With Colorado rafting season underway in one of the world’s top whitewater destinations, outfitters are eyeing flows not seen in years and taking the opportunity to promote a memorable season. At the same time, they’re issuing calls for safety.
Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association (AROA), in a recent press release said conditions recalled an epic 1995. He predicted a summer that “rafters will tell stories about for years.”
He added: “There are inherent risks in all adventure sports whether it is rafting, skiing or hiking, and participants should be honest with themselves and the outfitters they choose about their physical abilities and experience levels.”
The statement comes a week after the Arkansas claimed the life of a Texas man, whose boat flipped during a commercial trip last Monday. The river was flowing more than double its average rate for mid-June, according to U.S. Geological Survey charts.
And the river continues to swell with snow still melting from the mountains ahead of monsoon season.
“No matter low flows or high flows, you’re dealing with Mother Nature; as an outfitter, we take safety seriously at all water levels, that’s our top priority,” Mike Kissack, owner of American Adventure Expeditions in Buena Vista, said in a phone call. “In high water years, are we even more diligent and more on high alert? Sure.”
The AROA on Wednesday morning reported high flows across four main stretches, with the comparatively tamer one known as The Numbers running at 3,380 cubic feet per second. Managers with the Arkansas River Headwaters Recreation Area recommend boats avoid that section when flowing above 2,400 CFS.
Water in coveted Browns Canyon was running near 4,000 CFS. And the bucket-list stretch through the Royal Gorge was rushing 4,680 CFS, above the suggested off-limits rate of 3,200 CFS. Happening this weekend, the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival has rerouted races away from danger zones.
For an alternate adrenaline rush, outfitters turn their attention to the similarly rowdy Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Recent levels have been on par with the Royal Gorge’s.
“The beauty of the Arkansas River and the reason it is the top whitewater river in the country is its versatility,” read a press release Wednesday from Cañon City-based Echo Canyon River Expeditions, emphasizing the ability to adjust trips.
Owner Andy Neinas said the “’spring runoff’ is destined to turn into ‘summer runoff.’ A lot of people are saying it will be an epic year, maybe even the best in the last 25 years.”
With that comes the attention on safety. The AROA says 12 automated external defibrillators are placed along the water, up from the eight that were first stationed last year. Kissack said he’s seen more kayakers and pontoon boaters join trips — professionals serving as added “safety nets.”
Know before you go, Kissack said. “It’s a good idea for anyone, whether you’re experienced or not experienced, to ask the right questions.”
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