River offers late-season thrills in Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

River offers late-season thrills in Steamboat

If you go

What: Mountain Sport Kayak School in Steamboat Springs offers never-ever kayak classes every day.

Cost: A three-hour lesson costs $75.

Contact: For more information, call Barry Smith at 970-879-8794.

River flow

The Yampa River finally dipped below 1,000 cubic feet per second Saturday and was running at 967 cfs as of 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon. It was still far above the historic July 23 average of 231 cfs. Single-chambered, air-inflated devices like inner tubes aren’t legally allowed on the river until the river drops to 800 cfs.

Barry Smith runs through the basics of kayaking Friday for a class full of beginners in Steamboat Springs from Houston. Smith said the Yampa River's high-water summer didn't do his business any favors, but now the water is plenty safe for boaters of all abilityJoel Reichenberger

— Even in a high-water season like no one can remember, the Yampa River can seem tame as it bubbles past the back porch of a downtown restaurant, slips by a favorite picnic spot or passes under a bridge.

Steamboat Springs' water also felt tame Friday morning as a class of inexperienced boaters from Barry Smith's Mountain Sport Kayak School slipped into a large eddy on Walton Creek, a few hundred yards from where it flows into the Yampa.

In the river, however, nothing is the same, and even as its level drops considerably every day, few would call it tame.

A different kind of season

Steamboat's high-water summer has had varying effects on local river rats.

It's been a blessing — a curious one — for local kayakers, Mountain Sport Kayak School instructor Marty Smith explained. The extended season made the Yampa ferocious as its highest point but also good for boaters weeks longer than usual.

It made boaters adapt to take advantage, forcing them to spin underwater while passing beneath low bridges like the span across Fifth Street in downtown Steamboat Springs.

"You flip over, it goes dark for maybe five seconds and then you can barely see light again," Smith said, describing the experience as a bit uncomfortable.

Boaters still are soaking up Fish Creek. What's usually kayak-worthy for maybe 30 days has been running well for at least twice that time.

But it's not all been great for local river enthusiasts. Commercial tubing operations have watched weekend after weekend of prime-time tourist season pass, tapping their feet nervously as they've been unable to cash in on their best seasonal business.

The benefits haven't carried over for commercial kayaking operations like Barry Smith's, either.

"It's been such a weird year," Smith said. "We had such an excellent ski season … but no one was going kayaking, even the good kayakers, with the water so high."

He said it's had the effect, even as the river has gone down, of scaring customers away.

"Now it's at a manageable level," Smith said, "and it's great."

Into the water

Friday didn't mark a first for any of the kayakers who followed Marty Smith into Walton Creek. All had been in boats before, whether it was on a creek, a river or a lake. Still, all were eager for a refresher, and Smith spent 45 minutes putting the four-person class through the details on the various rules of kayaking: how to sit, how to lean, how to paddle and when to paddle.

Few of kayaking's basic lessons come as a shock. The proper way to paddle, for instance, is somewhat obvious. A boater can slow his or her progress or reverse it by paddling backward. He or she can turn by dropping a blade in the water the direction he or she wants to go.

It isn't high-level physics. It is, however, reassuring. It may all be logical, but it isn't habitual. It quickly became so when faced with the Yampa, however.

Docile from a park bench, the Yampa rages underneath a boater. Friday, kayaks bobbed through the surf, Smith's class of boaters doing what they could to stay in line with their leader.

Things didn't always work. One nearly missed a turn down a fork in the waterway and was pinned up against trees on the shore before Smith doubled back and helped scoot the boat out and into the main channel.

Another went over a river rock just the wrong way and ended up swimming to shore, dragging his boat behind him.

"I don't really know," Brian Anderson said with a wide smile afterward, trying to explain his dip. "It all happened a little quick. Water was right there on the left side and I tumbled."

Great ride

Being soggy didn't do much to turn off the Houston-based group, however. Brian Anderson and his brother, Denton Anderson, met up with Sam Schroeder, a childhood friend from across the street.

Their week in Steamboat included plans for all the outdoor highlights: kayaking, rafting, fly-fishing and mountain biking.

After three hours on the river, however, they were eager for more time in a boat.

Friday's group made it from the Walton Creek put-in to Dr. Rich Weiss Park on the southeastern end of downtown Steamboat Springs. It takes just a few minutes to do by car — drivers can even see the river for portions of that drive — but the two journeys have little in common.

On the river, rocks loom large and the water feels wild. Civilization is never far away. The class passed under the Tree Haus bridge, only a few hundred yards from Walmart and Taco Bell.

But on the river, everything's different. On Friday, bobbing and weaving down the Yampa, rookies soaked up every second. It was nothing but a thrill.

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