Steamboat Springs "Park-n-play" is one of the strongest trends in whitewater kayaking, and it's thriving in downtown Steamboat.
There was a time when kayakers had to drive great distances and paddle through long stretches of flat water to get to their favorite standing waves. No more.
Now, paddlers can get off work on a weeknight and be spinning 360s in a perfect wave 20 minutes later. Park-n-play convenience is here thanks to manmade hydraulics like the new D-Hole. It's just downstream from the 13th Street Bridge on the Yampa River in Steamboat. The D-Hole is named after the Depot Arts Center, just up the bank from the kayak wave, which was installed in autumn 2001.
Longtime kayak instructor Barry Smith said he still loves to float a one- or two-mile stretch of the Yampa, hitting hydraulics wherever he finds them. However, Smith acknowledged that increasingly, local enthusiasts are driving to a parking lot nearest their favorite hole and getting in the queue in an eddy to take their turn practicing stunts. The options include the D-Hole, the new Library Hole a short ways upstream at the confluence of Soda Creek, or the original A-hole at the Seventh Street Ambulance Barn.
Visitors to Steamboat who have never paddled a kayak can enjoy watching the paddlers spin and flip their stubby play boats from bridges situated close to the action, or from the rocks on the banks of the river. The D-Hole and the new Library Hole are visible to spectators looking upstream and downstream from the 13th Street Bridge. It is an automobile bridge, but has sidewalks.
The A-Hole, further upstream, is just below a pedestrian bridge that leads to the baseball fields at Howelsen Hill. The heaviest stream flows and best kayaking are in early to mid-June. The action picks up after 5 p.m., when paddlers leave their workday lives behind for a couple of hours.
Gary Lacey of Recreation Engineering and Planning carefully designed the D-Hole. Lacey, who has built "artificial" whitewater features in parks all over the state, designed the D-Hole based on his knowledge of river hydrology.
It is intended to provide sport for paddlers at almost any level of current.
The D-Hole offers more than just great whitewater; it offers convenience. There are parking lots on either side of the river, one at Lincoln Park, and the other at the Depot Arts Center.
Essentially, Lacey's design created two large rock wings opposing each other on the opposite banks. They are shaped like two triangles, with their points coming about 25 feet short of meeting each other in the middle of the river. By channeling the current through the narrow opening, it's forced to accelerate through a pour-over that has the potential to create a standing wave. It's this standing wave that kayakers love to play on.
There's more to the D-Hole than meets the casual eye.
"It's a retentive wave," said kayaker Chuck Simms. "It will keep you in there. It's real friendly. What they call sticky. I'm optimistic it's going to keep on getting better."
That's one of the intriguing aspects of the D-Hole -- the drought of 2002 meant that during its inaugural season no one saw its true character.
The D-Hole was fun at 500 cubic feet per second, most kayakers agreed. The stream flow has to rise above 700 cfs to exhibit a true standing wave. Paddler Kevin Thompson says it's enjoyable at levels below 400 cfs.
"It's pretty decent right down to 200 to 300 cfs," he said.
The real character of the hole will become apparent at about 2,200 cfs, veteran kayakers agree.
One of the best design aspects of the D-Hole is the strong back flow. The wave was constructed to pump water back in on itself, actually using the same water more than once.
Eugene Buchanan, editor of Paddler Magazine, said it's no surprise Lacey and his crew are designing premium whitewater parks. They've designed similar features in Denver, Golden, Durango and other cities. Everything they learned along the way went into the D-Hole.
"This is one of the better holes these guys have designed," Buchanan said.
The improved urban kayaking in downtown Steamboat has enhanced Northwest Colorado's position as a national paddling destination.