Fire and Water

A behind-the-scenes look at a surreal post-fire run on a Colorado classic

By: Conor Mihell

Wildfires consumed over 300 square miles of forest in Colorado early last summer, destroying hundreds of homes and altering the environment. When the rains finally came in July, whitewater boaters like Forest Greenough, a Colorado State University music professor and raft guide at Mountain Whitewater Descents, discovered that their favorite runs were barely recognizable—not for the features, but for the color of the water. Sooty runoff turned the water of the Cache la Poudre River near Fort Collins inky black, making the stout Class IV-V narrows section otherworldly. We contacted Greenough to find out what it’s like to paddle black water.

CanoeKayak.com: Obviously Colorado had some huge fires last summer, but there must also have been a ton of rain to bring the water level up—seems almost like a perfect storm that resulted in a surreal paddling experience. Can you set the scene?
Forest Greenough: The High Park fire started June 9th and wasn’t contained until the end of July—it burned almost 90,000 acres, destroyed 259 homes, and killed one person. It ended up being the second most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. As the summer heat wears on, we get into a monsoon-type rain cycle where we have very large, drenching afternoon rain showers in the mountains. The High Park fire burned through stands of beetle-killed pine, so the fire burned so hot that the soil became sterilized, and acted almost like it was covered in saran wrap. Rain that would typically be soaked into the soil was now coming down the canyon walls and burned slopes in torrents of mud and goopy soot every time it rains hard, bumping up rain flows.

The day I filmed this was the first day the canyon was re-opened (it was closed for three or four weeks), so this was the first time we witnessed the destruction of the fire. This crazy mudflow ash runoff is going to be our new normal for awhile.

What’s the Cache La Poudre like in normal conditions? Why do you like it?
The Poudre (as us locals call it) has everything from Class II-V+, all roadside, and one of the best and most legendary stretches of wilderness class V-V+ in Colorado at the upper reaches, the Big South fork of the Poudre. As a steep, low-volume river, character changes significantly with different flows, so most of us will boat different sections depending on flow. The Poudre is Colorado’s only federally designated Wild and Scenic river.

How was it different to paddle the river after the fire?
Paddling after the fire, and especially right after the rain, is a challenge. Scouting is nearly impossible. There are safer sections down river where the mud starts to dissipate a bit. You can get a small sense of it in the video, but the biggest difference is the viscosity of the water—it is heavier and less aerated, so features act a lot different. Also, features don’t look the same, especially the holes. The holes don’t aerate at all, so it is hard to see them if you don’t know they are there—a good example is the hole at 5:13 in the video—it’s a hole that dishes out a lot of swims to the uninitiated, but you don’t see any “white” whatsoever. Similarly, rocks are invisible, even a half-inch under the surface. The only “white” is the foam on top.

After the fire, a ton of wood has been coming down the river, and this is the biggest hazard since it is hard to see and moves every time it floods. The sound is different, which really makes you realize how much you use your ears when running more difficult whitewater—the “blackwater” sounds muted for lack of a better term—the white noise frequencies are lower. And, it smells like a wet cigar, and so do you and your gear when you are done boating.

I want to emphasize, however, that farther down the canyon where folks raft, the effects are not nearly as pronounced, so commercial rafting has actually turned in to the best way to see how everything has changed after the fire.

How has reconstruction proceeded over the past six months?
Reconstruction has been progressing slowly since the fire, with the help of some great non-profits such as the Northern Colorado Rebuilding Network. It is sad though, as many folks who lost their homes in the burn zone built them slowly by hand over the years with no mortgage necessary, so they didn’t have homeowners insurance and are back to square one. Some folks, including several friends and colleagues of mine, are opting not to rebuild for now. Besides homes, one of the biggest challenges will no doubt be the restoration of the watershed. We have had some state and federal help with mountainside mulching operations, which should help with the flooding a bit—but the mudslides and flooding will continue to cause problems until the natural vegetation returns.

The silver lining, though, is when disasters like this happen, the community comes together, and we help each other out, regardless of politics or other minutia. So I know we will get back to normal and keep working to rebuild and keep enjoying the river that many of us here consider our sacred temple!

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