For the core of Steamboat's adrenaline addicts, Fish Creek Canyon runs much deeper than glossy tourism brochures flaunting a single picturesque fall.
Winter turns the steep north-facing slopes of Fish Creek into an arena of risk unparalleled by any terrain offered in the adjacent Steamboat Ski Area. An out-of-bounds gallery of cliff walls and dynamic drops test a small number of skiers and snowboarders who venture to the area outside ski patrol's control.
Spring temperatures transform the canyon into a flume of whitewater that barrels down Fish Creek, cutting through town into the Yampa River and providing Steamboat's expert kayakers with a unique backyard run to measure themselves against.
Standing at the lower section put-in for my first ever run down the creek, I begin to learn how Fish Creek acts as a gauge of a kayaker's skill. As I wait for a group of friends who are running the daunting upper section, I start talking to a local boater who has driven up to check the level of another gauge -- the one attached to the concrete pylon that reads 2 feet, 4 inches in depth.
Suddenly I am subjected to tales of every recent mishap, notable swim, pin or near-drowning that this bearded stranger has seen or heard of in recent memory. "There's only a handful, maybe six guys in town, that will consistently run the upper section at these high flows. This creek really separates the men from the boys."
"So what about the lower section?" I ask, changing the subject.
"A little less gradient, but a lot of the same. Busy, busy, no real eddies," he answers, referring to the area of slack water on rivers that boaters use to pull off of the main current. "There's really only one rapid to speak of, Screaming Right, you just have to make sure..."
"Look! There's a paddle," I interrupt, spotting a blue shaft float by with its neoprene hand-warming poagies still attached.
Not a good sign.
The man runs to his car to claim the river-booty downstream.
Next comes the empty kayak, a submerged, mangled mess of crumpled blue plastic, bouncing violently along the main current.
About 50 yards downstream the boat broaches onto a log bridging a rock and the shore. By the time I pull it to shore and assess the damaged front end, the rest of the group has arrived. They explain that two women in their group of eight pulled out of their kayaks after being unable to re-flip their boats in the tightest canyon section. Both are OK. Only one recovered her gear, the other, the lucky owner of the destroyed kayak, was forced to hike out.
Both of these women are professionally sponsored, full-time kayakers in town for the Pro Invitational race, organized by Steamboat-based Paddler Magazine, which combines the scores of a timed race down Fish Creek and a judged event in the downtown C-hole.
Not exactly reassured of why I, an amateur in comparison, am exposing myself to the same risks, I get into my kayak and peel out. Picked up by the current, plowing through holes and flying under bridges, it doesn't take long to remember why. All I have to do is hang on, paddle hard and keep the wet side down.
That's the theory of creek boating anyway. Typically this kind of boating -- white-knuckle, survival descents of steep and technical stretches -- is reserved for the pill-shaped creek boats that offer speed and volume to power through waves and retentive, hydraulic "holes."
Floatable sections such as Fish Creek fall under the highest-ranking category of Class V. This means mandatory moves to make and obstacles to avoid with potentially terminal consequences. For me, the biggest concern in stepping up to Class V kayaking is my tendency to flip, a less than ideal place to be on a rock-riddled creek that's only 2 feet deep.
I try to push this and the other horror stories out of my mind, working to keep the boat straight on the bumpy ride down. No time to put on my nose-plug, only constant paddling, readjusting after each rock impact and forcing powerful forward strokes to break through waves.
This is not the place to exit your boat if flipped. The elusive eddies are far and few between, not to mention the just barely liquid melted ice that quickly numbs bare hands. We find an eddy big enough for three boats just before the creek cuts through the Steamboat Sheraton Golf Club. Nick, a friend who was part of the previous swimming fiasco of the day, tells me the line I need through Screaming Right to avoid another.
Seeing the correct line and nailing it are different things. By the time I finally get on the right angle, I'm a little more "scream" than I am "right." I start sliding sideways into the main hydraulic. As my boat flips, all I can think is, "well, here we go."
Fortunately, the hole only munches on me for a second before flushing me out, the washing machine effect helping the roll up before the second drop.
Face spared from the slick cheese grater below, the boogie down to the Safeway parking lot just before U.S. Highway 40 offers the first chance to ease up, let out a few exhilarating screams and enjoy the ride.
A lot of kayakers want to relax after the high-intensity paddle down Fish, often switching into their smaller play-boats before the Fish Creek confluence with the Yampa River.
One of Steamboat's greatest summer assets is the section of the Yampa running through town that, regardless of its flow, retains a quality intermediate character. Although no rapids to speak of, the town run is an excellent place to master the basics. While the section has some nice waves to catch on the fly (meaning there are no eddies for paddling back upstream to catch the wave again) most boaters just drive straight to the highlight of the run -- the downtown C-hole.
Operating under a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whitewater park innovator Gary Lacey and kayak industry pioneer Chan Zwanzig started moving earth, grouting rocks and improving the river's natural construction just above the 13th Street Bridge in 1980 to create what is one of the West's premier waves at certain flows.
High temperatures in May brought the river up to these levels, attracting kayakers from across the state and transforming the Bud Werner Memorial Library parking lot into a neoprene haven of cold water junkies, truck-bed changing rooms and frenzied stick-fetching retrievers.
I typically go for the late evening surfs when the after-work, out-of-town and family commitment crowds have left for the day. I stay until it gets too dark or until I feel like I have to puke from getting worked in the wave, whichever comes first.
At just under 3,000 cubic feet per second, the wave is as perfect a feature as you will ever find -- a river-wide wave that is steep in the middle with forgiving foam piles on both sides. Pro kayaker Jay Kincaid raved about being able to throw freestyle moves designed for both holes and waves here. Overall men's winner at the Pro Invitational, he should know.
The tricks I throw are not quite as premeditated. The paddle in is like an ocean wave and when accelerating down the face, the idea is to throw a trick, recover in the foam pile and attempt to get back in the main part of the wave. I can spin my boat around, but the second I rotate with some verticality or lean too far upstream and catch the edge -- wham -- I flip into the wash, try to roll back up, repeat. Sometimes you roll right back up into the wave. Most times, you wash out and the large whirlpool eddies on both sides effortlessly carry you right back into the frothing cauldron.
As the sun sets and the train rumbles by, the hot spring bubbles, the river rushes and the view of the ski resort in the distance silences thoughts of being anywhere else. I paddle out for my final surf of the evening and feel the force of the water, concentrating on my breaths, strokes and body's reactions. Like skiing fast thought the trees, reasoned thought gives way to the base purity of sense and for a brief second -- wham -- I get slammed upside down, trashed around, and snap up at the end of my breath.
One more surf, and I'll call it a night.