Steve Skinner

Getting out the raft is bubbling up the priority list and it would have happened earlier but winter keeps coming back and spoiling my plans. But the old man is giving up his grip and the Crystal River is cresting my secret indicator rock which tells me it's time to shred in my little black Shredder two seater cataraft. As of Thursday, April 11, 2019 the Crystal was flowing at 199 cubic feet per second (CFS).

The river has sprung to life in the past week. The color has gone from clear and green to slate-colored and cloudy. For some reason, a lot of trees fell into the river this winter, and there are several places where I have observed river-wide obstructions.

It’s mostly cottonwoods — they like to fall over — and they line the banks in some sections like high weeds. There is also a group of pines that has been bowing over the river for years, like nature’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Every time I float under them I get a little chill up my back. These 40-footers look like they could go at any minute. I’d say that after years of this leaning, the time will soon come when they come down with a splash. Stay right!

Snags, obstructions and obstacles represent just some of the challenges to early season boaters. The snowmelt water is mighty cold, and the weather is unpredictable. Even though I know several stretches of the Crystal like the back of my hand, I will be looking for new channels that call for new maneuvers.

I like running the Crystal anywhere between 350 CFS and 1800 CFS. Anything higher and you run the risk of jamming on a low bridge. The highest flow ever recorded on the Crystal was a whopping, bridge-topping 4,840 CFS on June 10, 2010. This is going to big a big runoff year and it’s always worth scouting those potential trouble spots from the road.

At the lower end of the spectrum you have to be prepared for snags, pebble bars, shoals and sleeper rocks. Running a river at low water is technical and can be much more difficult than at high water. Except when it isn’t. I am still much more gun shy around high water, even though many times it can be easier to navigate.

It’s Newton’s third law that worries me. That’s the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction. Entire research papers have been written about the law as it relates to the power of a river against a pinned canoe, kayak or raft. Even at low water, getting pinned can be disastrous. It’s best not to get pinned at all, so I try not to. Getting unpinned can be a whole lot of work.

Pretty soon everyone will be out on the local rivers. Anglers have had the place to themselves for months, but during the spring rush there will be far fewer rods and lots more rafts.

Unfortunately, a lot of people will get out there and underestimate Newton’s laws and common-sense laws, too.

Stuff happens every year, but people can improve their chances of survival by not getting in over their heads, especially with inadequate equipment. The pool toy that they sell at the chain store is not a riverboat and will likely fail in Class III, IV or V rapids. An inflatable alligator should not be ridden through Shoshone at high water unless you are ready to swim the whole thing. Besides, it has been done already.

Which reminds me, whitewater life jackets are better than the cheap ones you can buy at the mall, and water-skiing life jackets are not suitable for whitewater flotation. Don’t forget your life jacket, and for God’s sake don’t compromise on that piece of gear.

Lots of folks will be getting out there on inner tubes, and who am I to stop them? If you are one of these minimalist floaters, I strongly recommend that you do not underestimate the length of your trip or how much you could potentially freeze your ass off. It’s not an amusement park ride out there!

I like boating alone, sometimes for days on end. But boating alone (and I’m including inner tubes here) is not appropriate on local creeks and rivers when the water gets up. Sticking together can be tough, too. An inflatable alligator floats much faster than an inner tube. You could get separated from your group!

Every year disaster strikes. Usually someone forgets to wear a life vest or they go out alone, or they fall in the water and cannot get back out, or they did not bring enough beer.

Stuff happens. It’s best to be prepared.

Soiled appears Tuesdays in the Aspen Daily News. Reach Steve at nigel@sopris.net.