Steamboat Springs Sunday marked the return of Steamboat's commercial tubing fleet to the Yampa River. Operators were in a buoyant mood as they anticipated the return of revenues following a 2002 season wiped out by drought.
This week also marks the first time the tubes have been on the water since tension surfaced in the Dream Island neighborhood along the river on Steamboat's west side.
"We're excited. It's good to be back on the water. Everybody is getting dumped out of their tube in the C-Hole right now," said Randy Pruitt of Buggywhips at Blue Sky West. "It really is a huge revenue generator for many businesses in town."
Tubing companies took themselves off the river last summer after less than two weeks of operation because of extremely low flows in the Yampa.
Still, opposition to commercial tubing surfaced in the Dream Island mobile home park last fall when heavy equipment entered the river to carry out city-funded river improvements.
The city's strategic placement of rocks is intended to make the river better for fishermen, kayakers and tubers. The residents, many with decks cantilevered out over the rive bank, saw it as an invasion of their privacy.
One man was arrested after he fired two shots in the general direction of the equipment working in the river, another lay down in front of the trackhoes and a third posted no trespassing signs along the river.
This summer, tubing companies placed a large sign in the river below the 13th Street Bridge reminding their clients that Dream Island is a quiet zone.
Resident Don Woodsmith is dubious about how effective the sign will be.
"I woke up Sunday and I could hear a guy shouting, 'Do you believe that sign that said quiet zone? Ha, ha, ha, ha.' I had my slider open and I had just pulled on my underwear when they floated by. They were waving at me!" Woodsmith said.
The city of Steamboat Springs regulates commercial activity along the river, largely because it owns the put-in and take-out points. Chris Wilson, director of parks, recreational services and open space for the city, said his department doesn't regulate private tubers.
They are free to purchase their own flotation devices and use them on the upper town section of the Yampa. He said it's been his casual observation that commercial tubing clients are likely to be more educated about river etiquette and the need to respect private property. He added that a city ordinance does prohibit anyone from carrying open containers of alcoholic beverages on the river.
Wilson said the tubing industry is in the midst of a two-year trial period for the regulations. The operators formerly operated further upstream, but the city resolved that in the future they would put in at the Fifth Street bridge and lower. That step was taken to clear up a dispute with fly fishing interests.
"This year will give us a lot more data," Wilson said.
The city has hired a consulting firm to study recreational use of the river. The current phase calls for it to survey residents about their preferences.
The results of the survey will be analyzed in a public and well-publicized manner, he said. Ultimately, the information will be used by the Parks and Recreation Commission to make a recommendation to the City Council about the future of recreational activities on the river.
"If somebody wants to put their two cents into the discussion, this summer is a good time," Wilson said.
Again this summer, the city will monitor the industry to ensure it is adhering to the limits and other regulations. The total number of commercial tubes allowed on the river is 433 on weekdays, and goes up to 500 on Fridays and 915 on weekends, Wilson said. That doesn't mean the quotas are full every day.
Wilson said the companies may not send trips down the river before 10:30 a.m. and may not send them off later than 4 p.m. The intent is to have them off the river before residents get home from work.
John Kole of One Stop Ski Shop said his tubing clients are asked to read and sign a copy of tubing regulations and etiquette.
Kole is not the largest tubing operator on the river -- he is permitted about 30 tubes on weekdays and 55 on weekends. Still, he missed the cash flow that evaporated with last year's drought.
"We got through by the grace of God," Kole said.
Pruitt's company faced a double whammy as it lost both tubing and guided fishing revenue. He said the loss was in the thousands of dollars.
"We're fortunate to have patient investors," Pruitt said.
Pruitt added that several tubing operators have combined to share shuttle vans this year, reducing the amount of vehicle trips their clients generate.
Woodsmith acknowledges that plenty of good-hearted tubers will show some level of respect for his home this summer.
But even friendly tubers can represent an intrusion on his peace and quiet.
"Today, some people came down and they were quiet. But every other person wants to say hello," Woodsmith laughed.