Healthy rafting season expected for Arkansas River after a snow-filled winter

April 24, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2014 at 1:08 pm
photo - 88-year-old Bob Friend, front right, and his wife, Gail, 82, were among a group of nine seniors from Summit Glen Gracious Retirement Living who rafted the Arkansas River Monday, August 9, 2011.  Mark Reis, The Gazette
88-year-old Bob Friend, front right, and his wife, Gail, 82, were among a group of nine seniors from Summit Glen Gracious Retirement Living who rafted the Arkansas River Monday, August 9, 2011. Mark Reis, The Gazette 

The snow that pounded Colorado's high country all winter - delighting skiers with an extended season - looks poised to bring thrills to the state's whitewater enthusiasts. Not to mention the businesses that put them in the water.

While southwestern Colorado is lagging when it comes to snowpack, basins to the north are well above average, summoning images of healthy river flows, adventure-hungry tourists and happy tour guides.

Consider Bob Hamel, owner of Arkansas River Tours, with offices in Cotopaxi and CaƱon City.

"Everything right now leads to high optimism for the season, all indicators, so we're pretty excited for a change," Hamel said.

Although rafting doesn't pick up in earnest until mid- to late May, when schools start to dismiss, demand for guided fishing expeditions and rafting tours already is ramping up, Hamel said. His business and at least one other rafting company along the Arkansas are already open for business.

The good news comes after a two-year stretch of anemic returns on what's commonly billed as the most commercially rafted river in the country.

In 2012 and 2013, less-than-dazzling flows combined with regional wildfires, flooding and other challenges to take a bite from the Arkansas Basin's rafting revenues, which are driven not only by out-of state tourism, but also visitors from Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Denver, who stay home when conditions are poor.

Cumulatively, the Arkansas River Valley is at 102 percent of the mean snowpack, or about average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which measures snowpack across the state. Hidden among those numbers is a much-better-than-average snowpack in waterways near the river's headwaters, Hamel said, calling them a key indicator for good rafting. He said a high moisture content in the soil also will help generate runoff into the area's waterways, bolstering water from snow melt.

While the numbers are worth cheering, they're nothing compared with the Laramie and North Platte river basins, which are at 139 percent of mean. The Yampa and White River basins are at 121 percent, the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 123 percent, and the South Platte River Basin is at 132 percent.

But heavy snowpacks are hardly universal. Missing out on the trend are basins in southern and southwestern Colorado, which suffered an anemic winter.

The Upper Rio Grande Basin is at only 67 percent of the mean, and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins are at 73 percent.

Predictions about the health of the rafting season rest on hopes for mild temperatures early in the season. A rapid melt could mean bad news for rafting companies, which look for a stable, long runoff to keep flows moving into the peak tourist period, generally from mid-June to mid-August.

Dust picked up by storms in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and then dumped on Colorado's high country also can enter the mix, leading to quicker melts.

While the Colorado River Water Conservation District recorded at least eight large dust storms this winter, the state's snow packs might be deep enough to weather effects of the dust, general manager Eric Kuhn said.

In some areas, including the Colorado River Basin, the deep snow might be a double-edged sword, sending outfitters on a hunt for waterways that aren't dangerously high.

"If you're in your kayak, you don't want to have a run-in with a 25-foot tree trunk," said Kuhn.

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