“We’re back in business”
Recent improvements made to the Gunnison Whitewater Park resuscitated the local play boating features and looks to bring the park back into the paddling limelight, both locally and nationally.
The whitewater park is located off of Highway 50 just west of Gunnison on the Gunnison River, and was the brainchild of former Western State College professor Rick Stock. Stock pitched the idea of a whitewater park on the Gunnison River in 1995. Approval for funding the construction of the park was approved by the Gunnison County commissioners in 1997 and Boulder-based company, Recreation Planning & Engineering (RPE), was hired to design and oversee construction of the facility.
The first phase of the park was completed in the fall of 2002, received rave reviews from the paddling community, and helped foster the creation of the Gunnison River Festival.
In its heyday, the festival brought in more than 1,000 people, attracting sponsorship from companies such as Teva and New Belgium.
By 2006, high water flows wreaked havoc on the features in the park and they deteriorated. As a result, so did enthusiasm for the park by play boaters and enthusiasm for the river festival.
Crested Butte resident and kayaking enthusiast Milo Wynne cut his teeth on the local waterways starting in the early 1990s, enjoying the whitewater park at its inception.
“I started in 1991 right there where the play park is now,” says Wynne. “Everybody liked coming here early, playing in that hole and getting their mojo going.”
That changed, though, as the features disintegrated and lost their power and boaters started traveling to other parks in Colorado.
“For the last several years the local boaters here have been spending their gas money, beer money and food money in Buena Vista,” explains Wynne.
In the fall of 2007, the county called RPE back to work on the park in an effort to return it to its former glory.
“The river is a moving, changing beast,” explains engineer for RPE Shane Sigle. “It needed some maintenance. Changes in the river’s geometry necessitated some hydraulic modifications. The improvements were beneficial and made it deeper at lower flows.”
Unfortunately, as the water levels rose in the Gunnison River it became evident that further work was needed and members of the boating community voiced their continued disdain for the condition of the park.
“They did work last year that did not meet the boaters’ expectations,” explains assistant county manager and public works director Marlene Crosby. “As we watched the water come up this year, it did not work so well.”
“There was a lack of function,” explains Anthony Poponi, coordinator of the Gunnison River Festival, which is scheduled for August 14-18. “The lower wave wasn’t a playable feature for kayakers. You can only do so much when there’s not a functional wave.”
As a result, Crosby called RPE back in to further remedy the situation before the water got too high, making adjustments to the wave on the second drop feature.
RPE answered the call immediately and the county hired an excavator and operator from Lacy Construction to work on the project.
With water levels rising fast, the work was completed on Monday, April 28, just in the nick of time.
“We felt that the day we did the work was the last day we could have done it,” says Crosby.
“It was a full day,” says Sigle. “They worked from 8:30 in the morning until seven that evening. We changed the pitch and dynamics of the wave associated with the second drop.”
Sigle credits the county for their efforts in getting materials and equipment on site in time to do the work.
The recent improvements appear to have been well received by the public, including Poponi and Wynne.
“We’re fortunate to have the county’s support and RPE willing to put money into this to make it work,” says Poponi. “I’m really excited for the festival this year. My job is made much easier because there’s a great wave out there. The buzz is already out there. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.”
“I don’t have to drive anymore,” says Wynne. “After work, instead of going to the Eldo and talking about it, people are able to go down and throw down.”
Wynne adds that as the river level rises, so will the intensity of the second drop feature.
“It’s pretty mellow for beginner and intermediate paddlers at 1,500 to 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second),” says Wynne. “At this point, it’s optimum for advanced play. At 2,500 and up, it’d be advisable to wear two sets of nose plugs and stitch a back-up chin-strap on and cinch them up tight. It changes from being in Disneyland to being naked in Compton at night with cash strapped to you.”
Wynne expects to see some high-quality play boating from the visiting kayakers as well, now that the feature has been improved.
“As soon as the heavies get here. you’re going to see Space Godzillas, Air Loops and Phonix Monkeys,” says Wynne. “We’re back in business.”