Steamboat Springs Alyssa Klink looked at the broiling water of a Yampa River eddy with trepidation.
“Is it cold?” she asked, wrapping her arms around her body with a shiver long before she was convinced to actually dip a toe.
River guide Jacqui Nesbitt, working hard to muscle the bright blue Bucking Rainbow Outfitters raft into the water, didn’t hesitate.
“We call it refreshing,” she said.
The water was cold, but the fact that there’s still so much of it so late in the season has proven refreshing to local rafters and rafting commercial outfitters.
The river was running at about 2,500 cubic feet per second Thursday as Nesbitt shoved the raft off from a wide spot on the shore just east of the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat Springs, more than 1,000 cfs above average and 1,500 higher than in the previous two seasons on about the same date.
Rare season, indeed
For Bucking Rainbow, high water into late June is a blessing.
The downtown Steamboat Springs rafting company typically sends clients out between the 4,500 cfs that is usually close to the high-water point and 900 cfs, which the in-town stretch of the Yampa River usually dips below by the last week of June.
“It’s great,” Bucking Rainbow owner John Duty said. “This is when town finally starts to get rolling, when the tourists are showing up. It’s unique this year because when the people are here, we have a lot of different rafting options we don’t normally have. Usually when they get here, all our unique local stuff is gone."
Bucking Rainbow has plenty of other trips that usually prove solid through at least the heart of summer, sending rafts to Kremmling and the Colorado, northeast to the canyons looming over the North Platte River, south to the Eagle River or west to the raging whitewater of Cross Mountain. Locally, rafts hit the Elk and Yampa rivers, when they can, anyway.
The extended season led to requests by local companies to extend the commercial rafting window as dictated by the city’s Parks, Open Spaces and Recreational Services Department.
The opportunity to use city put-ins and takeouts usually expires July 6, but this year an extension was approved in a 6-1 vote by the Steamboat Springs City Council. The potential change in the rules — Tuesday’s council meeting constituted a first reading and a second will follow at the next meeting — would change the ordinance dictating commercial rafting from a hard date like it has been to a determination made annually based on the flow.
The July 6 deadline previously existed to prevent conflicts between rafting operations and tubers, but that’s not such a concern this year.
“Commercial tubing operations won’t be going on July 6,” parks department Supervisor Craig Robinson said. “There will still be good rafting, and if people want to get in the water, this provides a good, safe form of controlled recreation for them.”
Water doesn’t lift all boats
The late-season surge in water had Backdoor Sports owner Peter Van De Carr measuring out minutes, trying to figure out how many trips his small operation could get on the river in a day.
“We may be able to run three trips a day, take 26 people each trip,” he said, laying it out in his mind. “We can probably pull that off. It’s just a matter of booking them and keeping up.”
Van De Carr said he’s running four rafts, all on the in-town stretch of the Yampa. That stretch, thanks to the high water, currently starts just beyond the Fifth Street Bridge, which doesn’t offer enough clearance for a preferable run that starts farther up the river.
Van De Carr is expecting business in that department to be strong enough for several more weeks, so he’s hitting up friends to borrow rafts to try to increase his capacity. There is a trade-off, however, and even with the strong rafting season, it’s one that Van de Carr sees as bad news.
The longer rafting season laps into tourist season, the less time tourist season matches up with tubing season, where Van de Carr does far more business.
“I’m worried. We have thousands of people here in town in July, and we can usually accommodate 400 to 500 tubing,” he said. “We only do 50 or 60 on rafts in a good day. I’m worried between myself and Bucking Rainbow, we won’t physically have the number of rafts to get enough people out on the water.
“It’s definitely going to be challenging because we’re in a whole different mode of business this year. … Everything I have is because of this darn river. I’m grateful for it, but it sure is frustrating sometimes.”
Making a splash
The Maryland-based Klink family — Kevin and Jane and their children, Jenna, 15, Alyssa, 13, and Kyle, 11 — bounced down the Yampa on Thursday, letting out shouts and giggles.
The stretch through town is mostly Class 2, though Charlie’s Hole behind the library and the D-Hole a little farther downstream loom as Class 3 hits, and as a raft teeters on the precipice of one of them, every mouth is held open, scared and excited.
Given that its normal in-town route is cut in half, Bucking Rainbow is offering Yampa riders two chances for the price of one, both rides starting at Fifth Street, and Thursday the Klinks eagerly piled in for a second go-round.
Early on the second ride, Nesbitt maneuvered the raft through the choppy water and nosed it into a cold wave, dousing Jane Klink.
It was late June, and for the first time that anyone can remember, rafting on the Yampa was scheduled to get better, not worse.
“Wow,” Klink said, water dripping from her hair. “That’s refreshing.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com