With Old Man Winter slowly releasing his grasp, rafting veterans are eagerly awaiting the spring runoff and in the meantime are training first-year guides, using chainsaws to clear logs and running trips down the Roaring Fork River.
River levels have barely budged this month as snow and rain — the city of Aspen Water Department has recorded 16 days of measurable precipitation so far in May — continue to lock in the substantial snowpack that will swell, at some point, the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Colorado rivers. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey show that the Roaring Fork below Maroon Creek this week has approached flows of 360 cubic feet per second before dropping down, as of Thursday, to about 280 cfs.
“It’s been an interesting start to the year,” said Vince Nichols, owner of Blazing Adventures, of the rafting season. “Hopefully, it’s putting that water in a savings account for us, and we can use it later. We’ll see how quickly that runoff comes at us.”
While this is far from the first snowy spring in the upper valley, “this one is certainly unique [and is] especially evident coming off a season like last year,” Nichols said of the severe drought that gripped much of Colorado until this winter.
He said his veteran staffers Thursday were leading swim drills for rookie guides in the Snowmass Hole near the Old Snowmass gas station.
But since the beginning of May, Blazing Adventures, Aspen Whitewater Rafting and other companies have been running trips on most stretches of the Fork — including Slaughterhouse, a 4.5-mile section that is perhaps the river’s most intense for rafters and kayakers.
Because most of the snowpack hasn’t melted, rafting firms plunging through Slaughterhouse and its waterfall are using 10-foot Mini Max crafts suitable for four guests and a guide, whereas when the water comes up, they’ll employ the more standard 13-foot rafts that can seat a couple more.
Jim Ingram, Aspen Whitewater Rafting owner and a 25-year river veteran, said he’s seen plenty of years “where it’s cold and crummy in May. Hopefully it doesn’t change too quickly and become 90 degrees.”
He said he and his guides have been “through it all. It may be a big water year or it may be the pattern of being a cool June as well.
“But once it starts melting, it will be fantastic no matter what,” Ingram said.
He said his company and others have been busy taking chainsaws to downed logs to clear waterways since early May.
“Everyone’s taking a part in that: Anything that poses a threat to the public and commercial trips, we do our best to make the river as safe as possible,” Ingram said, noting efforts in Slaughterhouse and the upper section of a stretch called Toothache. “It’s pretty clear at this point, but high water is going to move stuff around. It will be an ongoing battle.”
And once the runoff surge subsides, the above-average snowpack will still entail a long and successful rafting season, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association.
“Some years Colorado has a great snow year, but then it warms up quick in April and May, and the snowmelt and runoff happens really early in the season,” said the association’s executive director, David Costlow, in a press release. “Years like this, when we have great snowfall and some of these late spring snows, it really helps both to keep early season flows steady and extend the season later into the summer months.”
CROA is predicting a slightly later start to this year’s rafting season, one that could run through mid-September.
River outfitters are coming off a down year in 2018 due to drought conditions and low water flows across the state, the release says. According to CROA’s 2018 economic impact report, Colorado’s rafting industry hosted 520,217 rafting user days in 2018, a drop of 9.6 percent from the previous year. But even with the drought conditions, commercial rafting boosted the state’s tourism industry by over $176 million in 2018, the third highest economic impact in history, the release says.
Ingram predicted that Slaughterhouse Falls will exceed 2,000 cfs at some point this summer, meaning his company will not run trips down it at that level for safety reasons. Regardless, he said he’s hopeful for a long rafting season on the Roaring Fork.
“The rivers haven’t even really started running yet,” he said. “There’s a ton of snow up there, and we’re going to have a wonderful season.”