SPOKANE, Wash. — The low winter snow pack may have positive consequences for outdoor enthusiasts, as river rafters get to see some new territory this spring thanks to lower river flows.
High water isn’t always the best for whitewater rafting, Peter Grubb of ROW Adventures in Coeur d’Alene told The Spokesman-Review newspaper. “You’ll actually miss some of the fun if the guide has to avoid the biggest water because it’s too dangerous,” he said.
When the water is lower, more territory can be navigated and river rafters may see some new vistas this year. A lot of rapids disappear in high water and reappear at medium and low water, Grubb said.
A guide’s job is to know how to find the best runs no matter the flow level.
“A medium flow is preferable on most rivers,” Grubb said. “Maybe the waves aren’t quite as big in some rapids, but there will still be a lot of big ones. You can still get super wet.”
Another benefit of lower flows: the water tends to be warmer. While high flows mean rafters have to wear wetsuits and stay in the boat, low flows might allow T-shirts and shorts, more jumping into the water and water fights with other boats, and better fishing.
Grubb used Idaho’s Salmon River as an example. Known as the “river of no return,” the Salmon River will flow lower than normal this year, with snowpack around 70 percent of normal, Grubb said.
“If it gets really low, it won’t be as splashy. But when you’re on a four- or five-day trip like that, you have the beach camps and campfires, the geology, wildlife and history – whitewater is a small portion of the total experience,” he said. “And you’re still going to have to get out, scout some rapids and get the adrenaline pumping.”
Areas with even lower water flows may see rafting prospects diminish.
The Spokane River basin is hurting, Grubb said.
“The Coeur d’Alene drainage is below 50 percent of normal,” he said. “The only thing that can save us from extremely low water this year is a very wet spring – and that could still happen. It has in the past.”
Some of the rivers in the West are free-flowing and dependent on snowmelt and rain. They include the Salmon, Lochsa, Owyhee, Bruneau and Grande Ronde.
Other rivers have dams either on their main stem, or on tributaries, that store water for controlled flows. Rivers in this group that have a more consistent rafting season include the Snake through Hells Canyon, the Rogue in southwest Oregon and the Upper Missouri in Montana.
Although river flows are running lower than normal earlier in the season because of the low snowpack, outfitters aren’t likely to start their rafting seasons any earlier.
“In theory we could, and there’s a temptation,” Grubb said. “But in our experience, people wouldn’t be tuned in to rafting yet. It’s like trying to keep a ski resort open longer in a good snow year. Most people – except the real enthusiasts – just aren’t mentally checked in to the rivers.”
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