In Colorado rafting country, anticipation is building with the water.
“It’s going to be a great season, no doubt about that,” says Brandon Slate, president of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, whose members at this time last year faced a much different outlook.
With parched mountains amid drought, 2018’s preseason story lines focused on the Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flow Management Program. Regulators delivered by releasing enough from reservoirs to keep boats afloat through the summer — “a lifesaver,” says Salida-based Bill Dvorak, with 40-plus years in the rafting business.
Would water managers be so generous in another dry year? “We were definitely keeping fingers crossed for snow this winter,” Slate says. “And we got that for sure.”
Ringing from the ski slopes, the industry is picking up the praises to Mother Nature. At the start of April, river rats were eyeing charts that showed the state’s snowpack well above 100 percent of normal — a bounty set to melt and swell rivers to epic proportions.
Longtime outfitters are thinking back to 1995 for the last time the forecast looked this promising. That year, Dvorak recalls the Arkansas raging 6,700 cubic feet per second (700 is “optimal” under the voluntary flow management program).
“It’ll get up to 4,000 I’m sure this year,” he says. “Maybe up to 5,000, 6,000.”
But what excites Dvorak most is the potential of a lesser-known river outside his home territory.
In circles like his, the Dolores is regarded as legendary. Stretching through remote forests, canyons and deserts in the state’s southwest corner, it stacks up with America’s best, Dvorak says, the Grand Canyon and Middle Fork of the Salmon among them.
But whitewater buffs’ chances on the stretch have been few and far between. Since the late ‘80s, the McPhee Dam has trapped the water that once kept the Dolores running strong.
“Ironically, the Dolores River lives up to its name, the ‘River of Sorrow,’ due to the limited releases,” reads the website of Durango-headquartered Mild2Wild Rafting. It is “a special treat that few ever get to experience,” the outfitter reports.
This might be the year. After a brutally dry 2018, “catch up” in the reservoir might be necessary, says Kolben Preble with Mild2Wild. The Dolores Water Conservancy District is set to make a call this month on releases.
One thing’s for sure, Preble says: “It’s gonna be an incredible season. We’re gonna see rapids we haven’t seen in close to 10 years.”
Utah’s Cataract Canyon is expected to reclaim its Class 4 and 5 reputation. The Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument’s storied land should be back to consistently raftable levels.
Closer to the Front Range, boats already have dropped in the state’s most famous whitewater destination.
“Reservations are strong right now, up just about any other year,” says James Whiteside, owner of Royal Gorge Rafting and Zip Line Tours.
Business was reportedly good last year despite the headlines of drought; Arkansas River outfitters reported revenue was up 2 percent compared with snowy 2017, suggesting the story lines make no difference to customers.
Still, “what can hurt our industry is the perception,” says Whiteside, predicting the media’s alarm over danger this summer. Of course, he says, “being informed, being prepared” is important before embarking on high water.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword for us,” Dvorak says. Talk about risks, “then people won’t come with us, and we’re quite capable of handling it.”
It’s “when you have some of these weekend warriors, the private boaters, who haven’t seen the water for a week or a year or a month, and all of a sudden, water is higher than they’ve ever seen before, more than their boat is capable of,” he says. “Then there’s more carnage.”
Whiteside echoes the message the industry heralds: “High water, low water, the smiles stay the same,” he says.
The difference with a season like this? “It’s gonna be like a powder day every day.”