Aspen-area river runners wait for water to rise

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
The Roaring Fork River spills over Slaughterhouse Falls below Aspen on Thursday. The popular rapid isn't yet ready to run, but local rafting companies are ready to go when the water rises.

Aspen-area river runners are anxiously waiting for the water to rise, or quietly hoping it doesn’t — at least, not yet.

The Roaring Fork River was still running low and clear over fabled Slaughterhouse Falls below Aspen on Thursday as cool temperatures and overcast skies continued to keep spring at bay, much to the chagrin of all but local rafting outfitters. For them, every boost to the high-country snowpack means more water in the rivers when it starts to melt in earnest. Every chilly day helps prolong the meltdown into the summer tourist season.

“We love keeping the cold and snow around,” said James Foerster, co-owner of Elk Mountain Expeditions, the newest player on the upper-valley rafting scene.

“The cooler, the crummier — granted, everyone is rolling their eyes — but you know what? I’m sitting here smiling,” agreed Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting.

Fresh snow blanketed the peaks around Aspen again Thursday morning, and the snowpack in the Roaring Fork Basin, which stood at 100 percent of median Wednesday, climbed to 108 percent by Thursday. A year ago, it was headed rapidly in the opposite direction.

“Last year, we were looking at our peak runoff right now,” Foerster said.

On the Shoshone section of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, flows already had peaked by this time last season, noted Debbie Krigel at Snowmass Village-based Blazing Adventures. The rapid peaked at 2,090 cubic feet per second on April 27, 2012, she said.

On Thursday morning, Shoshone was running at a runable 2,150 cfs, with more to come.

“We have a lot of snow left to melt. We’re definitely looking at more water this season,” said Krigel, who’s hoping for peak flows in mid- to late June this year.

“We think the high water is going to hit at a really optimal time for Aspen and Snowmass,” she said.

Ingram hopes for a season that keeps Slaughterhouse high enough to run for the July 4 weekend. Whether that will happen is anyone’s guess at this point.

“You know, it’s all going to depend on how warm it gets and how quickly,” he said.

In the meantime, some guides have been out clearing area rivers of fallen trees and getting their operations ready.

The coming week could bring the first trips of the season on the upper Roaring Fork. Warmer weather is forecast this weekend, and Aspen could see its balmiest temperatures of the season so far on Monday and Tuesday with highs in the 70s, according to Those kinds of temperatures will get the rivers rolling.

Rafting outfitters across Colorado are hoping for a better season than last year, when hot weather came early and the meager snowpack disappeared quickly, disappointing whitewater fans and delivering a blow to the boating industry.

The Colorado River Outfitters Association reported a 17 percent drop in overall user days last year. The organization represents about 50 licensed outfitters around the state.

This year’s snowpack bodes well for a recovery, but local companies are offering various promotions in their quest for a leg up.

Aspen Whitewater again will offer its locals’ special until mid-June to draw the local populace onto the water. In addition, the company will offer a new family trip on the middle Roaring Fork that concludes with a barnyard tour at Rock Bottom Ranch below Basalt, which is operated by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. And, Ingram said, a combo package of paragliding, rock climbing and boating is in the works.

Blazing Adventures will debut a “Whiskey River” trip this season that starts above Basalt and ends near the new Woody Creek Distillers tasting room, a short distance from the Roaring Fork in the midvalley. The outfitter also offers a rafting and zip-line package.

Elk Mountain Adventures, fresh off its first year of operation in 2012, is offering discounts to run the Fork and the Crystal River early in the season. The Carbondale-based startup is looking for a niche with its trips on the Crystal, starting at Avalanche Creek.

Aspen-based Kiwi Adventure Ko., which offers trips in smaller, three-man rafts, boasts the only full-moon commercial trips on the Roaring Fork, according to its website.