Photos and Story: Into the Gunnison Gorge

Written and photographed by: Nick Swingle

The beautiful browns of the Gunnison Gorge were like icing on the cake of this incredible trip.

The temperature is unseasonably warm, even for western Colorado. We wait in the shade, knowing the hike ahead will offer ample opportunity for sun and sweat. We pass the time nervously with last-minute Macgyvering of our packs and second-guessing of items. With this group, we are much more likely to have triplicates than to be without necessary gear.

Ready for the long trek in with some beasts of burden.

We smell the mules before the two riders make the final approach up the trail. The hats and slow curl of their lips around each word belie a couple of cowboys. The aviators indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, they are friendly and most importantly clearly know how to efficiently pack a group of mules. Yeti coolers, rafts, frames, and even some creature-comfort Paco pads all find a place. Anticipation and final checklists fill the first hundred yards of trail. We tighten pack straps, shift the weight on our shoulders, and test the footing on our boots against the slick rock. A short hike later, we reach the the river at the bottom of the gorge.

Even with the mules, we anglers had to haul our fair share.

The campsite log book is full. So much for missing the crowds. The more experienced of our group call an audible to zig when everyone else is zagging. We prepare to start our journey by spending the first night upstream. A camp site known as Margaritaville awaits. Rowing and dragging rafts upstream presents an early test of our group’s collective mettle. Some of us traveled from as far as 12 hours away for this trip, not counting the final drive to the trailhead and hike in. Out-of-office responses have been set; debts and favors with wives and bosses called in.

The bottom of the gorge is simply stunning.

The buzz keeps humming as we row upstream, with jokes and tailing loops flying freely. It is going to be a good trip.Our upstream route includes only a single rapid. Like college freshmen around co-eds, its not pretty but we have high hopes and throw a lot of energy at challenge. Each of the three rafts clears the rapid and settles at the beach of Margaritaville. Time to string up the rods.

Hauling rafts upstream to escape the crowds was worth the effort.

When Tod tells us there are many miles of fishable, wadeable shoreline upstream, I never think to discuss terms and definitions. Apparently “accessible shoreline” includes 30-foot bouldering in wading boots. Like a spider monkey, Tod quickly shows us a route and positions himself as an anchor for the final move. None of us is going to challenge Alex Hannold anytime soon, but we manage to clear the hurdle. The fishing upstream proves worth the effort. The browns are plentiful and beautiful, willingly taking hoppers and streamers.

Riverside camping is a great way to live for a few days.

The next couple of days through the gorge is everything an angler and outdoorsman could want. With a strict leave-no-trace policy, an argument can be made there wherever the groover is set up each day is the most spectacular bathroom in the world.

Another beauty that fell for a hopper pattern.

There were pre-trip rumblings of BWOs, but those never materialized. We saw some Tricos each day, with a couple of pods of feeding fish. For the most part, it was a hopper, streamer, or timely nymph run that kept us satisfied. Some places are just flat out special, with or without the fishing. The gorge is one of them.

It’s easy to forget about the outside world down here.

One of my highlights is an evening session on the second day. There are a couple of prime runs directly in front of our campsite. We ferry a raft across to access the far side. Some of us buddy-fish; others lone-wolf it. We are all within eyesight. Each rod bend, each missed strike and subsequent curse is answered in kind by guffaws and smiles as big as our nets. I already forget nearly each of the fish, but I will remember this evening for a long time.

Life on the river becomes defined by the rhythm of casting.

Our final day includes most of the class IV rapids on this multi-day float. With drought conditions in the area, the rapids are not life threatening. Our hearts quicken and adrenaline pumps all the same. By lunch, most of the whitewater is behind us. We celebrate in true gorge fashion: a cliff jump and cold beverage.

Celebrating the end of the trip with a dip.
Nick Swingle is one half of TwoFisted Heart Productions, along with his wife Kami. They are Orvis ambassadors, as well as filmmakers and photographers.

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