Wave riders heading to Glenwood | AspenTimes.com

Wave riders heading to Glenwood

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Chris Kennedy, right, shares a wave with a kayaker at the whitewater park in Glenwood Springs on a recent weekend. With high water levels, the park has become a playground for a variety of people seeking fun in the water. (Chad Spangler/Post Independent)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Pat Dorgan sat comfortably secured in his blood-red kayak on the banks of the Colorado River, one of about 10 paddlers on this particular Wednesday.

The thundering 13,000-cubic-feet-per-second rush of the winter’s runoff was deafening. Just downriver, a muddy, white-capped wave was cresting in the newly created Glenwood Springs whitewater park as Dorgan smiled. The view of the wave is as beautiful in Dorgan’s eyes as the brush strokes of a Monet to an art lover.

He was already soaking wet as he pushed off the bank with his paddle and wiggled his torso inching his kayak into the river’s grasp.

Quickly taken by the current toward the river’s center, he placed the paddle’s fin in the water to his right rear for drag, spinning his water craft, heading downriver back first, setting himself up to be cradled by the wave.

At 49 years old, the “old man of the river,” as Dorgan is known, has seen many different waves, holes and whitewater features through the years. This was his first time riding the wave at Glenwood’s park, and as his boat slid into the trough below, he began paddling. The wave took him, and he slid down into the trough below once again, before the raging water pushed him back to the crest of the wave. Heaven on earth for the old man of the river.

“It’s like a surf wave,” he said as he stepped out of his boat onto the rocky river bank. “Most parks have holes for tricks that are more intensive on your back, whereas this is more mellow, like an ocean wave. I’ve got to go again.”

He placed his kayak onto his shoulder and headed upriver just a few steps to once again have his turn on the wave.

On any given day, spectators can be seen sprawling on the banks of the river, watching people play on Glenwood’s newest attraction.

But Glenwood’s whitewater park has gained some national recognition in only its first few months of being open. It’s drawn whitewater enthusiasts from all over the country and around the world. It’s drawn the best paddlers in the sport, and is even making Glenwood a “must do” for paddlers of all skill levels, like Dorgan, who lives in Golden, Colo.

“If you build it they will come, right?” Dorgan said with a laugh after another run on the wave.

Dorgan’s friend and kayaking partner, Greg Kyle from Denver, decided to come up for the day and see what the hype was all about.

“We missed it last week during the high water, but we heard about it and thought we’d come and see what it was like,” Kyle said.

Kyle and Dorgan, along with a handful of other paddlers, waited in turn to catch the wave Wednesday afternoon.

“When you catch it, it’s one of the best waves in the area, if not the state,” Kyle said.

Brian Wright and Chris Vogt, local paddlers and owners of Glenwood Canyon Kayak, just a few blocks from the whitewater park, agree with Kyle’s assessment. From what they’ve heard from locals and professionals alike, it’s one of the best artificial waves in the world.

“When you’ve got the best paddlers in the world saying it’s the best in the nation, that’s pretty big,” Vogt said.

Flows on the Colorado River below the confluence with the Roaring Fork River have the potential to top 20,000 cfs during a good runoff season, as this one has been. That makes Dorgan’s smile grow as large as the wave.

“I wish I could’ve been here when it was 20,000,” Dorgan said. “This one would be perfect at about 15,000 cfs. Today it’s about 13,000, and it’s pretty good.”

Dorgan never spent much time kayaking the rivers around Glenwood. He, like many others, spent the majority of his time in places like his home of Golden, Salida on the Arkansas river, or Durango. Those places have good features, according to Dorgan, and are some highly respected kayaking destinations, but this is the best wave he’s surfed.

“Other places may have better holes, but this is the best wave in the state,” Dorgan said.

Vogt agrees, saying that no whitewater park has ever been constructed on a river like the Colorado before, and this feature has already put Glenwood on the map.

“No place has a 20,000 cfs window,” Vogt said. “We’ve got a viable park that is usable from March to October.”

The surprising thing about the whitewater park to Dorgan is how long it took to get one in Glenwood Springs.

“Pretty much any town with a 4,500 cfs stream is looking to build a park,” Dorgan said. “Glenwood gets the best year-round flow on the Colorado. It just makes sense to have a park here.”

Jason Carey of Riverrestoration.org in Glenwood Springs, designer of the whitewater park, is not only a river engineer but is an avid paddler, as well. That helped in his understanding of what the park needed and the great praise he’s received for his work.

“The size of the river was a major consideration,” Carey said. “The size of the river is probably the biggest river that I’ve installed a project on to this point, with the most substantial flows and the highest peak runoffs.”

But the park has exceeded even the expectations of its designer, who’s constructed whitewater parks in Avon, Frisco, Vail and Ogden, Utah, and is currently working on other parks in Canon City and in other states, such as Kentucky.

“We certainly hoped it would be as popular as it has become,” Carey said. “We are really happy to see it a big success.”

For paddlers like Dorgan, it’s about time that Glenwood arrives on the scene with a kayak feature on the mighty Colorado River.

“Everyone is trying to design the perfect wave, and it never really works out exactly like people think it will,” Dorgan said. “But this one seems to be working. It’s the best in the state.”

One of the coolest, unexpected aspects of the whitewater park is that it’s proved to be not only a play spot for kayakers, but commercial and private rafts enjoy the Class 3 rapid the feature creates when it flows above 12,000 cfs. And it’s also attracted a number of surfers, as well.

After a few hours surfing the wave in hi kayak, Dorgan grabbed his surfboard, which typically sees the waters off the coast of California or off the famed north shore of Hawaii. But this time his board surfed the frigid waters of the Colorado River.

Dorgan rode the board right into the belly of the beast, into the trough of the wave, and began paddling. He popped up to his feet and was reveling in a pastime most often reserved for distant vacations, not weekend trips to Glenwood Springs.

“We’re seeing more surfing than on any other wave. It’s a relatively new sport, but the wave is drawing a lot of surfers,” Vogt said. “I knew that kayakers would love it, but the surfers were a surprise to me.”

Dorgan said that being able to surf the wave is proof of its perfection.

“You can last all day on a wave like this,” Dorgan said. “I’ve got a few more in me, maybe.”

With his board tucked under his arm, he again walked to the put-in and attempted to surf the wave again.

Wright smiles when he thinks about what this artificial wave, a playground for river rats, will do for Glenwood Springs. It’s finally defined the town as a kayaking destination, a must-do for paddlers of any level.

“It’s finally given Glenwood the one thing where it’s going to be the best,” Wright said. “The skiing is good, but that’s really Aspen. The mountain biking is good, but Grand Junction or Moab is better. Glenwood is an awesome town. We’ve got all that other stuff within an hour of town, but this is really going to make Glenwood shine.”