Colorado kayakers, rafters won’t get high flows on the mellow Blue River this Memorial Day weekend
May 26, 2017
If anyone tries to persuade you that 100 cubic feet per second doesn't make a difference for rafting, point out the Blue River on Memorial Day weekend.
Yesterday afternoon (May 26), Denver Water — the organization that oversees Dillon Reservoir, aka Lake Dillon, and in turn several million gallons of Front Range drinking water — released water from the reservoir into Blue River for the first time since early May. It brought the flow level to about 350 cfs. That's much better than the measly 200 cfs it was at before this weekend — but still not enough for David McGrath.
The owner of KODI Rafting in Frisco says most commercial outfits need about 450 cfs before they can take trips on a river. When Denver Water only released 350 cfs — just 100 short of the Blue's magic number — it put a big, dam-sized stopper on plans to raft Silverthorne's in-town river this holiday.
The close-but-not-quite news was rough, to be sure, but McGrath isn't too disappointed. A slow start in May could mean a longer, better rafting season, he says, and besides, chilly Summit County isn't exactly a hub of raft-worthy whitewater. Like most whitewater outfitters, KODI has permits for Clear Creek (213 cfs at Lawson) and multiple stretches on the Arkansas River (799 cfs at Browns Canyon), both of which are flowing right around average for this time of year. Trips start at $65 for adults and $59 for children, with groups leaving from Summit all weekend.
And in the river-boating world, average is never a bad thing.
"It's only going to get better from here," said McGrath, who can't put a date on the start of local rafting, but expects it to be ready within a week or two. "Looks like we've got a good amount of snow left in the High Country and we're hoping for a good season. (We're) hoping it's not too fast of a runoff either, but with cooler temperatures it should stay average. Average is perfect — makes it safer for everyone."
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Low heartbeat on the Tenmile
Along with Denver Water, Mother Nature is also putting a damper on heavy flows with cool temperatures and nearly 2 feet of wet, dense snowfall across the county in mid-May.
"That might be a good thing because it could drag our season out a little longer," McGrath said of a chilly May and delayed flows. "We've had these cool temperatures and late moisture, and that could prolong our season a little bit."
With warming temps come rapidly changing conditions, and that's a blessing for guide companies. It's also a blessing for local kayakers like Matti Wade, owner of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks in Frisco, who's been patiently waiting for his shop's namesake creek to swell. Near the start of May it was flowing at 320 cfs, but by this weekend it had dropped to 211 cfs.
"The rivers are like a heartbeat: they pulse, so they can drastically drop like a flatline," Wade said. "But the nice thing is that the extra snow we got gave us some extra water and that might actually lead to better conditions than we might have had otherwise … I think we're all chomping at the bit, trying to be patient."
Safety is always the name of the game when playing on rivers, whether flows are above average or below average or raging out of control. Wade said now is a good time for kayakers to practice paddling on Lake Dillon (or head to Buena Vista for this weekend's CKS Paddlefest), but be wary of chilly conditions. He bundles up with a dry top, fleece and thermals when paddling in May, early June and just about anywhere on Tenmile Creek.
"Just keep your wits about you," Wade said. "Understand that as the water starts moving faster, with the higher cfs, it will actually be colder. That can lead to exposure issues, like getting tired and fatigued."
Wade, McGrath and other local boaters like Jeremy Deem are big proponents of training while flows are low, and it doesn't end with perfecting your paddle stroke. Deem is the whitewater instructor for Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge and leads several courses every season just for river-rats-in-training, including swift-water rescue, river orientation and something like kayaking 101.
Swift-water training is a must for anyone who wants to start rafting, kayaking or river stand-up paddleboarding, Deem says, and it's offered several times per season by CMC, plus private outfitters Rocky Mountain Outdoors Center in Buena Vista. The courses cover basics like water safety, rescue skills and how to self-arrest after leaving the relative safety of a boat. There are also refresher courses.
"If you're feeling rusty, now is a good time to get training through the college or through a private company," Deem says. "If you've never been boating before, I'll tell you to seek out a reputable guide company. If you've been boating for a long time, I'll say get out your gear, check it, make everything is in good working order and review your swift-water skills."
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