Rafting Colorado: Big Water Awaits

Record snowfall over the winter obviously makes for bomber ski conditions throughout Colorado. But what happens when all that snow melts? Paddlers know. Colorado will be blessed with one of the most epic whitewater seasons in recent memory.
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Rafting Colorado's Yampa River, Echo Park
Echo Park on Colorado's Yampa River  (courtesy, oars.com)

Each morning after downing his coffee, Mike Gillespie logs onto his computer to check Colorado's latest snowpack numbers. The information, which is measured as a percentage of a 30-year average, is delivered to Gillespie's desktop via SNOTEL, an automated monitoring system in which 102 strategically placed sensors determine the water content of the state's snowpack.

Gillespie, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in suburban Denver, downloads the data and then transforms it into a daily report that is posted on the federal agency's website.

Two hours southwest of the NRCS center, Duke Bradford has been on the phone a lot at his office in Buena Vista, Colorado. Bradford has seen those snowpack reports; now he's calling many of the guides employed by his Arkansas Valley Adventures rafting company, asking them to come in earlier than normal to undergo extra training for the upcoming boating season.

The snowpack data has also caught the eyes of posters to a popular Colorado whitewater boating forum. In a thread labeled "Big Sur," (more on this in a bit) one poster asks, "What will it take to get [Big Sur] running? I have friends who were there in '97 and they get this glazed look of euphoria in their eyes when they talk about it." Another poster curtly answers, "At least 20,000 CFS, but don't start talking about it or you'll jinx it. Just pray that it keeps snowing."

So far at least, those prayers have been answered. One of Colorado's best ski seasons in recent memory is winding down, but not without a few more epic powder days. The last day of March delivered a bounty of new moisture, with some parts of the state receiving more than a foot of snow. According to the April 1, 2008, SNOTEL report, statewide snowpack is at 122 percent of average.

That means that unless an apocalyptic heat wave descends on the Centennial State in April, this year's epic ski season will be closely followed by a whitewater rafting season for the record books. Adrenaline-pumping high water will course down rivers from mid-May to mid-June, and sustained medium water flows should last throughout July and August.

There's even a chance that the mythical "Big Sur" wave will emerge from the murky depths of the Colorado River, providing kayakers a 100-foot wide utopian surf spot that hasn't been seen in full since the second term of the Clinton administration.

"Right now, Colorado's snowpack is the highest it's been since 1997," said the NRCS's Gillespie. "That means there is potential for some extremely high water on many of the state's rivers."

Published: 10 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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