A roller coaster on the Colorado: New De Beque business offers both leisurely and thrilling river bo
Faster than a Colorado River toad, the Mustang from New Zealand skittered under bridges, around rocks and over whitecaps before spinning to a stop with a rooster tail flourish about 300 feet from a stand of cottonwoods, where bald eagles nested.
Twenty-four knuckles clenched on a shiny, steel grab bar slowly returned to a natural hue. Attentions focused on the trees, where a majestic specimen of the national bird was perched high atop the tallest cottonwood on a jumble of interwoven branches. The tall, dark raptor scanned the mocha brown river with eagle eyes.
The Bookcliffs and Grand Mesa, covered in snow, stood in the distance. Beyond those, fat, pearly clouds built columns in the east and gray thunderheads flashed lightning in the south, atmospheric conditions indicating springtime in the Rockies.
The view from the river transformed familiar landscapes — as seen from Interstate 70 — into mysterious riparian wilderness — as seen from a roller coaster on the water.
The eagle’s nest viewing was one of several memorable moments supplied by the region’s newest attraction on a recent blustery afternoon. Jet Boat Colorado, founded by longtime Western Slope outfitter and hunting guide Joe Keys, launched operations in De Beque earlier this month. Tour availability varies by day. Reservations online or by telephone are required.
“Awesome,” gasped Karen Ford, a tourist from Australia, who was strategically seated on the second bench from the bow, often in the path of the rooster tail. Her shoulder-length hair was rinsed in river water and glistened in the sunshine. “So amazing.”
“It’s so cool,” said Troy Rarick, Ford’s companion for the one-hour tour. “It’s like hard adventure. It’s fun. It’s fast, but it’s also just so pretty. We saw like half a dozen eagles from a motor boat. It’s (really) rad.”
Jet Boat Colorado also offers a slower-paced, four-hour scenic cruise of the river. On this day, though, the highlight was the white-knuckle ride.
Rarick, founder of Over the Edge Sports in Fruita, is credited with founding mountain bike culture in the once sleepy farming town. He launched his business in the mid-1990s and eventually took it international. He believes Keys is pioneering a river boat culture in De Beque, much like Rarick did with mountain bikes in Fruita.
“This has never happened before,” Rarick said. “It’s a brand new experience. It’s a great way to show people the Colorado River and western Colorado from a beautiful perspective.”
Twenty years of day dreaming, three years of sweat equity, thousands of dollars of hard-earned savings, plus a business loan from Alpine Bank, all came together this year to launch the venture, Keys said.
The entrepreneur said he negotiated over 36 months with seven different government agencies to gain his jet boat access to the river for commercial purposes. He now holds all the needed permits, plus he enjoys the support of local landowners on both sides of the river.
His business model relies heavily on a boat model. The Mustang is a brand of river boat manufactured in New Zealand renowned for precise handling and stability in choppy waters.
“I learned about them when I worked there 20 years ago. It’s the hull design (that makes them so steady, yet so quick),” Keys said. When under his control, the boat gives plenty of thrills and chills without any spills.
“Nobody’s fallen out so far,” he joked with a group of passengers in life jackets waiting to board at the launch.
“I’ve been driving boats since I could see over the wheel,” he said later. “(I’ve driven) hours and hours and hours.”
This is reassuring news considering the controlled risks involved, some of which bob up from the murky depths at the last second. Keys and his Mustang cut left or right on a dime as needed to avoid gnarled tree branches and rock sentinels.
More twists and turns follow as passengers try to guess which two bridge pylons the Mustang will squeeze through and which roiling channel it will take as it speeds up and down the river for about an hour. Permits allow access as far to the east as New Castle and a considerable length of De Beque Canyon to the west.
Keys and his crews, experienced river runners, check routes every day as the river may change daily. Water conditions and levels vary through the seasons, but 28 inches of water is the minimum river depth Jet Boat Colorado needs to operate. The section of the river the tour company uses normally sustains a greater depth year-round, Keys said.