Bumpy ride for river rafting

Total user days 
at lowest mark 
since 2002

Looking back at Steamboat Rock, the 800-foot-high demarcation point at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument and the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers.


Among the possible obstacles to a revival of the commercial rafting industry in 2013 are an early start to the school year and a generation of Americans losing touch with the outdoors, said Tom Kleinschnitz of Adventure Bound River Adventures.

“The schedule for the local school district is really goofy, and I don’t think a lot of people recognize, it,” he said, noting one tentative schedule had School District 51 starting in late July. “August is the time when families go on family vacations. If the whole country did that, it would be really tough on my business.”

This year, among the usual flood of single parents taking their part-time kids on a bonding adventure, Kleinschnitz is seeing something completely unexpected. It’s grandparents taking the grandchildren into the backcountry but not simply for the scenery.

“This is a generational thing for sure,” he said, laughing. “A lot of grandparents want to take their grandkids where their cell phones won’t work.”

It’s the desire to somehow get their grandchildren connected with the outdoors, not simply connected to the Internet, Kleinschnitz said.

“They’ll call me and ask, ‘Do cell phones work where we’re going?’ ” he said. “So, I think that might be the way to connect kids to the outdoors, because that is something we better be thinking about.”

The Colorado recreational rafting industry took a dive last year, seeing user days drop more than 17 percent compared with 2011.

According to numbers from the Colorado River Outfitters Association 2012 year-end report, 411,100 people took commercial river trips in 2012, down from 496,160 in 2011.

This marked the second-highest drop in total user days since tracking began in 1990 and the lowest total since the drought year of 2002 when 298,024 people took commercial raft trips.

Except for 2002, when user days were down by more than 40 percent from the previous year, 2012 represents the lowest total user days since 1994, the CROA said.

But it might have been worse, said Tom Kleinschnitz of Adventure Bound River Expeditions in Grand Junction.

“Considering the general conditions, I think it’s pretty amazing it wasn’t worse,” said Kleinschnitz, now in his 41st year of guiding commercial river trips at Adventure Bound.

The company this year is marking its 50th anniversary.

“Losing the Poudre River access (because of a wildfire, roads were blocked for six weeks) lost most of that season, which was a lot of customers,” Kleinschnitz said. “And considering where the water was, I actually think we did pretty good.”

Representative of the overall dismal numbers, the Poudre River went from nearly 38,000 rafters in 2011 to fewer than 23,000 in 2012.; the Animas River dropped from 45,000 to 38,000 in 2012; and the Blue River near Silverthorne went from 6,800 rafters in 2011 to no recorded commercial traffic at all last year.

Among the few rivers to show an increase in use were the upper Colorado River near Glenwood Springs and the Green River in northwest Colorado and northeast Utah. Both of those rivers had flows augmented by reservoir storage upstream.

The 2012 drop wasn’t completely unexpected. Seeing the low snowpack of 2011-12, rafting companies had prepared themselves for lost customers.

For most operators, lower flows meant changing rafts or even dropping rafts in favor of smaller boats, Kleinschnitz said.

“You had to change the kind of craft you were running,” he said. “We could run our big rigs in Cataract Canyon for a while, but we were down to row boats pretty fast.”

Many companies also changed their marketing, forgoing the adrenalin junkies seeking the gnarliest rapids and instead appealing to families seeking less nerve-wracking river adventures.

“Last year, people in the industry (got away) from the ‘powder-day syndrome,’ ” Kleinschnitz said. “I had less clientele, but it was more people who weren’t there for the real high water but people who wanted to get into the backcountry.

“It also was more and more people wanting to take their kids out and show them pictographs and side canyons and things like that.”

The drop in customers also put a sizeable dent in the economic impacts from rafting, a key business in Colorado’s summer tourism market.

According to the river outfitters association, the rafting industry last year saw its contribution to the state’s economy fall from $151.4 million in 2011 to $127.5 million in 2012, a 15.7 percent drop.

That decline was tied both to the low water and the sluggish U.S. economy, the CROA report said.

Although the prospects for a recovery in 2013 are good, the CROA report said, there is some concern about the continuing drought and changes in water use.

“The outlook for 2013 brightens with consumer spending increases, the stock market at near record levels, and dropping unemployment numbers,” the year-end report says.

But Kleinschnitz said rafters, from their water-level aspect, have a unique view of the long-term impacts of possible climate change.

“It’s strange — you lost (water) in some places and gained it in others,” he said. “Maybe climate change is becoming part of the deal, or if Denver doesn’t take all the water.”

He told how in 2011 Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River ran at 60,000 cubic feet per second for “six weeks and one day, it was huge and unprecedented.”

“Twelve months later, the river peaked in March, the water simply was not there,” he said. “I just hope we don’t have a repeat of last March, when it just didn’t snow.”


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