Whitewater River Rafting Trips: How A Record Year for High Water Plays Out on the RiverMay 13, 2015
By Peta Owens-Liston
Q & A with Holiday River Expeditions Operations Manager – Tim Gaylord
When your livelihood and your recreation surge and flow are based on the whims of the river, you pay attention to all the recent headlines espousing 2011 as a record year for anticipated high water. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported (May 10), “The Wasatch and Uinta mountains still hold nearly 200 percent of normal snowpack for this time of year…” In April, the precipitation exceeded 200 percent of normal.
Tim Gaylord, who has been with Holiday since 1978—he went from guest to guide to the company “glue” running all aspects of operations—has his eye on the water levels and the mountain ranges feeding the rivers they run. His experience working alongside Mother Nature has ingrained in him the flexibility to adapt to whatever she has in mind, finding the fun in it while still ensuring safety. Gaylord is also Vice President of the Utah Guides and Outfitters Association and serves on the Boating Advisory Council for the State of Utah. He knows water.
What other high water years do you remember that rival this year?
The most memorable years were 1983-84, which were similar to what we’re looking at now but could be eclipsed by this year’s water levels. We’re used to seeing high-water episodes every few years, which included 1995, 2005, and 2008.
I remember guiding during 1983-84, and it was a fantastic time. When else do you get the chance to ride out a record year; it’s a great claim to fame for guides and guests.
What rivers and melt-off terrain are you watching?
The areas we are concerned with are the upper Green River drainage (165 % of normal), the Yampa River basin (175 % of normal), and the Upper Colorado drainages (170 % of normal). The Green gets its water from Southwestern Wyoming, specifically the Wind River Range. The Yampa gets its water from the Steamboat Springs area, and the Colorado River picks up water melting off in Rocky Mountain Park and the western side of the Continental Divide.
All these areas have similar forecasts to what we are hearing for the Wasatch Front. All the totals are very significant in relation to average.
How does the melt affect the experience on the river?
It really depends on the pace in which Mother Nature “delivers” the water—Sudden hot weather will mean a significant spike in water levels, or she’s going to deliver it more calmly with a warm-cool-warm-cool weather pattern resulting in a long drawn out water episode, which is what we like to see.
A sustained runoff allows our trips to have a more manageable pace. Guides don’t have to row as much because of the steady, strong current, so they are fresher and more available for guests. It also allows us time for more side-canyon hikes and exploring as well as other activities that there might not be time for during lower water years.
How do you adapt to spiked levels?
We use a variety of adaptations to our rafting setup, particularly for our and Cataract Canyon trips. During high water flows over 30,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) – imagine 30,000 basketballs floating by you every second—that is a visual of the volume we’re talking about.
On Cataract, when it is flowing at moderate to high water 30,000-60,000 CFS, you’ll be riding some of the largest rapids in North America. For safety, we’ll lash three rafts together to create a triple-rig that provides more stability. On Westwater we’ll run double rigs, lashing two rafts together. It is a totally different experience than riding in a single, smaller raft.
Our guides adjust their runs in particular rapids when the water levels rise. We have staff who have experienced many of the high water episodes from the early 80’s as well as the more recent ones. The guides like the challenge—it is one that captures their full attention, to say the least.
What else does all this water bring?
Most of our trips are in a desert landscape and the high spring precipitation really brings the desert to life with wildflowers and blooming cacti. It’s more beautiful than usual.
Peta Owens-Liston is a writer and editor with extensive experience in magazine writing and marketing communications writing. Publications she has written for: TIME Magazine, Sports Illustrated for Women, Organic Style, Paddler, Redbook, Via, KUER/NPR affiliate (radio essays), Park City Magazine, Salt Lake City Magazine, The Salt Lake Tribune to mention a few.