The canoe rounds the bend in the Boise River and there’s not a soul on the river, except, that is, a great blue heron wading the shoreline and a bald eagle flying overhead.
How can that be for a river that cuts through Idaho’s largest city and gets more than 300,000 floaters a year? It’s simple: In late winter and early spring, the 40-degree water temperature and 50- to 60-degree days keep fair-weather floaters huddled in coffee shops and canoes still hanging in garages.
Early spring is an excellent way to enjoy the Boise River without the hoopla of thousands of tubers, rafters, and paddlers that jam the river in summer. The river can be floated year-round and provides an excellent avenue for canoeists and kayakers to keep in tune during winter and early spring for the upcoming paddling season. Although flows can be one-third of what they are in the summer, the river's eddies, pools, and diversion drops provide good practice.
Some experienced paddlers actually hit the river weekly to keep in shape. Paddle boarders, too, can be seen working out on diversions in the river or at the Boise River Park’s artificial surf wave. In warmer months, there’s usually a line waiting to jump on the park wave, but not early in the season. As a Class I and Class II river, it's also good training ground for novice paddlers, too.
The 6-mile section of the Boise River from Barber Park to Ann Morrison Park can be done in a few hours, and paddlers dressed in insulating layers, splash jackets, and pants won’t even notice the colder weather. In fact, they’ll usually work up a sweat peeling in and out of eddies or doing practice ferries across the river. Still, it’s good to keep in mind that Boise’s weather can be bright and sunny and 70 degrees one day in the spring or a blustery 40 degrees, cloudy and maybe even spitting snow.
Another unique thing about an early float on the river is the abundance of wildlife, which is more easily seen because the leaves aren’t on the trees and brush yet. Keep an eye out for deer, wood ducks, and mallards lining the banks. Look out for mink sitting on rocks, or a muskrat swimming the entire width of the stream.
Here are some additional insider tips for floating the Boise River in the spring.
Keep an Eye on Flow
The best flow for the Boise River is 1,000 cfs, which is the normal summer-time irrigation flow. However, in the colder months, the river can be below 300 cfs.
Lower water means scraping bottom going over the three irrigation diversions along the way, avoiding rocks, and possibly pushing over shallow riffles. Canoeists need a good brace and control going over the diversions. Waterproof paddling shoes are also important, especially for getting out of the canoe and pushing over the shallow areas.
In years with low snowpack, the river can remain at lower flows during spring, which is good for paddlers and how 2015 is shaping up. However, in high snowpack years, the river may go as high as 1,500 to 6,000 cfs and even more, and floating should be avoided altogether, as it’s too high for safe navigation. High water and strong currents push boaters into brushy areas along the river’s banks, putting many paddlers in trouble. At high water, it’s also difficult to get out of the river in the event of a flip. So it's always a good idea to keep tabs on river flows while planning your excursion.
Do Your Homework on Diversions
All three diversions have the best runs slightly right of center, where most of the water is flowing; look for the V wave or chute. It’s also easy to portage the diversions on the right bank. There’s plenty of time to avoid them because of the noise of the rushing water.
Boaters should be prepared early in the float because the first diversion is only 0.8 miles from the launch at Barber Park. The second diversion is at about 1.2 miles, and the third is about 1.6 miles downstream.
From there, downstream floaters have to watch for the bridge abutments at the West ParkCenter, Broadway, and Capitol Street bridges. All can be avoided by lining up properly well upstream. With lower flows, the stream channels get a lot more narrow, so paddlers have to avoid brush and overhanging trees in tight curves where water pushes up against the bank.
How to Map Out the Essentials
Launch: The best launching area is Barber Park, which is located on the south side of the river off Eckert Road. In the off-season there is no parking fee at the county park, another advantage of paddling in the off season.
Take Out: Ann Morrison Park is the best get off the river. There’s plenty of parking. The park is located off Americana Boulevard in Boise. Don’t go past the park because there’s a gnarly irrigation diversion that is dangerous.
Make It a Lunch Float: Paddlers can stop for lunch at several places along the way. The first stop is Bown Crossing, with a tavern, pizza place, and a burger and fries joint are located. The next best spot is just before Broadway Bridge, where a brew pub is located on the north bank.
Staying In One Spot: The Boise River Park, at 3900 W. Pleasanton Ave., provides a good place for a whitewater workout thanks to its the artificial wave. However, because of construction of the next phase of the park, parking has been moved to the former Bob Rice Ford location off Main Street. Boaters have a slight carry to the wave.