A day in the life of a Colorado whitewater rafting guide

American Adventures Expeditions rafts float Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River in June 2017.

An iconic Colorado industry hopes COVID-19 doesn't sink its late-summer prospects.

A downturn seems inevitable, said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. Representing whitewater-dedicated companies in every corner of the state, the association reported 542,405 commercial user days in 2019, its third-best mark on record. That reportedly spelled $188 million in economic impact for the state. 

"I would hope for 70% to 80% of last year," Costlow said. "I would hope. But we'll see."

The vast majority of river runners are already playing catch-up. They missed the traditional kickoff to the season, Memorial Day weekend, while waiting for clearance from the state, Costlow said.

Gov. Jared Polis' "safer at home and in the vast, great outdoors" order was amended June 4 to outline guidelines for the rafting business, rules related to transportation, boat capacity and cleaning.

Outfitters waited until then to hit the snowmelt, Costlow said.

"Individual counties had submitted their variances, but there wasn't standardization across the state. ... It became obvious that people really needed some comfort from (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment). It was the good housekeeping seal of approval, that kind of thing."

Normally by middle to late May, outfitters have guides lined up and training well underway. Costlow said some held off on hiring until health protocols were approved — and by then, some would-be guides had already picked up other work. Others were said to be sticking with unemployment benefits, including the extra $600 a week through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

"When you're already hurting financially (as an employer), it's hard to compete with that," Costlow said.

He said the challenges have been enough to keep "a few" operators closed for the summer. They spend the offseason re-upping on costly insurance, along with river permits, vehicle maintenance and upgraded equipment.

"You've got all these expenses," Costlow said, "and not knowing if you'll be able to open. That could be a depressing thought."

But customers were back on the boats through June, though in limited, socially distant numbers. The future appears again uncertain, with the tourism industry eyeing what increased coronavirus cases mean for travel trends.

As always, outfitters would love to be booking trips through Labor Day weekend. "Especially with things starting a few weeks late, it'd be nice to run for an extra week or so," Costlow said.

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