Valley’s rafting industry goes with the flow |

Valley’s rafting industry goes with the flow

Janet Urquhart
Jackie Beyer, 11, of Los Angeles laughs her way down the Roaring Fork River in an inflatable kayak with Aspen Whitewater Rafting on Tuesday morning. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Colorado’s rafting industry rises and falls with its rivers, but local outfitters say they’ll help post the kind of numbers that could help the state top its 1999 record season.

As the commercial rafting season floats toward its September close, some area rafting companies expect to post healthy gains over last summer, when Colorado as a whole recorded 504,622 paying customers and established a new high-water mark with $135 million in revenue, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

With this year’s healthy early-season snowpack, predictions of an epic season quickly began trickling from the lips of outfitters, but whether Colorado can best its record 525,537 user-days from ’99 remains to be seen.

With many of the CROA’s 45 members continuing to offer rafting trips through September, the organization won’t release this season’s final tally until January, according to Ches Russell, president.

“The word I’m hearing from different outfitters is that it has been a strong river year,” he said.

“It was a great season for everyone, I think,” said Jim Ingram, owner of Aspen Whitewater Rafting. “We were super busy this summer.”

Ingram’s company, in its third year of operation, will continue to offer “ducky” trips with inflatable kayaks on the middle Roaring Fork River through Labor Day. It ended its rafting excursions to the Arkansas River, on the far side of Independence Pass, after the supplemental water appropriations to the Arkansas ended on Aug. 15.

Aspen Whitewater’s business is up 20 percent from last season, Ingram estimated.

“We’re a small business – we’re going to be up every year for awhile,” he added.

Snowmass-based Blazing Paddles is up about 10 percent from last season, according to owner Bob Harris, who keep boats in the water until October.

The key to a good season, he says, is decent snowpack to start the season and good summer weather. The Roaring Fork Valley has had both – sort of. The snowpack went quickly and the weather turned rainy in July, but sunny mornings saved the days, so to speak.

Blazing Paddles continues to offer ducky trips on the Fork and rafting on the Colorado River through the Shoshone rapids in Glenwood Canyon.

The mild Class III stretch from Shoshone to Grizzly Creek, about 2 miles, remains some of the best rafting in the state from a water-volume perspective, local outfitters note. It was running at about 1,500 cubic feet per second Tuesday morning, while popular sections of the Arkansas had dropped below 600 cfs (in some cases, well below) early Tuesday. The supplemental flows that ended Aug. 15 kept the Arkansas at 700 cfs at a gauging station below Salida – a mark it can still hit without the supplement, depending on conditions.

Rock Gardens Rafting in Glenwood Springs continues to run Shoshone, as well, said owner Kevin Schneider, who’s looking at a solid year that should rival last season’s strong numbers.

Early on, the company was up about 12 percent, but some all-day cold July rains put a damper on the strong pace.

“It isn’t a record year for us, but it’s one of our top two or three,” Schneider said. “It’s been a good season – a lot of tourism going on in the state and we certainly got our share of that.”

Business at Vail-based Lakota River Guides was up 20 percent over last season, head guide Doug Schofield told the Vail Daily late last month.

Matt Brown, Russell’s partner at Scenic River Tours in Gunnison, said business is also up for their company, which runs trips on the Gunnison and Taylor rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope.

But Bob Hamel, owner of Arkansas River Tours in Cotopaxi, said his business on the state’s busiest river is roughly even with last year’s.

“We’re not breaking any records, that’s for sure,” he said.

Last year, the Arkansas saw more users than any other river in the state, with 228,091, according to the CROA. The Colorado River was second at 95,754.

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