Colbert: Slowing my world down by canoeing the North Star preserve |

Colbert: Slowing my world down by canoeing the North Star preserve

Sun Dog Athletics owner Erik Skarvan rows past a few stand-up paddleboarders on Thursday while taking Aspen Times sports editor Austin Colbert through the North Star Nature Preserve via canoe.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The last time I could remember being in a canoe was during my childhood. My grandfather, who then lived on the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kansas, had a green canoe that always fascinated me. From Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to the tales of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the idea of exploring unknown waterways from a canoe sounded like the ultimate water adventure.

However, today we seem to live in a world of stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking and rafting, especially here in the Roaring Fork Valley. And as much as I enjoy each of those activities, I feel the canoe is getting left behind.

So naturally I was all about joining local guide Erik Skarvan on Thursday morning for a quick canoe trip through the North Star Nature Preserve near Aspen.

“It’s a love in my heart,” Skarvan said of canoeing. “The uniqueness is really being able to do what we did today, which is bring someone along for the ride.”

Skarvan, who grew up canoeing the waters of Wisconsin and Minnesota, owns Sun Dog Athletics, which offers guided tours from canoe and from bike, whether that be road, dirt or snow. The two of us, along with his organic chocolate chip cookies, spent an hour-plus on the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork River talking about our mutual love for canoeing.

“We flatwater paddle, so it’s a slow nature experience,” Skarvan said. “It’s relaxed and peaceful, and to be able to share that with other people I think is really the core of why I love it so much.”

I’m not a river rat, but that’s mostly because I neither have the equipment, the friends nor the knowledge to make that happen. Most of my adventures tend to stay on terra firma or, when I’m not concussed (see all of last winter), the snow. But between my recent fly fishing trip (a first) and Thursday’s peaceful cruise through North Star, I find myself wanting to spend a lot more time on water.

If you haven’t been through the North Star Nature Preserve, which is located along Highway 82 as you head out of Aspen toward Independence Pass, it’s something special. Thursday’s float with Skarvan was my first time experiencing the place “where the Roaring Fork whispers” from boat, and that’s the best way to experience it. While there are plenty of stories of bear and moose in that area, our wildlife sightings were mostly limited to a few geese and the occasional fish seen through the crystal-clear water.

“It’s really special, and to be able to see that from a boat is slowing your world down,” Skarvan said. “North Star is a gem of Aspen, and unfortunately most locals don’t really see it because it’s not super accessible. It’s food for the soul. It’s healing.”

The downfall to canoeing the Fork is probably the limited time frame to do it. Unlike a SUP, which barely needs any water to make magic happen, canoes need a little more from Old Man Winter than he gave us the past few months. At least the valley has its share of reservoirs that can accommodate us once the Fork’s faucet turns off for the summer, which could be sooner than later.

“It might be only into June this year. Most years it goes into July, but the canoe being that it is a bigger boat and is heavier, it needs 5 or 6 inches of water,” Skarvan said. “Once it gets down to about 3 inches deep at spots, it starts scraping bottoms. But that’s when I’ll go up to the reservoirs like Ruedi, Chapman, and I love to go up to Grizzly.”

I was excited about some shredding up on Independence Pass now that it is open, but the early rumor mill about the snow conditions is a little depressing. So, I guess I’ll have to turn into a river rat for the next few weeks until 14er season hits its stride.

And if any of you happen to own a canoe, I’m pretty sure we should be friends.


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