Two Colorado guides on a whitewater-rescue mission |

Two Colorado guides on a whitewater-rescue mission

Julie Sutor
Vail correspondent
A group of boaters take on Himalaya Rapid on the Futaleufu. (Matt Gontram)

GRANITE ” Duke Bradford has yet to convince his mother his passion for whitewater belongs on his resume. But after nine years of running a successful river-rafting company, the Summit County resident is starting to prove his point.

In fact, rafting goes far beyond just putting food on his table. Having been part of a recreation trend that draws half a million visitors each year down Colorado’s rivers, Bradford and fellow paddling enthusiast Matt Gontram of Leadville are determined to show the world how valuable an asset a river can be ” not locked behind the steel and concrete of massive hydroelectric dams, but running rough and wild under bright yellow rafts full of tourists.

Bradford, 36, and Gontram, 33, have just launched Global Descents ” a new venture designed to help push the whitewater rafting industry into the international travel spotlight.

“We can show that this is a place worth saving,” said Gontram, who spends most of his winters on the Futaleufu River in southern Chile and his summers running the Arkansas and Colorado rivers. “We’re showing that tourism is a much more successful alternative for local economies than hydroelectric dam projects are.”

Global Descents runs multi-day international rafting expeditions in some of the most remote, enchanting ” and often threatened ” corners of the Earth: Chile’s Futaleufu, the Zambezi in eastern Africa, the vast depths of Peru’s Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, and the Omo River in Ethiopia.

In August, Gontram will shepherd guests along the banks of the Zanksar River in northern India.

At 14,000 feet above sea level, the company’s maiden trip will be propelled by glacial runoff from the towering Himalayas. Along the way, they’ll encounter Buddhist monasteries and villages so isolated their inhabitants have laid eyes on westerners only once or twice before, if ever.

Many of the regions to which Global Descents will bring its customers, and their tourist dollars, are grappling with growing populations, surging economies and development pressures. And with such forces comes the temptation of massive dams to supply hydroelectric power.

India alone is home to 4,300 dams, which have flooded 37,500 square kilometers of land, wreaked environmental havoc and displaced 42 million people from their homes, according to International Rivers Network, a U.S.-based organization which opposes large-scale dams.

Just last month, the Indian government approved a new 44-megawatt project on the Suru River, adjacent to the Zanskar.

In the southern Andes, the turquoise waters of the acclaimed Rio Futaleufu stand to lose 35 miles of whitewater in the face of a huge multi-dam project that’s tentatively on hold.

“Once you’re in the Futaleufu Valley and you recognize the dangers that face it, it’s so sickening to you that you can’t help but get involved,” Bradford said. “We’re talking about Global Descents as a business, but we’re also talking about the struggles the whitewater world faces.”

Despite the substantial economic and political hurdles these rivers face, Gontram and Bradford are optimistic about adventure travel’s ability to show that economy and ecology can and should go hand in hand.

“I do firmly believe that, with help, the Futaleufu will survive,” Gontram said. “With tourism comes environmental respect and action. If we bring down as many people as possible, and we can show the local community and the politicians in Santiago, our chances are tremendous.”

“Matt and I strive to be whatever there is in whitewater to be,” Bradford said. “We’re very passionate about whitewater, but we’re also passionate about the industry. We want to try to make this a better industry, to push the envelope … Pushing it here at home and on the global level is something I want to be involved in.”

Gontram first thrust his paddle into Colorado whitewater 15 years ago and subsequently boated his way throughout the United States. About six years ago, he ventured into foreign waters and has since guided trips through scores of rivers on five continents.

While he claims his favorite river in the world is the Rio Futaleufu, it’s hard to detect any drop in intensity when he shifts geographical gears to talk about abundant African wildlife along the Zambezi, sunsets burning up the Ethiopian sky or scaling the deepest canyons in the world to reach the Peruvian Colca.

“I’ve made a lifetime commitment to this. Absolutely, hands-down, ever since I was 18, I’ve known that this is what I want to do,” Gontram said.

Bradford, though not lacking international river experience, is more firmly rooted in Colorado. His first rafting company, Arkansas Valley Adventures, continues to grow each summer. In the winters, he remains focused on the Colorado guest experience as a member of Keystone Resort’s ski patrol. And he balances it all with his roles at home as husband and father.

With Bradford at the helm, Arkansas Valley Adventures was among the first companies to offer commercial trips through Gore Canyon on the Colorado River and down the very “spicy” Pine Creek, the most advanced section of the Arkansas.

Bradford had taken a handful of trips through the rapids of Chile and Ecuador when he and Gontram first crossed paths three years ago.

“We started talking about what great rivers are really out there,” Bradford said. “After coming down to Chile to see Matt a second time, we looked at developing an international effort with my background of nine years directing a company and Matt’s international knowledge base ” and both of us being really passionate about running the best rivers we could find.”

Before long, the pair developed a business plan, with Bradford hanging back to man the headquarters and Gontram guiding the trips.

“Through intense negotiations with my wife, it was determined that I was going to be the home base,” said Bradford, who is scheduled to become a dad for the second time in November. “But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. That’s how the partnership works.”

The resulting product is one that combines Colorado standards in customer service, safety and equipment with intimate knowledge of each far-off destination. Gontram works closely with the local communities in every locale, recruiting guides, drivers and cooks, identifying scenic stops and side-trips, planning meals and finding first-rate guest lodging.

His close working relationships with locals have the added benefits of upping their savvy and skills in catering to vacationers and fueling the local economies with funds that wouldn’t flow if the rivers were locked behind dams.


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