Whitewater Rafting Conditions Look Great This Year, If The Coronavirus Doesn’t Get In The Way

Rafting Safety
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Whitewater rafting on Colorado’s rivers is popular and the outfitters work to make a day on the the river safe. At Echo Canyon rafting in Canon City, clients wear flotation jackets and helmets, and hear guides go through saefy drills before they get in a boat. Guides loaded a raft onto a trailer to be towed to the put-in.

Colorado’s outdoor adventure industry is watching spring arrive across the state. That means the busy season is right around the corner for these companies — usually. 

Right now, they’re figuring out how to adjust to the state’s remaining COVID-19 prevention regulations. It’s been a puzzle river raft guides have been trying to figure out; it’s hard to socially distance from someone while riding through rapids.

“I will tell you that is the most challenging piece,” said Bob Hamel, executive director for the Arkansas River Outfitters Association. 

Hamel said he’s confident his outfitters can follow guidelines by keeping individual parties from mixing together and spreading folks out on boats to the degree possible. They have also overhauled their cleaning procedures to keep everything from life jackets and wetsuits to their boats properly sanitized and will only offer pre-packaged food to customers on trips.

The Arkansas is cited as the most popular whitewater rafting destination in the U.S., due to widely varying conditions along its length offering many types of rafting experiences. 

Whitewater companies are coming into the uncertain business climate created by the coronavirus after a tumultuous 2019 summer season. Mountain snowpack last year that was well-above normal led to rivers like the Arkansas running extremely high and fast. Multiple state safety advisories led to many would-be rafting customers to cancel trips. The nonprofit organization American Whitewater recorded 13 deaths in Colorado last year during the high flows, up from two in 2018. 

River conditions this year are shaping up to be much more in line with average summer flows, which would normally bode well for outfitters. However, the patchwork of coronavirus regulations county to county and with statewide officials still urging people to only recreate within 10 miles of home is putting a damper on plans to get trips going this month, when companies would typically already be fully operational. 

“We are putting all of our efforts towards June, July and August,” Hamel said. 

He said there are some potential bright spots in the current situation, however. “We have a lot of people with a lot of pent up energy here in Colorado and close by.”

Though he expects a serious drop in tourists coming in from Denver International Airport this year, he said that goes both ways. Perhaps more locals will look at something like a half-day raft trip, camping somewhere in the upper Arkansas valley, to “have a weekend of it and at least do something.”

Hamel said his outfitters are still considering whether they will ask their customers to wear face masks on the rafts, though they would need to be waterproof enough to survive being dunked.