PHOTOS AND TEXT BY DAVID SPIEGEL
Fall paddling in Colorado is usually a sad tale. It is a tale of countless laps on low-water Bailey (North Fork South Platte) and Gore Canyon (Upper Colorado River) as paddlers attempt to squeeze out the last drop of excitement before the rivers freeze over and ski season begins. This year was very a different story. As my friend in Durango, Cody Beach, described it, we were living in the Pacific Southwest (a play on the typically rain-filled Pacific Northwest).
Each weekend greeted us with more rain in the forecast as primetime river levels continued to run well into the end of September and the beginning of October. This made for some great paddling, but also provided the paddling community with a bit of an ethical quandary. As I enthusiastically joined the rest of the paddling community in taking advantage of the unprecedented high flows, I was also asking myself a tough question: Is it OK to go paddling in these rivers while people are losing their homes and their lives in the surrounding communities?
Several Mountainbuzz forum threads quickly morphed into very lively debates as local river enthusiasts pondered this question. The main discussion seemed to center around Forrest Noble’s descent of flooded Boulder Creek in the very heart of the disaster zone, but folks were also discussing water quality, respect for others, and the dangers of flood waters (numerous folks were posting online about lost paddles and boats, as well as epic swims). Local boaters were also very concerned about authorities attempting to close down paddling on Clear Creek during the high water.
For those who missed it, here are a few facts about the recent floods on the Front Range of Colorado: eight killed; 19,000 homes damaged, 1,500 destroyed; 15-20 inches of rain in one week; $1 billion in damages. [Click HERE to read more about Colorado flood paddling and other strange weather events affecting paddlers over the summer.]
In the face of that, getting a bit of extra late season paddling in seems 100 percent insignificant. On the other hand, most paddlers were not kayaking in the actual disaster area, and were instead kayaking several drainages over in Clear Creek and Bear Creek (pictured below), which were experiencing high flows but not catastrophic flooding like Boulder Creek and the Big Thompson. Many voiced the opinion that we as kayakers have the right to recreate in this state even if the water is high and the our actions don’t affect anybody else, so we should be able to get out there and have fun. I call this the “rugged individualist” viewpoint, which I largely agree with … as long as we don't impact others. Several members of the community voiced the general opinion that (paraphrasing here) "we as paddlers are self-sufficient and don't need the help of the authorities, so we can do whatever we want."
OK, whoa. That is where I disagree. I’ve had to call 911 before for a friend on the river, and believe that others out there would do the same if needed. We aren’t always self-sufficient, a fact that is doubly true when flood waters make incidents more common and rescue more difficult. Beyond that, even if you don’t need rescue, that isn’t always apparent to onlooking bystanders, officials or rescue services.
As for river closures in and around the disaster area, I empathize with paddlers who made the point that the flows on Clear Creek were within typical springtime runoff flows and were not "flood stage." I also understand the concern from authorities who worry about unnecessary incidents adding to the burden of rescue efforts. While playboating in the Golden Whitewater Park during the flooding, a battered Liquidlogic Stomper came floating through the park. We pulled the boat out, only to discover a Golden city official who was quite worried about the fact that this boat had traveled several miles without its owner. An incident that looks benign and in control to an experienced kayaker looks very different to the uninitiated onlooker.
The fact is, kayakers did add to the stress of officials during the flooding. Whether we want to be rugged individualists or not in this day and age, we don’t live in a vacuum. Our actions have a real effect on others and I sure wouldn’t want to live in a world where local fire or SAR would look at a boat floating downstream and think “Oh, those kayakers have probably got that swim taken care of.” We should take that into account when pursuing our recreation when, meanwhile, rescue efforts are underway for folks with real problems like their houses floating away or their being at risk of drowning.
I don’t think that sentiment means that we should not kayak at all in these big-water events, but we need to be more considerate of the community and boat well within our limits when rescue agencies are already strained. The large number of swims, lost boats, and general carnage during this flood are proof that we didn’t do that. The run on Boulder Creek through the middle of the disaster zone, which ended in carnage, are proof that we didn’t do that. Kayaking is recreation. I wish I could feel like my community pursued that recreation responsibly and respectfully during one of Colorado’s worst natural disasters on record.