Rafting Outfitters in the West Looking at Booming Season
By Brian E. Clark
In spite of dry conditions in California and other parts of the West, rafting outfitters say bookings are soaring this season. So much so that many multi-day whitewater trips are sold out form much of the summer.
In large part, they say, the reason for the boom is that the demand for outdoor adventures has never been stronger as the country emerges from more than a year of pandemic limitations. All the outfitters contacted for this article people interested in rafting trips should contact companies as soon as possible to book spots or get on waiting lists.
Steve Markle, a spokesman for OARS (oars.com), one of the largest rafting outfitters in the country, said OARS is “experiencing demand like we’v never seen before. I’ve been here for almost two decades and the rebound coming out of COVID is impressive.”
“We’ve been turning people away left and right, but you can still get on a waiting list. And a few rivers, like the Green River through Desolation Canyon in Utah, has openings in August and September.” That stream offers 50 family friendly rapids, scenic red rock walls, and a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Though California only received 60 percent of normal snowfall this winter and is in a state of drought, he said other parts of the West did better. Some parts of the Northwest got near normal snow in the mountains, while the snowpack in the Yampa and Salmon River basins were down 20 to 30 percent.
That means rivers that reliant on spring and early summer runoff – such as the Yampa on the Colorado-Utah border and the Merced outside California’s Yosemite National Park – will have shortened seasons this year by a week or two.
And in Oregon, a lack of rainfall in the spring meant that outfitters were unable to run any trips on the Owhyee River near the Idaho border, said Zach Collier, whose Northwest Rafting Co. (nwrafting.com) offers trips on the Rogue River in southern Oregon and the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho. He also had to reduce the number of trips run on the Illinois River, a tributary of the Rogue.
Markle, whose company is based in Angels Camp, California, said streams that rely on releases from upstream dams will have regular flows, which “pretty much means business as usual this summer.” Those rivers include the Tuolumne and South and Middle Forks of the America rivers in California, the Rogue in Oregon and the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
“We definitely won’t be having any major high water this year, which is in many ways a relief because it allows for less experienced and families with younger kids to get out there earlier. We aren’t concerned this year about hazards of high, cold water like we would be from a big snowpack.
“It also means fewer mosquitoes and other bugs as a result of big runoffs. And there will be larger beaches for camping along the rivers, too.”
Collier, of Northwest Rafting, said “as early as April, we knew we we’d be looking at the biggest year we’ve ever had. People didn’t get out much last year because of the pandemic, so we were down around 30 percent with our business. Now we’re up that much and more. Bookings are going crazy.”
Collier, whose company is based in Hood River, Oregon, said he anticipated the rebound and bought all the gear he needed six months ago. In addition, he hired plenty of guides to navigate his rafts.
He said June and July trips are full with a few spots open, “though there might be a spot open here and there.”
He said August and September are filling up, but his company still has some openings.
“It used to be that those months meant that families were getting kids ready to go back to school and their fall sports programs were starting,” he said. “But that pandemic has changed that. Before COVID, we were super limited to kids’ traditional summer vacations and 15-year-olds could only go from the third week in June to the second week in August.
“Now we have families with 15-year-olds going in May, early June and September. People aren’t tied to the school calendar anymore. Remote learning has changed that, just like the workplace for many people. Kids can go whenever, which is really good for us. We are booking more shoulder seasons than we ever have.”
Collier said the flows on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River will be lower than normal this year, which means the company will begin flying clients into the a landing spot called Indian Creek in mid-July. That will cut the length of the six-day trip from 100 miles to 75 miles.
That’s not such a bad thing, though, he said.
“If you start at Boundary Creek at the top, the challenging rapids begin right away,” he said. “But at Indian Creek, it starts out mellow and builds, which I think is a better experience.”
On the Kern River, which is the closest whitewater stream to Los Angeles, Matt Volpert of Kern River Outfitters (kernrafting.org) said this season’s offerings will be focused on the eight-mile-long Jungle Run, a class II and III (fun) stretch of water on the Kern.
His company usually does the exciting and technical, Class IV-plus Forks of the Kern trip. But fires last summer made the road to that section of river dangerous, so the U.S. Forest Service closed the access to the river this year.
Steve Welch, general manager of Oakland, California-based ARTA River Trips, (arta.org) agreed that even though California just experienced its seventh driest winter on record, demand is strong.
“And we’ve been through dry spells before, so this is not that unusual,” said Welch, whose company runs rivers in California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.
“In any case, we are definitely benefiting from the pent-up demand for travel, though we do have openings on some of our one- and two-day trips,” he said. “People understand that being outdoors is safer and everyone wants to travel again. But international travel hasn’t really rebounded. Nor has the cruise industry hasn’t, so options are somewhat limited.
“So people are turning to us and that’s great news for every rafting company I’ve talked to. Especially after last year.”
All the outfitters said some pandemic protocols will remain for their trips.
“Our current plan is to wear masks while in food lines and in vehicles driving to and from the rivers,” Welch said. “Some outfitters may be requiring vaccinations, but I’d say we are all less anxious. But it will vary from outfitter to outfitter.”
Welch also said that the demand for private trips has increased as a result of the pandemic.
“That made sense last year when people were traveling with their school pods of a dozen or so,” he said.
“Those groups were small, but we made exceptions. It’s carrying over to this year with folks who know each other. Now the number is 20 people who feel comfortable traveling with each other and they are even sending us vaccination updates on participants. People really want to get out – and in a way that still makes them feel safe, too.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.