Steamboat Springs The public's enthusiasm for floating the Yampa River on innertubes caught the Colorado Division of Wildlife by surprise during the holiday weekend.
"It was a circus out there," DOW area manager Jim Haskins said. "Our parking lots at the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area were overflowing. I was discouraged this weekend. I think we need to take a more aggressive posture to this."
The wildlife area is about two miles upstream from city limits. Haskins and his district wildlife managers never had seen it full of people with brightly colored tubes launching for a float all the way into downtown Steamboat Springs.
Most of the tubers arriving at the wildlife area parking lots were unaware that they were required to have a $10 habitat stamp to park there. There also is a requirement that all watercraft launched there be used for fishing only, Haskins said. Some of the tubers listened to explanations from his officers and launched anyway as soon as the officers left one lot for another.
Haskins said the officers did not issues tickets because the numbers would have been overwhelming. However, they tentatively plan to be in place at the parking lots this weekend in time to turn people away if they don't conform to the rules.
Flows in the Yampa River need to drop about 12 percent from the 811 cubic feet per second recorded Monday afternoon before Steamboat's commercial tubing fleet launches its 2008 season. But that didn't stop a wave of holiday vacationers and area residents from floating the Yampa during the long July 4 holiday weekend.
The median streamflow for July 7 is 300 cfs, and the commercial tubing outfitters are mindful of the inherent danger right now.
"It's irresponsible for me to let people go down above 700 cfs," said Pete Van De Carr, owner of Backdoors Sports in downtown Steamboat said. "It was too high for us to even consider it."
Sean Battiste at One Stop Ski Shop said the business owned by John Kole is following Van De Carr's lead on the safety threshold.
The city of Steamboat Springs regulates the volume of commercial tubing in the town stretch of the Yampa by permit. However, Craig Robinson of the Department of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services said the city does not dictate a streamflow level where commercial tubing can begin.
Although One Stop would not rent tubes during the weekend, the shop was selling them at retail.
One Stop sold about 40 tubes during the weekend, Battiste estimated, with the $22 Ameri-Sport model being the most popular. It has handles and a covered bottom. One Stop rents personal flotation devices for $2 a day.
"We recommend that everyone have them, but some just won't have it," Battiste said.
Tubers also purchased tubes and other flotation devices from discount and sporting goods stores.
The city used a portion of its weekly advertisement, The City Page, in the Steamboat Today newspaper Monday to ask for the public's cooperation in refraining from tubing anywhere upstream from Fetcher Park. Robinson said the Yampa River Management Plan adopted by City Council has recommended reserving the upstream stretch for less impactful recreation including wildlife viewing, paddling (kayaks and rafts) and fishing. However, he acknowledged the city does not have the regulatory authority to prevent people from tubing upstream.
Haskins said he was under the impression that a mutual agreement with the city would preclude tubing above the Fifth Street Bridge. The city imposes that restriction on commercial tubing. Haskins said the Division of Wildlife has a fishing easement in place just downstream from Fetcher Park and the Fish Creek confluence.
"Close to $1 million has been invested in habitat improvement in this fishery," Haskins said. "We wish they'd give us a stretch of the river where we can invest in these improvements without the threat of being overwhelmed by other uses."
The City Page suggests tubers take advantage of abundant parking at Howelsen Park in order to access the river. Tubers could, for example, park at the Howelsen Ice Arena or Brent Romick Rodeo Arena, cross the Fifth Street Bridge and launch at Lions' Club Park.
The streamflow in the Yampa has dropped by 100 cfs each of the last three days, and Van De Carr hopes to be renting tubes for the coming Rainbow Weekend (July 12 and 13). However, he said the past weekend presented a dilemma.
As a member of the citizen's advisory committee that helped put the Yampa River Management Plan together, he said he's mindful of the need to protect the resource. However, when people came into his shop last weekend and inquired about the safest place to go tubing, it was hard for him to send them through the kayak play holes in downtown.
"The downstream stretch was thumping them," Van De Carr said.