Dave Shively's outdoors column appears Sundays in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Contact him at 871-4253 or e-mail email@example.com
Steamboat Springs It's an annual lament when the Yampa drops below the dreaded 500.
Cubic feet per second, that is. The bar is lowered, and the tubers unite. Not that I'm anti-tube. It's great to see people using Steamboat's greatest summertime resource. Sorry, Dippin' Dots.
But what once was a raging ride that necessitated helmet and life jacket becomes drained of adrenaline and anyone with access, inflatable floatation, denim shorts and a grocery baggie full of canned Busch takes over the town stretch. The life-jacketed commercial tubing fleets add some credibility to and respect for the remaining features, but the valley's river runners are marginalized. What results is a traveling road show to find dam-released goods in neighboring drainages.
Last week, Steamboat's hair-boating diaspora ventured en masse to the Arkansas River Valley. Much of the impetus was First in Boating the Arkansas. Taking place every third week in June since 1949, what started as a 26-mile downriver race from Salida to Cotopaxi has grown into the state's, if not the country's, biggest river festival.
Last Sunday, my Ark trip coincided with Steamboat's, along with much of the competitor pool's exit from the festivities. The quick transition of gear-laden vehicles is drastic. On the evening paddle down the Numbers, our group saw zero other boaters on the water.
The crowds of another kind return in the morning downriver, in Browns Canyon. With a commercial outfitter on practically every corner from Balltown to Canon City, Browns is the Ark's most concentrated commercial stretch on what the Arkansas River Outfitters Association calls "the most popular rafting river in America!"
Between my sister and I, a combined 15 seasons of guiding yielded countless commercial trips down the Class III/IV "Hypalon highway" of weekday raft pods stretching in either direction as far as the eye can see. Yet neither of us had ever kayaked it.
A relaxing paddle in high water was a treat, watching the 2007 minions of rookie guides struggle with rapid lines and age-old jokes while answering pointed out-of-state visitor questions: "Hey, how much does that mountain weigh?"
With the stream of homeless, semi-employed, early-career guides, we eventually arrive at Seidel's Suckhole - at this level, a guaranteed carnage show for any onlooker willing to watch boats try to avoid the monster hole at the bottom. Seidel's was the beginning and end of my parents' rafting careers after my rookie sister sent dad on a recirculating swim.
We get to the scout area, which is packed with boats, as EMS personnel sprint an off-road gurney down the dirt trail. A great omen. The commercial trip we're piggy-backing with is on a tight schedule, so no time to investigate. None of their three boats flip, but my buddy's line sends two kiddies into the drink. No worse for the wear, the parents stay dry enough to cough up that coveted, damp $20 gratuity. The lengths we go for a smile, a sunburn and a story to tell. Just another day on the river.