Summit County’s Blue River reveals hidden charms and a kayaking legend
June 20, 2016
Looking down at a steep, muddy, roughly 10-story drop on a near 50-degree slope, all I could think was, "I have to get my kayak down that?"
I now understood one of the descriptions I had heard of the runnable section of the Blue River, below Green Mountain Reservoir.
"It's like a class IV put-in for a class III paddle."
All summer I'd waited for the stretch of river, which relies on controlled release from the dam, to have enough flow.
It had been described to me as a secluded canyon run only accessible at the put-in and take-out.
Ten Mile Kayak owner Matti Wade described it as "kind of mystical," having run it with light snow and morning mists creeping into the canyon.
Out for the season with a bicep injury, Wade told me, "If I could, I would be paddling it every day."
Nearby, a group of rafters were rigging ropes to lower their inflated raft into the water.
I'd been nervous about stretches of river I hadn't paddled before, but never about a put-in.
While among kayakers it's a popular late-season stretch of river, tucked away behind a mountain on the far end of the often-crowded reservoir, the Blue feels far more secluded as it dips into a canyon.
"When you put on the river, you're immediately impressed by the way the river canyons up," one paddler said after running it for the first time in years.
However, why there was not more of a defined trail to reach the launch escaped me.
With a relatively full parking lot of boaters, on an average late summer Sunday, it seemed like a popular enough stretch that someone would have built a more elaborate access. Brushing the thought aside, I focused on the climb down.
It's often said that every river tells a story. For the Lower Blue it feels a little more like a secret, once you're on the water.
After a buddy of mine who was going to join me bailed on the trip, I decided on the kayak equivalent of hitchhiking the run by tagging along with another group.
Wade had told me I'd have no trouble on a busy late summer weekend.
At the put-in, the group with the raft let me tag along.
Once on the water it was as described — no houses, no power boats, no evidence that anyone was within a hundred miles.
Early into the trip, my new group and I rounded a corner and came upon some fellow kayakers who'd stopped to surf a wave.
Seeming to be a better fit, I motioned the group in the raft that I would be staying behind.
The four kayakers I'd joined were all in their mid 50s and early 60s, eagerly taking turns surfing a standing wave. From a distance I wouldn't have been able to tell my new kayaking acquaintances from a group of early 20-somethings.
One of the foursome paddled toward me with a smile and introduced himself.
While others took turns surfing, he mentioned it was his first time back on the water in two years.
He went on to tell me that, because of a heart condition, he had barely been able to climb stairs last summer. But thanks to a special medical treatment he'd received in Denver, he avoided open-heart surgery and made a dramatic recovery.
"I went from difficulty walking up the stairs to nonstop snowboard cruisers and riding trees," he said later.
My new group and I took our time paddling the nearly 4-mile stretch, stopping at play spots and on a grassy shoreline for a snack.
It was immediately clear that three of the four kayakers had been at it a long time. They searched with youthful enthusiasm for every play wave to surf, then stayed in them for minutes at a time.
One of the group members would later tell me that he and two others in the group had been paddling together for 40 years.
Intrigued by their story, but too respectful to pry, I paddled along with them and enjoyed the company.
The group simply described themselves as old friends and longtime Steamboat residents with a passion for all things outdoors.
We paddled through some challenging class IIIs along a cliff as the canyon opened up. Toward the end we came to two diversion dams not described in the book I'd read on the run.
The pour-over drops on the dams looked intimidating from above, but provide the option for a less experienced paddler to portage. Scanning for a line, I followed the other paddlers passed through without incident.
Closing in on the takeout I asked the man who had told me about his heart condition how he liked his playboat. It was a Wave Sport and I'd heard good things.
"I love it," he said, telling me he had three or four.
"I designed it," he added.
As it turned out, I had spent my afternoon paddling with the founder and former owner of Wave Sport kayaks, Chan Zwanzig.
A legend in the paddling community, Zwanzig is credited with a number of first assents on rivers, including the Urubamba that flows in the canyons beneath below Macchu Pichu in Peru.
Now with so many big descents behind him, he sticks to class IIIs mostly.
Because of his health the last few years, the legendary kayaker described himself as "a paddler with class V skills and a class IV/III+ body."
Every river tells a story, and sometimes you meet people with one.
Our day ended as any good kayaking trip should, with smiles, stories and a cold beer.
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