dan, who's now 25 years old and splits time between the Grand Lodge gig and part-time guiding with his parents' company. "Making sure everyone gets to be in the great outdoors is what they love doing. They just love getting people outside."
Kevin and Mary Jo instilled that love in their children early. If their kids weren't on the river, the Foleys brought the river to them, and Dan says it's the pull of nature that keeps him coming back to the whitewater, year after year, season after season like Stu. It's also what brought him back to his hometown of Breckenridge after graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
"I don't think it ever gets boring," Dan said. "The water is different every single time. You never have the same run and you never have a bad day on the river."
7 rapids, 1 canyon
After a leisurely 45 minutes of floating, Schaefer caught our attention and started explaining the first set of rapids our raft would run. Browns Canyon is home to seven named rapids spread across roughly 9 miles, with the large Class III rapids all coming in the final stretch of the half-day trip.
Schaefer had already given a pre-float safety talk to us and about 30 other rafters before leaving the boat ramp — "You can tell he's done this thousands of times," whispered Julie Spizale, a Florida native who joined our boat with Schaefer — but now was time for in-depth instruction.
First up was Pinball rapid, followed by Zoom Flume and Big Drop. This opening trio is typically the biggest whitewater of the half-day Browns trip, Schaefer explained, all rated as solid Class III rapids, although Big Drop sometimes pushes into Class IV in June during runoff. The final four rapids — Staircase, Widowmaker/Punchbowl, Raft-ripper and Last Chance — are mellower, but still considered Class III for most of the season.
It was humbling to be part of Schaefer's crew. After decades on the water, including a stint with the U.S. whitewater rafting team in the early '90s and a nine-month expedition through South Africa with a group of Russian national team rafters, guiding is second nature to him. He's precise with the standard "Forward One! Back Two!" commands familiar to anyone who's been on a commercial trip, and he has a dancer-like feel for the water. Never once did we tip dangerously or jostle between boulders, even with a relatively light load of five rafters. To set up for Zoom Flume — the largest rapid that July morning — he led us through a 180-degree turn, followed by an upriver ferry into another 180 to face back downriver, all while deftly avoiding jagged boulders. The 10-second sequence was seamless and delicate, like a master sailor guiding his ship into harbor with nothing but a keen sense for the wind and pinpoint timing.
"Stu is a river legend," Dan told me later. "He was born in Leadville and has probably spent more than a couple of lifetimes on the Ark."
BV, then and now
As Performance Tours grew, so did its home base of Buena Vista and the river community it spawned.
"A lot has changed over the years," Dan said. "As a whole, that town has completely changed from when I was a kid. It used to be a few restaurants and a gas station, and now it's an entire rafting community that's blowing up. It's a booming little hippie culture."
Schaefer couldn't ignore the growth if he tried. At one point in the '70s, he and his friends were a few of the only people regularly paddling through Browns, he said, and they did it in homemade, hand-formed kayaks. These days, upwards of a quarter-million visitors raft on the Arkansas every summer, according to Performance Tours, and the vast majority pass through Browns.
When they aren't leading tours, the Foleys prefer private family outings on classic waterways: West Water, Cataract Canyon, the San Juan, the Grand Canyon. Dan still loves the Blue River north of Silverthorne for its high-alpine feel, while Kevin is simply happy to be with his family anytime there's a free moment — and no buses to drive.
"As a family, we make a point to get out a few times a year," Kevin said. "I've been out on the river four times this year, which is not enough."
An hour later, he was back on the bus to retrieve the final clients of the day.