By Dan England
Images courtesy of City of Fort Collins
On a chilly March 2, when spring still seemed more like a groundhog’s bad prediction, Kurt Friesen gazed out to the sleepy new Poudre River White-water Park in Fort Collins and smiled at the future.
“I know it looks so tame and mild right now,” said Friesen, director of park plan-ning and development for the City of Fort Collins. “But in late spring, those waves just get so massive and powerful.”
You’re reading this in May, so those waves may already be flexing in preparation for the first full season of Fort Collins’ first whitewater park. The downtown park had a start as bumpy as the whitewater, but it’s here now, ready for boaters, anglers and river watchers alike.
“There’s a lot of perspectives on the Poudre,” Friesen said. “Some believe it should be natural, and others believe it should be recreational. The master plan strives to find that balance. Once we had a philosophy, it was pretty easy.”
Indeed, the $11.5 million, 11-acre park was designed to offer much more than whitewater. The section of the river, just north of Old Town, had a diversion that irrigated a nearby farm, creating more of a reservoir than a river. The city restored it back to a more natural state by making the flow half of what it once was, giving boaters the fast water they craved and creating a much more aesthetic river as well as a safer one, as flooding should no longer be an issue, even during huge events such as the Flood of 2013. The fish will appreciate the higher flows as well, and anglers love it, as they are catching some whopping trout.
“Only a third of this project was about recreation,” Friesen explained. But that, without a doubt, garnered the most attention, even with an active environmental base that cares deeply about the Poudre.
Jeff Burley, of Fort Collins, laughed when he got a call from NOCO Style to comment on the river.
“I know why they sent you to me,” Burley says about the city. “I’m calmer.”
Burley was referring to a kayaking community that wondered, sometimes loudly, why Fort Collins was one of the last cities in Colorado to build a whitewater park. Burley, a passionate kayaker himself, understood and related to their consternation. The kayakers raised $2 million so they could offer their input on the project. Burley says there were discussions about the park since 2006, when he began giving money to it, and serious discussions began in 2013.
The park’s preliminary opening date was spring 2017. The city finally broke ground in August 2018, and it took until September 2019 to open, when the boat-ing season was essentially over. The park’s grand opening was October 12.
“It was a long push,” Burley says.
Friesen admitted that it took a long time for Fort Collins to get its first white-water park. There are 30 others across Colorado.
“We are a little late to the party,” he said. “But the benefit to us was waiting so we could see what was working.”
But now that it’s here, Burley looks forward to riding those waves after work without a long drive up the Poudre Can-yon. Burley spends three to five days a week on the river during paddling season. The whitewater park will help him either achieve or exceed that number without nearly as much time in the car. The paddling season, which depends on snow-melt, typically starts in May and peaks in June. By the end of July, the river still runs, but hardcore boaters and kayakers don’t like it nearly as much.
“The park is a different experience, and there’s no way it will replicate the experience of the canyon,” Burley says. “But this brings the wilderness of the river down-town, and if I just want to surf or get out there or get a workout in, I can go there. We’ve got so much potential down there. It will really change things for Northern Colorado in general.”
After all, even when the river settles back down once peak flows end in late summer, parents can take their kids to ride the currents in tubes or go on small float trips. And even if you don’t want to get wet, the area also features long walkways, a well-lit area for people to sit and talk while watching the river and a long bridge.
No matter how long this took, it is really just the beginning, Friesen says, as Fort Collins now takes a look at the next section to the Linden bridge. That area of the river is polluted, but the city will soon do a feasibility study on the section to see what it can offer. In the meantime, the city doesn’t mind enjoying its first major accomplishment in the transformation of the Poudre through downtown Fort Collins. Even in March, people were walking alongside the river or riding their bikes, and the number of places to sit and enjoy the park is unusual for a water park.
“See, look,” Friesen said while pointing to a woman sitting on a rock in the middle of the river eating her lunch. “There’s someone enjoying the river even today.”
The Poudre River Whitewater Park, just north of Old Town (the parking lot is located on E. Vine Drive just east of Pou-dre Pet and Feed), is open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. The area is well lit, and lights will glow on the bridge at night. It is free and open to the public.