Braving the Lower Blue
Class III caught on camera
Want a taste of the Lower Blue River before heading out in a wetsuit? Visit the Summit Daily News YouTube page at http://www.youtube.com/summitdaily for footage from the trip in early July.
A little over halfway through a raft trip on the Lower Blue River, 8-year-old Remi Linderman got her first taste of Class III rapids and let out a scream somewhere between shock and giddy excitement.
“That was cold!” Remi said and turned to her mom, Julie. The two from Dallas were sitting on the front bench of a bright-blue inflatable raft when the relatively mellow waters turned choppy. As the raft rounded a corner, it entered the first set of rapids spread across nearly 3 miles of the Blue between Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir.
“It was really cold,” Julie replied with a laugh and looked down to her daughter, only to get caught by the unexpected spray from a submerged boulder to her left. At nearly 1,000 cubic feet per second, the Blue was flowing fast and high. Just a week earlier it was even higher, and thanks to controlled release from Dillon Reservoir the flows remain surprisingly predictable and consistent.
But it’s still a wild waterway, and whitewater rafting is far from a spectator sport. The raft jostled and jumped, then started weaving through a bend as we headed straight for a “strainer,” the rafting term for a knotted collection of logs and branches.
“Forward one!” came the command from Krista Martinson, our guide with KODI Rafting. She’s been on that section of the Blue countless times over the past 15 years and knows the rapids like the back of her hand. When she yells “Forward one!” from her perch at the rear of the raft, we listen and dig our oars into the frigid water.
And it really is cold, even in the first week of July. Suddenly I’m very grateful for the bulky wetsuits we shimmied into at the KODI storefront in Frisco. They may not be fashionable or even comfortable, especially when paired with a life vest, but they’re practical, and when rafting in Colorado that’s more important than looking good.
After paddling once, Julie looks to her right at her husband, Kevin, then back to our guide.
“That’s the shot of caffeine you were talking about,” Julie said to Martinson. And then it happens again: Yet another splash caught the front of the raft, dousing Remi and her mom. Remi let out a second elated scream, and this time, the wave crashed hard enough to soak her two siblings on the middle bench, 7-year-old Chloe and 11-year-old Holden.
It was Chloe’s third time in a raft and first time on the Lower Blue, but she was hardly fazed by the chilly water. She had been colder, she told me during a brief lull in the rapids. This wasn’t too bad.
“Only my hands are cold,” Chloe said, grinning at her fingers through the elastic wrist holes in her splashguard. It’s an optional bit of protective gear, and thankfully, the guides pulled to shore shortly before entering the rapids for a quick breather. It was the perfect time to dress in long sleeves for the roller coaster to come. Otherwise, the first 3 miles of the trip would’ve been blazing hot under the bright, crystalline morning sun.
“It’s just my right hand,” Holden said, taking his hand from the oar to shake it vigorously. “But it’s not too bad.”
I was on his sister’s left side and he was on her right, so every time Martinson told us to paddle, water managed to sneak under the splashguard and drench his hand. Like his sisters, this wasn’t Holden’s first time in a raft — he had even been on the Lower Blue once before — but it was his first time paddling through Class III rapids.
“Forward two!” Martinson said, and up ahead we saw the last of several large holes in the first section of whitewater. After two solid strokes we barreled into the hole and caught the full brunt of the Blue.
Remi and Chloe screamed, Holden whooped, their parents laughed and we finally emerged on the other side of the rapids.
“How was that?” Martinson asked her crew.
“Cool!” one of the kids said — I can’t remember quite who — but they were no longer worried about cold hands. The first section was relatively calm, just enough to get the adrenaline flowing, and everyone had a feeling the best whitewater was yet to come. One mile down, two to go.
Long season, short drive
Thanks to nearly 50 inches of snow in May, this year’s whitewater season has already been one for the record books. Rivers across Colorado were running at near-record levels in mid-June, from the Class IV playground of Brown’s Canyon near Buena Vista to the Class II and Class III rapids on the Lower Blue River.
The portion we were paddling, a 6-mile stretch between Hammer Bridge and Columbine Landing, can be notoriously fickle: This year it’s flowing at peak levels, while in 2013, the water was too low for trips of any size. Guides expect to run the river for at least another two or three weeks — easily one of the longest Lower Blue seasons in the past decade.
“The guides love it because you get to converse with your guests for the first part, when it’s just floating along,” said Campy Campton, co-owner of KODI Rafting with his wife, Christy. “The first 3 miles are tame, and then the whitewater is just a blast. It’s short and sweet, but it’s a fun, quick hitter.”
Best of all, the Lower Blue is close for a whitewater trip. Make no mistake — the travel is often worth it, especially for older thrill seekers looking for Class IV rapids, waterfalls and tight, harrowing canyon runs. But Clear Creek is nearly 45 minutes outside of Summit and Brown’s Canyon is 1.5 hours one way, making for a long trip with kids. (The age limit for Class IV is 16 years and older anyway.)
“Brown’s Canyon is it’s own animal, but for people who spent their time driving just to get here, they don’t have to take another drive to go rafting,” Campton said. “With this, they can enjoy a bit of adventure right outside of town.”
For families and folks on a time crunch, the Lower Blue trip is a godsend. The ride from Frisco to the Silverthorne put-in was a short (and comfortable) 15 minutes, filled with geographical trivia from one of Martinson’s fellow guides. As we drove north along Highway 9, he gave the names of nearby peaks — Grays and Torreys to the east, Red Peak to the west — and explained how we were traveling on the same section of highway featured in the opening log-truck scene from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
“I only get to talk with guests for a minute or two, but our guides get to hang out with everyone for the morning or the entire day,” Campton said. “They make it happen. We love to get people out there and turn them onto the river.”
Young river rats
“Forward one!” Martinson said and we snapped out of the momentary reverie and back into the raft. Waiting a few hundred yards upriver was the next section of whitewater, but first we had to pass beneath a low-lying bridge.
When the water is at peak levels — say, 1,700 cfs in early June — rafters must duck to squeeze beneath it, our guide tells us. We don’t have to duck, not quite, but the lower supports are close enough to brush with a palm.
“Hello!” Kevin yells, and before the echo bounced back his children joined the chorus. In just a few seconds, our crew had forgotten all about the chilly water and been sucked into the pure, unbridled fun of rafting. The second mile was supposed to be a doozy, so we dug our feet deeper into rubber footholds, gripped the oars a bit tighter and barreled down the Blue.
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