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Glenwood about to make waves in kayak world

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Kelley Cox Post Independent
ALL |

Positioned at the confluence of two big rivers and already boasting one of the state’s best rapids, Glenwood Springs is no secret among Colorado river rats.

But with the first whitewater park anywhere on the mighty Colorado River poised to make its debut this spring, the resort best known for its hot water appears destined to make a splash with cold-water thrill-seekers.

Heavy-equipment operators are still arranging the rocks in the chilly waters west of town, but Glenwood’s park is already making waves among paddling enthusiasts and getting mention as a potential host site for competitive kayaking.

While the city is hardly the first to build a whitewater park, and its claim to the only one on the Colorado may be short-lived, Glenwood will boast what many communities on the Western Slope can’t ” consistent, rideable flows for most of the year.

Short paddling seasons aside, any town with a river running through it seems to be taking the plunge into whitewater attractions. Gunnison constructed a park on the Gunnison River; Buena Vista, Salida and Pueblo all boast parks on the Arkansas River; Steamboat Springs has constructed a park on the Yampa; Durango has a whitewater park on the Animas River; and Breckenridge has one on the Blue River.

Closer to the Roaring Fork Valley, Vail’s whitewater park on Gore Creek takes center stage each year during kayaking competitions that are part of the Teva Mountain Games. Avon and Frisco boast new parks. Carbondale and Basalt are exploring similar playgrounds on the Roaring Fork River, while Silverthorne is pursuing one on the Blue River.

“It’s like kayak park envy ” everyone else has one so we’d better get one,” joked John Ely, the attorney for Pitkin County who’s helped spearhead talks of a whitewater park in Basalt.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Bruce Christensen, who readily admits he “wouldn’t know a good wave if I saw one,” nonetheless recognizes a tourism amenity.

“I’m very aware of the fact that whitewater activities, particularly kayaking, are becoming a growth industry in the United States,” he said.

The city will spend close to $900,000 on the first phase of its whitewater park, including contributions from Garfield County ” far more than it initially intended. Still to come ” and fund ” are a developed parking area, connecting trail and a terraced park area on the riverbank for spectators. The site is off Midland Avenue at Devereax Road in West Glenwood.

The city initially looked at a park closer to the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, but moved the amenity downstream in deference to the Hot Springs Lodge and Pool, which worried the construction would damage the aquifer that is the lifeblood of the city’s fabled Hot Springs Pool.

The whitewater park will be situated downstream from the Shoshone rapids on the Colorado in Glenwood Canyon, a premier spot for whitewater rafters and kayakers, and above the South Canyon Wave ” a natural, standing wave that appears for a short time each season when the river flows at just the right level ” a window of opportunity that may last just a few days.

“South Canyon is one of the best natural waves anywhere in the state, but you need to catch it at just the right level,” declared Chris Vogt, owner of Glenwood Canyon Kayak. “I’ve seen it when it’s come and gone overnight.”

The whitewater park is designed to create similar waves, and eddies that allow paddlers to circulate through the features over and over, for an extended season. Only at high runoff ” when many whitewater parks hit their peak of usability ” will Glenwood’s potentially disappear under a torrent of water.

While spring’s frigid, high water makes for optimal kayaking in many Colorado rivers, Glenwood’s park will remain in its prime well after runoff subsides and the water temperature warms from gasp-inducing to comfortable.

The park should function well into the fall if not nearly year-round for intrepid paddlers.

“We feel it will extend the season and make for a destination in the warmest time of the summer, when there is very little kayaking,” said Jason Carey, principal engineer for RiverRestoration in Glenwood Springs, which designed the park. “It will create a destination for people all over Colorado to come to Glenwood Springs.”

The park will also provide an alternative to Shoshone for kayakers and perhaps take some of the pressure off a rapid that now sees so much use that the U.S. Forest Service is looking at capping the number of commercial rafting and kayaking trips permitted there, reasoned kayak shop owner Vogt.

“Shoshone is awesome and a big part of what makes Glenwood Canyon an even better kayaking destination, I think, than the Arkansas,” he said. “I really feel that the park is going to ease pressure on that section of water.”

Joe Mollica, a Glenwood resident and member of both the city’s River Commission and the committee that helped push through plans for the whitewater park, said advocates are already brainstorming on future freestyle kayaking events to showcase the park.

“Eventually, this should probably be one of the biggest draws in the country because we have the flows,” he said.

Glenwood’s park, like others around the state, required federal review to ensure new structures in the river wouldn’t cause flooding, but the city has not, as yet, pursued recreational water rights for its new amenity.

As the park is downstream of the Colorado’s confluence with the Roaring Fork, and Colorado River flows are bolstered by both a senior water rights among agricultural interests in far western Colorado and the water rights accorded the Shoshone power plant, located upstream in the canyon, the park is likely to enjoy reliable flows.

Nonetheless, the city may yet seek a recreational in-channel diversion, as the recreational water rights are known, said Christensen, who envisions the potential for additional kayaking features both upstream and downstream of the park now under construction.

Fort Collins, on Colorado’s Front Range, led the charge in getting the state to recognize water rights for recreational purposes when it sought such a decree on the Cache la Poudre River. Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court recognized boating as a beneficial use of water; subsequent state legislation has defined the flows that can be claimed for recreation.

Golden, also on the Front Range, capitalized on recreational water rights for its Clear Creek whitewater park, an amenity credited with plugging more than $1 million annually into the city’s economy. In the early 1990s, Aspen, too, sought recreational water rights for a channel it enhanced to prevent flooding and ultimately turned into a kayak park.

The channel, on the Roaring Fork River adjacent to Rio Grande Park, is only useable for a short period at high water, and only in years when the spring runoff is substantial. That hasn’t happened since 1999, according to Phil Overeynder, the city’s public works director.

The channel is designed to carry about one-third of the river’s total flow, providing a beginner’s kayaking experience when the water is high enough, but the mouth of the channel has closed off over the years. Trout are more likely to splash the surface of the park’s languid pools than a paddler.

The city has appropriated about $20,000 to clear the mouth of the channel this summer, Overeynder said, though the work isn’t likely to happen before this spring’s runoff ” a highly anticipated event, given the ample snowpack in Colorado’s high country this winter.

Like Glenwood, the town of Palisade in far western Colorado is also anxious to take advantage of the big water in the Colorado River for a whitewater park, planned adjacent to the town’s River Bend Park. The town had hoped to construct the $635,000 park this winter, but the project has been delayed while Palisade proves to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the planned structures won’t impede the movement of four endangered species of fish in that stretch of the river.

Palisade is now aiming for construction next fall, assuming the permits are in place by then, said Town Manager Tim Sarmo.

Ironically, the substantial flows in the Colorado through Palisade are enhanced both by opponents of the whitewater park ” the Grand Valley Irrigation Company ” and the presence of those endangered fish.

The irrigation company demanded the Army Corps of Engineers require a full-fledged and costly Environmental Impact Statement before allowing the park construction to proceed, though the town isn’t looking to divert any water from the river (the Corps has not indicated it will mandate that step).

“We are merely placing rocks in the river,” Sarmo told the Grand Junction Free Press. “I’m not building the Hoover Dam here.”

In addition, flows in the Colorado are sometimes augmented in late summer by releases from Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River above Basalt, specifically for the endangered fish. Those flows will also benefit Glenwood’s park and, potentially, parks in Basalt and Carbondale, as well. The Fryingpan empties into the Roaring Fork at Basalt; the Fork then flows past Carbondale and into the Colorado in Glenwood.

The location of a whitewater park in the Basalt area is currently under discussion, according to county attorney Ely, who initially looked at creating the amenity as a water-management tool ” an opportunity to secure a recreational water right.

“It turns out there’s a huge kayaking interest out there,” he said.

Ely hopes to bring a proposal before Pitkin County commissioners and the town of Basalt this spring.

Count kayaker Ted Guy among those enthused about the prospects. The Roaring Fork flows past his architectural and structural engineering firm in Basalt.

“I have threatened, on occasion, to just get a crane and drop a rock into the river in front of my office,” he said. “I just think, we’ve got water ” put a couple of rocks in the right spot and you can have some fun.”

Carbondale, the site of the valley’s only existing kayak event, the annual races hosted by Colorado Rocky Mountain School on the Crystal River, is also eyeing the healthy flows of the Roaring Fork for a whitewater park.

The town has submitted an application for a recreational water right and is currently focusing on securing a riverside park on land just downstream from the Hwy. 133 bridge, on the north side of the river. The Colorado Division of Wildlife currently leases river access at the site, a popular put-in for anglers hitting the river in drift boats.

A whitewater park there could both complement Glenwood’s park and draw paddlers to Carbondale, reasoned Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig.

“I really think the Roaring Fork Valley and the Colorado River ” from Basalt to New Castle ” we could regionally become quite a center for whitewater activity,” said Glenwood’s Christensen.

janet@aspentimes.com


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