Surf’s Up: Glenwood Springs

Historic flows the buzz for 3rd annual Rocky Mountain Surf Festival this weekend

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By Tim Mutrie

There will be grass skirts, leis and luaus, Hawaiian beer—Primo, is the official beer sponsor—and of course a whole lot of surfing on some of the heaviest water ever seen in western Colorado. Flows at the Glenwood Springs, Colo., play park wave hit unprecedented levels this week—geese, apparently, can surf 25,000-plus cfs, no worries—but then again the park has only been around since March 2008.

Naturally, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the 3rd annual Rocky Mountain Surf Festival and Whitewater Stand Up Paddling Championships slated for this Saturday and Sunday at the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park. And certain concerns, too. Parts of the Glenwood Canyon bike path, upstream, washed out earlier this week, and nobody really knows how high flows are going to get—this weekend for the Surf Festival and thereafter.

“Today it’s about 24,000 and it’s really good at that level—we found out yesterday,” says Paul Tefft, Surf Festival co-organizer of EnviroAction Productions, on Thursday. “If it hangs here we’re good to go. At 25,000, it starts to get a little flushy, but at 24,000 you can surf all the way across the wave. But honestly, with flows going up and down like they are, we’re all trying to get it figured out.”

Cue the Glenwood Geese at 25,500 cfs

Likewise, and everywhere else across the central and northern Rockies and much of the western U.S., the Surf Festival is at the whims of what experts are predicating to be unprecedented run-off year.

“The thing about this year,” says Mike Gillespie, snow survey supervisor with the Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, in an interview late last month, “is that it has the potential to be unlike anything we’ve seen. You have to go back to maybe 1983 or so to find something like we may see this year.”

Some historical data to consider on flows at the lower Glenwood Springs gauge: Only once since 1964 has the cfs topped 30,000 (1984), and only six times has it eclipsed 20,000 (1983, ’84, ’85, ’95, ’97 and ’11). This year, local observers like Tefft expect peak flow to continue climbing.

“People are on edge waiting right now waiting for the melt to happen,” Gillespie says. “I’ve been at this 31 years and I’ve only seen only a handful, maybe just a few, like this year with this high snowpack and delayed melt. It’s a rare occurrence.”

All this, of course, carries certain cachet for the Surf Festival, which shifted its dates from Memorial Day weekend this year in order to be closer to the traditional peak run-off and sandwiched in between two nearby events: the Teva Mountain Games in Vail and the FIBArk Festival over on the Arkansas River in Salida.

“We’ve got people coming from all over the world, from around the west and the east coast too,” says Surf Festival co-organizer Charlie MacArthur, of the Aspen Kayak and SUP Academy. “We also have Noa Ginella coming too, fresh off his win at the inaugural Teva Mountain Games SUP-cross.”

“We’ve had Hawaiian royalty at just about every event,” MacArthur continues. “They’re very savvy watermen and women and they’re starting to come inland. I think it’s humbling for them, but they pick it up quickly—you can see it in every ride.”

Hence, in part, the Hawaiian theme for this year’s Surf Festival, which features two classes of surfing competitions—long board and short board (8 feet +/-)—in addition to SUP-cross and a three-mile downriver SUP race starting at the park wave and continuing down through South Canyon. There’s also youth divisions, something that also has Tefft a bit worried. “I’m kind of gripped about having my kids in there with it flooded like it is; recently a 60-foot tree came down right through the feature, so wood is a big concern,” he says.

While there are no scheduled kayak events, Tefft expects to see plenty of boaters on the water nonetheless. “They’re welcome to play in the park as long as they don’t get in the way, but this is a river surf event—not that I have anything against kayakers, being a big kayaker myself,” he says with a laugh.

With the uptick in flows, the local paddling shop—Alpine Quest Sports, located in the new Glenwood Mall near Target—has likewise seen an uptick in business. “There’s even a new wave coming in at this flow—a wave behind the first one,” says Chase Macek, of the local Glenwood paddling shop Alpine Quest Sports. “Everyone’s buzzing about all this flow. It’s great. And it’s getting bigger everywhere.”

Adds MacArthur: “Mother Nature’s giving us a gift. Even though the wave is getting narrower, it’s surfing a lot better. There’s a right and a left, and in between a big foam pile, but of course this is the highest flows that the park has ever seen!”

Surf Festival attendees are encouraged to park at the (old) West Glenwood Mall, where a Timberline Tours shuttle will be making regular pickups and drop-offs.

Highlights from past Rocky Mountain Surf Festivals

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