Heavy snowpack will keep rafting’s financials afloat

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More people are expected to head for the rivers this summer as the recession shores up.

Smooth sailing: More people are expected to head for the rivers this summer as the recession shores up.

All winter long, white-water rafting and kayaking expedition guides pay close attention to snow forecasts.

Heavy snowpack will mean business when the snow melts in the spring and rivers swell and rapids begin to rage.

That’s music to the ears of outdoor enthusiasts.

Bob Hamel, owner of Arkansas River Tours in Cotopaxi said even though it’s early in the season, reservations are up from last year.

“Water looks great. Snowpack is above average at high elevation, so we should see a sustained runoff and no flooding,” he said.

After 30 years of running rapids and running a company, Hamel has “seen it all.”

He doesn’t fret about drought, low flows or floods — all of which can potentially happen each season and kill business.

“No reason to get too excited one way or another, this early in the season,” Hamel said. “Our business will be fine. It’s early, yet. And we’re not a destination location. We’re part of a short trip (for visitors), so people wait till the last minute.”

More people are expected to head for the rivers this summer as the recession wears off, though even during the downturn, the industry stayed strong.

“We didn’t fall off the map,” Hamel said. “But (the recession’s) been a good deal for consumers.”

Overall, rafting business on the Arkansas increased about 3 percent last year compared to 2009.

At Arkansas River Tours, Hamel expects business to increase this year about 5 percent over last year.

With headwaters near Leadville, Colo., the Arkansas River is the most popular river for white-water rafting in the United States. The Arkansas winds and wends its way for more than 300 miles through Colorado, continuing through several other states, before merging with the Mississippi River, near the Arkansas-Mississippi border.

During its travels, the river provides more than 100 miles of navigable waters in Colorado.

With its narrow gorges in the mountains and wide-open spaces on the plains, the Arkansas provides a variety of white-water experiences. Adrenalin junkies and families can find suitable water.

For those who want the splash without the white-knuckle experience, there are moderate sections of the river, including runs with names such as Fluffy Bunny, Piglet’s Nightmare and Pokeman Falls.

The more adventurous head toward the Sledgehammer, Narrows or Boat Eater stretches, in Royal Gorge canyon near Canon City.

Over at Echo Canyon River Expeditions, in Canon City, also about 50 miles from Colorado Springs, nearly 35 percent of business comes from residents in Colorado, and their family and friends, said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon.

Although Echo’s first run of the year was Wednesday (April 20), the season doesn’t really start until mid-May.

Reservations are coming in at a typical pace for this time of year at Echo Canyon, he said.

People will travel this summer, despite rising gas prices, he said. Although “value will (still) be top of mind, people are willing to spend a few more dollars this year than over the past few summers,” Neinas said.

At this point, Echo’s staff has been working with vacationers who plan ahead, people who want extended overnight trips and large-group business.

Echo Canyon is one of the members of Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, located in Manitou Springs.

“If spring break is any indication, it should be a good summer,” said Michele Carvell, executive director of Pikes Peak Country, referring to overall tourism and visitation to the region in March.

All of Pikes Peak’s members reported increased business in March, compared to last year.

Visitors came from Denver, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska and other surrounding drive-market states, she said.

“Spring break was not only good, but it was extended,” Carvell said. “Instead of one week of great business, it was almost three weeks of good business.”

All of which bodes well for white-water rafting, also.

When Neinas talks about water conditions, he prefers to describe sections of the river as “adventure class” and “family friendly,” because numbered classes can be misleading.

Class 1 white-water Neinas describes as “your bathtub,” whereas class 6 is largely considered “unrunnable.”

That leaves classes two and three for families, and classes four and five for thrill-seekers.

Early in the season, water levels are higher and thus the rafting experience is more intense.

“The mountains are piled with snow,” Neinas said. “We’ll have peak flows in June, as usual, so the thrill-seekers will be very happy with what Colorado’s outfitters have on tap this summer.”

Mother Nature cooperates nicely, however, because class 2 and class 3 water coincide with the peak tourist season — late June or early July through the end of August.

“Those family-friendly levels will be around for most of the summer,” he said.

As for the naysayers who will try to predict flooding, again, this year, Neinas said that’s because they don’t understand the cyclical nature of snow and water.

“It’s typical for Colorado’s rivers and streams to swell above their banks a few weeks out of the year — and that’s a good thing,” Neinas said. “It means Colorado’s most precious resource is abundant.”