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May 31, 2011 7:18 am

Waiting for white water

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Above-average snowpack and recent rainfall hold the potential for an extended rafting season this summer. The abundance of moisture is a mixed bag for area rafting companies though. Above-average snowpack and recent rainfall hold the potential for an extended rafting season this summer. The abundance of moisture is a mixed bag for area rafting companies though. Tribune file photo by Ilene Olson

Above-average snowpack a mixed bag for area rafting companies

An above-average winter has the snowpack in some area mountain ranges running more than 200 percent of average. Eventually, all that snow will melt, swelling rivers and causing water to roar toward lower elevations.

That’s both good and bad news for several of the area’s white water rafting companies.

“It really depends on how it comes down,” said Ron Blanchard, owner of Wyoming River Trips in Cody. “I think we could have a prolonged season, but that really depends on how warm it gets and how much it rains. Right now, we just have good potential.”

Andy Quick, owner of Gradient Mountain Sports in Cody, agrees.

“A winter like this gets everyone excited about running rapids and kayaking,” he said. “When the water goes up, peple have an energetic spirit and sales go up.”

Quick indicated he was already surprised by water flow in the area. The Shoshone River near Cody hit 2,500 cubic feet per second earlier this spring. That was before rains and higher elevation snows camped out over the region for much of late May.

Normal summer flow on the Shoshone is around 1,100 cfs according to Quick.

River conditions throughout the region should continue to pick up as June progresses. Those looking for the wildest rides can usually find it sometime in mid-to-late June. Depending how much water gets discharged from Boysen or Buffalo Bill reservoirs, optimum conditions can persist on area rivers well into July.

Rafters, like farmers, dance a fine line though when it comes to water. Obviously, not having enough is bad for business. Too much of a good thing, however, can be equally bad, especially depending on which drainage a person wants to run.

“The Clarks Fork, by and large, is where we like to go,” said Quick. “We start up near the Montana border and go to the mouth of the canyon. It’s spectacular, world class white water. The snowpack might mean a longer run-off season, which means there could be more time to get in there this year. But if it gets too high, there’s places that you definitely don’t want to be when the water is too high.”

Even on tamer streams, the extra water can add a classification to the difficulty of rapids, transforming a Class II stretch into a Class III with raft-tipping capability and power.

And while the snowfall in the high country may be the highest on record for more than a decade, some in the rafting industry aren’t sure that will translate into the best river conditions.

“To be honest, I’m not sure it will be as good as last summer,” said Cale Hinkle, a guide for Wind River Canyon White Water Tours in Thermopolis. “We had a really wet June last year that caught people a little off guard, so they had to discharge a lot of water through the canyon.”

The result, he notes, was high water running through Wind River Canyon until late July, something he calls a 100-year cycle. This year, with dam operators cognizant of high snowpack in the mountains, releases from Boysen Reservoir began earlier in order to make room for the eventual spring melt upstream.

Still, there’s plenty of wild rides to be found.

“The river features everything from Class II to Class IV,” Hinkle said. “If we get over 5,000 cfs, there’s a couple Class V lines that we generally try to avoid with clients.”

There’s another variable in the equation that’s keeping area rafting companies guardedly optimistic about the summer forecast.

“Good water and a good tourist season aren’t synonymous,” Blanchard observed. “It all depends on the tourist traffic, and that depends on the economy and travel conditions. People will come through and want to get the kids out of the car and do an activity for a few hours, and book a trip. It’s a small window of opportunity.”

Given the price of gas and the state of the national economy, it’s a window that may or may not open as wide as one would expect given river conditions.

The good news for those deciding on the spur of the moment to get a taste of area white water is that most companies are more than able to accommodate same-day traffic.

“If there’s a specific date, we recommend calling in advance,” Hinkle said. “Also, the bigger the group, the more there’s a need to plan ahead.”

For those more inclined to head out on their own, diligence is needed more this spring than normal.

“We see it every year,” Quick said. “Folks will get into the water without life jackets. They’ll get in on pool toys. You’ve got to be aware — when the water comes up, that’s a real river.”

Quick notes there’s an abundance of local communities and message boards available on the Internet for those wanting to learn more about local rafting and kayaking streams.

“Take the time to get to know the river that you’re going to be going down,” Quick said. “Get the beta from folks before you go. Things look big and fun, and a lot of times they are, but the water is really cold and powerful.”

Above all, he notes, never go alone.

“I can’t wait to get back out on the river,” Quick said. “Whether it’s good for business or not, seeing high water gets all of us in the rafting community excited. It gets my blood flowing a little faster and I catch that fever.”

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