Dave Shively: What was the river?


Dave Shively

Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com.

— The intensity in Waterton Canyon builds as the rock walls constrict. Before you know it, huge boulders dissect the current and retentive holes mark the bottom of the increasingly steeper drops, the rapids stack up and, just as adrenaline starts pumping, catching up with paddle strokes : you splash into a calm, giant pool.


Denver Water completed the Strontia Springs Dam, a 243-foot diversionary blockade to the South Platte River, in 1983, creating a nearly two-mile, 100-acre lake above one of the Denver metro area's free-flowing gems.

Whenever I make the late-summer trip home, I itch to get out of the city and end up at the one-mile Waterton section, Denver's closest quasi-mountain paddle experience. I got out last week at the anti-climatic reservoir end and hiked the kayak back up to the put-in point during a late afternoon sunshower, wondering, "what was?"

Randy Welch answered my question. He claims to have the "last descent" of the Waterton Canyon's Widow Maker section in 1980, prior to the dam completion. He chronicles the trip in a story called "A River Ran Through It" in the recently released "Whitewater of the Southern Rockies," a comprehensive guidebook to any conceivable run "within a drive through the night" of the Front Range.

Greasing the rapids and eluding the construction drillers and surveyors, Welch had one conclusion.

"Had the diversion been constructed differently and the conservation community awakened to the canyon's recreation value, Waterton Canyon would've become the signature Front Range half-day whitewater run, an easily accessible canyon filled with whopping weekend explorers and squirting playboats," he wrote.

I attended a public meeting Thursday night at Olympian Hall. Hosted by the city's Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services department, the open house was the first of three public meetings to gather comments on the evolving Yampa River Structural Master Plan.

The plan is the framework to define and prioritize the specific channel and river corridor improvements needed on the Yampa. The success of the plan depends on the quality of feedback given from various user groups.

On Thursday, there was no shortage of what one attendee called a diverse assembly of "heavy volunteer hitters," who had plenty of impassioned comments to voice and write on the maps provided by Troy Thompson, president of Ecological Resource Consultants, who the city contracted to lead the study.

Thompson has worked on Colorado rivers including the Blue, Fraser, San Miguel and Uncompahgre, but sees Steamboat as far ahead of the communities bordering these rivers.

"It's refreshing and exciting because you don't have to convince the people here of understanding what a vital resource they have," he said.

So the anglers, the floaters and, yes, even the tubers have a tool to (hopefully) guide future policy and management decisions, if we chose to take part and help keep future users from having to ask, "what was?"


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