With Blue River flows near all-time highs, Summit Daily sports editor rides the wave train with KODI Rafting (video)
SILVERTHORNE — I drive each day past the 6-mile stretch of the Blue River north of Silverthorne that is guided by whitewater rafting companies, and I’ve been keeping an eye on the river to time a trip during this season’s highest water.
So when I walked into KODI Rafting’s Frisco outpost Saturday and saw “1,960,” scribbled onto a whiteboard — referring to the cubic feet per second flow of the Blue River that day — I knew it was time to hit the high water.
That number, 1,960 cfs, might not seem like much compared to flows more than twice that down near Buena Vista. But to put it in historical perspective, it’s slightly higher than the 1,910 cfs peak on the Blue River below the Dillon Dam the last time it ran this fast in 2011.
By Tuesday, the number on the whiteboard had crept down to 1,690. A prideful part of me wanted to raft the Blue at its mightiest, but my guide for the day, Donny MacLachlan of Silverthorne, reassured me the slightly lower water level would be just as fun — if not more so.
“Once we get down to 1,700, waves start to come up a little bit more,” KODI owner Dave McGrath said. “The hits get to be a little bit bigger because the volume is not washing through the rapid as fast.”
A year to remember
It’s been quite the year for High Country rafting companies. Back in May, guides such as KODI’s Jay Chambers of Frisco — a dude that’s been guiding the river for 22 years — went out on their initial inspection runs with the river running at 390 cfs. Then May’s low temperatures delayed higher flows before the water spiked in June.
Scouring his cfs log back to 2015 — the last big year guides remember on the Blue — Chambers said nothing crept above 1,400. That means at the Blue River’s peak over the weekend, it was running at least one-third faster than 2015.
Video by Antonio Olivero / firstname.lastname@example.org
The KODI crew explained Tuesday how high flows don’t necessarily equate to more fun. Rafting high water is speedier, for sure, but it’s also easier to navigate down the river considering such obstacles as Booger Rock are flushed with water over the top.
“It’s basically like putting the boat at the top of a water slide,” Chambers said.
At higher water levels, there is an increased danger of a rafter being ejected from the boat. The river will carry a rafter much faster than the 700 to 900 cfs range, which is where the Blue topped out last year during a two-week rafting season.
Considering this concern, KODI and Performance Tours Rafting consulted each other about increasing their age and weight requirements for rafters. Kevin Foley, owner of Performance Tours, said that meant the companies went from their minimum age of 7 on the Blue up to 8, then 10 and even up to 12 for a short period of time.
Foley said Saturday’s 1,960-cfs reading is, without question, top five all-time for the Blue — maybe better.
Down on the faster water of Brown’s Canyon, the Royal Gorge and The Numbers rafting routes near Buena Vista, Foley said stronger safety requirements had to be instituted. Looking at the decreasing flows Tuesday afternoon, Foley was hopeful his company could open up rafting on the Royal Gorge on Wednesday. He added that his company also started guiding again on The Numbers on Monday.
Video by Antonio Olivero / email@example.com
McGrath said he expects to raft the Blue River into early or mid-August, potentially two months more than last year. Beyond that, McGrath said he is hopeful flows will stay in the quadruple digits for most of July.
As for down near Buena Vista, Foley said rafting in a spot like Brown’s Canyon should linger into mid-September.
Barreling down the Blue
On Tuesday, I joined the Houlberg family of Atlanta. As we dropped in just north of Silverthorne’s town limits, I peeked at the Ute Pass summit through the trees alongside the river. Just 12 hours earlier, I hiked through snowfields lingering near the mountain’s 12,303-foot summit in the Williams Fork Range. It’s that snow that is making this river roar into July.
As Debbie, Sam and Maddie Houlberg and I were guided by MacLachlan early on, we enjoyed the sights and smaller thrills along the first half of the 6-mile raft route, which is void of any huge waves. After we passed the Blue River Campground, we approached a final 3 miles of continuous waves, starting with the snowmelt from the Gore Range rushing in via Boulder Creek at river’s left.
Once we hit the first portion of rapids, the 3,000-meter stretch after Boulder Creek, the Houlbergs and I were drenched by walls of water cascading over our helmets. Booger Rock was about two-thirds of the way down this rapids portion.
With the water almost 300 cfs lower than peak, the Houlbergs and I were treated to one whitewater blur after another. The final rapids portion known as Pipeline is named after the pipe rafters duck under when the water is this high.
Once through this stretch of consistent waves, we got off the raft and hopped back on the bus. Reflecting on the soaking-wet day, I asked MacLachlan what his focus was guiding on a near-peak day on the Blue River.
“Pretty much to hit all the big waves. You know, I asked you guys, but we were going to hit them regardless,” he said with a smile.
Donny, thanks for throwing us into the thick of it.
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