Getting Strained by Boulder Creek Whitewater

Having spent over 20 years paddling nearly all of the navigable flatwater creeks and rivers in Florida, the over two decades of kayaking experience I had would be of little use when I relocated to Boulder, Colorado, a city abutting the Rocky Mountains. Here, the younger, steep mountains deliver high velocity waters due to a more abrupt force of gravity. And when rivers delivering this water do so at high water volumes, the force can be terrifying for kayakers and canoeists.

There is very little time, unlike in the gentle Florida waters, to react when paddling in the Rockies. The often rampaging current can be quite unforgiving to those who do not make split-second decisions (decisions that must be accurate), and those who do not have the strength to battle the powerful flow of water.

But my passion for kayaking would be too high for me to be dissuaded by the more risky waters found in the Rockies, so my search began for rivers and creeks that I could run.

In my first few years trying to develop the new and much more challenging task of kayaking in Boulder, my few attempts are made much more difficult by making the mistake of purchasing an expert-level “playboat” kayak, which is faster and more responsive than I am prepared for, and which would regularly flip me upside down – even in relatively gentle waters.

Eventually, I discover on a guided trip at the Colorado River with a rented kayak that an inflatable kayak is much more forgiving, and better suited to my skill level, without compromising on my adventure and adrenalin needs. Therefore, over the course of the next year, I search far and wide for an affordable inflatable kayak to buy.

Finally, I find a Stearns inflatable being sold by someone in Tacoma, Washington. The boat arrives just as Boulder is starting to see elevated water levels from spring snowmelt in 2013. Stearns Inflatable Kayak I bought in May 2013

Here in Boulder, the most popular creek for whitewater kayaking and tubing is the relatively narrow Boulder Creek. From its source at the confluence of the North and Middle Boulder forks, Boulder Creek races down Boulder Canyon and through downtown Boulder. On the east edge of the city, the creek joins South Boulder Creek, which originates at Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide, just south of the Moffat Tunnel.

After leaving the city, Boulder Creek flows northeast into Weld County, where it joins St. Vrain Creek, and on to a confluence with the Platte River. Its waters ultimately flow into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the lower flows, Boulder Creek is a technical run with lots of boulders and eddies. At higher flows (over 400 cfs), there are waves. There are small, unforgiving, man-made holes. And there is faster water.

In my research for information about running Boulder Creek by kayak, I find one description that noted that when the creek goes under Arapahoe Avenue for the second time, the river turns into a Class I-II run (much easier than upstream of that location). The description went on to point out that the creek is not very deep, which means that when higher-velocity waters are running, less skilled kayakers will be beat up if or when they flip. The creek, as this person mentions, lacks good shore eddies for novices, especially for rescues.

Given that, I am careful to scout the creek by bicycle along the Boulder Creek path. I investigate the portions of Boulder Creek within the city which I am considering running. As a relatively new whitewater kayaker, I want to avoid any big drops or big wave rapids.

In my survey, I discover that there is a section of creek that starts at 30th Street and Scott Carpenter Park and runs to the 55th Street bridge that is free of drops (waterfalls where kayakers find more challenging, scary waters).

With my new inflatable kayak, I decide I would christen the boat using my relatively novice whitewater skills in this easier this section of the creek.

For a number of days, my plans to try out my boat keep being put off by my busy schedule. Finally, on a sunny mid-June day in 2013, the opportunity arrives.

I had earlier learned that Boulder Creek at 150-400 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water flow is the best range of volume discharge for kayaking. This generally occurs in May and June. Today, however, it was running at its highest level so far for the season: 420 cfs. A level that is a bit worrisome to me. Here are two short videos I shot of what Boulder Creek looked like during the spring snowmelt run-off in June of 2011 (to give you a good idea of what I would be up against today):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKtn14pe3hc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy3rZDikwUA

My girlfriend Ann repeatedly tries to talk me out of it, thinking this high level would be too dangerous for someone with my lack of skills on a brand new, untested boat. Not only that, but I’d be paddling a stretch of river I had never been on before. And would do so without a buddy watching my back…

Generously, however, she agrees to accompany me to scout the creek by bicycle after our Sunday pancake breakfast ritual to see what the water looks like, and whether others are crazy enough to kayak or tube it. Seeing no others, we opt to bike to a kayak and tube rental shop nearby, and learn that while the creek is running too high for tubing, the shop manager and a few others had just kayaked the section I was considering the night before, and found that it was reasonably free of “strainers,” which are low-hanging tree branches that can snag kayakers and trap [and sometimes drown] them.

He convinces us that the section I am electing to run would be a good, fun idea. Ann thankfully agrees.

Ann drives me to a good put-in spot at Scott Carpenter Park. Through trial and error, I eventually figure out how to inflate my kayak to proper firmness. I then carry my very bad-ass kayak – bad-ass because it is painted in camouflage patterns to allow stealth activity and avoid having the kayaker look like a dork — to a place under the 30th Street bridge that had relatively gentle waters. Ann and I agree that she would meet me an hour later (our wild, conservative guess as to the longest possible time it could take me to navigate the distance) at an agreed-upon take-out point that we had earlier scouted. A place that raised worries as to whether I could manage to navigate to a gentle eddie where I could step out of the river – a navigation that was questionable due to the relatively high volume and velocity of the creek water on this day, and the relative lack of eddies on this creek.

Back at the put-in point we found, I slip into my camo bad-boy kayak under the 30th Street bridge. Ann bids farewell and bicycles down the creek path, hoping to catch (worried) glimpses of me (and jealous because she can now see that the creek water looks like a lot of fun). I happily and confidently inch forward with my paddle, and the current soon grabs me.

I’m off!

Very soon, I am feeling as if I perhaps got myself into more than I bargained for. The water and waves are bigger and faster than I had anticipated. The current is so strong (particularly compared to the quiet Florida waters I was accustomed to) that I quickly realize I would have to rapidly and strongly paddle hard to avoid being sent crashing into tree branches. Two unexpectedly large S-turns require me to quickly learn how to dig in with my paddle and steer into the middle of the current. PAY ATTENTION, DOM! YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS (Florida) ANYMORE!

My breathing is coming hard, and worry is in my head. Would the boat repeatedly flip like my earlier kayak had done – sending me into the icy cold snowmelt waters?

Fortunately, my new boat turns out to be very stable and never gives the impression that it is on the verge of flipping.

Several times, the strong current disconcertingly forces me under small tree branches that harmlessly brush over and past me. Whew! Boulder_creek_colorado

No big tree limbs yet. Nothing strong enough to catch me in a deadly strainer.

But I do find myself at this point beginning to question the accuracy of the claim that this stretch of the creek was relatively free of strainers and other obstacles. And I realize that because I am on much faster water than I had expected, I would finish running this section in what seems like 3 minutes. NOT an hour!

Another hair-raising, unexpected discovery then appears. I have not one, but two drops and big waves in front of me! I had seen no drops while scouting the section twice. What are these doing here? Am I ready to navigate over them? Probably not, I decide. Here comes trouble…

But again, my inflatable shows impressive stability and I go over both drops so free of incident that my confidence level soars.

Until I come to the next turn.

In front of me is a seemingly impenetrable wall of vegetation. I immediately spot two small gaps in the vegetation on both edges of the creek channel. Which one to take? I choose the one on the right.

Bad decision.

The “gap” is surprisingly choked with relatively large branches, and my kayak is instantly squeezed and trapped by the pushy water under one of them. I am unceremoniously dumped out of my boat and into the madly rushing current. It is my first-ever experience with a “serious” strainer.

And I must, without hesitation, decide how to save myself. Instantly. No time to think. The current is too fast and too strong to give me even a second to figure out how to solve my problem. Instinctively, I realize I must somehow stay with my boat to save myself from the furious current – a current which is a mighty force trying to tear my frantic grip from the tree branch I have grabbed in the strainer of caught branches.

I am situated slightly ahead of my stuck kayak – so stuck that I cannot budge it. With all my strength, I try to pull myself back to my boat. But after several minutes of trying, it is no good. I am not making any progress against the 430 cubic feet per second of snowmelt water bearing down on me, and seemingly fighting me to prevent me from rescuing my kayak.

The problem is made worse by the fact that I can only use one hand to pull, as my other hand must hold onto my paddle. Without the paddle, I will be utterly unable to navigate the fiery whitewaters downstream from me.

Then an idea occurs to me: Instead of working directly against the current by taking the shortest route back to my boat, I opt to GO AROUND the current by working my way into the tangle of tree branches to the left of my kayak.

It works.

After several minutes using my new tactic, I somehow manage to get alongside the kayak. But the inflated portions of my boat are tenaciously being held by the branch stubs. Nevertheless, through a series of strategic lifting of branches and pushing my boat in various directions, I free my kayak from its tree prison. Because I am now separated from my boat by a large branch, I decide I must pull myself over the branch and hop (flop?) into the kayak. I must also align myself within the kayak quickly enough to be able to immediately and strongly navigate in the angry, high-speed waters.

To my horror, a relatively large tree branch has somehow managed to perch itself across the front of my kayak bow. I realize I cannot continue with this monster log on my boat, so I take a moment to flip it off with my paddle.

Another mistake.

Not even a second is available when creek water rages below me. With terror in my eyes, I turn my head in the downstream direction and realize that I am only a few feet from ANOTHER drop. And this is the biggest one I’ve faced so far. No time to right my boat to face downstream. I immediately and unintentionally find myself going over the drop and rapids. Backwards. Not a good maneuver for a whitewater novice in a new boat. In an angry torrent of rushing water.

But again, my kayak stays upright and I am shocked to find myself passing the drop and rapid as if I was an expert.

After some worry that I have inadvertently passed the agreed-upon take-out bridge (and the thought that doing so would doom me, as I have no way to inform my girlfriend that I had passed her by), I spot the familiar bridge I had spotted earlier that would signal I was at the take-out point. I confidently and calmly steer my kayak to the eddie I had spotted while scouting.

Another unforgettable, adrenalin-pumping adventure has come to a successful end. And I can’t wait to ride that snake again…

 

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Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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