As Pride Month comes to a close, a celebration on the Western Slope’s Colorado River builds community

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Courtesy Kaitlin Costa
Caleb Ferganchick address the Paddle with Pride crowd on Colorado’s Western Slope before they launch at the Palisade Rim Trail put in.

A few miles up from the little town of Palisade, it’s pretty common to see lots of boats, kayaks and paddleboards on the rocky shore of a popular put-in spot on the Colorado River. Less common is for them to be decorated with an explosion of rainbow flags, glitter and tutus — plus an inflatable unicorn.

That was the scene on a recent Sunday, when more than 100 people showed up for Paddle with Pride.

Every June, many of Colorado’s biggest cities host huge Pride parades, parties and drag shows. But many smaller, more rural communities have nothing at all to mark the occasion. That’s why Jenn Drysdale drove in from Montrose, even though she had no idea how big the turnout would be. 

“And I wanted to be here, regardless,” she said, wearing neon pom poms in her hair that she had bought special for the day. She’s got two kids “on the rainbow spectrum,” and she said that describes her, too. 

“So it's just — it's really cool to be able to see that representation and know that we're not alone,” she said. “It's huge.”

The crowd included plenty of parents with their teens and tweens, plus lots of young people, and several seniors, some who are veterans of the river, some who’ve hardly been on it. Caleb Ferganchick addressed them all through a bullhorn. 

“Alright, happy Pride, everyone!” he called out, to excited woots, before apologizing for the morning running a little late. “It wouldn't be a Pride event if we weren't running on gay standard time.”

After his safety talk, the fabulous flotilla was off — a colorful traffic jam on the cold, green water. 

This is not the Mesa County Liz Weiss grew up in back in the 1980s and ’90s. As she paddled an inflatable kayak, she explained she couldn't have imagined an event like this back then.

“And I would've never told anyone that I liked girls,” said Weiss, who’s bisexual and married to a man.

At her high school, she remembers only one openly gay kid. She thought he was brave but also worried for his safety in this famously conservative area. 

Courtesy Ny Murph
The second annual Paddle with Pride drew more than 100 LGBTQ+ people and allies to a stretch of the Colorado River near Palisade on the final Sunday of pride month.

If this kind of thing had been around then, she said, “I'd be jumping on the river and saying, ‘Thank God. My people!’”

The group floated past cliffs and trees and houses with steps down to lawn chairs and boat ramps along the water. Sometimes the river was calm. Other times it was choppy and fast, and laughter rippled up and down the convoy as people hit little rapids.

Gabe Spellberg was beaming from an innertube. He called the ride “thrilling.”

“I only hit my butt on the rocks once or twice and I only flipped upside down once. You know, I would say it's a win overall,” he said, with a laugh. 

And somehow, the pink flowers someone gave him at the start of the float were still tucked into his baseball cap. Spellberg, who just moved here from Chicago, was happy to experience all this natural beauty up close.

“Queer people often feel excluded from doing outdoor stuff or it's, like, reserved for straight people,” he said. “So I like that it can combine queer community with also being able to be outside.”

Toward the end of the float, the group hit a stretch of quick-moving water near a dam. Pepper Ruzin, 14, managed to stay on his paddleboard, despite this being one of his first times ever trying it. 

“That was awesome!” he declared, adding he definitely wants to do it again. 

Ruzin, also a new Chicago transplant, had a non-binary flag tied under his chin as like a cape. That’s how he used to identify before he realized he was trans. As the yellow, white, purple and black stripes flapped behind him, he explained that it was refreshing to celebrate Pride like this.

“Cause I didn’t know there were so many people, like, part of the community out here,” he said. “And I get to try something new.”

Stina Sieg/CPR News
The Paddle with Pride group arrives at Riverbend Park before heading off to a post-float party at the Sneak Line bar at Paddleboard Adventure Company.

Next came the takeout at Palisade’s Riverbend Park. Then it was back to Paddleboard Adventure Company, which sponsored the day. Music bumped at its little bar, as people ate tacos and drank beer. It felt like many wanted to hold onto the joy just a little longer. 

Christina Briseno, there with her wife and their friend, looked particularly amazed.

“I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the entire float,” she said. 

It wasn’t just fun but healing for Briseno, who grew up in conservative Alabama and didn’t come out until her 30s.

“It actually makes me feel like I belong, and there's nothing wrong with me,” she said. “I am who I am and I love who I love.” 

She moved to the area several years ago, but that day, finally, it felt more like home.