Water flow draws adventure seekers back to the Yampa

Local guides stress importance of proper gear, and experience

Paddleboarder Chris Ray was wearing all the right gear as he made his way down the Yampa River earlier this month. The water flow had increased to 2,200 cubic feet per second early Monday, May 16, 2022, making conditions even more inviting for kayakers, and paddleboarders and the need for proper safety precautions more important.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

As the snow melting off the peaks surrounding Steamboat Springs feeds the Yampa River, rafters, canoeists, kayakers and paddle boarders are trying to make the most of it.

“I think we’ve hit that first peak, but the second peak is probably a couple of weeks away,” said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports. “We’re kind of tracking what we did last year.”

It’s a busy time of year for Van De Carr, but the longtime river enthusiast says that as those who love the river get ready to take advantage of what is expected to be a relatively short runoff season, they need to keep safety at the top of their mind.

That means making sure they have the proper equipment including helmets, life vests and dry or wet suits to endure the very cold river temperatures.

“I think that the water temperature is as dangerous as anything,” Van De Carr said. “If you are going in the water and you spend a couple minutes in there, it could be a medical emergency.”

He highly recommends wearing a wetsuit or drysuit to be safe. Cold shock, swim failure and hypothermia are some of the dangers associated with getting into the water without a protective suit this time of year.

“The weather and the water temperatures are a major factor,” said Bryan Bellamy, who has been a rafting guide for 18 years and is a partner in Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, which operates on five rivers, including the Yampa and Elk.

“You know, we tell our customers to dress for success, meaning that you’re prepared for the worst,” he said. “Even if it’s 70 degrees outside and sunny, if you take a long swim, you could get hypothermia.”

Both men agree that proper equipment, experience and good decision-making offer the best protection for venturing into the river.

Van De Carr recommends that paddlers go with a buddy, so they can keep an eye on one another in case there is a problem. He also said they should be aware not all of the dangers are obvious.

“My biggest concern and I think the most dangerous thing on the river is our man-made obstacles,” Van De Carr said. “Most notably, our bridges and there are some really tough ones.”

Van De Carr pointed out the bridge just downstream of the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area, the bridge just downstream of Tree Haus and the one in front of the Flour Mill apartments as obstacles that can cause problems for high-profile boats like rafts and dories.

He said kayakers, paddle boarders and boats with lower profiles need to be aware of these obstacles too, but in most cases, they can maneuver past them. However, for higher-profile boats, getting through can be dangerous and impossible in some cases.

“All of those have really messed people up — especially at higher water,” Van De Carr said.

He said floating the river in paddle boats when it is running a bit slower is one of the best ways to explore the Yampa River Basin.

His company and Bucking Rainbow both offer trips on the Yampa when the conditions are right. However, when the Yampa is running high, many local river guides stop running the river because bridges and bridge pylons present a dangerous situation.

“We generally call it like 2,400 (cubic feet per second), and that’s because of the bridge right there at the Flour Mill,” said Bellamy. “It’s not for people without experience right now … It’s definitely more challenging.”

Van De Carr and Bellamy expect flows in both the Yampa and Elk rivers to slow in the coming days and weeks, allowing guided river trips to continue. How long that season lasts on the Yampa will be up to Mother Nature.

“It looks like the water is going to be high, higher than today, for the next three or four days, but then there is a pretty steep drop off getting down back to runnable levels by the 20th or 21st (of May),” Bellamy said. “I would expect there to be good levels from there out in what looks kind of like a short season.”

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