Words and Photos by David Spiegel

In many years, spring-summer boating plans are an easy decision for those of us who live in the West– go to Cali! Granite slides, warm weather, and wilderness expeditions have a tantalizing allure that whitewater boaters simply cannot resist.

But it’s 2015 and we’ve officially entered a bleak era for whitewater paddlers in the western United States. After several years of drought, things are now worse than ever. Many watersheds have less than 25 percent of their average snowpack, and California has less than 6 percent of snowpack statewide. Several outfitters on California’s Kern River have been forced to close shop for the season. Even the Pacific Northwest, a typical safe haven for water enthusiasts, is having an abnormally dry year.

In the midst of record low snowpack and persistent drought, we must adapt. Whether it’s chasing dam releases or paddling in salt water, we must be creative with our plans this year. Here are some towns that are safe havens for whitewater enthusiasts–even during the drought.


1. Buena Vista, Colorado

Buena-Vista playpark

Enjoying the playpark near downtown Buena Vista. Photo Zak Podmore

Water source: A moderate snowpack and summer-long dam release will keep your boat afloat better than most places in the West this year.

What to paddle: Buena Vista, or “BV,” is a paddler’s paradise in any year. The town is paddler friendly, and has a wide variety of boating options within just a few minutes’ drive. Even with medium or low flows, all of the sections on the Arkansas River still provide plenty of high-quality paddling.

Head to Lake Creek if you’re looking for a stout Class V experience, or look at Pine Creek and the Numbers for some solid Class IV. The Browns Canyon section, Class III, was just designated as a national monument. Stunning scenery and mellow whitewater make for a great learning experience, or a family float on the raft. The town also has a world-class play park, with plenty to keep you entertained in a kayak or on a SUP board.

Off the Water: The town has great food, a microbrewery, and a even a craft distillery to keep you fed and entertained. A summer music series provides plenty of entertainment right at the takeout of the play park.


2. Boise, Idaho

Aniol Serrasoles roosting through Taffy Puller at the bottom of Jacob's Ladder.

Aniol Serrasoles roosting through Taffy Puller at the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder at the North Fork Race, Idaho. Photo by Nick Gottlieb

Water source: A moderate snowpack and dam release for the Payette.

What to paddle: Unlike the rest of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho has something resembling a reasonable snowpack this year. Sure it’s below the average, but it isn’t nearly as bad as the situation in Washington and Oregon. Boise has playpark in town that will keep you entertained, or you can head out of town to the Payette River for whitewater of all levels. The high-profile North Fork Championship in June is sure to draw boaters from the entire country to this paddling mecca.

If you’re looking for multi-day trips, just head further north in Idaho for classic runs like the Selway and the Salmon. If you don’t have a permit to one of the classics, try out the South Salmon.

Off the water: The area around the Payette abounds with hot springs, so head over to the South Fork of the Payette and take a soak. Or get ahold of some locals and find the springs that are a bit more off the beaten path.


 3. Hood River, Oregon

Looking back upstream at Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon.

Looking back upstream at Spirit Falls on the Little White Salmon.

Water Source: Underground aquifers.

What to paddle: Even in a drought year, there is still some paddling to be done in the Columbia River Gorge. The water will be low, but there will be water. The White Salmon River is fed by underground springs, and it rarely gets too low to paddle. With a variety of sections from Class I-V, the White Salmon has something for everyone whether you’re kayaking, raft, or SUPing.

Off the water: Hood River boasts stunning views of two volcanoes that loom over the Columbia River. Take a walk down the “the spit” and watch the kite boarders show off.

The Gorge has enough microbreweries that I doubt you’ll be able to visit them all in one trip. Challenge accepted? Good, I thought so.

Make sure to stop in at Big Man’s Rotisserie at the takeout of the Middle White Salmon in Husum, WA. Not only is Trevor (the Big Man) one of the best boaters you’ll meet in the Gorge, but he’ll also treat your taste buds to the best BBQ in the region.


4. Durango, Colorado

Rafting through the Upper Animas between Durango and Silverton.

Rafting through the Upper Animas between Durango and Silverton.

Water Source: Moderate snow pack.

The Paddling: Fortunately for Durango hair boaters, the Animas River in Baker’s Box is best when the river is relatively low. So, despite having just 41 percent of average snowpack in the San Juan watershed, there is a good chance that the Class V boaters in Durango will be happy for the early months of the summer.

For those who do not wish to delve into one of Colorado’s most committing canyons, Durango just did a major revamp to their play park, which is close to downtown. The park has a plethora of features that make it more of an extended run than a simple park and play stop. Or take a low water lap through the 26-mile Upper Animas. Even at low water, the views of Colorado’s highest peaks are astounding.

Off the water: Like any Colorado mountain town, you’ll have your pick of local food, breweries, and music. If you visit in mid June, head up the road to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival from June 18-21.


 5. Moab, Utah

Utah's desert canyon lands sport impressive scenery on the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Utah’s desert canyon lands sport impressive scenery on the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Water Source: Dam releases and snowpack on the Colorado River.

The Paddling: It seems counterintuitive to head to the desert in the middle of a drought, but even during extreme low water, there is enough flow to float your boat on the desert canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Bring your best sunscreen and a stout cooler, because you’ll need a few cold beers to beat the heat out there.

Take a leisurely float down Ruby Horsetheif and the Moab Daily, or visit Westwater and Cataract canyons for Class III-IV rapids. Make sure to check American Whitewater’s website and the BLM for information about permits on these classic sections.

Off the water: Moab is a mecca for mountain bikers, dirt bikers, and climbers, so the social scene in the summer is quite happening. The area is also home to two national parks, Canyonlands and Arches, so don’t miss out on these national treasures.


 6. Skookumchuck, British Columbia

Rain or shine, it's hard not to enjoy a session at Skookumchuck.

Rain or shine, it’s hard not to enjoy a session at Skookumchuck.

Water Source: The Ocean doesn’t care about your snowpack!

The Paddling: OK, so it isn’t actually in the United States. But if you have a passport and live on the West coast, a late summer trip to the Skook is a great way to beat the low water blues. Snow and rain don’t affect the legendary standing wave in the ocean. The wave is a world class feature that runs on a schedule, so check some tide charts and get after it.

If you can’t make it all the way to Skook, there are a wide range of ocean surfing options all along the west coast. So dust off your playboat and go throw some ends in the frothy, salty swell of the Pacific.

Off the water: The “town” of Egmont, BC, doesn’t have much of a social scene. A few buildings clustered around the docks won’t provide you with much off-water entertainment. Head up to the free camping outside of town and enjoy life in nature. There is one restaurant/pub at Back Eddy Marina if you are really jonesing for some hot poutine and cold beer.


7. Go East, young man

It doesn’t typically cross our minds to travel to the East Coast during the summer, but this year might be the exception. As western boaters have been struggling with drought, our eastern brethren have been enjoying a high water spring.

Stay tuned– our East Coast correspondent is going to fill you in on how to make the most of highwater in the East.

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