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Colorado’s snowpack delivered an epic ski season. Now it’s rafters’ turn — even if they’re a little nervous

Snow that piled up this winter could come rushing down too fast and too fierce for river fun

Benj Mickel, rafting guide with Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, hits the rapids in the Durango Whitewater Park with a group of boaters on April 15, 2019 as they travel down the Animas River. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Just for a moment, Ellen Southworth allows herself to dream.

Maybe Colorado will enjoy a slow, gentle warm-up this summer, with cold nights and without heavy rainstorms, and the rivers will run like a fun water slide all season.

But then, over the phone, you can almost see her eyes rolling.

“Realistically, we will probably get a really hot few days and a rain event,” said Southworth, the operations officer for Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep tours in Durango.

Mother Nature, after all, has the temperament of a teenager: “Oh, last year all river lovers did was complain about the snowpack? Fine. How’s THIS for a snowpack?”

Colorado’s snowpack is reaching historic proportions this spring, and that leaves fans of whitewater excited — and a bit nervous. Last year’s slim snowpack threatened to run river rafting companies out of business, especially in southern Colorado, where rafters were left scrounging for trickles of water. This year, enthusiasts see opportunity, as all rivers look ready to run wild. In fact, it’s hard to pick where to go first.

“I look at the water levels every few days,” said Vincent Lujan of Denver, who last year spent 90 days on rivers all over Colorado, “and it’s like you’re looking through a catalogue.”

All over Colorado, river forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are seeing snowpacks of up to 200 percent of average in Southworth’s area, southern Colorado, with those same snowpacks in the top three of the past 30 years. Snowpacks over the rest of Colorado are still great but more moderate, more like 120 percent of median statewide as of Friday, ranks that put them in the top 10 of the past 30 years. That still leaves room for excitement.

“The snowpack is just … huge,” said Lee Crowley, a senior hydro meteorologist and water supply forecaster for the Arkansas-Red River Basin for the NOAA, which handles the Arkansas River. “But everyone there knows that.”

Benj Mickel, rafting guide with Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, paddles clients on the Animas River. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fast melt turns rivers dangerous

If summer does get in a hurry, especially several days in a row, much of the snow can melt, sending a rush of water downstream. If those huge piles of snow still haven’t melted until then, the rush of water could turn fun rivers into angry, frothing rides of terror.

People die when that happens, and Colorado leads the nation in river deaths since 1975. There were 77 people killed in Colorado whitewater from 1975-2005 and 78 killed since then, a rise attributed to the rise in popularity of kayaking, as well as family rafting trips, according to American Whitewater. More than 80 percent were people rafting on their own, not under the watch of an outfitter.

Kyle Skelton, of Boston, river surfs on the Animas River on April 15, 2019 in the Durango Whitewater Park. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lujan was almost one of them. In 2015, the last big year Lujan can remember on the South Platte River in Denver, he was running it after work every day in June, typically the peak flow for rivers in Colorado. He punched through a rapid on the famed Union Chutes run, and a strong wave sucked his raft back in and he tumbled into the river. The rapids thrashed him like a pair of khakis in a washing machine before he hugged into a ball and the water shot him out with a cracked helmet, a slashed foot and a shaken disposition. Someone else, he said, drowned that day.

“That was the worst swim I’ve ever had,” said Lujan, who had a lot of swift water rescue training as his role of vice president of the High Country River Rafters, an organization that promotes river rafting and training as well as conservation.

Lujan, 48, expects many rivers to be three times as high and fast as last year. In the past few years, much of the South Platte near Denver was calm, allowing people to float with pool toys, he said. Not this year.

“I’m not taking anything down unless it’s armored and I’ve got a helmet,” he said.

For white water enthusiasts, the epic snowpack should provide a good year — maybe a great one. But just as some ski resorts closed because of avalanche worries this season, too much water too soon can be bad for those who work and play on the rivers.

“There’s just so many variables,” said Ryan Barwick, owner of Rocky Mountain Adventure in Fort Collins. “The key thing I always look at is how the runoff is going to occur, and a lot of that depends on temperatures in May.”

It’s OK to portage around a rapid. Really.

Lujan, who first rafted when he was 15, said rafters should not be afraid to walk around a rapid if it seems too tough. He also said it’s smart to scout them, as they change every day.

“The big problem is people won’t be used to it being a big, real river,” he said. “They may bring their pool toys down again, and that’s fine when it’s barely moving, but that won’t be the case this year.”

Most established and larger river outfitters are prepared for big water, with the knowledge to lead several runs on a river, said David Costlow, a former river outfitter himself who is now spokesman for the Colorado River Outfitters Association.

Usually if a river is too high, Costlow said, outfitters will do another section. That could mean some relaxing runs, such as Filter Plant, typically a tubing float on the Poudre River, could turn into a fun, even fast, family ride in June, when the water is highest. This year, it’s possible, even probable, that there will be days when river outfitters will need to compromise.

“If it’s 80 degrees for two weeks, a lot of water will come down and probably be higher than we want it to be,” Costlow said. “But it’s nothing we’ve never seen before. You just pay attention to it. Everyone knows where to run and how to do it. You don’t want to give them more than they’re expecting. It makes it more fun if you keep everyone in the boat.”

Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours Benj Mickel rafting guide leans back in the boat as he gives a safety talk to from left, Richard Farmer and son Hank Farmer, 5, and Eric and Amanda Dukauskas and their son Lukas, 5, before heading down the Animas River. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

High water creates new opportunities

The high water is certainly good for ecological reasons, and as long as any flooding is minor, river lovers should be happy, said Evan Stafford, communications director for American Whitewater, an advocacy nonprofit group for both river recreation and conservation, though it does not act on the behalf of industry outfitters.

“High water provides a different recreational opportunity,” Stafford said. “That’s exciting for some people, and it does create advanced conditions and more opportunity for hazards, but from our perspective, more is better, and the beauty of that is that means there’s a longer season when it gets lower.”

In southern Colorado, Mild to Wild has already started running trips on the Animas River, and the company cautiously welcomes the higher water, especially after last year, when it took everything just to keep their spirits up. All companies in Colorado should begin running by the third week in May.

“We will get the whole range this year,” Southworth said. “We don’t always get that. If you haven’t been rafting in our area, this is the year.”

Rising Sun