The Dewatered Headwaters

[caption id="attachment_788" align="alignleft" width="300"] A waterfall high in the mountains on the North Inlet[/caption] The Colorado River began as a small, roaring stream, carving its way through the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park. After 10 days of hiking, packrafting, and kayaking, there is enough water to float our 16 foot long NRS raft. The switch to rafting has brought a significant change in our lifestyle. We now have a cooler, dry boxes, and a two burner stove. We eat well and float approximately 10 miles a day. But the story of the River so far is not a continuous narrative of a growing stream. And our story has not been one simply of first hiking, then packrafting, then kayaking, then rafting. Instead, the extraordinary demands on the river, especially in this drought year, caused the river to grow and shrink day by day. One day, we would have enough water to float kayaks. The next, we would be hiking again.

We began this trip high in the mountains, exploring two possible sources of the Colorado that each feed Grand Lake. The North Fork of the Colorado begins at La Poudre Pass at over 10,200 feet. This tiny stream tells the story of an altered river, pressed by the need for water to the east. The Grand Ditch diverts water from the very beginning of the stream. It creates a sort of new continental divide as waters that should be joining together in the Colorado's headwaters, are sent east instead to the front range. We also explored the North Inlet creek. Four days of back packing here showed a different kind of headwaters. We found pristine alpine lakes and rushing streams. One of the lakes bore the name of Powell. The alpine Lake Powell seemed to be a fitting starting point for us as we follow the course of the river to the other, much different Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona. We hiked and pack rafted downstream to Grand Lake with high spirits.

[caption id="attachment_789" align="alignleft" width="300"] This service road on la Poudre Pass divides the Grand Ditch from the Colorado River watershed. The pools on the left drain into the Colorado. The ditch on the right goes to the Front Range[/caption]

It seems, however, that we will be experiencing more of the story of the diverted North Fork than of the pristine North Inlet. We had found enough water to packraft in the North Inlet and began kayaking across Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain and Granby reservoirs. But the reservoirs did not release enough water to float our craft on the downstream side, forcing us to return to hiking. We finally found enough water to float in Hot Sulphur Springs, 16 miles downstream. But even this was barely enough to float. Colorado law dictates the we cannot touch the bottom of the river if it is private property. We would not have been allowed to pass except that Rob Firth of Trout Unlimited called every land owner along that Colorado between Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. We scraped along the bottom many times.

When we arrived in Kremmling, however, we finally had plenty of water to float on. We had passed the confluences with the Williams Fork and the Blue River. Our tiny stream of 135 CFS had suddenly grown to almost 900 CFS. We had ample water to kayak through Gore Canyon the next day and to begin rafting after that.

 

Watching the unnatural growth of the river, I realize we are not floating on the waters of the mighty Colorado River that should be fed gradually by smaller tributaries. Instead, we are floating on the waters of the Blue and the Williams Fork, which come to the rescue of the Colorado near the town of Kremmling. Without these tributaries, we would still be scraping down a slow, meandering trickle. We attempted to find the source of the Colorado in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the stream we have followed up to this point is no longer its largest tributary to itself. The demands placed on the Colorado's headwaters have left that section of river dewatered and endangered.

[caption id="attachment_790" align="alignleft" width="600"] Zak reading on one of our first nights with the NRS raft.[/caption]

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Posted on July 3, 2012 and filed under Uncategorized, Writing.