Sun - March 6, 2005

Paddling on Wet Sand Again ... South Platte River near Fort Morgan

I decided to do more exploration of the South Platte River around Fort Morgan in eastern Colorado. The river flow looked quite promising: much higher than during my last trip two week ago. However, that time I had to do it without a shuttle support from Connie since she was out of town. So, the upstream-downstream paddling was my only option.
Cottonwood SWA Cottonwood SWA South Platte River below Balzak Bridge
I drove to Fort Morgan and then further east to Cottonwood State Wilderness Area at Cooper Bridge near Balzac (gauge station). It's a nice area with a clean off road parking on the river right shore. A narrow foot bridge over an old river arm leads to cottonwood grove. This place can be reached from I-76 or through highway 6 by driving to the little town of Hillrose and turning north in the main intersection there.
North Sterling Reservoir Inlet Dam
The river looked very braided and shallow from the bridge. I could also see a diversion dam less than 1 mile upstream.

I launched at the small pond just a few feet from my car and paddled towards the bridge. There was no connection to the river. I had to portage through dense bushes and walk further upstream along a high shore to find a place suitable for launching. Finally, I started to paddle upstream.

The river was shallow indeed and it took a lot of pushing through sandbars to reach the dam. I portaged the dam on the right shore: a convenient landing below the dam, less convenient place above to put in. That dam took a lot water from the river to the North Sterling Reservoir. The river above was somewhat deeper but much wider. Paddling was easier!
South Platte River above Balzak
There was a lot of cottonwood groves on shores and some fallen trees in the river. Then, it was a mile or so of more open and less scenic landscape but soon, cottonwoods returned back to the banks. Wind started to blow and became strong. Wind gusts were adding more challenge to paddle my Sisson Nucleus. Because of wind it was also more difficult to read shallow waters. After 3 hours of paddling I was getting tired, but I needed some sort of a landmark to turn around.

Finally, after 5.5 miles of paddling upstream making in average 2.2 mph I reached the highway 71 bridge. It definitely looked and felt as a good point to start paddling back. I didn't explore the bridge but launching should be possible there. However, there may be some State Wilderness Areas around providing a nicer access to the river.
South Platte River
After a short break I paddled downstream. Mostly against wind fighting some unpredictable gusts. Finding deep water channels was somewhat easier when going down the river.

There were a lot of geese and ducks on sandbars including a couple of lost plastic decoys. Two eagles were soaring high in the sky.

I spent some time circling around and trying to shoot a picture of that fallen cottonwood tree. Sisson is not a good stable platform for photography and I didn't have my Canon PowerShot in a waterproof housing. I ended up landing on a sandbar to take that shot ...
Beaver Creek
I returned back to the dam in a good spirit and looking for a little bit more of challenge. Obviously, I had recovered from my intense upstream workout. There was an overgrown, muddy looking channel starting below the dam without connection to the river. Hoping that it may lead me to my start at Cottonwood SWA, I decided to try that alternative route.

First surprise: the water filtered through the dam was crystal clear. There was a lot of green water vegetation but the bottom was sandy and solid. The channel was only a few inches deep. Nevertheless, it was possible to paddle with some pushing through more shallow spots. A lot of fallen trees but not blocking a passage.
Beaver Creek
I had to push through two beaver dams. The first one was the only place where I had to stop and get out of my kayak. I saw more dams closing small ponds on my right. These structures were much nicer than human built diversion dams.

That little stream turned to be the nicest part of my entire trip. Unfortunately, the stream returned back to the river not far away downstream from the North Sterling dam. I was back on the shallow river pushing through sandbars to reach my take out. That time I didn't portage to the local pond but carried the kayak around it and then over a foot bridge to the parking lot: ~300 yards.

It seems that the South Platte has often enough water for paddling above the North Sterling Inlet Dam. If you are ready to drag or push your boat through shallows and sandbars below the dam, the Cottonwood SWA offers a nice spot for put in or take out. Of course, it is necessary to check flow data. Two days after my trip the flow dropped down about 50%.

GPS trip odometer: 11.2 miles, moving time 3:49h, stopping time 1:06h, moving speed 2.9 mph (2.2 mph upstream), max speed 7.9 mph max, 118 HRM.

River flow: Weldona 540 cfs, Ft Morgan 730 cfs, Cooper Bridge 300 cfs.

Posted at 08:36 PM    

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