Barry Smith leads Spencer Schlegel, middle, and Gary Schlegel down the Yampa River on Saturday afternoon. Kayakers aren’t expecting a big season, but they said that so far, conditions have been as good as possible, considering the lackluster winter snowfall totals.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Barry Smith leads Spencer Schlegel, middle, and Gary Schlegel down the Yampa River on Saturday afternoon. Kayakers aren’t expecting a big season, but they said that so far, conditions have been as good as possible, considering the lackluster winter snowfall totals.

Boaters intent on savoring every drop of Yampa River this season

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Spencer Schlegel, 11, splashes into the water Saturday. Spencer and his father, longtime kayaker Gary Schlegel, were taking a quick brush-up lesson with the Mountain Sports Kayak School’s Barry Smith.

— It works out.

That’s the lesson Barry Smith said he’s learned after decades spent watching the Yampa River’s rise and fall in Steamboat Springs.

Some years are big, some are not. Some seasons come early, others come late. He leaves the graphs and computers for others, instead taking notice of the snow on the mountains surrounding Steamboat to figure out how deep the valley is into the spring runoff season. Similarly, he eyeballs landmark rocks in the river to gauge how fast the Yampa is running.

“I looked at it the other day and said, ‘It’s running at 1,000 cfs,’” Smith said. “My son checked an app on his phone and said, ‘Nope. 957.’

“I’ll call that 1,000.”

He knows the river, having lived on it for the equivalent of years while teaching at his Mountain Sports Kayaking School. Now, in a spring and summer that has water conservationists sweating, kayakers praying and the public scratching its head, Smith said he’s not worried.

“It’s been really nice so far this year,” he said. “It’s a really nice level right now to get out on the river. It’s a real fun level.”

Adding up to OK

For those who do care about the numbers, the math remains as bad as it seemed like it might be when people started wearing shorts and sandals in early March.

The Yampa peaked at about 1,300 cfs Thursday night and as of Saturday evening was running at 1,030 cfs. While not far off the day’s historic average, the difference is that the river is likely on its way down, not up, as it usually is May 11.

Still, kayakers have taken heart in the fact that on-the-river results haven’t been as horrid as they could have been. Warm days have been offset by cool nights, and the occasional rain shower has provided a few fun spikes in water flow.

“The weather has created the best-case scenario we could have had considering the year,” local Charlie’s Hole regular Dan Piano said. “It’s been getting warm, but it cools off, so we don’t lose all our snow at once. It won’t get running high this year, but it will at least be a steady, low flow.”

Piano remembered wistfully the easy days of 2011, when the water was high seemingly all season long. He said he ran Fish Creek with friends nearly into August, an unheard-of luxury in Steamboat Springs.

“It was awesome, one of the best years of kayaking I’ve ever had,” he said. “Everywhere was high water. It just never stopped.”

Luckily, he squeezed every drop he could from that windfall, and even though it’s not been nearly the same, he’s also trying to squeeze everything possible out of 2012.

The highlight so far has been Cross Mountain Gorge, a Yampa River canyon in western Moffat County known for its high-volume flows, large waves and hydraulic features.

“Usually, Cross will be low, then it will get warm out here and it spikes up to a huge high flow,” Piano said. “This year, it’s had a nice, medium-high flow, and it’s stayed there. Usually, it only gets like that one or two times a year, so it’s been fun.”

Soak it up

Marty Smith, Barry Smith’s son, had even less time to make the most of the Yampa, but perhaps the way he spent his week in town is demonstrative of the attitude all boaters seem to have this season.

Traveling from Oregon, where he’s currently living, going to school and teaching kayaking, Marty Smith made the most of his weeklong trip to Steamboat, running what he said may be his favorite stretch of water in the area. He hiked up to the base of Fish Creek Falls before dropping in, sliding under a log that fell across the stretch several years ago, then under the footbridge that’s filled with tourists in spring and summer and down the raging creek and into town.

It’s no easy task, and desperate for the best possible water, he woke up at 5:30 a.m. to do it.

“With Fish Creek, the higher you go, the better it is. The creek is a lot more narrow, and it funnels down a little more,” Smith said. “I love that little section. No one else runs it, and the last time I did, I was in high school. Those are the steepest rapids on that section of upper Fish Creek.”

He’s far from alone in sticking with the “just enjoy it” mindset.

Organizers for the Yampa River Festival, set for the end of this month, aren’t fretting about a potential low-water year.

“It’s going to be a lot different than last year, but it will be a lot more participant-friendly,” said Piano, who’s helping with the event. “Last year, the high water discouraged a lot of people from participating. This year, it will be a very manageable, low flow that won’t scare everyone off.”

With events for everything from kayaking to stand-up paddleboarding to — new this year — tube racing, there will be something for everyone.

Barry Smith said he’s sure to be there. He plans to enjoy that day and every one until then. He’s hoping the lower water is a boost for the kayak lessons he teaches — he said customers were scared away last year — but that no matter what happens, it’s a good time of year to be in Steamboat.

“Every spring is a good one,” Barry Smith said. “It’s so nice. The weather’s nice. There aren’t a lot of people around, and we have the town to ourselves. It’s beautiful out and the river’s moving right along. After that winter, we can’t expect to have a giant runoff, but who knows? I’m not worrying about it.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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