Catching A Wave Along the Front Range: Surfing Colorado Style

Kayakingboattipup145By Heather Grimshaw
For those who grew up near water–oceans, lakes, or ponds–the call of the water is understandable. It soothes, invigorates, and offers hours of active or peaceful enjoyment.

In a land-locked state those who seek water adventures find them more easily than you might imagine. Across the Front Range manmade watercourses have been mapped out for young and old kayakers and those who wade into the water to watch. And then there are the natural courses, the rivers and streams that are peopled with kayakers all year round.

So-called “play features” in manmade parks allow kayakers to strut their stuff – from pearling a wave to cartwheels, kayak parks or runs appeal to people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests. But it’s a different experience than kayaking in a natural environment, says “Mad” Max Young, co-owner of Renaissance Adventure Guides who has taught kayaking for 16 years. “It’s a different vibe than if you run one of the rivers up in the mountains, like the Yampa or the Arkansas.”

The urban parks have increased interest and awareness for the sport, which some say runs from March through September. For others it never ends.

Kayakingpeaceful176Clad in helmets and wetsuits (depending on the season) kayakers slip into the cockpit of their sleek plastic boats with a look of sheer joy mixed with determination as they “put in” to the water. Compared to skateboarding on the water or to skiing, kayaking has a cult-like following. At the Golden White Water Park the shoreline is packed with onlookers during the spring and summer, people with books, picnics, dogs on leashes. There are kids in the water splashing, tubers drifting down the rapids alongside kayakers. The parking lot is crammed with cars and trucks, racks emptied of boats, paddles, helmets, and other kayak gear. The kayakers hoot and holler, shimmy into their boats and float down the water. Graying heads follow and lead helmets of all sizes accommodating kids, women, and men who maneuver rippling currents to dip and play in the “holes” or waves.

Golden hosts an annual kayaking event, The Clear Creek Adventure Festival, which has already been scheduled for June 4-6, 2004, though many groups host competitions year-round across the Front Range.

“It’s a great low-impact physical activity that appeals to everyone from your thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies to sight-seers,” says Eric Bader, president of Boulder Outdoor Center. “Environmentally it’s the best sport you can do. Once you get into the water you don’t leave a footprint and the wild life comes right to the edge of the water.”

Kayakingnearlysubmerged142After 25 years of teaching kayaking and selling sport-related items, Bader says that thrill-seekers get most of the attention but that kayaking is a great family sport and one that draws bird watchers and campers. It can be dangerous, although with adequate instruction, kayaking is as safe – or safer – than many other routine activities. “According to the statistics it’s extremely safe,” says Bader. “I feel safer paddling down white water runs than I do driving to them. Driving I-25, that’s a lot scarier than what I do.”

In Colorado alone 4.1 percent of the population or 136,221 people tried the sport in 2002, according to a recent Outdoor Recreation Participation & Spending study.

“It’s really exploded over the last few years,” says Mark Joffe, president of Rapid Pulse & Water By Nature in Lakewood.

Equipment alone can cost upwards of $1800 for a boat, paddles, and a life jacket. And then, of course, you have the cost of lessons, which vary in scope and price. To get basic skills, Joffe recommends group lessons and then, once interest has been discerned, private lessons.

The first step in most group lessons is what pros call a “Wet Exit” or learning how to turn over in the water and right the boat or exit the boat safely. Experts say that the fear of tipping the boat prevents many people from trying the sport though, they say, it is easily mastered with lessons and a little confidence.

“Bracing” or staying above the water, “Hip Snaps” or learning how to roll from side to side, paddle strokes, and learning how to roll a boat over instead of swimming out from under it are all covered.

Kayakingback102“It’s much safer in your kayak than swimming,” says Joffe. “You always need to keep track of the boat and paddles.”

Overall, despite outward appearances, kayaking is relatively easy to learn, says Joffe. “You really just need to know how to read how the water’s moving so that you can use the water to your advantage, not try to fight it.” Two of Joffe’s favorite locations for kayaking include the Platte River and Foxton Reservoir though he frequents Golden and many other local kayak parks.

A sport that some say is easier to learn than canoeing, kayaking has begun to attract a large number of young women.

Young says that many of the young women, from college students to 40-year-old professionals, who sought lessons this summer, were backpackers who wanted to supplement their summer activities.

“They realized that they could get to some really beautiful places with a kayak,” Young says. And the physical demands of kayaking make it an ideal activity for people of all shapes and sizes.

“It’s really all about balance,” Joffe adds. “You maneuver the boat with your hips and with graceful, controlled strokes. I’ve seen some guys muscle their way through a course but that’s not really the point.”

Despite its wide appeal, which still focuses on yuppies between the ages of 25 and 35, kayakers must be at least 65-pounds to hold the boat steady though the top end of the weight scale depends on the type of boat you choose.

Kayakingscenery003In addition to young women, the sport attracts a large number of kids. Bader launched “Kids and Kayaks” last summer and taught 40 kids the first season. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the oldest student he has taught to date was a 96-year-old. “He paddled for about three years and then I lost track of him,” says Bader. “Paddling is very kind to one’s body unless you’re jumping water falls.”

And many do. Thrill seekers push the envelope farther and farther and manufacturers are making their job easier and easier. In the last few years manufacturers have produced more play boats – shells designed for speed – such as Sea Kayaks and Lake Racing Kayaks with shorter bodies, low-volume ends that make it easier to turn around, and hulls set-up for surfing. Tandem boats and Touring Kayaks are tailored to produce more of a stable ride, and allow for couples to kayak. “It’s absolutely wonderful to do with a partner,” says Bader. “It’s a very romantic thing to do.”

The two major categories of kayaks include Sit-on-top Kayaks and Sit-In kayaks and designs within those two categories number in the hundreds.

Water parks in Boulder, Denver, Golden, Gunnison, and Steamboat Springs extend for miles providing kayakers with play features called holes, waves, and drops. Once you’ve mastered the basics – like staying upright – and learning how to do an Eskimo Roll kayakers move on to “throw down different moves,” says Joffe, like doing cartwheels or other tricks in the hole.

“You can actually get a lot of air in kayaks with water features,” says Bader who says that if you take a “wave” of water that’s 4-feet steep you can “pearl” the boat’s nose or bury it in the water until the water pushes it up and out of the water until the nose of the boat leaves the wave entirely. “You don’t always leave the wave entirely,” he adds, “but everybody gets launched a little bit.”

For kayakers who seek more beauty than blast, Bader suggests the South Platte River east of Boulder towards Greeley where he has seen Snapping Turtles, Blue Herons, deer, moose, and Redwing Black Birds while paddling the flat-water river.

And whether you’re kayaking to get to an isolated campground, bird watch, or ride the waves, interest in the sport has continued to pick up steam despite – or perhaps because of – drought conditions.

Lower water levels are more forgiving, says Bader. “Low water is one of the best times to go kayaking. You want to do the really hard runs in low water.”

Levels of difficulty (1 to 5) are marked in guidebooks, and influenced by water levels though signs are not posted for the general public. Difficulty levels are, however, listed in books like “The Colorado Rivers and Creeks” by Gordon Banks and Dave Eckardt, which Young describes as the best resource for kayaking information. “Everybody in Colorado uses that as a bible,” he says.

Kayaker is Reed Koeneke