Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Editor’s note: This Tom Ross column originally appeared in the June 3, 2008, edition of the Steamboat Today. It has been updated to reflect current river conditions and other river-related incidents around the state.
Veteran kayak instructor Barry Smith couldn’t believe his eyes. Floating down the Yampa River toward him were two young men on watercraft that didn’t come close to passing the “really right stuff” test.
To make matters worse, they were wearing cotton T-shirts and no life jackets.
“They were on little green discount store-type of rafts,” Smith exclaimed. “It’s so dumb. I don’t know what they were thinking. It’s not the Fourth of July.”
If there is anything more sobering than a river approaching flood stage, it is a frigid river approaching flood stage. The two men Smith observed apparently were oblivious that death was stalking them.
Floating the river in those conditions and with that gear is dangerous as it is. But the cold water temperature this time of year compounded the danger for two guys without dry tops or wet suits.
“That water was snow two hours ago. If you go in the water, you lose function pretty quickly,” Smith said. “Then you can’t help your friend.”
Smith was a Grand Canyon guide for 20 years and has given kayak lessons to hundreds of beginners in Steamboat at Mountain Sports Kayak School.
The cold heightens the danger for anyone foolish enough to attempt floating the river this time of year with anything less than whitewater training and equipment. Local fishing guides say from experience that the temperature in the Yampa this time of year is cycling between the high 30s and low 40s.
Most people can tell at a glance that the rivers of Northwest Colorado are dangerous right now. But every spring, I see somebody pushing his or her luck with a cheap air mattress. And every year, there are drowning incidents across Colorado during the spring runoff.
This Memorial Day, search and rescue crews in Larimer County spent the holiday looking for an Indiana man who fell off his tube while floating in the swollen Cache la Poudre River on Sunday. Rivers across the state are running at near-record levels for this time of year, fed by rapid snowmelt under warm, sunny skies. The Yampa River is flowing above its historic mean for late-May and early June, but it remains a couple feet below flood stage.
The route of escape for swimmers in whitewater is to paddle into the nearest eddy, hopefully before their muscles stiffen. But during peak run-off, eddies in the town stretch of the Yampa are blown out by the high water.
I have some firsthand experience with swimming out of rapids after being tossed out of two rafts that flipped in the Grand Canyon in March 2007.
I never feared for my safety — perhaps I was just too jacked on adrenaline for the realization to set in. However, it took me only half a moment to notice how cold the water was.
Even when the air temperature in the Grand Canyon is in the 90s or 100s, the water that pours out of the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam is cold enough to make a wader’s feet ache. The water temperature was 47 degrees when we launched at Lee’s Ferry. The rule of thumb is that it warms one degree for every 10 miles traveled downstream.
I had a couple of things going for me when I hit the water — neoprene booties, fleece-lined neoprene pants and a whitewater life jacket. I was fortunate to be able to swim myself into an eddy without difficulty.
This is the best time of year for experienced kayakers on the Yampa River, but the time isn’t right for casual floaters.
Steamboat’s commercial tubing outfitters know better.
“We usually don’t send clients out until July,” Pete Dawson, of One Stop Ski Shop said.
If you aren’t well equipped and experienced, please stay out of the Yampa for another month.