Water enthusiasts gather for festival


River rats and whitewater enthusiasts will gather once again this weekend in the spirit of good times and the wildness of the Yampa River for the 24th annual Yampa River Festival in Steamboat Springs.

"The most important thing in this whole thing is the river," said festival organizer Peter Van De Car of Backdoor Sports. "The focus is on how important an amenity it is to everybody in Routt County. It's what made the Valley."

"The Yampa is Wild" is the theme of this year's festival, in honor of one of the last and longest free-flowing rivers in the Colorado River basin.

Van De Car said Steamboat Springs could host the biggest kayak rodeo west of the Mississippi if organizers wanted to.

"We have the best features in Colorado," Van De Car said of the hydraulics on the Yampa River through Steamboat where kayakers will play this weekend. "It is pretty well accepted that we've got it."

But Friends of the Yampa River, the volunteer group that organizes the Yampa River Festival, always has shunned the concept of bigger is better, Van De Car said. The focus is to have fun and have a great appreciation of the river, he said.

Right on the heels of the high-profile and financially lucrative Teva Mountain Games in Vail, the Yampa River Festival will host many of the country's biggest kayak rodeo stars in the C-Hole on Saturday afternoon. Rodeo is the event where the money and glory is, Van De Car said. But in a testament to the spirit of the Yampa River Festival, rodeo contestants will be competing for belt buckles, not purses, in Steamboat this weekend.

"It's nice to have them here all at one time for one event. It'll be a big deal," Van De Car said. He said competition should be even better because the Yampa River has the best water in the state right now. "But we want people to come to our rodeo because they have more gosh darn fun than any other rodeo," Van De Car said.

The rodeo kayakers will have a tough act to follow as they enter the C-Hole on the paws of the Crazy River Dog contest. Any dog that's willing to jump into the raging river can participate and the fastest dog that retrieves a stick tossed beyond a buoy above the hole wins. Chances are, the dogs will travel downstream as they try to swim back to shore, said Crazy River Dog contest organizer Edward Watson of Spiffy Dog.

"Getting swept into the hole is a crowd pleaser," Watson said. It doesn't hurt the dogs, and it's exciting to watch, he said.

Watson reminded spectators that except for when it's an individual dog's turn to jump into the river, all dogs must be on leashes.

New to the Yampa River Festival is the "Yampa River Cup Downriver Raft Race," a timed event for whitewater rafts that will be traveling between Fetcher Ponds and the D-Hole below the 13th Street bridge Saturday.

"We're trying to get more than just the kayakers involved," said river festival organizer Kent Vertrees of Blue Sky West, who encouraged participants to name their boats and wear costumes.

Rafts must have at least four passengers, but Vertrees suggested that six or seven is best.

"The more the merrier. The more paddlers, the faster you're going to go," Vertrees said.

Blue Sky West is donating six rafts with paddles and life jackets that race participants can use on a first-come, first-served basis. Yampa River Cup racers are welcome to use their own rafts for the estimated 15 to 20 minute run, as well.

And the winning raft gets a wooden paddle, engraved with its name, to keep and display until next year's Yampa River Cup, Vertrees said.

Saturday morning starts with the "Downriver Kayak Race," a six-mile race that begins with a shotgun start at the Yampa River Park, also known as the Bucci Ponds. All types of boats are invited to participate, including canoes, wild water kayaks and play kayaks, in the race to the Stock Bridge Transit Center. A fly-fishing casting clinic at Elk Park, sponsored by the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers, coincides with this race.

The festival also includes a kayak slalom event at the Dr. Rich Weiss Park on Sunday morning. This is the most traditional event and the hardest to train for, Van De Car said. Two runs on the slalom course are equivalent to the dedication of running a marathon, he said.

On the lighter side, one of the festival's less conventional boating events, the "Pool Toy Rodeo," will cool things off at the C-Hole on Saturday afternoon. The Pool Toy Rodeo will feature participants who attempt to stay afloat in the whirling rapid aboard inflatable pool toys.

"This is just another one in the long line of crazy river events," Van De Car said. "Bring your favorite dinosaur, turtle or mermaid -- who knows what will happen."

Kayakers, rafters, crazy dogs and rubber-ducky riders can register for Yampa River Festival events at tonight's kick-off party at Mahogany Ridge. Events cost $10 a person or $30 for all events. All registration proceeds help support Friends of the Yampa and its many ongoing river improvement projects.

Friends of the Yampa works to benefit rafters, kayakers, fish habitat and the overall health of the river. The group is trying to map the river through Steamboat to locate and determine the condition and effectiveness of features that have been improved for recreation and fish habitat during the past 20 years. The group is also in the process of securing official nonprofit 501(c)3 status so it can secure larger grants, such as those from Great Outdoors Colorado, for habitat, play feature and riparian improvements. They also are actively involved in supporting Steamboat's application for recreational water rights and the removal of tamarisk, a quick-spreading, invasive plant that can transpire up to 300 gallons of water a day, along the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument.

Saturday night's Yampa River Gumbo party is a festival celebration and an additional fund-raiser for river improvement projects. It starts at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. Chef Rocky from Antares restaurant will be cooking up the gumbo, and the Brewglass Boys will provide bluegrass music entertainment. There also will be a silent auction.

"It seems anachronistic to think people will show up to just have fun," Van De Car said, musing the contradiction of a flood of river enthusiasts who are expected to join the Yampa River Festival this weekend. But people feel so strongly about the Yampa River that they donate hundreds of hours to build features, restore habitat and run events, he said. "It's a community thing."

--To reach Jennie Lay call 871-4210

or e-mail jlay@steamboatpilot.com


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