Summit County-based rafting guides hopeful big snowpack equals extended season on Lower Blue River
As winter refuses to loosen its snowy grip on Summit County, whitewater rafting season has officially begun. The first drop-in for Breckenridge-based Performance Tours Rafting came on Saturday south of the county at Royal Gorge.
Down south, Kevin Foley, owner of Performance Tours, described the flows right now as already near 900 cubic-feet-per-second. To put that in perspective, Foley said it wasn’t until late May of last season when flows reached those levels on the Upper Arkansas River.
“And we really never got very high flows last year,” Foley said. “Last year was a very low snowpack year. So we were rafting last summer for a better part of the summer on flows that were lower than what we currently have now, believe it or not. For most of July the river was about where it is now, actually.”
The super-popular whitewater destination that is the Upper Arkansas near Buena Vista is looking very healthy right now, at about 130% to 140% of annual averages, Foley said. With that, the real treat for Summit County adventurers may be what ultimately plays out on the Lower Blue River this spring. Foley anticipates Performance Tours will begin rafting on the Lower Blue River, between Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir in northern Summit County, around Memorial Day weekend. Once out on the water, Foley is hopeful Performance Tours and other area Lower Blue River guides, such as Breckenridge-based KODI Rafting, will be able to raft for twice as much time as last year — perhaps as long as seven weeks total.
To put that into historical context, Performance Tours guided just three weeks last year while there have been other years when outfitters have only been able to raft a single week on the Lower Blue.
Annually, Foley said the Lower Blue is different from the Upper Arkansas in that outfitters don’t have a set opening and closing date. Down south, outfitters like Performance Tours target a May 1 open and a Labor Day close each season. On the Lower Blue, though, there is so much variability, Foley said, that in some drier seasons the river fails to reach the 500 cfs level needed for a baseline minimum to raft commercially. As such, each spring, outfitters like Foley keep close communication with the Denver Water Board to stay abreast of what the board is thinking with regards to potentially releasing and diverting water from Dillon Reservoir to the Lower Blue.
“What we are being told this year is we should see raftable flows around Memorial Day weekend,” Foley said, “and we’ll see them hopefully for six weeks, maybe into mid-July. But there are a lot of variables on the Blue River that affect raftable flows.”
At its best, Foley described whitewater rafting on the Lower Blue as Class III fun that is, generally, not overwhelming for rafters of all ages and ability levels. Foley added that the last time the Lower Blue had a season like he’s expecting this spring was back in 2011.
“Probably every seven years or so,” he said, “somewhere in there, to see an extended season like that. And, hopefully, that’s what we’ll get.”
As for scouting out the river for potential spring runoff debris, especially in the wake of this winter’s record-breaking avalanche cycle, Foley said this coming Tuesday’s Colorado River District Summit County State of the River meeting at the Silverthorne Pavilion (6-8:30 p.m.) will initially clue him and others into more specifics on how the Lower Blue is flowing and how it will be managed in the coming weeks. After the meeting, he and others will keep tabs on the rate of snowpack melt on Snotel sites as well as physically scouting the river out for debris as Memorial Day nears.
“We make sure that no big trees have come down and block channels,” Foley said. “So we go out there and scout the river, and if there are any obstructions it’s something that we are aware of and report it to the Forest Service. … What I’ll probably do, in a couple of weeks, is go down to the section that has the whitewater — and you can actually get a pretty good visual of that from Highway 9 — walk into different access points, and look down. And when the flows get a little more raftable, we’ll raft down without guests, and we kind of go, ‘OK, this channel is clear. This one’s clear. This one’s clear. OK, that left channel looks like it has a log or tree that comes down, make sure everybody knows to go right.’”
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