My wife Kathy keeps telling me this is ridiculous. We are driving away from the winter paddling Mecca of the South Eastern US to the frozen river winter wasteland of Colorado to go kayaking on New Years Day. Now I know exactly what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve been making this trip for over 13 years. The first year it was a novel idea. Living in Boulder, Colorado I wanted to paddle on a real river every month of the year. So the 3 hour drive to Glenwood Canyon seemed like a doable and worthwhile adventure. Since that time my passion for whitewater has moved my family into a 24 foot Winnebago so that we can paddle year round on the best rivers North America has to offer. Some might say we are kind of over the top for our love of kayaking. So now that I could be in the warm and wet SE or the rainy Pacific North West, why would I choose to drive 20+ hours to paddle a frozen mile-long section of class III-? Because I love this day, and it means so much to spend it with the amazing paddling community that drives in from all over the Rocky Mountains to celebrate time on the river on the first day of the new paddling season. Essentially this is my first river family.
Since it such a long trip to get here, we arrive a day early, on New Year’s Eve and end the year with a lap on Shoshone, where we have the river all to ourselves. We spend New Year’s Eve nestled snugly in the Winnebago with the heater purring accompaniment to a guitar jam session with an old friend. We ring in the new year with sounds of trucks and cars wizzing by as we sleep in the Grizzly Creek rest area that serves as the meeting spot and take out for the Shoshone section on the Colorado River.
The next morning is spent making breakfast and thawing out gear for the day. Although the meetup is scheduled for 12 noon, by 9:00am we have friends showing up to hang out and socialize. This day is as much about getting excited for the new paddling season as it is the actual paddling. I often say only the most passionate paddlers brave the cold icy roads to come paddle on NYD-Shoshone. These same people love to share their stoke with each other.
It seems that passion is growing for kayaking in the Rockies. My first NYD on Shoshone I was joined by 6 other dudes just as stoked as I was. Some had been doing this tradition for dozens of years before me. I have made new friends on NYD that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
This year it was 17 degrees at the take out, and colder at the put in. Still with the low water and lower temps 120+ paddlers made the trip from across the state to celebrate rivers, paddling and 2019.
Winter paddling has its challenges and dangers though. This is the time when dry suits aren’t just for comfort, but life or death in the event of a swim. And we had a few swims. I counted at least 4. One poor fella ended up on the wrong side of the river from his kayak and the bike path that leads to the takeout. He wore a dry-top and neoprene pants. This is the minimum for being a responsible winter paddler. And after a longish swim he was hypothermic and couldn’t move his hands. As a rescuer you have to make sure to dress properly, otherwise you just become a liability and can’t help others. A group of us devised a plan to ferry him across in a kayak even though he couldn’t hold a paddle. But right as we were about to tow him across, a raft appeared on the horizon. I was very thankful the rafters were there and willing to take him across and to then start his warming jog back to the parking lot while they towed out his empty kayak. Winter paddling is all about having proper gear: gloves or mitts, lots of insulating layers and a proper dry suit are all mandatory in this arena, otherwise you are just putting your self and others at risk.
Once we all reached the takeout with icicles growing from our helmet visors, and PFDs that resembled body armor with thick shells of ice it was time to warm up and celebrate. Dave “Hojo” and Nathan Fey from American Whitewater had blasters with steaming cauldrons of hot drinks waiting for everyone at the takeout. We swapped icy encrusted PFDs for down jackets and the party started.
Once the hot beverages ran out and sun set behind the canyon walls there is only one place to go as a NYD kayaker: the amazing Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs where the party continued on into the evening. The parking lot was full of boats on trucks and everyone finally got truly warm in the hot pools overlooking the icy Colorado River. After a long soak, a large group heads to a local Mexican restaurant. There plans are made for the next winter paddling trip, or maybe Numbers on the Arkansas or down river to the Royal Gorge, while some plan for Ecuador with Small World Adventures or on to other tropical or southern destinations. We will stick around and do a little skiing and ice Climbing in Ouray then on to the Rio Grand in South Texas for a multi-day trip thought the canyons of Big Bend before returning to the SE for Freestyle Team Trials.