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A bird-eyes overhead view of a river rapid as a surfer plays in the wave
Tracy Sage surfs the Scout rapid as other surfers await on the shoreline for their turns in the Arkansas River, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Salida. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

SALIDA — It’s back.

After a nearly eight-week absence, the Scout Wave last week returned to the Arkansas River in Salida’s whitewater park and the surfers rallied. 

“It’s smooth and perfect. It’s literally a dream,” said Denver musician and river surfer Eric Halborg, who has been camping in the Upper Arkansas River Valley ever since the wave — which surfers call the best in the country — re-emerged. “Everyone is just giddy. The local kids are just shredding this thing. There are new cats trying to figure it out and everyone is cheering them on. It’s such a great scene.”

For a couple months, the scene at the Scout Wave was not great. After a long winter of surfing at low water, the river peaked and the tall, glassy wave turned into a churning, boat-flipping hydraulic that forced downstream travelers to exit the river. The roiling boil became a serious threat, challenging the river designers who promised to build an affordable, year-round surf feature in Salida’s wildly popular whitewater park. 

River surfing is red hot right now, with board riders carving across carefully crafted waves all over Colorado. The Scout Wave in Salida ranks at the top of the list, with a wall of glassy water stretching across the river in downtown. All last winter, his year, surfers donned thick wetsuits and carved the brand new, first-of-its-kind wave. 

The veteran river park engineers with Recreation Engineering and Planning — or REP — promised their wave would be affordable to build and surfable for 10, maybe even 11 months a year. It’s the couple months in June and July, when the river peaks, that posed a problem. 

As the Arkansas River climbed above 1,000 cubic feet per second in Salida, the Scout Wave turned violent. The day it transformed from hallowed to harrowing, REP engineers — including Mike Harvey, a Salida kayaker, rafter and surfer who started working to create a whitewater park in his hometown in 1999 — got a crane and started plopping 4,000-pound sacks of sand into the river to reduce the danger. They carved an emergency boat chute into the channel, skirting the turbulent boil. They stretched a warning sign across the F Street Bridge upstream, warning paddlers to get out and scout. 

Harvey even swam through the foaming maw “more than 30 times,” he said, to make sure the hole was not capable of holding a person. It was certainly able to hold a boat. Videos on the internet that once showed surfers gracefully carving from bank to bank now showed rafts getting thrashed in the whirling whitewater.  

“Our No. 1 goal is public safety and this is everyone’s river. I’ve been working on the Arkansas River in Salida for 24 years and what I care most about is creating in-town recreation for our community,” Harvey said. “This is basically my life’s work and I want everyone in this community to feel some benefit and connection to the river. We know we have to make some changes.”

A surfer plays in a river wave as other surfers stand on the shoreline
River surfers take turns riding the Scout rapid in the Arkansas River July 18 in Salida. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Salida began connecting the city’s downtown with its neglected river in 2000. After four phases of public and private fundraising the city’s four features — all built by REP — have attracted thousands of paddlers and thrilled riverside spectators with national and regional kayaking contests. When the Scout Wave was built in 2010, it was one of the nation’s first river features designed and built for the nascent sport of river surfing. 

Colorado is a global leader in whitewater parks, with Denver’s Confluence Park sparking an entire industry. There are several major park designers in Colorado, including REP, Scott Shipley’s S2O Design in Lyons, River Restoration in Carbondale and Whitewater Parks International in Glenwood Springs. 

Colorado rapidly emerged as river mecca in the past decade, with whitewater park builders creating surf waves that ferried a coastal sport onto rivers in Buena Vista, Durango, Eagle, Florence, Glenwood Springs, Golden, Gunnison, Montrose, Pueblo and Sheridan.  

As surfboard technology and river surfing skills advanced, REP adjusted the first wave in the Salida park in 2019 to better accommodate riders and then last year redesigned the Scout Wave.

The Scout Wave 2.0 quickly emerged as one of the best river surf features in the country. Even on the coldest days last winter, surfers gathered downtown Salida to surf the smooth, wide wave. It was not uncommon for surfers to haul lights down to the river and surf deep into the night on water rolling from reservoirs upstream to Front Range cities like Aurora and Colorado Springs.

Creating a feature that works for all river users

There are two waves in Denver with adjustable hydraulic flaps that can shape a wave. Similar wave-sculpting technology is used in river waves in Bend, Oregon, and Boise, Idaho. That technology can cost millions and the hope with the Scout Wave was to create a wave that surfed most of the year for a fraction of the cost. 

Harvey and his team, including design engineer Spencer Lacy, hit a bull’s-eye on the 10-months-a-year-of-surfing goal with a wave that cost “exponentially less” than adjustable river features, Harvey said.

They ventured away from traditional drop structures that use well-placed rocks in the river to funnel a channel of moving water into a pool to form retentive waves for spinning kayakers and board riders. Instead, Harvey said, the Scout Wave is designed as “a surfing treadmill” and a “sheet flow wave” with smooth concrete directing the water over a sculpted slope, not unlike the surf waves at artificial wave pools. 

Harvey and Lacy were heroes until the river hit that point somewhere north of 1,250 cfs and the wave became a dangerous hole. 

River park designers used a crane to drop 4,000-pound sacks of sand in the Salida whitewater park to help reduce the hazard of the park’s Scout Wave in the Arkansas River. When flows in the river increased in June, the wave became a boat-flipping hydraulic, as seen here in this photo from early July. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

They called Larry Sherwood, the owner of Lowry Contracting, the company that built all the features in the Salida whitewater park. Sherwood showed up with a crane within 24 hours to help make adjustments with two-ton sandbags. Lacy even directed a crew to carefully place sand-filled sacks to help adjust the feature and make it less sketchy for unaware anglers and paddlers. They used volunteers, their own money and funds from the Arkansas River Trust, the nonprofit that formed in 1999 to support the whitewater park, to make the changes.

This fall the river engineers will go in and make adjustments to allow safer passage through the feature at high flows next summer. 

 “We know the wave works at low flows and medium flows, and right now it is the best wave in the country,” Lacy said. “Now we need to make sure we can have boat passage at high flows. We are very sensitive to the concerns and we really want to design and create features that work for every user group, not just surfers.”

A motion blur of a whitewater river as a surfer rides a wave
Tracy Sage surfs the Scout Wave on the Arkansas River July 18 in Salida. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Tinkering in whitewater parks is common. Park designers often return to rivers to make adjustments after seeing a season of varying flows roll through their parks. Sculpting features in moving water is an inexact science. Over the years, engineers have needed to adjust threatening features at the whitewater park in Pueblo, Basalt’s river park and the Bob’s Hole in Avon’s park, for example. 

The REP wave-building engineers have the support of Salida leaders and business owners. 

Salida Mayor Dan Shore remembers when Harvey pitched the plan for the Scout Wave renovation. The plan was to create a wave that could draw surfers year-round, not just in the busy summer months. He heard from lots of surfers praising the wave. And this summer he heard from a few residents when the surf wave turned a boat-trashing hole. 

Harvey came to a council meeting during peak flows and told them he swam into the violent maw seven times that day “to get a much better feel and flavor” of his suddenly un-surfable creation, Shore said. 

“He told us it let him go every time,” Shore said. “Look, I think Mike Harvey is really talented and now that he’s seen what the river did this summer, I really feel he will help us find the balance we need there.”

Ray Kitson has owned the Boathouse Cantina on the Arkansas River in downtown Salida for more than 30 years. He also rents tubes, boogie boards, stand-up paddleboards and small rafts to visitors eager to get on the river.  But the not-surfable and barely passable Scout Wave downstream of his business pinched his rentals this summer, he said. 

“I’m probably more impacted than anyone,” said Kitson, who has visited communities across the state helping local leaders understand how river parks can buoy rural economies. 

A surfer plays in a river wave as other surfers stand on the shoreline
Bartek Kajak, of Louisville, surfs the Scout wave as others await for their turn. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Kitson said he spent “more than a few hours” this summer sipping a beer down by the Scout Wave at high water, watching as anglers and unaware paddlers floated into the maw. He helped direct many of them to get out and walk around the hole. 

“Kinda proves the old adage: A lot of whitewater boaters are good anglers, but there are not a lot of anglers who are good whitewater paddlers,” Kitson said. “There was some carnage and it was pretty entertaining.”

Kitson said he and other Salida business owners have confidence that Harvey and his team will make the needed adjustments to reduce the hazards of the Scout Wave while protecting the allure of the surf wave. They have watched Harvey sculpt a river park for more than 20 years, creating an amenity that has helped Salida thrive as both a vibrant destination and a hometown. 

“There is a positive feeling with how the wave is now and moving forward,” Kitson said. “We trust Mike and his team.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...