Alpine Water: Kayaking the Arkansas

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For the advanced whitewater kayaker, the hills surrounding Crested Butte, Colo., offer some of the finest creeking in the West, with Oh-Be-Joyful, East, Slate and Daisy Creek all serving up serious Class V water early in the season. But for Class III boaters and other mortals, you can't beat the Arkansas River. Flowing from the snow-drenched Sawatch Range east of Crested Butte, the "Ark" dishes out equal doses of inspiration and humiliation as it carves its way through more than 100 miles of classic Colorado kayaking country.

Though solitude is not its strong suit, the Ark provides some of the most varied paddling opportunities in North America. From the Class IV "Numbers" section, located just above the town of Buena Vista, to the popular Royal Gorge near Canon City, boaters will find all the holes, rapids and surf waves they can handle-and perhaps a few they can't.

Class III Brown's Canyon is the closest section to Crested Butte (and the most popular), with the take-out above Salida about a two-hour drive away. While heavy flows (above 2,500 cfs) can push some of the rapids in this 12-mile section up to Class IV status, it's still considered one of the state's classic intermediate runs. To raise the bar a notch after Brown's, head upstream to the Numbers section, where the first rapid-Number One-will quickly inform you if you've made the right decision. If something less difficult seems appropriate, put in at Stone Bridge and enjoy a mellow 10-mile float to the town of Salida. (But beware of the lowhead dam about halfway down.)

Royal Gorge lies farthest downstream-and closest to the Denver masses-but good whitewater and gorgeous geology still make this nine-mile stretch a kayaker's dream. Sunshine Falls is the burliest drop, but avoiding rafts might prove to be your biggest obstacle. Just remember that they have the right of the way. If you really want to dodge the crowds, it's possible to do the Gunnison River Gorge in a day from Crested Butte, but access is difficult, requiring a mile hike to the river. Save yourself the hassle and hit the Ark, especially if you find yourself near Salida June 14-17 during the 53rd annual FIB-Ark-the oldest whitewater festival in the country.

For an outfitter, try Noah's Ark in Buena Vista (719-395-2158) or River Runners Ltd. in Salida (800-525-2081, rafting only). For creeking in Crested Butte, call Alpine Outside (970-349-5011).