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A float beneath a sea of stars

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Billy Doran keeps an eye out for wildlife using a nightvision monocular during an after-dark rafting tour on the upper Colorado River. (Preston Utley/Vail Daily)
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Paul Birkelo stopped the boat in a large eddy.

It was very dark and the Milky Way had come into view. The wide river was a silvery streak, but the shores were completely black; silhouettes of the mountains were barely visible.

Birkelo, our guide, spun the raft in a slow circle, affording his passengers a 360-degree views of the constellations and shooting stars darting across the sky.

“Nightvision” might be the hook for Vail-based Lakota River Guides’ after-dark excursions ” rafters are provided with hand-held nightvision monoculars that afford views not visible to the naked eye ” but the magic comes when the novelty wears off. Then, you set down the nightvision monocular, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and take in the environs of the river at night.

Lakota offers the nightvision trip on the Upper Colorado River, on a stretch of Class I and II water from Rancho Del Rio to State Bridge.

The stretch is tame by rafting standards. No one, other than the guide, really has to paddle, so it’s essentially a float trip.

But entering rapids in the dark increases one’s trepidation considerably. Birkelo relies on his knowledge of the river – knowing where the big rocks are, where islands are, where rapids are – to keep the ride relatively smooth.

The trip began before nightfall at Rancho del Rio, upriver from State Bridge. Bikelo divvied out lifejackets, drytops and booties to his passengers, and gave a short safety talk.

The raft left the riverbank at 9 p.m., moving into calm water. Birkelo paddled stealthily, bringing the raft close to a bank busy with beavers. When we got too close, the beavers slapped their tails on the water as a warning to other beavers, then slipped beneath the surface.

Bats swooped toward the water to catch insects.

As the sky grew darker, Jupiter appeared. The stars multiplied. A couple of coal trains rumbled and screeched past on the shoreline.

When the raft entered sections of rapids, Birkelo advised the rafters to hold on, as the raft could hit an unexpected rock. It didn’t, but the rapids were big enough to get everyone a little wet.

Halfway through the trip, Birkelo stopped the raft so the passengers could check out the abandoned mining town of Cable. In the blackness, Birkelo led the rafters down a trail through tall grass to several ramshackle cabins huddled along the riverbank. The nightvision came in handy for peering into the windows of the old shacks.

Back on the water, Birkelo, a self-described astronomy buff, noted satellites crossing the sky. Chris Johnson, another Lakota raft guide along for the ride, pointed out the constellation Scorpio.

After floating through the inky night, the lights of tiny State Bridge looked as bright as a city. The raft could have been Huckleberry Finn’s, rolling up on the next town on the Mississippi River after a surreptitious night on the water.

“It’s lovely to live on a raft,” Huck says in Mark Twain’s novel. “We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”

And Huck probably would have liked the nightvision, too.

Nightvision rafting is offered by Lakota River Guides, based in Vail. It costs $109 for adults and teens, age 13 and up, and $98 for kids. The cost includes transportation and equipment.


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