Steamboat Springs With flows in the Yampa River in retreat on Wednesday, Steamboat’s commercial tubing operators are cautiously optimistic they could begin renting tubes to adults 18 and older as soon as Friday or Saturday, but they will use discretion in reaching that decision.
City revenue from commercial Yampa River operations
2011: $10, 421
Source: City of Steamboat Springs
Money collected is from a 5 percent fee on the gross revenue of outfitters who use the city's public river access
Headcount of 2013 commercial river users
Stand-up paddleboarding: 374
Source: City of Steamboat Springs
“It’s not a water park,” Pete Van De Carr, of Backdoor Sports, said Wednesday. “It’s a river with slippery rocks and moving water. Life jackets are so key” to safety.
Van De Carr was watching river flows and guessing the river where it flows through downtown might dip below the 700 cubic feet per second threshold that is the self-imposed upper limit for tubing rental operators here.
“Experience has taught us that above 700 cfs, the rate of incidents sky rockets,” Van De Carr said.
The U.S. Geological Survey frequently updates streamflow reports for the Yampa at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat.
The city of Steamboat Springs licenses three commercial tubing operations on the Yampa, but does not tell tubers, either private or commercial, at what streamflow they can begin floating, Open Space and Trails Coordinator Craig Robinson confirmed. However, it does ask private tubers not to launch upstream from Fetcher Park at Pine Grove Road and U.S. Highway 40.
“We encourage people to use the existing tubing supply companies because they get that education about the river,” Robinson said. “We expect the companies to advise people of what to expect so nobody is surprised when they enter whitewater and their tube flips. (The companies) don’t allow alcohol because we don’t allow alcohol on the river.”
The going tube rental rate, which includes a shuttle ride from the take-out point on the city’s west side, is $18.
The river was flowing at 776 cfs Wednesday morning but could be expected to rise again overnight for the 24-hour peak before resuming its downward trend Thursday. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, was projecting the river could come close to 700 cfs by Friday or Saturday.
If that happens, the campaign begins to surpass last year’s record season when the 5 percent fees collected by the city of Steamboat Springs on commercial tubing, fishing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding topped out at $22,129.
The city of Steamboat Springs reported in March that tubers accounted for 18,779 river users on commercially supported outings. But the city is well aware that the actual number of tubers is much larger; repeat visitors to Steamboat have caught on to the fact that stores in Steamboat, including nationally brand stores, sell tubes of varying quality that allows them to save money over the course of repeated outings. What they don’t necessarily get is good advice and safety equipment.
John Kole, of One Stop Ski Shop on Eleventh Street, said tubing in Steamboat has a good safety record, but that can’t be taken for granted.
“Tubing is always dangerous, and at this water level, it can be extremely dangerous,” he said. “It’s moving water, it’s rocks and other debris we might not know of. We haven’t had a major injury and we want to keep it that way.”
One of the dangers of the Fourth of July tubers might not have anticipated is how cold the river is and how quickly that can put a swimmer in jeopardy. A shallow temperature measurement taken at Eleventh and Yampa streets Wednesday showed the Yampa above Soda Creek is at 57 degrees, 15 degrees colder than what would feel cool in a heated swimming pool.
Kole’s shop provides life jackets and rents river shoes for $3 to people who don’t have sturdy river sandals — flip flops won’t do. On occasion, he has even rented ski helmets to protect clients from a tumble in a rocky rapid.
The third tubing rental company is Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, which also offers guided whitewater rafting, primarily on the Colorado River.
It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the most dangerous moves a tuber can make in swift water is to attempt to stand up in swift current. It’s easy to underestimate the strength of of the river’s hydraulics, but the the real danger is from a situation commonly referred to as foot entrapment, Van De Carr said.
The river bottom of the Yampa is strewn with stones and it’s easy for someone to have their foot slip beneath one of the irregularly-shaped rocks where the current can pin them. A tuber detached from their tube who loses their balance in that situation can quickly find themselves in trouble.
Van De Carr said after offering tube rentals to those 18 and older for a couple of days and listening to them talk about their experiences, the tubing outfitters might consider gradually dropping age restriction. And operators always reserve the right to deny service to individuals who don’t appear to be fit for the experience.
Van De Carr is most concerned about sub-teens who may observe older youths using privately purchased tubes and floating without life jackets and could assume that method of floating is safe.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1