Steamboat Springs With a quick smile and an easy laugh, Pete Van De Carr is an optimistic man.
His bright features don’t even cloud over when he discusses 2002, the year Steamboat Springs river rats love to forget.
“The river stunk,” he said Friday, the Yampa River bubbling outside the door of his downtown Steamboat Springs sporting supplies shop, Backdoor Sports.
Record high temperatures through March have made for a fittingly frustrating cap to a dry and warm winter season, and it all has people remembering 2002 and dreading a similar spring and summer.
That season’s snowfall, 292 inches, was below average, but the early spring wasn’t even decidedly dry. March brought 39 inches of snow to Steamboat Ski Area. That’s not a lot, but it was good by March 2012 standards, when the ski area reported just 21 inches. The ski area now is nearly 11 feet behind the 10-year season-long average and 67 inches behind that 2002 season that led to such a miserable spring and summer on the river.
Fires burned through the dried-out backcountry that year, and the river was reduced to a trickle, its water short on oxygen and warmed enough that the river was closed to anglers.
“The air was full of smoke. There were reports of locusts and grasshoppers were everywhere,” Van De Carr recalled. “You’d drive down the road and it would look like the road moved, there were so many grasshoppers on it.”
Life on the river, whether recreating or running a business that thrives on fishermen, kayakers, rafters and tubers, doesn’t get much bleaker.
“Everyone keeps remembering back to that,” Van De Carr said. “But I’m optimistic.”
One factor that’s made early spring 2012 stand out is simply how different it is from last spring, when records of different kinds were being set.
Spring 2011 was the one that never seemed to end. Cool, damp weather persisted through April, May and into June. The snowpack in the high country held tight much longer than usual, and when it did finally let loose, it flooded areas of Steamboat Springs and left the Yampa River a deep, gnarling beast well into July.
“We weren’t on the river consistently until July 4, but there were a lot of areas we couldn’t fish until August,” said Jonah Drescher, a guide with Steamboat Flyfisher. “This year, it’s looking like everything will be open by June 1, and maybe earlier.”
That’s life in a world as weather dependent as that of Steamboat Springs recreation.
But there are always ups.
“This has been one of the best winters we’ve ever had as far as guiding,” Drescher said. “The weather’s been so warm, a lot of people haven’t wanted to ski. Businesses like ours are really staying busy because people haven’t wanted to go up on the mountain.”
And, of course, there are downs.
“We are a little bit worried about late in the summer,” he said, admitting that if things break wrong, August could rule out fishing on the Yampa.
There, the problem isn’t as much a low flow rate as it is high water temperatures.
Shifting with the sands
Adaptability is key, though, and most say they’re ready to adapt.
For fishermen, it means a late summer spent away from those favorite Yampa holes, but it doesn’t have to mean turning away customers.
“When it gets like that, you don’t want to be stressing the fish and you find another place to go that has cooler water temperatures,” John Duty said.
Duty said water above Stagecoach Reservoir can be 15 degrees cooler and that high-altitude streams and lakes should be fine. As the owner of downtown’s Bucking Rainbow, which encompasses a shop, river tubing and rafting and fishing guide operations, Duty said diversity time and again saves his business from funky weather.
River rafting never has been better than it was a year ago, he said. The shop ran trips on local rivers through July, a feat unheard of before 2011’s endless runoff season.
Both Duty and Van De Carr, who runs tubing and rafting operations from his Backdoor Sports shop, were pressed to capacity as July tourists, frustrated that tubing wasn’t yet a safe option, sought out adventure.
Tubing, meanwhile, proved almost a total bust in 2011. By the time the river was low and slow enough, many children were headed back to school, many summer vacations a thing of the past.
“We try to stay really balanced,” Duty said. “It all usually balances out.”
Still, the deep-seeded knowledge that it will all work can only provide so much comfort at the start of another wacky season.
Van De Carr said he spent last summer beefing up those rafting options. That meant spending a couple grand on a new eight-person raft and plenty more on a new van to help haul customers to and from the drop-off point.
This summer, he said, he’s just hoping tubing lasts long enough. He said that’s the outlet that accounts for a big chunk of his business — sometimes about 60 percent annually — and can have ramifications for other seasons. A good summer tubing might mean stocking a larger supply of skis the following winter.
“My key is to have 100 cubic feet per second through the third week of July,” he said about the Yampa’s flow through downtown. “That’s when I can reach my threshold. Up until then, I’m just paying off bills.”
He paused for a second, then continued.
“This year, it looks like it might not make it.”
So, what? Doom and gloom? A run on cheap river tubes at a Van De Carr garage sale?
“I wake up at night and wonder if I should have opened a smoothie shop,” he joked.
Van De Carr is optimistic. Everyone with an eye on the sky and a livelihood on the river seems to be.
“Things change,” Van De Carr said. “That year, 2002, might have been the only time we didn’t make that third week of July date. It’s been close other years, really close. I remember, three or four years ago, we were into July with a severe no-rain event and we couldn’t have gone a day longer. Then we had a huge rainstorm and the river doubled overnight, and we were good to go.”
As bleak as the future may look in late March, winter and a foot of snow can be just a day away all the way through May. Early summer afternoon rainstorms can change everything, and one prolonged storm — whether it belches rain or snow — can mean a different world.
Rafts were running from Bucking Rainbow on Friday, giving unaware tourists a first for the company: river trips in March.
The fishing’s been great and tubing seems right around the corner. But even at the tail end of a dry, frustrating winter, the weather of April and May will mean more than that of October through March combined.
“It’s going to be an interesting summer,” Duty said. “That’s for sure.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com