Winter is time for me to paddle and explore the South Platte River downstream of Denver. In February of 2005 I started to discover for myself the river near Fort Morgan in eastern Colorado. The article below was posted originally in my old Wayfarer blog. I am going to republish other articles from this series as well.
I mention a state wilderness area in the text. Since 2006 you need to buy Colorado Division of Wildlife Habitat Stamp for each persons to enter these areas.
February 20, 2005.
Connie, Dax and me, and Sisson kayak on the car roof left Fort Collins in the morning and drove east. Our main goal was to explore South Platte River further downstream than I had ever paddled. We also wanted to check some places from Perry Eberhart's book Ghosts of the Colorado Plains. We went east through Timnath and Windsor crossing the Poudre River (just standing pools of water) three times, and then through Gill to Kersey where we reached a valley of South Platte River.
Kuner was our first river stop. There was plenty of water for paddling with a flow above 700 cfs. It applied to the entire popular club run from Evans to Kersey/Kuner. The access to the river from the main bridge looked the same as in recent years - no problem going around a barbed wire fence and a lot of garbage under the bridge. I didn't check the northern bridge which used to be my favorite launching or ending spot before it had been heavily fenced.
Between the highway 34 and the river at Kuner I saw an old barn which may be interesting to photograph but I would need light from west. So, I have to return back there at sunset. We couldn't see any traces of an old Kuner school described in the Eberhart's book.
From Kuner we drove further east on highway 34. Several times we could see a very full Empire Canal taking water from South Platte just below Kuner. According to Colorado Division of Water Resources web page another major diversion ditch, the Riverside Canal, was taking around 200 cfs also below Kuner. Was any water left in the river?
Dearfield. A short stop in this ghost town on the side of highway 34. Some foundations, shop ruins, and several modern abandoned trailers - remains of an all Black farm community established in 1909. Light was not good for photography ...
A dirt road led us from the highway to the river at Masters. Parking space is quite limited at the bridge - a room for one or two cars off road. Masters was a downstream end of my river coverage. Two years ago, I paddled from that bridge upstream at high water. There is a barbed wire fence on a downstream side of the bridge. No problem in low water conditions. It was possible to drag the boat under it. However, this difficult to see fence is a serious hazard at high water, when the river is flowing wide under the entire bridge. So, be prepared to stop in order to scout or portage over the road if the river is really flowing.
Masters-Orchard And, we found some river under the bridge. Narrow and shallow channels were trying to find their way between sandbars. A lot of sandbars! More wet sand than water. However, th.e water was clean and inviting though rather for wading than paddling.
I decided to paddle but I asked Connie to stay at the bridge for while just in the case I would change my mind and try to return back. Well, it appeared to be possible to paddle. Navigation between sandbars and searching for water channels deeper than a few inches was quite challenging. I had to push through some shallow places. I got trapped in sand and forced to walk only twice.
The river was really nice. Perhaps, the nicest segment of the South Platte I had ever paddled. Sand or gravel bottom. Clean water, no aroma of feedlots or Denver sewage. Cottonwoods on shores. Numerous big trees fallen into the river were adding more to scenery than hazard. In my quest for flowing water I had to paddle just next or between these trees or logs.
After a couple of miles I found an eagle nest on one of cottonwood trees. Three bald eagles were soaring nearby, but one flew quite low over my kayak. I could hear a powerful sound of eagle wings. I didn't see too many other birds during that trip, just some single couples of ducks and geese and several kingfishers.
I didn't find any human intrusion to the river until I reached Weldon Valley Ditch diversion dam after 5.5 mile of paddling. A familiar view - carcasses of old cars protecting shores. The dam was the only obstacle requiring a portage (on right). It was very shallow and rocky after the drop. Besides, the dam had a gate lowered in water with protruding bolts and other sharp looking metal elements.
The dam was open but it got even more shallow below it. There was more open space further downstream but the river didn't change its character. Sandbars and narrow channels. I had to hurry since I didn't want Connie to wait for me too long at the next bridge.
Orchard. A barbed wire fence was attached to the bridge, but it was possible to sneak the boat under it on the northern shore. There was no parking/tow away sign on that side of the bridge, unclear why placed there or how far no parking zone extended. It was convenient spot to park and load the kayak ...
I had a great 2 hour paddle and a good workout in shallow water. The river is worth to paddle there even in low water condition! However, it is recommended to check flow data at Weldona before leaving for the trip. You may find just a wet sand ...
GPS trip odometer: 9.37 miles, moving time 1:50 h stopped time: 0:21 h, moving average 5.1 mph, max speed 7.9 mph. River flow: S. Platte @ Kersey: 740 cfs, @ Weldona: ~300 cfs, @ Fort Morgan: ~450 cfs, at Copper Bridge: ~110 cfs, Riverside Canal Inlet: ~210 cfs. Air temperature ~60F.
We drove further east towards Fort Morgan. At the Goodrich Bridge the river looked similar as at Orchards. We didn't check the river at Weldona. When driving along the river one can see bridges and other traces of an old Pacific Union railroad. I suspect that most of the names mentioned here used to be just stops on that railroad.
Fort Morgan. We enjoyed lunch at local Memories Restaurant next to Best Western Motel. A lot of old family photos with tense expressions on people faces due to long exposure times. And, of course, I noticed an old century 8x10 camera featuring as a decoration.
We checked one more river access place below Fort Morgan: Dodd Bridge (exit from I-76 to Dodd Road). A parking on the northern shore provides a convenient access to the river (nice, but a little bit messy without a toilet or garbage cans). It is one of several State Wilderness Areas (or simply hunting areas) along the river below Fort Morgan.
The river looked quite braided below the Dodd Bridge but, obviously, there was much more water there than between Masters and Orchards where I paddled. There was a diversion dam just upstream of the bridge. A green swamp with trees cut down by beavers shot from the bridge is my favorite picture of the trip. I tried to shoot a similar scene with beaver dams on the old river arm from the Orchards bridge but pictures didn't turn too good.
The Dodd Bridge may be a good place to start a paddling trip with several access points downstream. However, the Cooper Bridge gauge just 11 miles downstream reported a low flow around ~100cfs. This would suggest that the most of river went to North Sterling Reservoir Canal with an inlet about a mile upstream of the Cooper Bridge.
From the Dodd Bridge we drove north on highway 71 north to Stoneham where I had photographed church and old school years ago, then west on highway 14 towards Fort Collins. I could see a water tower in Keota, my favorite ghost town of the prairies. There were big dark clouds hanging over mountains. We even experienced a few a short showers and spectacular light at sunset.