Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

You know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%One of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Kids travel free on Utah summer rafting trip

Yesterday we told you that 2011 is shaping up to be an epic year for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the U.S., thanks in large part to the record amounts of snow that hit the western states this past winter. Now that the warm spring weather has started melting all of that snow, rafting companies are gearing up for what should be a very busy season, and some are offering great deals in an effort to lure adventurous travelers their way.

Take for example Dvorak Expeditions, which is offering a fantastic promotion for families who want to take a rafting trip this year. The company is running a “Kids Go Free” option that allows one child (ages 5-12), per paying adult, to travel for free on one of their week-long rafting trips this summer. That means a family of four only have to pay for mom and dad, and the two kids get to come along at no extra cost.

The six day, five night, trip runs the legendary Green River, located in Utah. It is one of the most spectacular and scenic paddles in the entire U.S., and a top draw for paddlers the wold over. River guides will lead the family through miles of unspoiled wilderness that passes by two Native American Indian reservations and through the deepest canyon in the entire state. The trip offers excellent meals along the way, plenty of off the water entertainment, and a number of day hikes that reveal ancient petroglyphs, hidden rock grottos, and outlaw hideouts from a bygone era when Butch and Sundance led their “Wild Bunch” through this very region.

But the real highlight of the trip is the Green River itself. Stretching 84 miles in length, the waterway is typically considered one of the best beginner and intermediate rafting spots in the U.S. This year however, it should exceed all of those expectations, as the extra snow will likely add an unexpected punch to what is already a great river experience.

If you’re wondering what to do with the kids on your summer vacation, consider taking them on a Dvorak rafting adventure. 2011 will be the prefect year for just such an excursion, and it is likely to generate memories for a lifetime.

[Photo credit: Jerry Magnum Porsbjer via WikiMedia]

Rafting the Smith River in Montana: Now is the time to plan

Rafting the Smith River in Montana requires planning ahead and a permit. Without the permit, you’re not going. Obtaining one is simiilar to acquring a permit for a private rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. A lottery system says who goes and when a trip can happen. Not everyone wins.

The application process for 2010 begins in January permits closes the end of February for trips starting mid- April through the beginning of July. Some trips can go in September or later in July depending upon the river’s water level.

The person who lands a permit can take a group of 14 people on the 59 mile route of that starts at Camp Baker and ends at Eden Bridge. That’s how we ended up on the Smith two summers ago when the river was still high enough to make the four day journey. By the middle of July the water level is too low, particularly closer to the bridge.

Lucky for us, we were the last minute tag-a-longs who happened to be in Montana two days before our friends’ trip and there was room for four more. Score!

The fact that I’m not a back country camping sort of person on most days was something I decided to set aside. The fact that my husband’s hip was causing him major grief was something he decided to ignore. When would such perfect timing happen again? Never.

As a newbie to the back country rafting experience, I learned a few things.

A raft trip on the Smith is a journey through an isolated section of the Little Belt Mountains and some of the best blue ribbon trout fly fishing in Montana. The blue skies, meadows of wildflowers, high cliffs that edge the river in places and the chance to see wildlife face to face is so worth the effort. Plus, there’s the leisurely pace of spending time with family and friends and allowing ones mind to clear from the hassles of life off the river.


Although this trip does require trust, stamina and perseverance, it is doable for people of all ages. Most of the trip is the float trip version of rafting trhough class I and class II waters. As long as you have an expert rafter with you, someone who knows how to row AND read the river, and another person to help paddle AND to hop out to heave a raft forward or off a rock if need be, you can make it.

Here are tips to keep in mind.

At Camp Baker, your group will meet with a park ranger to map out your exact trip. There are designated campsites along the way. Which group gets which campsite depends on a first come first serve basis. There’s only one group allowed at each one.

To ensure that we would be able to sign up for our first choice of campsites, the two male friends of our group arrived at Camp Baker the night before to put us at the beginning of the line.

The rest of our group was made up of us–a couple with a teenage daughter and a six-year-old son–our friend with her two sons, ages 7 and 9, and two couples without kids.

When planning campsite stops, it’s important to know how far your group will be able to go in a day. Once you take off from Camp Baker, there’s no other place to stop the trip until the take out.

To get your car from the put in to the take out, you can hire a private outfitter with a shuttle service to drive your car from Camp Baker to the parking lot at Eden Bridge. It’s worth the extra money to pay for the paved road version. The gravel road is shorter and less expensive, but you can end up with a cracked windshield. Our car was waiting for us with a nice note from the driver and the keys.

The longest day for us was to be 14 miles which would take most of the day with enough time leftover before dark to pitch tents, make and eat dinner and do the majority of clean up necessary to not have unexpected, unwelcome visitors once we went to bed.

Back country camping that leaves no trace of your presence and taking precautions against bears. This means tying trash bags high up in a tree, putting food in coolers that can be made bear proof with bungee cords and rope each night, and taking everything with you.

Each campsite has a fire ring. We bought some wood with us and used sticks and twigs for kindling. The campsites also have a pit toilet a good distance from the tent sites. The views were splendid. Toilet paper, however, is not to be dumped down the latrine.

Planning for all sorts of weather and having enough supplies is imperative. If you go in the spring or fall, it can snow. We had some rain and mostly warm temperatures during the day, but it was cold at night.

Since we had no idea we were going until the phone call asking if we were interested, we weren’t prepared. To get prepared, we headed to the thrift store in Philipsburg, Montana to buy sweats, sweaters, socks and hats. At the Wal-mart in Missoula, we picked up a sleeping bag and food. At a sporting goods store we bought shoes that could be worn in the river, flashlights and whatever else we couldn’t borrow.

We were able to borrow sleeping pads, three sleeping bags, an air mattress for me, a cooler, a raft and oars. Not too shabby. We had our own pillows.

Well before the trip, the people in the group divided up the food obligations to share the responsibility. Each couple group was in charge of one dinner for everyone. Because we were the last minute tag-a-longs, we were in charge of appetizers and desserts. Each couple group was in charge of their own drinks, breakfast, lunch and snacks.

The biggest hit appetizer was a shrimp, cream cheese and green chili quesadilla. The fly fishermen experts on the trip who caught 40 a day, did treat us to trout, although they threw back most of what they caught.

Bags and bags of ice were a must to keep perishable food and beer cold.

Our biggest issue along the way was keeping the boys from bickering about who would be able to use the small solo float raft and who should ride in which raft. Also, our son did not have a fishing pole. A big mistake. The other two boys did. Upset? You bet.

Our daughter slightly whined because she had to wear a life vest, but not much. She was a trooper and helped haul the rafts off rocks many times.

We didn’t meet up with bear trouble, but we did run into a family who lost much of their food due to a bear getting into it at night. We offered to give them some of our bounty.

At the end of our trip we found out why it is a great idea to have AAA. Our car wouldn’t start. It’s a long tale, but the short version is we fried the wiring with a plug in adapter.

We had to keep getting the car jumped all the way back to Ohio.

For other handy Smith River rafting tips, click here.

[All pictures, courtesy of Jamie Rhein.]

The best video of rafting trip crash and burns

When picking a rafting trip like one down the Grand Canyon, whether it’s the day long or several days version, make sure that the trip is a good fit for you. How much excitement are you after? How does the thought of dumping out of the raft grab you? Are you up for a crash and burn experience or is a leisurely float more your style?

For a rollicking look at what dumping out of a raft in white water rapids looks like, check out this video. The footage is strung together vignettes over eight years of rafting trips. Amazingly, according to what I’ve read in the comments, no one was hurt with any of these dump and tumbles. If you have never figured out why a life vest is important even if you know how to swim, here’s your answer. Plus, a helmet is your friend.

The rivers featured are: Gauley River in West Virginia, Zambezi River in Africa, the Moose River in New York and the Black River, also in New York. Click on each river for a link to a raft company that runs trips down it. The music for this video is a perfect fit.