It is ironic that in Golden, where I live, the advent of paddling season is marked by the closure of Clear Creek, which bisects the town from west to east. Sometime near the end of June, whenever snowmelt has caused water levels to rise to 1,000cfs or so (cubic feet per second—picture, if you stood at any given point on the banks of the narrow creek, a thousand basketballs streaming past you each second), the Sheriff restricts the section of the creek that runs through Golden. Depending on your vessel (kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and multi-chambered boats are still allowed; tubes and the odd inflatable mattress are nixed), you enter the creek only at your own risk.
It took just one brief summer of raft guiding for me to realize I wasn’t cut out for the nonstop adrenaline rush associated with whitewater sports. Clear Creek, where I learned to guide, is known for the six-mile stretch of Class III and IV rapids, more or less stacked on top of one another, through its namesake canyon. The summer I learned to pilot a boat, three people died there. It is not a forgiving place to paddle.
I didn’t stick around as a commercial raft guide for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I was, and remain, terrified of whitewater. I am not ashamed of this. It seems like common sense to me, though I’ll admit to a twinge of nostalgia when I watch the big rubber boats slide down the creek. (This could also be nausea.)
Given my lifelong fear of water, I was surprised to find, once I quit guiding, that I remained inexplicably drawn to paddling. I guided friends down the Upper Colorado in borrowed boats, used my tax refund to buy a packraft, spent my honeymoon canoeing down the Green River. This spring, we spent Memorial Day Weekend sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands. Somehow, a summer of having the bejesus scared out of me turned me into a paddler.
Now, when I see that the creek is closed to tubers, I know it’s time to brush off my paddle and PFD and get back in the water. I start planning my annual pilgrimage to the Upper C and checking flow gauges for water levels.
I also start slowing down as I walk the dog down the bike path alongside the creek. I remember to watch as holes take shape behind rocks, as slick green tongues of water form perfect Vs into rapids, as swirling eddies shrink into nothing. Watching the creek change reminds me that this season, when winter literally melts into summer, is one of my favorite times of the year.
This early summer period, when last season’s snowpack is being washed away, is a time of renewal, but also of reflection. The lower stretch of Clear Creek, the one I walk my dog by, will subside and become suitable for tubers again in a few weeks. But many of the West’s waterways will remain at high water levels until long after kids are back in school and summer constellations of bug bites on skin have faded.
If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that death is a very real possible outcome of whitewater paddling. Watching Clear Creek plunge past me at 1,200cfs, it’s not hard to see how. I will let myself be talked into packrafting through the town whitewater park a few times this summer, once the water goes down, but mostly, I’ll stick to wider, flatter rivers, where if you’re out of the boat, it’s likely on purpose. This is in part because I am a fuddy duddy and also largely because I very much like Type I fun. (This is part of the beauty of growing up, maybe: I’m comfortable with who I am.)
I guess what I’m trying to say is: it’s finally paddling season! Stay safe out there, my friends.