Not only is Browns Canyon home to many class III+ rapids, but with names like Zoom Flume, Widow Maker, and Seidel’s Suck Hole, you may be in for more than you expected in high season.
According to the records supplied by Colorado River Rafters, an estimated 278,500 commercial users rafted the Arkansas through Browns last year with another estimated 30,000 private boaters. We did a 12 mile, all day float and by float I mean: screaming, yelling, rowing for our lives and laughing almost all the way.
Tis the Season
With warm temperatures comes high season and high water on the Arkansas through Browns Canyon, located between Buena Vista and Salida in central Colorado. High season is usually late May through most of June when the rapids can easily change from class III to class IV literally overnight. High season means 3,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) while in late July and August the river can drop to as low as 700 cfs. This past year the levels peaked at 1870 cfs due to a dry winter but the previous year when I rafted it we were at an estimated 2800 cfs and class IV raids greeted us about midway through our trip.
Name that Rapid
While Zoom Flume is considered the biggie, The Widow Maker was our downfall after completing about 10 miles of our 12 mile trip. We put in at Johnson Village to make it a longer trip and to give us some warmup runs on the way to the big stuff. After negotiating Storm Door, Pinball and Zoom Flume we were wet, giggling and confident. We did the Big Drop with a pizzazz and pulled over for lunch on the east bank. Refreshed and ready to take to anything we hit the Seven Staircases and though there were moments of, dare I say fear, we popped out with a flourish.
The Widow Maker
I think we got cocky or at least I did as, after exiting the Seven Staircases, I made the statement that we had just made the river our, well, ours. The next thing we knew, 2 people were out of the boat and swirling in a doughnut hole (unofficially but affectionately called the Toilet Bowl) one of them being my wife. She is a strong swimmer and quickly made it to the side where a sand bar offered refuge until we could get over to her. We first had to get ourselves through the Widow Maker while missing two paddlers. The other boater had to be dragged into the boat after a long soak, quite a ways downriver. Two more rapids remained, Raft Ripper which wasn’t near as bad as it sounds, and then Last Chance was a breeze before we pulled out at Nucla Junction to end the day.
This last season was a tough one for the industry with river flows on the Arkansas through Browns Canyon peaking at 1,870 CFS on May 18 which is about a month early. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife regulators along with the Bureau of Reclamation who run the upriver reservoirs Twin Lakes, Clear Creek and Turquoise lake are able to keep a minimum flow no lower than 700CFS to sustain the river rafting industry through August. If it wasn’t for their efforts at building and sustaining reserves, the rafting would have ended mid-summer.
Low Water Big Fun
If you can’t make it in Late May or June, there is still fun to be had. One aspect of lower river flows like in July and even sometimes into August is you encounter more rocks. While the 2800 cfs I was lucky to experience was fast and furious, I have rafted Browns in lower water and had fun as well. You have more objects to avoid when the river is low that you may just float over in high season. There are big rocks to contend with now that you may bounce off the tops of in high season but have to negotiate around later in the season. It’s a slower pace and great for the kids but if you really want to raft whitewater, Browns Canyon in Late May and early June is the way to go.