River outfitting shops in Steamboat adapt to life after tubing
June 25, 2012: Water lease could float Yampa River through drought
June 17, 2012: Hope deflating on the Yampa River
May 31, 2012: Drought conditions worsen in Routt County
April 26, 2012: Group to pay to keep water in Yampa, other state rivers
Steamboat Springs — Pete Van De Carr was strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a Beatles song when the family from Denver approached his shop Sunday afternoon.
“Can we get tubes?” a young boy asked Van De Carr as he looked eagerly at the banks of the Yampa River.
Once again, Van De Carr broke the news of the waterway’s closure and steered another family to rafting opportunities on the Colorado River.
The boy was one of the few people to visit Backdoor Sports on Sunday while the Yampa flowed at 71 cubic feet per second under the Fifth Street Bridge.
Steamboat’s river outfitters are seeing fewer customers this summer, and they’re each poised to lose tens of thousands of dollars worth of revenue while the Yampa runs too low to support recreation. But they are starting to adapt to life after tubing.
“I’m over being grumpy,” Van De Carr said earlier Sunday afternoon. “This is the reality of a free flowing river. The bad thing is that you never know from year to year what you’re going to get, so you’ve got to treat the good years like they are the last, and the bad ones are going to go away after a year or two.”
One Stop Ski Shop owner John Kole passes the summer hours in his quiet shop by steering customers to the electric bikes and heavily discounted skiing equipment he now keeps on the sidewalk in the place of rafts and tubes.
He estimates that the Yampa River’s closure could cost him $50,000 to $60,000, or about half of his summer revenue.
“It’s rough,” he said. “It’s just very few customers coming in. Very few people are walking around the streets around here. It’s kind of scary.”
Van De Carr said he made between $110,000 to $120,000 from tubers, kayakers and rafters last summer despite a short season that ran from late July through August because of the flooded Yampa.
This summer, he has made only $16,000 from the same group.
To survive, he’s selling climbing gear, stand-up paddleboards and the occasional Frisbee.
“I’m spending a little more time trying to learn some online marketing, social media and perfecting my Web page,” he said. “I’m also trying to figure out how to sell 12 kayaks that I couldn’t give away in Steamboat.”
The sting of the Yampa’s closure won’t affect each river outfitter equally.
Bucking Rainbow Outfitters owner John Duty said his business isn’t as dependent on the waterway as some other businesses in town.
“Honestly, the tubing thing is not a big deal to us,” he said. “It’s not a huge impact.”
He said a strong fishing season in nearby rivers this summer is keeping his business productive. Still, the dent to his lucrative rafting season has Duty hoping for rain.
“On an average year, we’d be running 300 people a day rafting five different rivers right now,” he said. “But this year, we have 50 out on the Colorado.”
On Thursday, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District started releasing 4,000 acre-feet of cold water from the Stagecoach Reservoir into the Yampa. The unprecedented release has helped the river flow higher through Steamboat Springs and will support fisheries, but it is not expected to sustain recreation.
Some of the outfitters already are looking forward to the next summer season.
“You’ve got to suck it up and put a smile on your face and be grateful for what you have,” Van De Carr said. “We’ll be back next year.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com
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Explore a mix of in-person and virtual events happening this weekend in Routt County.