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Experts Predict a Great, Dangerous, Whitewater Season on the Arkansas River

By: Andrew Wineke, The Gazette

(MCT) - This summer, rafters and kayakers on the Arkansas River will be partying like it's 1998.

It's been a full decade since the snowpack at this point in the season held this much water. The snowpack in the Arkansas drainage is currently at 152 percent of average, according to Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"About 60 percent of our snowpack is still to come out for melting," Gillespie said. "The most similar year we've had to this year recently was 1998."

All that snow has to melt. And when it does, the river will climb. Think about it: the best whitewater in a decade.

"This is going to be something that you don't want to miss," said Tony Keenan, owner of Whitewater Adventure Outfitters in Canon City. "It could be another decade-plus before we see levels like this again."

No one knows what level the Arkansas will hit - it depends on how hot it gets and how fast the snow melts. Cool weather or snow in the next few weeks would mean a lower peak, but a longer season (peak paddling season is usually May and June). It's good news for whitewater enthusiasts either way.

"People are going to have great water, but they may have to make adjustments," said Duke Bradford, owner of Arkansas Valley Adventures in Buena Vista.

By "adjustments," he means that it's possible to get too much of a good thing. Some rapids get washed out by high water, turning into nothing more than waves, but others get big and ugly.

If the Arkansas hits 3,200 cubic feet per second in the Royal Gorge, Colorado State Parks closes the run to commercial raft trips. The popular Numbers run above Buena Vista gets shut down at 2,400 cfs. And the Class V Pine Creek section closes at 1,250 cfs. The Arkansas is already edging up to those flows this year.

"People should take extra safety precautions and shouldn't exceed their boating skill level," said John Geerdes, assistant park manager for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which includes all of the popular whitewater sections on the Arkansas.

A rafter on a commercial trip through the Royal Gorge drowned Sunday at medium flow. Geerdes said the rafting companies have been stressing safety with their staffs.

That's important, he said, since even old hands on the river haven't seen truly big water in a long, long time, and plenty of newcomers, including Geerdes, have never seen those epic flows.

"I've heard some talk on the streets, `Oh, it might hit 6,500 (cfs),'" he said. "Anything could happen. It might not stop snowing for a while."

Browns Canyon, the most popular rafting section on the Arkansas, typically features mild Class III rapids (on a scale of I to V). But at big water, even Browns can get wild and woolly.

"At 5,000 (cfs) there are no eddies in Browns Canyon," said Jim McGee, a Colorado Springs kayaker who has paddled in Colorado since 1980.

Zoom Flume, usually the biggest rapid in Browns, is washed out at those levels, McGee said, while Canyon Doors, the first big rapid in Browns, becomes a gigantic, boat-swallowing hole.

"It's nasty," McGee said. "I got stuck in there once - worst swim I ever had."

Don't let these tales scare you away, though: When one section of the river becomes too dangerous to raft, commercial companies simply switch their trips to a less challenging section.

For instance, when the Royal Gorge closes, some companies run trips through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. That's normally a sedate floa t trip with a few small rapids.

Not so at big water.

"Bighorn Canyon is a great trip," Keenan said. "Probably the biggest waves on the river that we're allowed to go rafting on."

If you're looking for adventure, Bradford said, come boating in June.

If you want a fun ride, but something closer to what we've had in recent years, you might want to put off your trip until July.

"You could see really sustained flows into September," Bradford said.

"If they are nervous (about early-season flows), put it off."

© 2008, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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