Here comes the rush |

Here comes the rush

Charles Agar
Aspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

The spring runoff is on.

As rivers rise and public safety officials issue press releases about sandbagging, flooding and potential property damage, local river rats are already dropping into the gushing runoff that, at its anticipated peak in mid- or late-June, could reach levels not seen in more than 10 years.

“Things are big and they’re going to get bigger,” said Dave Eckhardt, a longtime valley local and co-author, along with Gordon Banks, of “Colorado Rivers and Creeks,” otherwise known as the kayaker’s bible.

According to Eckhardt, this year’s surge will not only mean great paddling, but the rise of an anomaly on the Colorado River: Big Sur, a monster standing wave at the mouth of Debeque Canyon.

The spring of 1995 was the last time the wave rose from the silty flow for any period of time, Eckhardt said.

Big Sur happens at sustained flows of more than 20,000 cubic feet per second, or cfs, and on May 22 the meter in Debeque topped that mark.

Eckhardt first encountered Big Sur by chance on a four-day whitewater trip from Aspen to Moab, Utah, during the big water year of 1995, the same year he first published his guidebook.

“It was a great time,” Eckhardt said of those first rides at Big Sur, a moment frozen in time by a photographer from the Grand Junction Sentinel (see photo).

The wave stands about 6 feet high with a long, flat trough stretching 100 feet across the wide mouth of the canyon, enough room for as many as 10 kayakers and even surfers on surfboards, Eckhardt said.

Plus, a train of two or three smaller waves also good for surfing usually follows the main Big Sur wave, and just below the wave is what he called a “baby pool” where kayakers wash out.

The biggest danger: broken ribs from kayakers slamming into one another, Eckhardt said.

“I think this year it’s going to be very similar to ’95 in terms of volume,” Eckhardt said. “I think Big Sur is going to be the big surf spot this year.”

“It’s amazing,” said Charlie MacArthur, owner of the Aspen Kayak Academy, who likened Big Sur to glassy waves on Waikiki in Hawaii.

The wave is easy and flat on river left, and increasingly steeper with a massive wave pile on river right, MacArthur said.

“People will be throwing huge loops,” MacArthur said. “And I think it’s going to be an absolute zoo. In fact, I know it will be a big party down there.”

And while the party-like atmosphere will be similar, the sport of kayaking has come a long way since 1995, when boats were long and high-volume, MacArthur said.

Smaller, specially designed boats are great for more aggressive maneuvers. And flips, spins, cartwheels and moves never heard of in 1995 are common on rivers these days.

Both Eckhardt and MacArthur wonder how the new boats will perform on Big Sur, and Eckhardt even suggested that the old boats might fair better on Big Sur’s long, flat trough.

But Big Sur is only a slice of potential adventure on local rivers.

In its first year after construction, the new man-made play wave in Glenwood Springs is also rising high out of the Colorado, Eckhardt said.

And other popular sections are running a torrent.

On May 22, a national river database listed the Colorado River through the Shoshone section in Glenwood Canyon as “crankin” at 13,000 cfs; it was closed to commercial rafting because of high water levels.

The Roaring Fork River, now at just more than 1,000 cfs at the Maroon Creek Gauge (just above the class IV Slaughterhouse section west of Aspen) can run as high as 7,000 cfs in mid- to late-June, Eckhardt said.

The quality of the whitewater season is not just about a quick spring rush, however. It’s about how the snow melts over time, he said.

“The really big years have big springs too,” Eckhardt said. “It takes more than the wintertime.”

Cool temperatures in May have so far prevented an early release of snowmelt, and recent moderate temperatures – and more in the forecast – mean the rivers could rise at a steady rate, spawning a longer season, Eckhardt said.

“The more the water holds back, the better,” Eckhardt said.

A gradual runoff and a long season would be a boon to local rafting companies.

“We’re just getting things cooking,” said Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting, who has already started running trips in the valley.

Steady flows on the Roaring Fork, ideally with the Slaughterhouse section at about 1,500 cfs for a long period, means it can be run until late July – before he is forced to take clients over Independence Pass to the longer-running Arkansas River near Buena Vista.

“If you have rafting right out your door, it’s wonderful,” Ingram said, especially with the price of gas on the rise.

“Right now we’re doing a big push to get locals out on the rivers,” Ingram said, and like Blazing Adventures, another local rafting company, he is charging cut-rate local prices for an early-season run down Slaughterhouse.

River adventures, however, are all about safety.

A big spring means cold, swift water laden with debris and river conditions that can change at a moment’s notice.

A person submerged in fast flows moves a lot quicker than a boat, so guides and independent rafters and kayakers must monitor conditions and be on their toes, Ingram said.

“It’s cold water,” Ingram said. “If you drop somebody in the water, you want to get them out quickly.”

And that’s just one challenge of big runoff.

Heavy water flows scour the riverbank and send debris, even full-grown trees, rushing down the river.

“We’ve been down the river every day checking out all the sections and moving wood,” Ingram said, a job his crews undertake with the help of other rafting companies.

“It’s a community effort,” Ingram said.

He encouraged people to call any of the rafting companies if they see big debris in local rivers.

“Safety is huge with the big runoff,” said MacArthur, who leads beginner and intermediate kayakers on local rivers every spring.

He recommends kayakers start out far below their ability to get up to speed, doing runs such as the class II “Pink to Black” or “Cemetery” sections on the Roaring Fork west of Carbondale.

“That’s the beauty of kayaking is that you don’t need to get out and scare yourself,” MacArthur said.

Even the mellow Stillwater stretch east of Aspen, where MacArthur takes absolute beginners, could sprout new features, and the middle stretch of the Roaring Fork near Basalt will go from a usually mellow class II to a challenging class III.

Kayakers should gun for practicing harder moves in easier water, MacArthur advised.

“This is a great year to be a beginner because you are going to have more fun and places will have more push,” MacArthur said.

As a guidebook writer, Eckhardt said gauging local rivers at varying levels is difficult.

The falls in Slaughterhouse, for example, undergo a radical transformation at different levels. At high water, a hole develops at the base of the falls that is a “keeper,” which means it can trap a kayaker by recirculating.

He’s seen people stuck in it for five minutes before the hole spat them out.

In short, river runners must be cautious and expect conditions to change hour-to-hour, Eckhardt said.

“If nothing else, there’ll be a lot of gear chasing,” Eckhardt said. “There’ll be a lot of boats going from Aspen to Basalt.”

But just because it’s high water doesn’t mean everything is dangerous, Eckhardt said; flat stretches, such as the mellow water from Grizzly Creek in Glenwood Canyon to the confluence of the Colorado and the Roaring Fork, will be mellow.

“Beginners shouldn’t be blanket afraid of the river, they should just be educated,” Eckhardt said. “I think education goes a long way. It’s not just that everything’s a terror out there, you’ve just got to know your own skill level.”

But the big runoff is an opportunity for “hairball boaters” and extreme kayakers to really do their thing, Eckhardt said.

“There’s people out there who can paddle these rivers at any level,” Eckhardt said. “This is their time.”

In 1995, sheriff’s deputies in some rural parts of Colorado tried to force kayakers off rivers, but Eckhardt said they have no right to do so.

He likened it to skiing out-of-bounds, something once prohibited but now an integral part of the sport.

“I think people need their wild moments,” Eckhardt said.

And while the bar is being raised in the sport of kayaking, and paddlers are hurling off high falls and running sections once thought unrunnable (such as the “Meatgrinder” stretch of the Crystal River near Marble), kayakers are more skilled and fatalities are few, Eckhardt said.

But that doesn’t stop the idiots among us from risking their lives.

Recently, Eckhardt watched from the shore as a man with no lifejacket and no ability to steer his small inflatable took his boat through the new man-made wave in Glenwood Springs.

The boat stalled in the pile of foam, than flipped and, unable to swim, the man had to be rescued by nearby kayakers.

A few minutes later, a friend of his did the very same performance.

“They’re out there,” Eckhardt said. “There are more yahoos every year.”

It’s kind of like survival of the fittest, he said. And this year, there will be plenty of opportunities for the fit to test their mettle.