River Runners rafting.

“Huckleberry Finn Gone High Brow – That’s River Runners”

By Travis Hochard, general manager, River Runners

I’m not sure what is meant by the quote above, but it is the first line of the first known news article about whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River in Colorado. It should come as no surprise the article is about River Runners, “The whitewater professionals since 1972“.

We know a lot about the past 10, 20 and even 30 years of River Runners history, but it is more difficult to pinpoint how the company got its start. This article was found in a rafting file at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center in Canon City, Colorado. It was not published until July 15, 1976, but it does support the “Since 1972” claim.

What does the article tell us about the early history of River Runners?

The owners of River Runners in 1976 were Dr. James Gibbons (or Giggons as the article spells it two ways), a professor at Southern Colorado University (now CSU Pueblo), and his wife Mrs. Bonnie Gibbons, a Home Ec teacher at School District 60 in Pueblo. The article also says the River Runners office was in a “defunct motel, a few miles west of Texas Creek, on the Arkansas River”.

In the article, Gibbons is quoted as saying “This grew out of a hobby. I would be rafting down the Arkansas, and people would stop me to ask questions. As they were obviously interested we thought this might make a business.”

One could infer from the statement that James and Bonnie Gibbons started River Runners, but the article does not say when. Gibbons does go on to say “So far 4,000 people, including groups from camps in the surrounding area, have been sufficiently interested to pay the rate.”

According to the statement above, as of July 1976, the company had already guided 4,000 people down the Arkansas River. This is at a time when “Jim actually guides the groups, joined by four other men operating on a rotating basis”. It also says “Bonnie minds the office” by herself. Assuming the company started in 1972 and operated three months per year that would average out to a little less than 900 clients per season, 296 clients per month and 10 clients per day. Not bad for a start-up rafting company in the early 1970s with one office person and five rotating guides.

“20th Century Fox is on the phone!”

The movie company 20th Century Fox used River Runners’ equipment to shoot a dory scene in the movie “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” in August 1975, according to the article. This comedy western was first released in April 1976 starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal. The plot goes something like this: A female hustler who chases after rich men became mixed up with a suave con man through a series of misadventures before falling in love with him.

Bonnie said in the article that “The tipped over dory scene was taken about six miles below (River Runners)” and “when they came out of the water, the scene was taken at Five Points.” She then goes on to say, “Of course the stars, Goldie Hawn and George Segal, weren’t actually in the scenes shot on the rapids.” They used stunt doubles.

River Runners – The whitewater professionals since 1972

Sunshine Falls circa 1989

Sunshine Falls circa 1989

We are looking for more River Runners history. This is just one of many stories we hope to uncover as we look back on the history of River Runners. I will continue to look for more clues and maybe even track down James and Bonnie Gibbons, but in the meantime, we would love to hear from anyone who has a River Runners story to tell or an old photo to share.