Trip ReportPoison Duck Tour of Denver – S. Platte River 2017
Some adventures are local, but local adventures are still adventures. Against all expectations, the South Platte River, which flows through Denver and is largely dam-discharge controlled, had come back up to boatable levels in late July. My friend Nick Malczyk and I conspired to paddle the river from the very southern part of the metropolitan area through downtown, and take out in the industrial section in the northeast part of the city. Saturday dawned cloudless and warm but not hot - yet. We put on at the river park near the Mineral Avenue park-n-ride, along with dozens of other young folks intent on enjoying a day on the water in their various inner tubes and inflated swans, daffy ducks, and other assorted critters. One group of about 8 young women launched about 5 minutes before we put on, and another 6 young women and a young guy launch as we were putting on. Now my friend Nick loves to stress-test other people’s gullibility gland, but even he had to bow before the mastery exhibited by the young man floating with the 6 young women. As we all floated down stream this young man pointed to one of the many ducks hanging out in the shallows of the river to the young woman he was floating with. “See that duck, don’t get close to it because it is a poisonous duck, you can tell by the pattern of its feathers”. She totally bought it. Nick and I were truly impressed – impressed that we were able to keep it together and not bust out laughing. We were pretty sure that the theme of our day had just been found.
The first 8 miles or so of this part of the S. Platte River is characterized by mostly flat water interspersed with numerous man-made low-head dams with a flue built into it to provide a local rapid with chutes and standing waves for the benefit of paddlers. This is also the section of the river where riparian open space parks line the river for many miles. But for the distant sound of traffic one could easily believe one was in a wilderness setting.
Nick and I had paddled this section many times in recent years, and we had the man-made rapids pretty dialed in. That being said, the flow rate of 350 cfs really hit a sweet spot for a number of these man-made rapids, resulting in some impressive standing waves. While we were have huge fun with them, many of the tube floaters were getting upended in the waves and losing a lot of beer to the river gods. This would turn out to be to our advantage. We helped these folks recover as much of their gear as we could chase down, but the beer itself was just gone – or so we thought. Fortunately nobody was injured, and the younger folk we encountered (ages 6 through 12) were not frightened by being dumped (mom and dad had the good sense to put pfd’s on their young’uns). It’s all good!
In addition to the many man-made rapids and flues, we encountered a couple of places where the river once flooded out ancient hydraulic infrastructure, creating the sort of bouldery rapids more typical of natural streams and rivers in the mountains. We successfully navigated these obstacles without shoaling in the shallows or high-centering on a boulder. Sweet! It was also in this section of the river that numerous unopened cans of beer could be observed bobbing downstream. The river hath given what the river hath taken away; verily I say unto thee it is good to be on the river. Although Nick had the foresight to be well stocked with the necessary provisions for a day long paddle, I had been sorely negligent in that regard. Needless to say, the gifts from the river kept me well hydrated during the day. Double sweet!
After several hours and many miles we encountered this engineered flue adjacent to a dam associated with an old power plant. This was the one object we had digitally scouted using Google Earth that we had doubts about. The doubts notwithstanding, we had been paddling so well we decided to check it out with the thought of giving it a go. It contained a long flue that formed about 150 yards of very fast moving chutes and standing waves and was an honest class III rapid. It also constituted the biggest drop on the entire waterway through Denver. Along the cut bank on the right side there had been enough erosion that many boulders and other river impedimentia lined that side of the channel and provided many things for the prudent paddler to avoid. We shot through that rapid and were mightily thrilled with the run.
At this point in our journey we had left the riparian habitat behind and were well and truly into the city. Also by this time the South Platte had picked up considerable extra flow from Bear Creek, Sanderson Gulch, Weir Gulch, and Lakewood Gulch. It’s all good! As we passed Mile High Stadium some manner of rock concert was going on that sounded rather loud down at River level – I can only imagine the hearing loss occurring within the stadium itself that afternoon. (I’m sure our football stadium is sporting some corporate name, but these corporations keep filing for bankruptcy, so I, like many longtime residents of the area, just think of it as “Mile High”.) Next we paddled past the amusement park to the terrified screeches of teenage girls on the various death-defying rides. It’s good to be young, but there are certain things I do not miss from those exciting days of yore.
Right in the heart of the beast, right where Cherry Creek joins the South Platte local river engineers have created a righteous white water park, with the most serious man-made recreational rapids on the whole river (they just about equal the class III rapids at the abandoned power plant). Here within about a distance of about a mile and a half there is a long and challenging flue with rocky sides and many sequential waves (probably class III) followed in short order by three more engineered rapids, each comprising several sequential drops with major standing waves followed by large eddy pools. We had not expected these and were pleasantly surprised by the rock ‘n roll ride we got. One set of waves were sufficiently high to really launch our small boats, making us look like we were pulling a wheelie down the river. We even got a standing ovation from onlookers along the rivers’ edge bike path. Cool! This part of the river is located in what is known as “LoDo”, or lower downtown. This is an older and originally more commercial part of the city that has become increasingly gentrified in recent years. Once past the gentrification one enters a section where the river banks are populated by summertime squatters of homeless folk making the best of their unfortunate circumstances. Personally, I think they have chosen wisely to set up camp along a river – there is just something about a river….
As we approached some seriously industrialized parts of Denver we came upon Globeville, which was our takeout. The clouds that had come in to provide us with relief from the summer sun during the middle part of our journey had all dissipated and now the sun just hammered down on us. We got off the river and found our vehicle, only to discover I did not have the keys. Most embarrassing! A quick call to my wife Pam and 20 minute later we were rescued as she dropped off the spare pair. I was bumming because I thought I had well and truly lost those keys. What the river giveth, the river taketh away. The happy conclusion to our tale is that I had accidently dropped my keys on the floor of Nick's pickup rather than dropping them into the river. Not so wilderness, very local, but an exciting day nevertheless.
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