The flow of water attracts adventurers to the Yampa

Paddleboarder Chris Ray wore all the right gear as he rode down the Yampa River earlier this month. Water flow had increased to 2,200 cubic feet per second by 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 and Today.

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

“I think we’ve reached that first peak, but the second peak is probably a few weeks away,” said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports. “We’re kind of following 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 prepare to take advantage of what should be a relatively short runoff season, they must keep security at the top of their minds.

This means making sure they have the proper gear, including helmets, life jackets, and dry or wet suits to withstand the very cold temperatures of the river.

“I think the water temperature is as dangerous as anything,” Van De Carr said. “If you go into the water and spend a few minutes there, it could be a medical emergency.”

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

“Weather and water temperature are a major factor,” said Bryan Bellamy, a rafting guide for 18 years and partner of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, which operates on five rivers including the Yampa and the Elk.

“You know, we tell our clients to dress for success, which means you’re prepared for the worst,” he said. “Even if it’s 70 degrees outside and sunny, if you swim for a long time, you could suffer from hypothermia.”

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

Van De Carr recommends paddlers go with a buddy, so they can watch each other in case something goes wrong. He also said they should be aware that not all 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. “Specifically our bridges and there are some really difficult ones.”

Van De Carr pointed to the bridge just below Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area, the bridge just below Tree Haus, and the one in front of the Flour Mill flats as obstacles that could cause problems for high-level boats like rafts and the dories.

He said kayakers, paddlers and low-profile boats also need to be aware of these obstacles, but in most cases they can work around them. However, for more prestigious boats, the passage can be dangerous and impossible in some cases.

“It all really pissed people off, especially in the higher waters,” Van De Carr said.

He said floating the river in paddle boats when it’s flowing a little 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 conditions are right. However, when the Yampa is high, many local river guides stop running the river because the bridges and bridge pylons present a dangerous situation.

“We usually call it as 2,400 (cubic feet per second), and that’s because of the bridge right there at the flour mill,” Bellamy said. “It’s not for the inexperienced right now… It’s definitely more difficult.”

Van De Carr and Bellamy expect flows on the Yampa and Elk rivers to slow in the days and weeks ahead, allowing guided river trips to continue. The duration of this season on the Yampa will depend on 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 fairly steep drop to get back to workable levels by the 20th or 21st. (May),” Bellany says. “I would expect there to be good levels from there in what feels like a short season.”


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