For the Love of Water

Article by Scott Condon // The Aspen Times

At first blush it might seem ironic that one of the biggest attractions in the mountainous terrain surrounding Basalt is a body of water. But Ruedi Reservoir has been a true oasis for 50 years. The reservoir was constructed in 1968 as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project to compensate for water being diverted to the Front Range. Water politics aside, the 1,000-acre reservoir’s biggest contribution has been as a recreation mecca for water lovers — boaters of all types, sailors, water skiers, jet skiers, wake surfers, anglers, paddleboarders and, for those brave enough to dip into the snowmelt-fed water, swimmers. “When people get into Ruedi, they really get into it,” said Bruce Gabow, a longtime resident of the lower Fryingpan Valley and a member of the Aspen Yacht Club for nearly 40 years. Back in 1980, there were only eight or nine slips for sailboats and the fee was $50, he recalled. “It was mostly old ski instructors, originally,” he said. Now there are 50 slips and the cost is about $1,000. The membership has grown to about 75, including dedicated sailors and people who just like hanging on their boats in the bay. “Some people spend every day up there, every day they can,” Gabow said.

The selling points of Ruedi are many and varied. “It’s gorgeous, for one,” said Mark Asher, an Aspenite who camps on the shores of Ruedi just about every weekend with good weather during summers. The lower Fryingpan canyon is somewhat boxed in, especially the last few miles before the dam. Then the valley opens up 13 miles east of Basalt and the long, narrow reservoir comes into view. Thick evergreen forests come down to the red rock lining the blue waters. The snow-capped Continental Divide looms in the background creating one of the most stunning vistas in the region. On Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, a parade of boats make their way up the valley to the Ruedi marina. “More so than anything, it’s proximity that makes it so popular,” Asher noted. Ruedi is the only major reservoir in the Roaring Fork Valley, so for people who love water sports, it’s a prime destination.



A survey conducted for the Roaring Fork Conservancy in 2014 as part of an economic study showed that 57 percent of individuals at the Ruedi marina undertook motorized boating while 23 percent were there for non-motorized boating. In addition, 23 percent participated in water sports such as water skiing or jet skiing, 24 percent were fishing from shore and 22 percent were fishing from a boat. (Respondents could list multiple activities.) Half of the respondents said they camp when they visit Ruedi. For many people, camping is a vital ingredient in the Ruedi experience. There are four U.S. Forest Service campgrounds clustered around the main boat ramp. It’s first come, first served at 80-plus sites. “They fill up really quick,” Asher said. He’s part of a group that varies from 10 to 15 people any given weekend, usually including his two boys. Somebody from the group typically ventures up there on Thursday nights to claim camp spaces. Some folks sleep on their boats but enjoy dinner and a few beverages around the campfire with the group.

Asher started camping at Ruedi about 10 years ago. While hanging out with friends and family he caught the itch to get a boat. “We’d be on the beach, look out on the water and say ‘Why aren’t we out there?’” he said. He and a friend bought a boat together about three years ago. “Now that we’ve got the boat we’re out there every weekend,” he said. His niece Shannon Asher fell in love with the Ruedi scene when she moved west from Iowa a couple of summer ago. “I feel like a kid at summer camp,” she said. When she was initially introduced to Ruedi, it was with Mark and a few of his friends. She started bringing her own friends up with her every weekend and building a summer ritual. There’s a big, happy family at Ruedi because so many of the same folks return each weekend. “There’s so many characters up there,” she said. That includes a woman known as The Queen of Ruedi, who doesn’t have a boat of her own but is so well-known she has no trouble hitching a lift.

A side benefit of a weekend at Ruedi is that there is no cell service. “You totally get off the grid,” Shannon said. The Ashers and their crew are particularly enamored with wakesurfing. A person on a surfboard gets towed from the boat by rope. Once the boat’s wake grows big enough and the surfer is properly positioned, they let go of the rope and surf along hands-free, Shannon said. The U.S. Forest Service boat ramp and campgrounds typically open for the season in early May. All visiting watercraft are inspected for zebra mussels and other invasive species that have infiltrated western U.S. waterways. There were 5,500 total boat inspections at Ruedi Reservoir last summer, with 159 the highest single day, according to Mark Fuller, who is bowing out this year as executive director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority. He said the steady flows from the reservoir have created an ecosystem unlike those found elsewhere in the Roaring Fork River basin. The presence of the reservoir prevents flooding flows during the spring runoff, so the vegetation is better established along the lower Fryingpan than it is on stretches of the Roaring Fork and Crystal Rivers, he said. The reservoir, of course, also helps create the ideal conditions for rainbow, brook and brown trout on the lower river. That, in turn, draws bald eagles, osprey and other raptors that thrive on the biomass.

Human visits to the reservoir spike during June, July and August. Gabow noted that Ruedi used to attract swarms of windsurfers, but that’s died out. By his reckoning, stand-up paddleboarding has become the fastest growing undertaking at the reservoir. The water level usually peaks around July 4. While the water level is fairly consistent during the summers, surface conditions can be notoriously brutal. Smooth water can transform to monster waves in five minutes, Gabow said. Sailors from the Aspen Yacht Club keep a wary eye out in late morning for changing conditions. “The big quote is if you can sail Ruedi, you can sail anywhere in the world,” he said. The Gold Medal waters of the lower Fryingpan River will always overshadow fishing on Ruedi Reservoir. Roaring Fork Conservancy’s economic study showed 62 percent of anglers surveyed on the lower river were from Colorado but outside the Roaring Fork Valley while 18 percent were from out of state. The remaining 20 percent were local residents. Ruedi fishing has its fans. It’s got the reputation for harboring humongous lake trout that range from 18 to 30 pounds, said Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy and an avid fisherman. Some anglers use sonar and depth finders to seek the holes where the monster fish hang out. Once the lake trout reach a certain size, they only eat other fish, which is what makes them so big. “They’re kind of like mini-Great Whites out there,” Lofaro said. Despite the diversity of uses — from wakesurfing to canoeing and from camping to fishing — and the increasing numbers of visitors, the Ruedi faithful say there’s room for any everyone. The power boaters live in harmony with the sailors. “The lake is pretty big and even on the most crowded days, it’s not very crowded,” said Gabow.