Paddling perfection

Cold, wet weather helps kayaking season

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Although annoying to those eager to sunbathe, the cold, wet spring sent kayakers into a frenzy. Without it, area boaters were eyeing an abbreviated season.

"Things were looking bleak by the end of March," said Eugene Buchanan, publisher and editor-in-chief at Paddler Magazine. "But April and May turned it around. It has been a godsend having it cold and rainy. It prolonged the snow pack. Right now, conditions are great. This is the first warm weather we have had all season, so it's bringing the rivers up to the perfect level."

Heading into the weekend, the Yampa River was flowing at 1,400 cubic feet per second. The Elk River was up to about 3,000 cfs. Only the rivers and creeks in the southwest part of the state are enjoying equally optimal conditions, Buchanan said.

"Steamboat always has a really early paddle season," he said. "The area that feeds the Yampa is mostly at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. The top stuff hasn't really started melting yet. The rest of the state is fed by 14ers."

Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports and an avid kayaker, said the Yampa River is far from reaching its peak flows. He and Buchanan are expecting the section of the Yampa River that flows through downtown Steamboat to peak at or near 4,000 cfs.

"When there's almost no snow left on the mountain is when it peaks," Van De Carr said. "The beauty of our valley is there is no such thing as normal or average. Every year I've lived here, the weather and the river do something different."

Kayaking conditions are less dangerous now than they will be when area rivers reach their peak flows, but that doesn't give boaters an excuse to disregard safety. Water is an unpredictable element and should be respected.

"There are so many variables," Van De Carr said. "The conditions are awesome, and it's still so very moderate, but the height of the water doesn't necessarily increase the danger. The height adds another feature to the water. I think there are conditions that are sometimes overlooked because of the height."

One example, Van De Carr said, is water temperature. When the river is high because of snowmelt, it's cold, which potentially is a dangerous situation. Right now, Van De Carr estimates the Yampa River is at 40 degrees.

"If you hit that water without a wetsuit, it will be a religious experience," Van De Carr said.

In addition, increased water levels can hide rocks or strainers under the surface. Strainers, or loose trees, potentially are the most dangerous because they can't be avoided, Van De Carr said, and boaters can get stuck under them.

In addition to the Yampa River, Buchanan suggests the Colorado River near Kremmling for beginners. The Elk River is a pretty good run for a Class 3 boater. Expert boaters are eyeing Fish Creek, which still is a little low but is getting closer to optimum levels.

Kayakers are advised to steer clear of water above their ability level and to wear helmets.

Those interested in taking kayak lessons can contact Van de Carr at Backdoor Sports, Barry Smith at Mountain Sports Kayak School or Colorado Mountain College.

For more information about river flows and conditions, Van De Carr recommends the Web site www.mountainbuzz.com.

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