Take to the river for an early-season rafting adventure
The snow might finally be done dumping on Eagle County. The resorts have called it quits, and though some good skiing is still to be had at Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, sunny days and higher temperatures have us thinking of spring.
Before strapping your bike to the roof of your car and heading west to Moab, consider taking a trip south to ride some early-season waves on the Lower Arkansas River.
Why early season?
Outfitters on the Lower Ark have started running trips through Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Royal Gorge, riding the low water with just as much enthusiasm as the peak flows that come later in the season. They said there’s a different type of value added to running the river before the summer throngs arrive.
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“It’s a high value trip,” said Andy Neinas, head troublemaker and owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions. “They get all of our attention. … Seasoned guides are around this time of year. They’ve got the gift of gab, but they know how to get down the river.”
Neinas said the quality of experience on an early-season rafting trip is very high – and so is the likelihood of seeing wildlife along the riverbanks.
“It feels like your own private raft trip right now,” he said. “It’s much more pristine. I love rafting during peak season – there’s a lot of fun energy on the water – but it’s not the same as having the river to yourself. … That’s what I enjoy about early season or late season boating.”
Rafting early season adds a different dynamic to the trip, said Jimmy Whiteside, owner-partner at Royal Gorge Rafting.
“It’s a more challenging trip,” he said. “At high water, you can go almost anywhere in the river. With low water, you’re confined to a route or two, only a few ways to get down the river. … High water you have that big water rush; low water you have that technical aspect.”
Whiteside said no matter what the water levels, the smiles on his customers’ faces are always the same, and if it wasn’t a good trip, if the water was too low or people came back unhappy, his company wouldn’t sell it.
“You’re out there and it’s your trip, it’s your river,” Whiteside said of his early-season experiences. “A lot of people don’t realize it when they book the trip that they’re in for a special deal because of the quiet nature of the river.”
Dress for the weather
Cold air and the occasional splash or dunk in the river can make for a miserable outing if you aren’t prepared for the weather.
“I always like to describe it like this: Always dress for success,” Neinas said. “That’s something your nonboaters can grab onto.”
Neinas said to avoid cotton clothing, which makes you colder when it gets wet, and steer toward the usual synthetic garments and even undergarments, which will dry quickly or wick moisture away from your skin. The outfitters provide the more technical gear, from wet suits and booties to splash jackets. Royal Gorge even offers latex gloves to keep your fingers warm.
“The gloves make a huge difference,” Whiteside said. “Without those gloves, your hands can get pretty cold, so having those gloves is paramount to the experience.”
Whiteside also recommended a lightweight fleece and a stocking cap to wear under the provided helmet for cooler days. Neinas said Echo Canyon tries to launch around 12:30 in the afternoon each day, when the sun is directly overhead and the day is at its warmest, but Colorado weather can still be unpredictable, so customers should be prepared.
“I was on the river on March 15, and those people elected to swim for fun,” Neinas said. “They had the right attire on, and it made all the difference in the world. I’d rather be a little too hot than too cold; I’d rather have that little bead of sweat on my head than be shivering.”
As of Thursday, the Lower Arkansas was running at around 216 cubic feet per second for the navigable commercial sections. That’s on the lower end of being runable, but both Whiteside and Neinas said they are optimistic about the rafting season as a whole.
“We are thrilled at the recent snows we’ve seen; that’s really the story,” Neinas said. “Recent snows boost outfitters’ confidence; it’s a lot better than last year as far as the volume of snow. … We are at roughly 90 percent (of average), so we’re pretty darn happy.”
Outfitters on the Lower Arkansas keep an eye on specific water gauges for tributaries that feed the sections of river they run.
“We could end up with high water this year yet,” Whiteside said. “We’ll at least see an average year. There’s a lot of water missing in the reservoirs, but we’re optimistic because even last year, in a low water year, people’s experiences were great.”