A tale of two snowpacks: Spring flow and sales forecasts for Western U.S. paddlesports

Find out where river flows are looking good for the spring/summer paddlesports season and where sales are already on the rise.
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Like snowsports retailers relying on the white stuff for sales, paddlesports shops are also reliant on winter weather to hear their cash registers ring in the spring and summer. This year, with Mother Nature a tad divergent in her offerings, sales in some regions could surge while others dry up along with local rivers.

“February storms increased snowpack in the northern half of the West but didn’t provide much relief for the southern half,” said Sarah Maxwell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which recently issued its third water supply forecast for 2014 for the Western United States.

According to the report, east of the Continental Divide as well as parts of Washington, northern Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana are forecast to have near-normal or above-normal water supplies, spelling good news for retailers, while snowpack in southern and eastern Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are far below normal, which could result in lackluster sales.

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Although time is running out for snowpack recovery in drier areas, NWCC hydrologist Cara McCarthy isn’t ruling it out. “We might have another miracle,” she said, referring to previous seasons’ late-season snowfall. And she adds that February saw a dramatic recovery in the western Cascades of Washington.

“Snowpack in Northwest Oregon is about 80 to 100 percent of normal, but it gets weak pretty quickly as you move south,” said Dave Slover, owner of Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe, adding that the Rogue and Klamath rivers are at less than 30 percent of average. “Assuming we get near normal spring rain, we should be just fine in our area.”

He adds that snowpack indeed affects sales. “Low snow makes a short and early whitewater season and reduces whitewater kayak sales,” he said. “It also means lower reservoir levels and potential water rationing, creating negative media which makes people think boating will be subpar. But the plus side of dry, warm spring and fall seasons is that we do more shoulder season business with better weather.”

Farther south in California, retailers are bracing for a tougher season. “Our snowpack this year will, unfortunately, be the third consecutive year of below normal snowfall for us,” said Tom Moore, co-owner of Sierra South Paddlesports in Kernville who’s been on the Kern for 30 years through thick and thin. “This era rivals the historic low water years of the mid-'70s. We’re tourist-based and centered around water activities, so our season will be shorter.”

He adds that his retail store helps counter the effects of a down rafting season with tubing and stand-up paddleboarding, but that it’s still shaping up to be tough sales-wise. "You try to reduce wherever you can,” he said, adding that the Lower isn’t forecasted to have boatable flows all summer for the second year in a row. “Smaller boats will rule the day, and tubes will become a viable alternative as will supping on the river’s flat pools that normally wouldn’t be there."

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In the Rockies, things are looking better, said Colorado Kayak Supply web marketing managerBobby Kuepper. “Both the paddlesports and ski industries here are dependent on a healthy snowpack. The one difference is that you aren’t able to accurately predict if there will be a good ski season when you’re shopping for skis in the fall, yet you can tell what the paddling season is going to be like when you’re purchasing your boat in the spring.”

As of late March, he said, the Arkansas Valley snowpack is at 101 percent, and the state is at 116 percent, which should spell a solid season. “Consumers know this as well,” he added, “and so far aren’t hesitant to purchase whitewater boats and SUPs designed for river use. They know they’ll get their money’s worth out of their gear.”

On a national scale, many parts of the U.S. are experiencing similar seasons, including the Northeast and the Upper Midwest. In combination with growing paddlesports participation figures, it's expected to be a good overall year for the industry.

Too much snow can create problems, though, Kuepper said. “When a region has too much snow, the rivers often run at above average levels, making it difficult for recreational boaters to get out and enjoy the river,” he said. If the rivers are at flood stage, many boaters will turn to dry land sports.

“But right now, we’re preparing for a busy summer. We’ve already seen an increase in whitewater kayak and paddling accessory sales over last year.”

--Eugene Buchanan

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