Optimistic about the Arkansas: Despite lack of snowfall, local raft companies hopeful for 2018 season
Despite this winter’s relative lack of snowfall here in Summit County and across the state, regional whitewater rafting companies are hopeful conditions for the 2018 summer season will be near normal — if not just about average — for rafting recreators.
As of the end of last month, the Upper Arkansas River Basin is at 88 percent of its average snowpack. Local rafting operations, such as Performance Tours Whitewater Rafting — which has an office in Breckenridge — offer several whitewater rafting trip options off of the Arkansas River, namely out of Buena Vista.
The source for the Arkansas River, which is a major eastward tributary of the Mississippi River, is at an elevation above 11,000 feet, on the east side of Freemont Pass, near Leadville.
From there, the Arkansas River flows about 50 miles south from its source to reach Buena Vista, where Performance Tours Whitewater Rafting has another office and transports customers from Breckenridge.
Based on the end of March snowpack reports from the United States Geological Survey, Performance Tours believes that the stretches of the Upper Arkansas River that flow through Chaffee County where the company drops in will have some of the best rafting in Colorado this spring and summer.
The company also expects this season’s “peak water” — when the river experiences the biggest flows of the year — to be in late May and early June. And specifically, Performance Tours believes its Class III “Browns Canyon National Monument,” its Class IV “Numbers” and Class II “Mild” & “Scenic” sections of the river will offer rafting near normal at those times.
“Last season was an exceptional water year for Colorado rivers,” said Kevin Foley, the owner of Performance Tours Rafting, “but this year holds promise too. The Upper Arkansas River basin has one of the strongest snowpacks in the state, meaning great river conditions will be in the Chaffee County area.”
The company also expects raftable flows for its customers in Chaffee County through mid-August, and attributes that expected length of the rafting season this year, despite the lack of snowfall, to the voluntary flow program in the Upper Arkansas River Basin. The program augments flows from July 1 through August 15 each summer and is an agreement between the Arkansas River Outfitters Association and water users in Eastern Colorado. The program moves water from Clear Creek Reservoir near the headwaters south of Leadville, to Pueblo Reservoir on the Eastern Plains. The program’s target is to keep the river at 700 cubic-feet per-second at the Wellsville Gauge — east of Salida — during this period.
“Browns Canyon is a different experience each time you run it,” said Steve Ulrich, a veteran raft guide who has boated in Browns Canyon for the past decade. “It all depends on river conditions, time of the season, weather and the folks you’re paddling with.”
As for the Lower Arkansas River Basin, Foley expects the Class IV and Class V Royal Gorge rafting area to hit its peak flow in early June, like much of the rest of the river’s lower basin.
Cañon City is approximately 100 miles downstream from the source of the Arkansas River. The Lower Arkansas River Basin includes Royal Gorge and the Class III-plus Bighorn Sheep Canyon.
“We’re in a good place for the 2018 rafting season,” Foley said, “We don’t expect it to be a big water year for Colorado rivers, but we do anticipate a fun, family-friendly season.”
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