Whitewater boating companies optimistic about river flows this season

April 17, 2019 GMT

Depending on who you talk to about Idaho’s whitewater, it could be an epic year or maybe not.

Idaho generally has plenty of water in its mountains in the form of snow waiting to splash down its rivers. Most watersheds are near average or a little above for snowpack this year. Whitewater rafting companies are hoping that means an extended season.

“If everything breaks right it could just be an ideal season so that we have some good medium-high water and not too much high water, but an extended season,” said Jerry Hughes of Hughes River Expeditions.

Hughes has been boating the Salmon River for 53 years. His company guides commercially on the Selway and Salmon Rivers.

“The thing with a river like the Salmon or the Selway is they’re undammed, and you get what you get, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

Two rivers that have some rafting companies excited this year are the Owyhee and the Bruneau. According to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, recent snowpack levels are particularly strong in the Owyhee (130 percent of normal) and Bruneau river basins (121 percent of normal), where desert river trips are wholly dependent on natural runoff. The Salmon Basin was at 111 percent of normal and the Lochsa River Basin at 93 percent of normal.

“It just looks tremendous,” says Jon Barker, owner of Barker River Expeditions of the Owyhee and Bruneau. “We’re really excited about this year.”

Barker offers Owyhee River trips and Jarbidge-Bruneau River trips in the southwest Idaho desert, and he also leads four- to six-day canyoneering trips in the Owyhee Plateau. Because of deep snow in the Owyhee and Bruneau basins, outfitters expect to offer more trips in that region this year over a longer period of time. During drought years, these rivers offer very few trips before the water no longer supports floating.

“It’s a beautiful canyon, and it’s a private boating mecca. When they see a good water year coming, people from Oregon, Idaho and Utah and all the boating states show up for it,” Hughes said of the Owyhee River. “It’s a great spring trip. Some of my friends have already been out there doing some private trips on it. They’ve posted a lot of Facebook pictures that made me wish I was there.”

River guides will be watching the weather during the month of April, hoping for cool temperatures so that the snowmelt doesn’t come too quickly and levels drop early.

Hughes said high water brings with it its own set of challenges, including colder temperatures, faster water and potentially dangerous conditions. He said sometimes trips must be canceled or postponed because conditions are too serious.

“You have to plan ahead on things like that,” Hughes said. “We provide farmer john wetsuits for our customers and give them advice on synthetic underwear and paddle jackets or rain tops and things like that. It’s just a different set of variables that you have to plan ahead for.”

Whatever the water level is at, Hughes said, guides are adept at making the most of it.

“It’s kind of nice for us to have minimum flows and (in) a year like this we’re definitely going to have good minimum flows,” he said. “The snowpack is good, and we haven’t had a real low water year in a while.”

But big water years are not always good for everyone’s business. High water scares off beginning private boaters.

“For retail, typically the high water years are a bad year for you,” said Dave Gonzalez owner Canyon Whitewater Supply in Idaho Falls. “Everybody doesn’t get out in the spring. They wait till late summer, and a lot of them don’t ever make it (into the store) because the water is too high and they do something else. They go hiking or four-wheeling or go do something else and never come back to it.”

Because the upper Snake River south of Grand Teton National Park through the Snake River canyon between Hoback Junction and Alpine, Wyo., is a dam-controlled river (at Jackson Lake), flows are more consistent year in and year out. Six commercial boating companies run the river on scenic trips through the valley and whitewater trips in the canyon. Private boaters need no river-running permit. But guides warn that the Snake River is powerful and can be dangerous in higher water.

“Some of the rapids definitely gain some more volume to them which makes them a lot more fun. There’s the occasional rapid that might get washed over because of the high water, but there’s still about 10 to 12 rapids that will be in play,” said the manager of Barker-Ewing Whitewater of Jackson, Wyo. “It’s definitely not a river to take for granted. It’s still a dangerous river. You need to know what you’re doing on it.”

Gonzalez said other regional rivers worth boating when flows are good include the Fall River and Blackfoot River.

“You just have to time them right,” Gonzalez said. “Fall River is going to be really good. It should last really good. Once irrigation starts it typically gets unrunnable, but on a decent water year you can run it a month longer.”

For the most part, river runners are optimistic about the coming season.

“If things play out like they should, this could be a really neat, just right-on year,” Hughes said. “Because we have a little more water than we often do but also not too much. We’re all crossing our fingers for that to be the case.”