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Wildfire Rips Through Glenwood Canyon, Disrupting Summer Plans For Rafting Companies

Courtesy of Charlotte Hanks
Defiance Rafting Company
Smoke from the Grizzly Creek Fire clouds the air while Defiance Rafting Company pulls boats out of the Colorado River on August 10, 2020.

Everyone within sight of Glenwood Canyon on Monday knew there was trouble brewing. A tremendous plume of smoke shooting up into the midday sky was not a good sign during a historically hot and dry summer.

As Gregory Cowan, co-owner of Defiance Rafting Company, watched the smoke fill the sky, his mind immediately went to the boat full of people his outfitter had just sent down the Colorado River, right towards the path of the rapidly-growing fire.

“I just popped my head out of the boathouse and sure enough, looking upriver at Grizzly [Creek], the mushroom cloud was doing its thing,” Cowan said. “It was blowing up.”

Cowan first caught a glimpse of the smoke from the company’s home base in No Name, Colorado. A raft guide had sent him a text from a river pullout to share a picture and news that the canyon was burning. In the minutes that followed, Cowan got in touch with two rafts that were in the middle of trips down the Colorado River – including one that had to drift straight through the burn area to a safe takeout. 

Credit Courtesy of Charlotte Hanks / Defiance Rafting Company
Defiance Rafting Company
A raft drifts down the Colorado River as smoke from the Grizzly Creek Fire billows overhead on August 10, 2020.

The fire spread so quickly that Cowan’s wife Heather, who co-owns the business, had to ditch the van she was driving on the highway and run in the other direction to get away from the encroaching blaze. 

“In just a matter of probably 15 minutes it went from ‘oh, there’s nothing here’ to having to park and abandon a van on the westbound deck of I-70,” Cowan said. “So that was a trip.”

Heather, employees and customers made it out of harm’s way to safety.

Three days after that first roadside spark, the Grizzly Creek Fire had grown to more than 6,000 acres, shutting down both directions of highway traffic indefinitely, cutting off a major thoroughfare to the Roaring Fork Valley and putting a freeze on rafting trips down the Colorado.

No Name was evacuated on Wednesday. That meant packing up equipment and leaving the headquarters behind as the fire drew near. Some equipment was left behind in No Name, but Cowan brought out as much as he could and said insurance should help cover any losses.

Credit Courtesy of Charlotte Hanks / Defiance Rafting Company
Defiance Rafting Company
Firefighters stage on the banks of the Colorado River as Defiance Rafting Company guides pack up boats.

But as the fire kept ripping through Glenwood Canyon, foiling days of containment efforts, Cowan started to realize that his problems might not stop with the evacuation of rafting gear.

“It was evident that this thing is going to be a big event,” he said. “We’re going to be feeling the effects of this thing likely for the rest of the season.”

Cowan described the situation as a “three-headed monster” – the threat to his facilities, the mid-season pause on rafting trips and the already-strange circumstances of working in the tourism industry during a pandemic. 

“You feel just so helpless,” Cowan said. “That’s probably one of the most challenging things. 2020 has dealt us one of those hands where it’s in variables that are outside of our control.”

Cowan said Defiance will avoid financial ruin. Business interruption insurance should cover the pause in operations and booking volume this summer has exceeded early-season expectations, which were lowered due to the pandemic. But the unknown length of the shutdown, major interruptions to inbound travel and the long-term damages to the canyon are all factors that pose a threat to future business.

“Even though we have the insurance, it's not like we're getting a hundred percent of things,” Cowan said. “We're not going to be made whole. It's a bummer. And who knows what the posture will be like once we do get open again – what visitorship will be like. Maybe it'll be suppressed and we're looking at a longer term hit here.”

But Cowan insists there’s plenty to be thankful for – even in the face of that “three-headed monster.” He sees the challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow as a business owner. And the moment of crisis was a reminder of how supportive the local rafting industry can be. 

Whitewater Rafting, LLC., an outfitter in Glenwood Springs, is letting Cowan store his evacuated gear at their facility. He may even run a “temporary storefront” from there. While the myriad rafting companies in the area may be competitors on paper, Cowan listed off the names of other outfitters who said they could lend a hand. 

“They’ve all extended their well wishes and offered their space and facilities for us to either store things or do some temporary operations out of,” he said. “That’s a pretty incredible thing.”

Credit Courtesy of Charlotte Hanks / Defiance Rafting Company
Defiance Rafting Company
Smoke rises along I-70 on August 10, 2020.

Even before Glenwood Canyon opens back up for rafting trips, Cowan might send boats down the Roaring Fork River, which has so far not been threatened by the fire. There are other nearby rafting operations doing the same.

Ken Murphy, owner of Glenwood Adventure Company, is running trips down the Roaring Fork River after drifting smoke clears in the afternoons. He said it’s a change from the spectacular canyon views and rushing rapids in Glenwood Canyon, but it’s full of “scenic beauty” – and a way to keep already-booked customers on rafting trips.

“It maybe doesn’t have the same excitement level as the Shoshone rapids,” Murphy said, “But it’s still beautiful out there and it’s nice to be on the river.

While Murphy’s rafting operations were able to pivot during the closure, other facets of Glenwood Adventure Company may be in more immediate peril. The company runs ATV, horseback and Jeep tours out of Bair Ranch, one of the first places to face evacuation orders. It also manages trips to Hanging Lake, which was in the fire’s path Friday.

All of Murphy’s staff and customers made it to safety, partially thanks to evacuation support that he called “phenomenal.” But now, just like Cowan, he’s facing the reality of reduced business in a year that has already provided more than its fair share of challenges.  

“It adds to the stress,” Murphy said. “We’re a seasonal business and when a portion of your season gets prevented to open up because of COVID in the spring and then this happens in August, everything’s compounded.”

Credit Courtesy of Charlotte Hanks / Defiance Rafting Company
Defiance Rafting Company
Smoke emerges from the hillside along I-70 in Glenwood Canyon on August 10, 2020.

Even when Glenwood Canyon finally gets cleared to open back up, it will assume a starkly different character. Burn scars will likely change the shape and feel of a valley that has enraptured countless visitors and locals. 

“I think it’ll be pretty jarring on a lot of people,” Cowan said. “They’ll just have to kind of reset that connection a little bit. All the memories and things that you tie to a place on it’s visual stimulation aren’t going to be there.”

Murphy is confident that the fire, destructive as it may be, will become another chapter in the story of the iconic section of the river.

“Glenwood Canyon will be a part of the tourism raft guide folklore from this point on,” Murphy said. “A lot of guides were up close and personal to the fire while on the river. If they’re back guiding in following years, they’re going to be talking about the Grizzly Creek Fire.”

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.