Wildfires and drought ravaged Colorado's rafting industry last year. Rafting outfitters Thursday reported that visitation fell 17.1 percent in 2012, reaching 411,100 user days, the lowest since 2002 and the second-largest decline since 1990.
Some rivers, such as the Blue in Summit County and the Eagle above Avon, barely ran as drought conditions withered upstream snowpack. Others, such as the Cache la Poudre, were choked by wildfire.
"That was a tough three weeks, just waiting for the canyon to open," said Bob Klein, whose A Wanderlust Adventure in Laporte sat dormant while the High Park fire scorched the Poudre Canyon.
The Poudre river, which was closed for three weeks in June due to wildfire, saw a 40 percent decline in user days in 2012. The six outfitters on the river generated a nearly $7 million economic impact in the area, according to the annual rafting report released Thursday by the Colorado River Outfitters Association. That's down from $11.2 million in 2011.
The number of commercial rafters on the Arkansas River — the country's most trafficked river — fell 19
Across the state, the economic impact from commercial rafting fell 15.7 percent to $127.6 million, down from $151.4 million in 2011.
While 18 of the state's 28 rafted stretches of river saw declines, some enjoyed gains as tourists flocked to rivers more resilient to drought. The Colorado River, which held raftable flows throughout the season, hosted 30 percent more traffic from the upper stretch near State Bridge through to Utah's Westwater Canyon.
In April 2002, the state's river basins boasted a snowpack measured at 52 percent of average. Last April, that statewide snowpack was 54 percent of average.
Even though the Blue River didn't run at all, Chris Campton's KODI Rafting in Frisco stayed busy with trips to the upper Colorado and the Arkansas River.
"We didn't have that fun run close to home, but we benefited from having multiple options," he said. "We just had to drive a bit more."
Another outfitter strategy for success in a dry year was recreation beyond the river.
John Cantamessa's Colorado Adventure Center developed two zip-line tours this year, hosting canopy fliers in Dumont and Glenwood Springs. When Clear Creek trickled, the zippers kept Cantamessa afloat.
The weak snowpack this winter — 71 percent of average — has yet to worry rafters, an optimistic lot.
"It's too early to get worked up about that," Cantamessa said.
"We've still got the two snowiest months ahead of us," Campton said.
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins