From the bubbling rapids of the eagle river to the dips and eddies of the colorado, the rivers, streams and lakes of eagle county offer themselves to sportsmen, adventurers, conservationists and more.
by Krista Driscoll and Katie Coakley – photography by Brent Bingham
The put-in is alive with excitement. Commercial vans and buses jockey for position to lower stacks of rafts to the water, alternating turns up and down the boat ramp with trucks hauling kayaks and SUVs towing drift boats. People mill about in various states of river dress, lifejacket buckles flopping unceremoniously as they wave their arms to provide traffic control to the many vehicles.“It’s like organized chaos,” says Miranda Hicks, with Timberline Tours, a local river guiding company. “Making sure guests know how to get themselves ready, where they can stand to watch us put boats in the water and get gear ready for them. “But if you go to each guide, we are very organized. We try to do things the same way, we have our mental checklists. So it looks frantic that you’re getting everything ready, but once you are on the river, there’s nothing else you have to do, just enjoy the float, enjoy the company.”
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Once safety instructions are given and paddle crews are properly suited up, the guides launch their rafts into the river and head toward the thundering crash of water against rock that signals the first stretch of whitewater.“The funny thing about most rapids is, you can’t see it until you’re in it because rivers go downhill,” says Hicks,who was drawn to local waters as a child growing up in Eagle County and first took up commercial guiding in 2007.Raquel “Rocky” Spencer Schifani found whitewater through a canoe class at Texas A&M, pursuing kayaking when she moved to Colorado 13 years ago and picking up guiding for Timberline in the last decade. Every river trip is new, she says, from the water to the paddle crew.
“Even though we see the rapids every day, that doesn’t mean that something isn’t going to be different from Day 1 to Day 2,” Rocky says. “The water level is constantly changing, so lines change, and you never know how it’s going to look.“You might be in that perfect spot you were in yesterday, but your crew is totally different, and it can change in a heartbeat, so you can’t getcomplacent,” she says.The sound of whitewater elicits a variety of emotions from first-time paddlers, Hicks says, from anxiety and fear upon the approach to determination or terror in the heart of the rapid to relief and triumph at the finish. “You haveto put them at ease and make them feel like this is something you can do,” Rocky says. “Every crew is just so different. Some people are super strong, and you think man, this boat is moving. Other groups you look like a spider that’s bonked its head and there are just eight paddles moving freely and there’s no semblance to it.”
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Elsewhere on the river, fishermen stake their claims in eddies to stalk the trout that play hide and seek under the rocks.If today is like almost every other day for the past 15-plus years, you’ll likely find Bob “Bobber” Streb anchored in such an eddy with a couple of clients; a collection of fly rods, fishing nets and hand-tied flies; and both hands in the water.A guide for Colorado Angling Co., Bobber speaks of the river as he would a beloved friend, one he must visit frequently in order to be in on all her secrets. “I have to pay more attention to the river than the fly rod and the trout eating,” he says. “I have to lookin the right places, and she tells me.”Still, to catch a fish you do have to know both its favorite cuisine and its dining habits.“You have to be in tune to what the fish are eating and what’s available,” Bobber says. “What I always say about that is, if they’ve been eating Skittles for three weeks —let’s call those caddis flies —and you’re struggling, why don’t we throw a giant Snickers bar in there? Wouldn’t that be more appealing?“But it doesn’t work that way. You have to feed them what they are used to feeding. During the day, they’ll be on Skittles until 10:20 in the morning, and then they’ll shift over to Starburst. And by 2 p.m. on an afternoon in July, we’re on Milky Ways.”The same 9-mile trip that a paddle raft will cover in a morning could take a fisherman 10 hours, Bobber said, dissecting every element and reassembling them into a map which, hopefully, leads to fish. “I think everybody experiences it different, but the fishing end of it, you’ve got to be into the temperature, the flow, the weather, the time of day, the time of year, the moon
and everything else,” he says. “Whether you’re standing in it or floating down it, it’s constantly changing, and it’s constantly giving you puzzles and little projects to solve. It won’t give you anything easy unless you pay attention to her.”
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Beyond the continuous hammer-on-anvil thrum of rapids and the tethered lines of drift boats, the river widens and slows. Here, the water is flecked with yellow and blue, red and white, as a group ofTurtle Tubers drifts along in the current.“Tubing is more like going to the pool,” said Shane Ward, owner of Turtle Tubing. “It’s a lazy river float trip.”For the past 12 years, Turtle Tubing has been shuttling families and friends to the Colorado River to experience the meandering, conversational pace of tubing on the four-mile stretch from Dotsero to Bair Ranch.“The first half of the section is great scenery, vast valleys,” Ward says. “The last section is through the Glenwood Canyon. It’s a mellow float trip down the Colorado River; you let the river decide your pace.”Large tubes with covered bottoms provide security and prevent floaters from being submerged in the water, with bluebird skies arching overhead and the hot sun providing a contrast to the cool, deep waters of the Colorado.“People enjoy that they get to create their own journey. The tube holds three or four people each; you’re out there and you get to create your own memories.”The serene waters of Nottingham Lake provide another option to dawdle the day away. Stand Up Paddle Colorado offers paddleboard and paddle boat rentals on the lake, which is located in the heart of Avon with views of Beaver Creek and the Eagle River Valley.SUPs are often inflatable, making them easy to cart around. The crafts have surfboard-like decks on which a paddler can sit, kneel or stand, typically using a single, long paddle for propulsion and steering —though some people opt for two-sided kayak paddles instead. SUPs can be taken through whitewater rapids in a hold-on-for-your-life adventure, but many paddleboarders prefer the Zen quality of paddling through still and gentle water. SUP demands a strong core, so upping the ante with a SUP yoga class, as sometimes happens at Nottingham Lake, is not for the novice. Still, it’s an easy sport to get into with a generous learning curve.
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You can see the Eagle River Park from the highway —it’s hard to miss. This oasis of manicured paths and easy access to the Eagle River is located just south of I-70. If you’ve ever thought about getting in the water, now is the time and this is the place. A multi-year project, the Eagle River Park is more than a place topaddle —it has become a gathering place for residents and visitors alike. The seasonal character of the river, bursting with snow melt in the early season and mellowing as the summer progresses, means that each visit is a unique experience. It also allows water recreationalists of varying ability levels to enjoy the park at varying times. “It’s high and fast in June, and in July and August, it’s down,” says Brian Hall, special events manager with the Town of Eagle. “You start to see the rocks again andit’s more like a playful little river for families.”Designed and engineered by S20 Designs, the whitewater park includes four new wave features (Drops 1-4), eddies and chutes that, at higher flows, feature large waves that kayakers and SUPers can surf and play on. As water levels decrease, these features are fun to float on and tube. For Ken Hoeve, the Eagle Water Park has been a dream for almost a decade. Hoeve started pitching the idea of a water park more than eight years ago. And after lots of conversation and work, the Eagle River Park broke ground in Dec. 2017. Based on the number of people who visit, whether they dip a toe in the river or not, it was well worth the effort.“Everyone goes all the time,” Hoeve says. “Even if there are no waves, there’s a use for everyone.”
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What does responsible and safe river use look like?
• It is important to abide by local and state regulations, stay aware of weather and high flows and use personal flotation devices. Swift water poses safety risks —always be aware of what lies downriver.
• When stream flows are low, carry a thermometer and don’t fish if water temperatures reach or exceed 68 degrees.
• Just like camping and hiking etiquette —if you carry it in, carry it out! Don’t bring glass. Learn more about fishing at cpw.state.co.us and about flows at usgs.gov.I can access the river from anywhere, right?
• Not exactly —private land is off-limits without specific permission. While you might be able to physically get to the river from public land, use proper and established access points. This protects riparian areas that help filter pollution and provide habitat to many species of wildlife.Does the type of sunscreen I use influence water ecosystems in the river?
• The sun in the High Rockies is intense, and it’s crucial to protect ourselves. Consider utilizing UV-blocking clothing. When purchasing sunscreen to use on the river, avoid aerosol sprays and choose products that don’t contain nanoparticles or oxybenzone to protect macroinvertebrates (important little bugs) —look for a mineral sunscreen.How can I learn more about rivers?
• Eagle River Watershed Council is a nonprofit 501(c)3 committed to restoring and advocating for our local watershed. Visit erwc.org to learn about the watershed and get involved. The Watershed Council depends upon volunteers and donors to protect local streams.
Visit erwc.org for more information