Not river tubing time yet

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To all water-hungry risk-takers who may have watched Monday's freestyle kayaking competition in the Yampa River but don't own a kayak: Don't get any ideas.

It's not tubing season yet.

This spring's heavy runoff that has turned most of the valley green likely will delay the start of tubing season, when packs of locals and tourists kick back, hop on inflatable tubes and dodge partially submerged rocks while floating down the Yampa.

The river is flowing much too fast for safe tubing, local experts say.

"We usually start putting tubers in at about 800 or 900 cubic feet per second," said Ryan Simms of Backdoor Sports, a Steamboat Springs recreation store that rents tubes to tubers. "Right now, it's at about 3,000."

Simms referred to the flow rate of the Yampa, or how much water passes a given point on the river per second. At 1:15 p.m. Monday, the United States Geological Survey recorded a flow rate of 2,280 cubic feet of water per second at a spot on the river near the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat. Although that number is below Simms' estimate, and well below last week's flow rates of more than 3,500, it is still much too fast for safe tubing.

"It all depends on the river," Simms said. "It's probably not going to be (safe) until mid or late June -- but as soon as the river gets down to that safe level, we'll be ready to go."

When that time comes, there are a few regulations to consider before testing your tuberous buoyancy.

City rules include no glass, littering, alcohol or dogs. Steamboat has community service officers who enforce these rules and may cite individuals or companies whose customers are found in violation.

Tubers can rent tubes from commercial companies, which then provide shuttles back from the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge. Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports, rents tubes for $15. The float takes about 45 minutes to an hour, he said. The trip takes tubers through kayaking holes and other river features the city has put in place.

"It's a good family length, especially for the little guys," he said.

According to the Yampa River Management Plan, adopted by the city in 2004, commercial tubers are allowed only in the lower part of the Yampa River. Commercial companies that rent tubes to customers must drop off tubers below the Fifth Street Bridge and take them out at the James Brown bridge.

People not tubing with commercial companies have free range of the river, but the city suggests they also follow guidelines.

The river management plan recommends a voluntary restriction to not tube above Fetcher Park, which is behind the Mid Valley Shopping Center. Fetcher Park has a parking lot, restroom, picnic area and easy access to the river.

Vehicles parked in the parking areas of Fetcher, Rotary or Lions parks or in the Bud Werner Memorial Library and community center parking lots cannot be left unattended for more than two hours between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The city recommends that tubers use Howelsen Hill parking lots or lots at Stock Bridge Transit Center on the west side of town, just down the river from the 13th Street Bridge. Stock Bridge has a well-defined take-out point. After parking at Stock Bridge, tubers can shuttle by bus to take-in points, where parking is more limited.

Tubers can purchase inner tubes and rafts at area retail and auto stores, but supplies can run out during busy weekends.

Van De Carr recommends that people get in the water before noon, which allows them to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms or crowds.

"The biggest thing for people to know is that the earlier in the day, the better chance you are going to have a great time," he said.

Van De Carr warns that although the river looks lazy and meandering, it is a natural river with an unpredictable flow.

"It's an active moving river. It has hazards. People ask me: 'Is it safe?' Well, no. It isn't safe. It isn't a Disneyland ride. There are no guarantees," he said.

For that reason, Van De Carr suggests people wear life jackets or helmets, especially children or people who are not good swimmers.

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