After 11 long days of closure due to downed tram cables and fire debris from the Royal Gorge fire, it’s finally back to work for rafting companies that run the gorge section of the Arkansas River. The 17 miles of river were reopened to rafting Friday afternoon, just in time for the first events of the annual Canon City Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival.
“We’re thrilled to be open again,” said Rob White, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area park manager.
The Royal Gorge fire has made it a trying week and a half for rafting companies, still recovering from the negative impact of last year’s low water levels on business. Good water levels this season were helping the rafting industry rebound. But the fire closed the gorge just when water levels were reaching their highest, shutting down rafting on one of the busiest stretches of the river at perhaps the most inopportune time. Still, rafting outfitters are excited to be back up and running before peak season in July, and grateful that the fire did not make its way into the gorge itself.
While the gorge section of the Arkansas accounts for only 17 of the river’s 152 raftable miles, it and Browns Canyon are the most popular stretches among boaters. Officials from the Arkansas Head Waters Recreation Area said the gorge section accounts for around one-quarter of all rafting business on the Arkansas. A variety of companies — and nearby Canon City — depend on the gorge section of the river and the Royal Gorge Bridge for much of their business.
“It’s been kind of devastating,” said Ty Seufer, owner of Royal Gorge Rafting. He said the gorge accounts for 75 percent of his rafting. His shop and restaurant are located on the portion of Highway 50 that was closed and threatened by the fire.
“We lost 11 days and we only have about 90 (on river),” he said. “You lose 10 percent of our business pretty quick.”
Rafting outfitters were able to move trips to nearby Big Horn Sheep Canyon during the fire, but Seufer said it still caused a lot of cancellations. Evacuations and the highway closure also had a large impact.
With the gorge finally reopening, Seufer said, “We’re ecstatic.” He’s hopeful to have business back to normal next week.
The Royal Gorge fire started on Tuesday, June 11, closing portions of Highway 50 that are home to some of the gorge’s rafting companies and a number of tourism-dependant businesses. All were forced to evacuate from the area. The Royal Gorge stretch of the Arkansas River was also closed shortly after the fire broke out. Fire officials and CDOT were able to reopen the highway Thursday, June 13, as the fire was being contained. But not before it ravaged the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, destroying almost all of the buildings in the park.
Damage from the fire also caused cables from the gorge’s tram to fall into the gorge and portions of the river, slowing efforts to reopen the area to rafting traffic. It took engineering teams, three private companies and river rangers from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area to secure and remove the fallen cables.
“It was difficult,” said Rob White, the recreation area manager. “We had six cables that fell in the river. They had to dislodge cables stuck to the gorge wall.”
Crews were finally able to clear the downed cables and secure sections still hanging into the gorge on Friday, allowing the river to be reopened after 11 days of closure.
“We’re confident that all the cable is completely removed from the river,” White said. That comes just in time for this weekend’s Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival. For the first time, the annual festival is also hosting whitewater rafting nationals.
Festival organizers had a contingency plan in place for a shortened race course should the river not be cleared in time. They planned to use the Royal Gorge Route Railroad to shuttle rafting competitors to a location below the obstruction.
Fortunately, “everyone worked really hard, so that we were able to get it open in time,” White said.
All events will run as scheduled.
News for the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is less promising. The park facilities were the hardest hit by the fire. While the famous bridge is intact and structurally sound, park officials said they don’t expect the park to reopen until the fall. Canon City officials are concerned about the potential economic impact of the longer-term closure of the famous landmark. They are exploring options to promote tourism in the area beyond the bridge.
“We want people to know that we’re more than just a bridge,” Seufer said.
“River rangers floated through last night(Friday) to make sure there was nothing else in the river.” -Rob White, AHRA park manager