Raft firms try to stay afloat

High flows actually chip away at business

A cold splash of river water surprises 12-year-old Rachel Hutchins, third from right, and her 17-year-old sister Claire, second from right, as river guide Cody Ray, left, of Rimrock Adventures pilots the raft through a brief stretch of rough water Friday.

Western Colorado rafting outfitters who saw early-summer business stunted by rivers raging with frigid and fast snowmelt that scared off some customers are banking on just-now receding waters and a prolonged rafting season to help them rebound.

As snow pounded the Colorado high country well into June, adding to what was already a record snowpack, commercial rafting companies braced for what was expected to be an epic runoff to boost the state’s $150 million rafting industry.

The runoff didn’t disappoint. But it may have been too much of a good thing. Outfitters say high water on the Western Slope that washed away portions of roadways, sections of riverfront trails and even a cabin, coupled with persistent law-enforcement advisories for inexperienced river runners to stay out of the water, made some people river shy.

Travis Baier, owner of Rimrock Adventures in Fruita, estimated guided river trip bookings are off 40 percent compared to last year. He said the Fourth of July weekend, usually Rimrock Adventures’ busiest, was the worst in the business’ 23 years.

“High water is kind of the same as low water in the perception of the customer. They kind of like the happy medium,” Baier said. “Outfitters are in the same boat. It’s definitely been slower than years past.”

He said seemingly nightly keep-away-from-the-river warnings broadcast by local television stations during the peak runoff, however well-intentioned, “have been the death of us.”

“It scared all of our local people away,” he said. “The clients we’re getting are from the Front Range and out of state.”

Baier said he called the TV stations and asked them to come out and broadcast stories to show viewers that the river, with the proper knowledge and equipment, remains a safe place to raft.

“I just want to make sure that people know it’s a fun time to go out on the water still. It’s safe with an experienced, licensed outfitter,” he said.

Rimrock has tried to counter the drop-off in business by offering a half-day trip into Ruby Canyon along the Colorado-Utah state line, an excursion that normally lasts a day or two.

Baier said with water levels finally starting to drop, he is hoping for a surge in bookings before school begins again in a month or so.

Adventure Bound River Expeditions owner Tom Kleinschnitz is banking on the same thing, knowing local rivers will flow higher and later in the rafting season than they normally do.

“We’re going to have great water late into the season,” he said.

Kleinschnitz agreed with Baier that public-safety messages passed along by local media from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department hampered business. Even though authorities tried to distinguish professional outfitters from citizens who rush out with single-chamber tubes purchased at discount stores, sometimes the message isn’t clear, Kleinschnitz said.

“I’ve had people ask me on the phone if the river is closed,” he said.

After a slow start to the season with cool, rainy weather and high water, raft trip reservations are rapidly picking up, Blue Sky Adventures co-owner Patrick Drake said.

The river “has gotten back to the level where people are comfortable with what they’ve seen in the last few years,” Drake said.

One benefit of the late rafting season for the Glenwood Springs-based outfitter is that a trip down a section of the river that would normally be more of a scenic float is now instead an adventure into Class III rapids, Drake said.

While business so far this summer is slower compared with previous years, the phones at Rock Gardens Rafting in Glenwood Springs have started ringing the last few days.

“I think we’re going to finish gangbusters,” owner Kevin Schneider said.


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