Matt Fritz rides through the whitewater park on the Arkansas River in Salida. Everyone has a threshold for cold, so some days you just can’t paddle. But those days are few and far between for the hardy — some might say foolhardy — kayakers who tackle Colorado’s rivers all year long.
When most of us are hiking in town or limiting our adventures to ski areas where warmth, dryness and a hot meal are only a downhill run away, there are paddlers plopping themselves into the state’s frigid rivers.
“For me, this is just the only sport that trips my trigger. I like to ski and other things but nothing else does what kayaking does, so whether it’s winter or not I want to kayak,” said Colorado Springs, Colo., paddler Mike Griffin.
Griffin and a handful of others spent a recent sunny-but-chilly Wednesday afternoon paddling Pine Creek Rapid and The Numbers on the Arkansas River north of Buena Vista, Colo. In high water, they’re rated class 4-6, making them among the toughest runs on the Arkansas.
Most Colorado rivers are too dangerous to raft or paddle in mid-winter because of ice. But the water released from Twin Lakes reservoir just above here is warm enough that this stretch is rarely iced over.
In fact, sometimes the water is warmer than the air.
“It’s no fun having to dip our gear into the water to thaw it out,” said Brian Bank, of Winter Park, Colo., who has compensated for mediocre ski conditions in Colorado this winter with more days on the river. Even he draws the line on days colder than 27 degrees.
For Griffin, the air and water temperature need to add up to 80 degrees for a comfortable (and hopefully ice-free) day on the river, and conditions barely qualified Jan. 25.
So the paddlers carried their kayaks through the snow to the river, which rushed loudly through the narrow canyon despite the low flow. Between banks covered with snow, rocks that would be deep underwater in spring were exposed, and in places the water seemed hardly deep enough to float a boat. You have to be wary for ice around every bend.
“Most people would say you can’t run this stretch of river at this flow. It’s super low water. But kind of like with anything, people say you can’t do it until somebody does it,” said Griffin.
Said Colorado Springs paddler Mila Petrakova, “You have to get cold sometimes to appreciate the warmth of your home.”
About 30 miles down the river, in Salida, Colo., some are trying to get the word out about another stretch of river that is usually ice-free: the Salida Whitewater Park.
Built where the river flows through downtown, with man-made rapids and gates suspended from lines above for paddlers to test their turning ability, the park is popular for slalom kayaking, making quick turns through the gates.
“You have some rocks showing, but it’s pretty safe out here. You don’t have to worry about the trees getting washed through,” said Denny Lee, owner of Salida kayak shop Capricorn Sports.
A handful of athletes who compete in kayak slalom events train in the park all winter. There has been a monthly winter race, and local whitewater enthusiasts are discussing other ways to draw boaters year-round.
It can be a hard sell: Some mornings they have to chip away the ice lingering along the banks, and in deep winter it can take the sun a while to poke above the hills. Lee’s cutoff is 33 degrees.
“If it isn’t sunny and the wind’s blowing, it can be discouraging. I’ve paddled in the snow, but it depends on the wind,” he said.
And it’s not a great time to practice rolling the kayak.
“It’s so cold, it’s not even cold. It burns. It makes you feel warm — until that air hits you.”
The boaters’ gear is mostly the same as in summer, except for long-sleeve coats and gloves to keep their fingers from going numb. For paddlers like Matt Fritz, of Salida, it’s worth being out in the cold to avoid the long break between traditional whitewater seasons. When May’s warmer days and increased water flow begin, these kayakers are in great shape and prime condition to dig in.
“About the worst that can happen is you get wet and cold and get out and go to your car,” Fritz said of winter boating.
Said Lee, “I can vouch for that. I was just out there swimming the other day.”