Outlook on tubing not good

Outfitters worried about business if rains don't come soon

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— For many Steamboat Springs residents and tourists, tubing down the Yampa River is the ultimate summer fun.

Not many activities can beat reclining on the cushioned comfort of a rubber tube and floating along with the cool river.

Unless, that is, the tube ride is broken up by protruding rocks and shallow sections that must be walked.

The Yampa River's low levels, which are about one-tenth of what they are in an average year, have some local outfitters worried tubing could become impossible over the next few weeks.

Outfitters such as Blue Sky West, Backdoor Sports and Bucking Rainbow Outfitters said business has been good so far and current conditions for tubing are great.

But if rains don't come soon, the tubing season could be cut short. Some outfitters said they might have to bring tubes back into storage before the Fourth of July weekend.

In a typical year, tubing begins around July Fourth and ends around mid-August.

Outfitters are also facing the possibility of fewer rafting and fishing trips throughout the summer.

Steve Henderson, the assistant manager of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, said the company has already lost at least 50 percent of its rafting business so far.

"On the rafting, it's going to hit us big because a lot of the rivers that normally have a lot of water don't," Henderson said.

"With the water levels being what they (have been), it has affected our rafting business, it's going to affect our fishing business and it's going to affect our tubing."

Tubing is a smaller fraction of the company's business, but Henderson said it is still important.

He said he expects tourists will show up regardless of the drought. Most people plan their vacations months ahead of time, he said, and just like the number of people skiing doesn't greatly depend on the quality of snow, the number of summer vacationers shouldn't depend on the water levels.

"Steamboat is a tourist town," Henderson said. "The floodgates open July Fourth, and they don't care what the water's like."

But by the time the town sees its busiest days for tourism, tubing or rafting may not be an option.

Henderson said the shop would stop offering tubing as soon as river levels are low enough that it's no longer fun for people to tube.

Predicting when the tubing season could end or even if it could end earlier than usual is difficult. Henderson said last year, water levels were fairly low at this time of year, but rain came in July and kept the season going.

"We were very close to critical as far as temperature, and there were pretty low flows," Henderson said, referring to conditions last June. "All of a sudden (the rain) kicked us through the rest of the season. So that's what we need."

Kent Vertrees, a guide and marketer for Blue Sky West, said the best outlook to have is an optimistic one.

"Let's all just stay positive and think about tourism," Vertrees said. Like Henderson, he said he was hopeful thunderstorms would keep rivers flowing and tubers tubing.

"We're just making do with what Mother Nature's giving us, and just hoping for a little bit of rain," Vertrees said.

The company is making do with the low flows, Vertrees said, by refocusing their options for outdoor adventures. One popular trip now is the Yampa River Safari, a scenic float trip that gives participants a good look at bald eagles and herons and other wildlife.

Local outfitters all said that even if the summer conditions worsen, now is a great time for tubing.

Through outfitters, tubers can float down the section of the Yampa that runs from Fifth Street to the James Brown Bridge, about a 45-minute ride.

If they're on their own, people can take their own tubes and ride any part of the river that they want.

Henderson said that even if the summer season is slow, Bucking Rainbow Outfitters would stay afloat.

He also said that he thinks the drought has far greater effects than just impacting river recreation.

"I think this drought is a whole lot bigger than (whether) anybody can tube," Henderson said. "We need rain we just plain need rain."

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