Kayaker: ‘The river’s breathing’
EAGLE-VAIL – Its whitewater gives it mystique. Its visibility heightens its profile. And its proximity to resorts gives it tourists.Dowd Chute’s confluence of accessibility and challenging rapids has made it one of the premier stretches of white water in the state.It’s a straight shot for a quarter-mile, a rocky trough with an unused railroad on the right and U.S. Highway 6 and Interstate 70 on the left. As the water enters the chute, its slope is steeper, and it constricts. When the spring runoff comes, the stretch becomes a rollicking gantlet.”It’s almost like the river’s breathing,” said Ken Hoeve, a local kayaker. “It’s all white, it surges up and down and you lose track of where you are.”Dowd Chute might best represent the recreation that’s offered on the whole stretch of the river – but those activities aren’t limited to the that spot. The river attracts kayakers, rafters and fishermen from its headwaters to Dotsero, where it joins the Colorado River.But as the population of Eagle County grows, threats to the Eagle River are growing, too. Pollution, overuse by fishermen and boaters, and even getting to the banks of the river could be problems for the river in the future.
When Greg Kelchner, owner of Timberline Tours, arrived in the Eagle Valley in 1971, few rafters or kayakers ran the chute or any other part of the Eagle River – and no companies did it commercially.”The Eagle River in any way, shape or form was considered too challenging a whitewater stretch,” he said.The Garfield County sheriff even closed part of the Shoshone Rapids – on the nearby Colorado River – in the late ’70s because it was considered too dangerous for rafters, Kelchner said.”Everybody said, why would you possibly raft on the Eagle?” pioneering local boater Darryl Bangert said. “All it does is kill people.”Bangert rafted the chute in 1979, when just a few local kayakers were doing it.”I might have been the first one to really raft it,” he said. “I was scared to death. But that’s what my goal was, to do that.”He scouted other parts of the river, too, walking it from Minturn to Wolcott. By the early ’80s, commercial rafting companies were running the Eagle at high water times, but not the chute yet.”This was our home river,” Bangert said. “How could we not do it?”It wasn’t until 1987 that commercial rafting began at Dowd Chute, he said.The introduction of self-bailing rafts in the early ’80s allowed for more difficult sections of the river, like Dowd Chute, to be floated more easily. Now, three companies – Nova Guides, Timberline Tours and Lakota River Guides – run the river.The Eagle River’s rafting season is short compared to the nearby dam-controlled sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers. The companies start running the Eagle River in May, and by late June or early July, they’ve stopped running it.
Keeping the river a good fish habitat is a delicate balance. Runoff, water temperature, pollution affect the fish. The possibility of water being diverted for use on the populous Front Range also has potentially enormous effects on fishing here. A portion of the Gore Creek, which runs through Vail, is designated Gold Medal water. That means the waterway has at least a dozen 14-inch trout per acre. Only 13 streams rivers and lakes in Colorado have that distinction.The Eagle River isn’t a Gold Medal waterway. In the 1980s the river and the Eagle Mine near Minturn were named a Superfund site by the federal government. Between 1988 and 2000 mine owner Viacom spent an estimated $70 million cleaning up mine waste, and, based on the number of fish, the river has been largely restored to health.Gold Medal or not, John Cochrane of Gorsuch Outfitters has heard of Eagle River fishermen catching 75 fish in one day, many of them more than a foot long. A dozen catches in a day is a more realistic number for a good fisherman, he said. The fishing is the best it has been in the 16 years he’s been in the valley, he said.Rainbow trout and brown trout are plentiful, all the way from the river’s headwaters near Kokomo Pass to the Colorado River. Fishermen fish the river all year long.
For fishermen, having the right amount of water at the right times is important. A slow, steady runoff is good. That provides good levels for fishing throughout the spring. But a strong, quick runoff is also good every few years to flush debris out of the river.Also, shallow water makes the river more susceptible to temperature changes. Subtle changes can drive away or kill fish.”Low water flows affect not only populations of fish but insects and the general wealth and well-being of the riparian areas,” Cochrane said.Kayakers and rafting also depend on good flows throughout the spring to ensure a lengthy season.A tug of war for water rights between Eagle County and the thirsty Front Range has gone on for decades. The Front Range diverts some water from Eagle County, but a planned expansion of the Homestake Reservoir above Red Cliff never happened after local opposition formed.In 1996, parties from the Front Range and Eagle County signed an agreement that calls for collaboration between groups to come to solutions that are acceptable to all sides.”They realized we’ve got to get along,” Bangert said.The river is still recovering from pollution from the Eagle Mine. But perhaps a greater threat than mine pollution is the development of the land around the river. Development creates more hard surfaces like parking lots and storm drains.”The more you build, the more you create impervious surfaces,” said Ken Neubecker, vice president of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “The water doesn’t soak into the ground, it just runs straight into the sewer.”That means dirt and pollution that clouds the river and does not allow sunlight to get into the water to create algae. Bugs eat the algae, and fish eat the bugs. The sediment also clogs the hiding places for bugs in the river.Oils and antifreeze from parking lots also end up in the river. Cochrane said he isn’t seeing the effects of urbanization on fishing – yet.
Even if the river stays high, steady and free of pollution, too many fisherman, rafters and kayakers on the river can also do harm.Commercial rafting and fishing outfitters are licensed through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Those agencies don’t limit the amount of activity on the Eagle River now.”The Eagle River is not that big a draw for commercial rafters,” said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Eagle and Holy Cross districts. “It’s a small river and has a real short window of when it’s runnable.”But on the Arkansas River south of Leadville, recreational activity is limited by agencies. The Arkansas is a dam-controlled river with a longer season.Kelchner said he thinks the number of people on the river will have to be limited eventually. The group that was once small is becoming bigger and bigger every year. Included in that growth are private boaters. Kelchner said he’s tripled the amount of rafts he’s sold in the last three years.Still, there’s uncertainty about where the industry is headed, Kelchner said.”It’s hard to tell where the next leap will be – skills, technology, people’s willingness to get out there and do things in a more hairball fashion,” he said. Hoeve said he’s also seeing more paddlers out there. But there are only so many miles of river in the area.”It’ll get crowded, but I doubt it’ll ever get so crowded that you don’t want to go,” he said.
Fishermen and boaters can’t use the river if they can’t get to it. The issue of getting to the river came to the fore last spring, when construction at East West Partners’ Riverfront Village development closed a popular access point in Avon.
With real estate booming in Eagle County and increased use of the river predicted for the coming years, the issue of access is poised to become a bigger problem.Bangert said that’s the single biggest issue facing the river, one he’s been working to improve for decades. Local boaters have tried to get a better takeout spot for the Dowd Chute. But Bangert said the current takeout spot beside the bus stop near the River Run apartments entrance spot is dangerous because it’s an acceleration lane for cars.”Someone’s going to get killed there,” he said.There are dozens of access points for the river, but only a handful are designated.”River access is becoming a bigger and bigger issue everywhere,” said Lisa Reeder of Timberline Tours.Vail Resorts helped with the East West problem when it provided a spot on the river for rafters and kayakers to get in and out of the river. The banks of the Eagle River are mostly privately owned and not all landowners are willing to provide access.The Forest Service provides a spot for boaters across Highway 24 from its offices in Minturn.”I wouldn’t say that we make sure there are places (to access the river), but there are places,” Wettstein said.Another problem is hazards in the river. One of the most prevalent problems is pipeline crossings. Low bridges are another problem. But Kelchner was confident the issues would be worked out.”The local governments, the county and the cities, see the value of whitewater as far as recreational value,” Kelchner said. “These issues are going to be addressed. This is a problem that every wants to solve.”Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado