Printed on: May 16, 2013

Boat the Bear

Scheduled white-water releases are fun for kayakers, headache for fishery

By Kris Millgate

The Bear River runs quietly under the bridge in Grace at 10 a.m. The river is running at about 100 cubic feet per second.

It's so shallow, geese stand on rocks in the middle of the river.

By 10:30 a.m., the geese are gone and the kayaks are coming. The river is rushing at 1,000 cfs.

"I'm just here to paddle the Bear," said Bryson White, a kayaker from Salt Lake City. "We only get a few releases a year, so when it's running, we like to come up and hit it."

The change happens in 30 minutes.

The quiet stream is gone. It's Class V, white-water fun.

It's PacifiCorp's boater mitigation for damming the river. The power company also mitigates flows for the river's fishery. The challenge is mixing the two.

"Licensing requires the balancing of power and nonpower resources in the public interest, including fish, recreation and land management, among other things," said Margaret Oler, PacifiCorp spokeswoman. "During licensing, all these resources are evaluated to seek a balance in the public interest."

The flow

PacifiCorp started scheduling specific boater flow days in 2012.

Boater flow days are days when PacifiCorp raises the river rapidly and keeps it high through the weekend for kayakers. Four scheduled high-volume releases happen between April 1 and June 5, including one this weekend.

Before official scheduling, white-water trips in the Black Canyon stretch of the Bear River were unpredictable in the spring.

"When there was nothing scheduled, the river just never ran or it ran really sporadically, and you had to watch the snowmelt and hope you had work off," White said. "Having scheduled releases on the weekends is huge."

White is a well-practiced paddler, so are the dozen other kayakers in the canyon with him, but even with 10 years of experience, White has black electrical tape across his nose. His face met a rock upstream, but he's still smiling.

"This is the first time I've ever paddled this canyon with the sun out, so I'm pretty excited," White said. "It's normally like 45 degrees and snowing sideways, so this is great."

The fish

George Kimball doesn't think it's so great. He operates a spring-fed hatchery in the canyon. He ships 80,000 pounds of live trout around the West and 23 million eggs all over the world.

The canyon is steep with no easy exit before the take-out except for Kimball's place.

"If they get scared, they try to haul all of their infected water and boats, their clothes and everything out and try to go through our property," said Kimball, the owner of Canyon Trout Farm. "We make them go back and get in the river. This is our livelihood. There's whirling disease and invasive species in that water. If we get those in our fishery, we are out of business."

Another fishery of concern is the wild fishery that's actually in the river where all the white-water is rushing. That's why Ryan Hillyard is on the bank on boater flow days.

He has telemetry stations at several points along the river, including one at the hatchery. He's monitoring the movement of Bonneville cutthroat trout wearing radio tags.

"They are used to a spring runoff, and that's kind of what's happening here," said Ryan Hillyard, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Southeast Region fisheries biologist. "The only major difference here is it's fluctuating. They take it up real high for a couple of days and then take it right back down to the minimum. (The fish) are not used to that alteration."

The future

PacifiCorp's man-made flow has at least two more years of scheduled releases. That's how long biologists will study the movement of fish to determine whether the drastic influx in flow is pushing Bonneville cutthroat trout out of their preferred holes.

"We're putting a lot of effort into restocking this stretch of the stream with cutthroat trout," Hillyard said. "We want to see how white-water boating flows are influencing their movement and different habitats they might be using during these flows."

Kimball hopes the findings stop the fast flow forever.

"They say it's helping the economy, but all the people I've seen, they bring their own food and drinks and gas and they get out and use the river and go home, so I don't think that's a legitimate argument," Kimball said. "What they're doing when they raise this is they're really destroying the fishery and the habitat for ducks and geese."

Kayakers flowing into Grace on boater flow days disagree with Kimball pointing out that they coordinate a White-water Festival during one of the scheduled weekends.

The possibility of losing scheduled boater flow days is the last thing they want to think about as they take advantage of the instant rush of white water while they have it.

"This is tops," White said. "I've been working my way through the workweek for the last couple of weeks excited to come out here and paddle. Good way to kick off spring for sure."