Allure of Whitewater: a conversation with Andy Neinas Outfitter and Troublemaker
Echo Canyon River Rafting is a local and tourist hot spot. With features that include the Royal Gorge and raging white waters, it is a great place to get in touch with your wild side. Echo has more to offer than just rafting. Adrenaline junkies will surely love this place, and you regular Joe’s can have a good time too while riding horses, zip-lining, or catching a bite to eat at the 8mile bar and grill. With 27 years of experience on the Arkansas River, Andy Neinas became my go to guy. Andy is the owner of Echo Canyon River Rafting whose passion for rafting is contagious.
I’d like to start off by asking what is your job title?
Andy Neinas: It’s so funny you should ask, because I’ve never believed in titles. I have an answer for you: Troublemaker. That’s my preferred title, I’ve been handing it out for a long, long time. … I do own the company, but I am very happy to say I do not put a title on my business card. Frankly, titles are not needed if you are capable of doing the job; people know it and they come to you to have questions answered.
So, what exactly do you do at Echo?
Andy: We’re in the tourism industry. I sell a product, okay? I sell fun and memories. Yes, I know it’s a raft trip, but really, it’s a little bit different than that as far as what we really provide the consumer, the visitor. So, ya know, there are certain times of the year where we’re very focused on marketing and advertising, putting our campaign together as we head into the new season. I volunteer extensively through the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, I spend a lot of time on that; I manage the public relations program for the outfitters association. I sit on several tourism boards, so a lot of volunteering; doing what I consider to be the common good for, not just rafting, but again, tourism as a whole…
P: You seem passionate about tourism, what got you interested in it?
Andy: This is my 27th season on the Arkansas [River]… I grew up around water, I have always been passionate about Colorado and just really started to get into it in many different ways over time and next thing you know I just found myself in the rafting industry… but, again, it’s the tourism industry… There’s this local aspect, but then there’s the tourism aspect because, of course, a huge percentage of our visitors are from out of state. They’re coming to Colorado to experience where we live… we live in a beautiful part of the country…
What parts of the river would you say are easier or harder?
Andy: … The Royal Gorge really is the ultimate white water in the state of Colorado, hands down. It’s consistently the most exciting, its fantastic scenery and its world class white water… absolutely fantastic… Bighorn Sheep Canyon is the section immediately above the Royal Gorge, it’s what we call family class white water so it’s appropriate for first time floaters, people travelling with children… We’re best known for the Royal Gorge. Bighorn Sheep Canyon is the most popular experience we offer.
P: What can you tell me about the different difficulty levels?
A.N.: … Class one is literally flat water. Class two is basically moving water. Class three is moving water that requires navigation. So it’s the broadest definition. You could argue that everything is class three. But class four is moving water that requires navigation, length and continuous moves challenging drops, etc., etc. Class five would be considered the limited navigability. So family class white water really is in that class three range, it’s not necessarily class one. … And then when you get into the class three, four and five, like the Royal Gorge, that’s where you start to see those big drops, big hits, things along those lines. So that’s why I tend to use terminology like family class white water and adventure class white water. …Class 6 is considered un-runnable.
P: What does one need to do to prepare for river rafting?
Andy: You should ask good questions and you should be darn sure you’re getting good answers… As you’re having a dialogue with that person, hopefully they are asking you questions like how many are in your party, what’s the age of the youngest participant, are there any medical conditions that we need to be aware of? We accommodate special populations here with regular occasion. Just because we have an individual who is wheel chair bound doesn’t mean we can’t take them rafting; we most certainly can. But we need to have that conversation to make sure we are providing the right experience…
P: If I wanted to go rafting, how many people do I need to bring?
Andy: One. Quite honestly one, we don’t get a lot of singles… Any number is appropriate. We can put 6 or 7 guests on a raft, so if there’s 2 or 3 of you odds are there’s going to be other guests with you and that actually is a lot of fun, you get to meet unique people.
P: Assuming someone gets tired of rafting, what other activities can they do at Echo?
Andy: I don’t wanna come off as cocky, but we have the nicest white water rafting facility probably in the western U.S. … The 8mile bar and grill is available here on site, we also have the Echo Canyon campground that is immediately across the road. Also, we have full hookups for RV’s, pit camping, and cabins. We then have a plethora of other activities and package trips that we run, zip-lining, horseback riding, visits to the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park…
P: Does someone have to be in shape to go rafting?
Andy: We battle the misnomer that we’re an adventure class activity. Sure, we have that, yeah you betcha. But most of what we do is, again, moms, dads, kids, first-time floaters. It’s about scenic beauty and some fun white water along the way. You don’t have to be a super athlete to enjoy a river trip. That’s why Bighorn Sheep Canyon is our most popular section, because that’s what the general public tends to gravitate towards.
P: What is the Battle of the Bighorn?
Andy: Sunday July 7th of this year, we will be running another Battle of the Bighorn event that we run in conjunction with the non-profit Fremont Adventure Recreation. Half of the proceeds from Battle of the Bighorn go to Fremont Recreation, Echo Canyon makes no money on this trip at all… This is a really cool, very silly team event. We need teams of 6 and what we are going to do is we are going to race through bighorn sheep canyon, but this isn’t a typical race. … We start with the bucket toss, that determines who gets to go first, whether you get a 6-inch barrel pump or a one minute head-start. There’s then the puzzle memory test, we’re going to give everyone a puzzle that you will be allowed to look at until we start the event; we’ll come back to that later. Teams are then required to inflate the rafts, it’s grueling. They have to carry the boats up the stairs, up around the corner, back down the stairs before they launch. If they head down to Five Points we are going to drop a watermelon that they have to retrieve. That watermelon is very, very important, they have to keep that with them. There’s an event a little further down called the Neoprene Squeeze… we actually have a stock tank filled with ice and wetsuits and one member from your team must put on a wetsuit that’s been sitting there in ice water for the last hour. They then have to turn around and paddle backwards through two real, but pretty gentle rapids. There’s then the helmet brigade, they then have to paddle with their T-grips only. … Then they storm the beachhead on our private landing… there’s a quarter-mile run they have to make, where at the top of the hill, they are going to be handed the puzzle pieces… they have to bring it back down and they have to reassemble the puzzle. By the way, everything they are doing along the way, they have to take their watermelon with them; the watermelon travels with them the entire way. This is a timed event, there are penalties for missing activities along the way. … But it’s not just about the most gung-ho physically athletic team, it’s very cerebral. So that levels the playing curve. … Then we have an after party back at the 8mile bar and grill afterwards.
P: What is one of your most memorable experiences while rafting?
Andy: That’s a tough question, because I can honestly say the world comes to us. … People come from all over the world to raft the Arkansas. So there’s just so many really neat and exciting people that we’ve met through the years. But most recently… we just had about a dozen ladies here from the American widows group, basically they were all the wives of fallen military men. It was our pleasure to host them and they had a great time, they were a lot of fun. It was a very diverse, eclectic group of people, group of ladies. They were just really neat to be around. … We have kind of neat and unique things happening here every day.
P: You would say the beginning of the summer season would be the ideal season for rafting?
Andy: I really would, simply because you’re local. It’s so easy for people to come down here, you might as well come when the water is at its best. I mean, we in Colorado are snobs when it comes to skiing, I can’t be bothered to hit the slopes unless there is six inches of fresh out there on the hill. So it’s the same way with rafting, ya know… There is an optimal rafting season for flows, and that’s typically in the month of June.
P: Finally I want to ask you… Colorado has been in a drought a few years now. How is that affecting rafting?
Andy: Well, it certainly was a really challenge for us last year, and will continue to be a bit of a challenge for us this year. But we are so fortunate to have seen these late season snows, they have totally transformed our year… We also have something called the Voluntary Flow Management Program, VFMP for short. The VFMP will have 10,000 acre feet, which is kind of how you measure volume in that quantity. 10,000 acre feet of water will be available through Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the Arkansas [River]. And that’s what we will use from July 1st though August 15th to ensure enjoyable flows for rafting. …The drought has been extraordinary and it has had a significant impact and if we wouldn’t have seen these late season snows we wouldn’t have the volume of water to have the VFMP in place. So we are very fortunate that we have that program and that’s what’s going to make a long season possible on the Arkansas this year.
Interview by Vera Coleman
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