Live in Steamboat and your life becomes attuned to the rhythms of the Yampa—floods, droughts, families, goodbyes, subcontractors and of course boating, lots of boating.
My Dutch oven foretells the year to come.
I’d last used it to bake a pineapple upside-down cake on the San Juan River. Now, it’s mocking the Archimedes Principle—or for an object to float, the water it displaces must weigh the same as the object. My trusty, cast-iron D.O. is floating before my very eyes. What’s more, it’s giving a passenger a ride. Inside is a half-full bottle of Crisco, getting ferried from the flooded bikes in the corner my basement toward a saturated stroller on the far wall.
Everything has come to life—five-gallon water jugs, ground pads and even my three kayaks—all floating and bumping into each other. Our basement—repository of a lifetime collection of outdoor gear—hasn’t flooded in 15 years. Any ordinary person would be calculating the property loss. But only one thought flashes through my head: I grab my playboat as it floats past. I’ll sump-pump the mess later. Right now, I’m going boating.
A half hour later I’m on my first surf of the year, carving across a glassy hump rising like a dinosaur’s back off the Yampa River. It’s only May 3, yet the river is flowing at 3,500 cfs, a level usually reached a month later at peak, if at all. I’m coming straight off the couch into big-time water.
The snowpack is at 260 percent of the previous year’s. Mount Werner is bursting with an unheard-of 130-inch base. If my basement portends the paddling season, so does my rafting gear outside. We’re leaving on a rafting trip in two days, but my frame and oars are still entombed in ice along the side of house. It will take three hours of pick-axing, profanities and vats of boiling water to free them.
Most people in town are worried. The paper reports a run on sandbags at ACE Hardware, and prints a story on how to avoid water damage. Ha. For boaters, high water is your reason for being.
It’s easy to overlook that ribbon of water coursing through downtown. But that’s our local waterway, the Yampa River, and it seeps into every resident’s life. Its pulse becomes your own as it changes from raging torrent to trout-filled trickle. And the longer you live by it the more it becomes a part of you.
I first noticed how intertwined the river was with local life when we built our home just a few blocks from its banks. We had just moved to town and I had already noticed raft trailers in people’s yards and kayaks hanging beneath decks. But the real clue came from the workforce.
Most every sub-contractor involved with our home had some tie to the river. First was our Realtor, a former raft guide. Then came our general contractor, cousin Homer, a World Cup C-2 paddler vying for the Olympics. More than once he convinced me to stop stacking logs early so we could hit the river. Our excavator was the same guy who built the whitewater parks. The concrete work went to George, whose house is on the river. Our windows came from an ex-guide on the Grand. Even our hot tub guy, Gary, belonged to the clan, trading his installation fee for river gear.
Lunch breaks in a river town can be a little different than they are elsewhere. Consider the time I used the waterway for a personal errand bonanza.
It happened after our noon-whistle pierced the air, causing us resident worker-bee’s to Flintstone out of our offices. After a quick kayak run on Fish Creek, we went our separate ways upon reaching the easier Yampa. Floating under the park bridge I realized it was the last day to sign up for summer hockey. Clad in my gear, I pulled over next to the rink, climbed through a willow thicket and walked to the registration desk to sign up, water dripping off my helmet onto the form.
Back in my boat, I then headed down to Pete’s riverside outdoor shop, where I yelled through the back door. Discussing details for an upcoming family camping trip, we decided that I’d shop breakfasts and he’d take dinners. Back on the water, I saw my plumber walking along the bike path. He was fixing the damage that flood did to our basement and I asked him how the trouble-shooting was coming; he’d be over to help me snake it the next day.
Next stop: Bamboo Market, where I dripped over to buy fruit and vegetables for home. Stashing them beneath my spray skirt, I then paddled down to my car at the library. A kayak run, sport sign-up, vacation logistics, plumber date and shopping, all in an hour-and-a-half. A little long should a Brontosaurus punch my time card, but not bad for lunch break in a river town.
In spring, the hatchbacks of Subarus get filled with ski, bike and boating gear, until it morphs into one foul-smelling mound. Above, schizophrenic ski racks clamp an equally dissimilar array of hard goods. It’s easy to your sports intermingled in a river town. And did I ever one May. Showing up for a crack-of-dawn hockey game still groggy from the night before, I reached into my car for my gear and then shuffled across the parking lot. It wasn’t until I made it to the locker room that I realized my blunder.
“Hey, Eugene,” said a friend on the bench. “Looks like you got the wrong sport.”
My eyes drifted down to my hand. Instead of holding my trusty R6 Titan hockey stick, there was my kayak paddle. In my pre-coffee stupor, I’d reached in the car for something long and skinny and pulled it out by mistake. I’d walked across the parking lot, through two doors and down a hallway without even noticing.
“Don’t worry … you might do better with it,” said a teammate.
“Yeah,” said another, mimicking a stroke, “you could even use both blades like this.”
“I wouldn’t know which side you’re shooting on,” added the goalie.
Cheeks flushed, I swallowed my pride and returned to the car, deserving of every heckle.
While it spells more serious repercussions for farmers and firefighters, it hits the paddling community right in the gut. By mid-June, paddlers are moping around coffee shops with vacant looks in their eyes. The local playhole becomes a swimming hole.
Then the river gets declared too low for even the tubers and fishermen, turning Routt County into Drought County.
Some years are worse than others. Once, in May, the basin’s snowpack measured just 19 percent of average. Cross Mountain, which usually causes adrenal glands to flood, was a mere trickle. Blame it on juju, El Nino or the fact that you just bought a new rain jacket. Sometimes you’re just screwed. This year’s no exception. We’re at just 60 percent. We’ve had a string of pretty good seasons—ones where I’m ready for the season to end so I can pay attention to things I’ve neglected, like my wife, my legs, and even my wife’s legs. But here it is June and my usually roll-bashed thumb knuckle is remarkably Band-Aid-free and my mountain bike’s already had two flats.
There are silver linings, even if they come without clouds. Short boats make lower water more fun, as do manmade surf waves, which funnel water toward specific features. But all you can really do is wait until next year.
Live in a river town long enough and you’ll lose someone to the river. It hit closest to home for me a decade ago when friend Chris Delaney died kayaking Gore Canyon. He had done the run countless times. But this time he flipped in Gore Rapid, hit his head and never exited. The coroner said he died instantly, even though friends chased him far downstream before administering CPR.
Steamboat bonded at his memorial service, evoking the true essence of living in a river town. Friends spoke of his energy, enthusiasm and love of paddling. A table showed collages of him surfing and paddling a raft made of beer kegs. “If you’re going to cry,” said friend Drew, “do so over the river—maybe it’ll rise enough so we can paddle Cross in his honor tomorrow.”
I remember high-fiving him the last time I saw him, just four days earlier, when we teamed up to play ping pong at a party. We talked about getting together to boat—most likely Gore. And that’s what makes his death strike home: it could have been any of us.
It’s easy for a non-boater to say he shouldn’t have been there. But he should have been, and was–had been a hundred times. A few weeks later I ran the same rapid that killed him. Several other paddlers flipped and rolled at the same spot. The move that killed Chris let them pass unscathed.
At the service—held in a park named after Olympian Rich Weiss, another local paddler who died kayaking—we threw flowers into the water and watched them drift downstream.
The ad read: “Kayak for Sale. Comes with free shuttle rig. Both a little rusty, but great for around town.”
It was my trusty ’82 Datsun King Cab 4X4 with shell, stereo and rack. But with 187,000 hard-earned miles, it was time for it to go. The boat was my Perception Dancer, which had served me well back when boats lasted a half decade or more.
It was natural to get rid of them both at the same time. They were from the same era, laying in equal states of disrepair near the tool shed. Their ailments were strikingly similar. Both had holes on the bottom, the kayak’s fixed with a plastic weld, the truck’s covered with floorboard wood. Both had duct-taped bows, the kayak’s covering a piton scar, the truck’s supporting the grill. And both had dented shells, the truck’s dinged more than once by the Dancer. The insurance company had totaled the truck twice.
When my wife said the larger eyesore had to go, I popped in a new battery and fired it up. It strained, as if gasping for air, but like a stubborn llama refused to move. Walking around to the tailgate, I saw the reason. As if it, too, realized its fate was imminent, my kayak had wedged itself between shed and tire. Perhaps it had seen me carry new boats into the garage, outfitting them with tender loving care, just as the truck had seen our affections turn to garage-heated Subarus. Like Rudolph’s misfit toys, they were alone and unwanted.
The phone didn’t exactly ring off the hook. One person was frightened away by the rust. A 16-year-old showed up with only allowance money. Then a rancher named Curt called, looking for something to handle rough terrain. He offered me $200 then asked about the kayak. He’d never been in one and had a pond on the ranch. Reluctantly, I loaded it on the Quick n’ Easy rack, never to see either again.
In late June, just before the river breathes its last gasp, a two-week window arrives for prime float fishing. That’s when the dories come out in droves, anglers casting streamers, dries and hopper-droppers into the receding waters.
The call came from Johnny St. John, who owns driftboat company Hog Island Boatworks. By 3:30 p.m., I was bailing on work and wenching his dory into the river. He told me what to throw on, and I pulled a streamer across every eddyline within casting range. We took turns casting and rowing while shooting the bull and whiling away the hours. I landed three brown trout before realizing time had gotten away. It was 4:50 and I needed to coach my daughter’s soccer team at 5.
I had no choice but to have them pull over so I could abandon ship mid-float. Still clad in my fishing vest, I waded through the willows and stuck out my thumb. Luckily, I got a ride from the first driver – another perk of living in a river town — a thirty-something gal who didn’t mind her passenger’s wet sandals or bulging fishing vest.
And that’s how she dropped me off, after convincing her to go two blocks out of her way to the field on Pine Street. I arrived five minutes late for duty, the only coach to this day who has likely ever shown up with wooly-buggers hanging next to his whistle.
When you live in a river town, sometimes you have to stand up for it. That’s why I drove to Denver to argue against Senate Bill 62, which called for a 350 cubic-feet-per-second cap on recreational water releases. The city had stepped up to the plate earlier, filing for and winning a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water right, establishing recreation as a beneficial use of the river’s water. Now, we were fighting for how many drops that meant.
I wasn’t supposed to take the stand right off the bat, but ended up testifying first in front of Colorado’s House Committee on Agriculture. We were all a little bleary, having sat through five hours of other bill hearings, including one touting the health benefits of raw milk. But I had a good spiel, reasons why the bill would be detrimental to communities building whitewater parks. Restricting flows to a “one size fits all” cap would be like telling ski areas they have to rely on snow-making instead of Mother Nature. It went well, I thought, until the grilling began.
“Thank you, Mr. Buchanan,” the cross-examiner intoned. “With all due respect…are you saying that kayaking is more important than drinking water?”
“Uh, no,” I answered. “In fact, I could use a sip of water right now.”
Knowing that RICDs are secondary to existing rights and are non-consumptive, meaning the water stays in the river, I answered the questions okay and survived long enough for our water attorney to take the stand. Two days later the bill was defeated on the House floor.
It happens every year. The Great Transition. As the rocks re-appear, so does the rubber. The river gets turned over to tubers.
At first, there’s a time when the two camps overlap. The water is waning, but there’s still enough for kayakers to surf, which means playing Space Invaders by dodging tubers as they careen downstream. You can’t help but harbor a degree of animosity toward them. They’re not your kind. They have mullets and gold chains. They drag coolers.
But then you find yourself one of them, part of arm-circling Americana with daughter in lap and triceps chafed from arm flutters. And it occurs to you that it’s easy and fun. There’s no training, outfitting or rolling. Others belong to this ilk also—the boy in the vinyl inflatable kayak from Whamco, the couple dangling fingers from an inflatable mattress, and the two cotton-clad girls paddling an inflatable swimming pool. What separates you from them is The Hole, where you’re now the semi in Frogger, mowing down kayakers trying to cross the freeway. You punch through, hoping none of them recognize you. That’s when you see Blakesly, a kayaker back in town from college, snorkeling for tuber bootie. “Four pairs of sunglasses, a Nets visor and half bottle of cinnamon schnapps,” he brags, holding up his trophies.
Then you walk with your daughter back up the bike path. “My dad’s a tuber,” she proudly states to the first passerby. Your pleas to correct her fall short. To the tourists here, there’s not much difference. Despite their mullets and Michelins, it’s all enjoying yourself on the river. •