FORT COLLINS – Ryan Barwick has 10 really flighty employees.
They’re not always where they’re supposed to be and sometimes take off for hours.
And don’t get him started on when they refuse to come down from the trees.
Since 1994, Rocky Mountain Adventures – the Fort Collins rafting company Barwick purchased eight years ago – has employed around a dozen pigeons each year.
The unlikely answer to a pre-digital age problem, homing pigeons allowed the rafting, rental and adventure guide business to get rolls of 35mm film down the Cache la Poudre River during its summer raft trips.
“It was pretty ingenious back in the day,” Barwick said from behind the company’s main store last week.
After taking mid-trip rafting pictures, the company’s photographers would slip the film into the pigeons’ custom backpacks and send them home – down the winding river bends and back to their coop at Rocky Mountain Adventures.
From there, the film would be developed and displayed for customers to buy before their river-soaked life jackets had even dried.
At the company’s store, nestled among a line of multi-colored kayaks and rows of wood benches where raft guides give their safety talks, the pigeons live in a forest green coop.
More than 20 years have come and gone since the inception of this pigeon delivery system. Cameras are digital now. Cell service is better. Slim SD cards have replaced bulky film rolls.
But Rocky Mountain Adventures pigeons are still as gainfully employed as ever. And signs of them sprinkle the woodsy shop.
Tiny, custom pigeon backpacks dangle from a sale rack in front of the store’s cash register. Barwick said he sells about 10 a year to fans of the program and pigeon owners across the country.
And a cartoon pigeon decked in an aviator hat with a Superman-esque “P’’ stretched across its puffed chest adorns the wall where rafters can peruse their pictures.
Below it, bannered text reads “Pigeon Express.” Above it: “Fastest Delivery In the West.”
“You know, with technology these days, as advanced as it is, birds aren’t necessary,” Barwick said. “But it’s a cool part of our history ... and, you know, makes us unique a little bit.”
Rocky Mountain Adventures was founded in 1993 and, within one year, its then-owner David Costlow ran into the photo dilemma.
“You know, up in the canyon, there’s no Internet, there’s no cell service – back then, especially,” Barwick said. That, coupled with the fact that 35mm film took a while to develop, “there just wasn’t enough time,” he said.
“I don’t know how, but pretty creatively he stumbled upon homing pigeons,” Barwick added.
Costlow bought some pigeons, came up with the idea for their custom backpacks and started training them to fly home to their little coop northeast of the canyon. He’d drive as far as Nebraska, Wyoming and Kansas, release the pigeons, then race them back to Fort Collins, Barwick said.
“They’d beat him every single time,” Barwick added with a laugh.
Now, Barwick said the company has between nine and 14 pigeons each year. This summer, there are 10, including two newborn pigeons.
Rocky Mountain Adventures takes rafters on about three trips per day up the Poudre, Barwick said, with half- and full-day trips ranging from $60 to $115 per person. Each pigeon goes on no more than two trips in a day.
Photos from the trips can be purchased from $7 for a single, printed photo and up to $50 for a USB full of the entire trip’s pictures.
During the day, when there are no raft trips going on, the coop door is left open for them to come and go as they please. In the winter, they’re kept warm with coop heaters.
“They have a pretty good life,” Barwick said.
On a recent July morning, as the day’s first trip started and rafters readied to go up the Poudre, company photographer Krista Eberhardt plucked two pigeons from the coop.
One by one, she nimbly wrestled each one into its tiny backpack and then into their carrier.
After going up the canyon, catching the rafters from a lookout point and taking pictures, she headed back to her car, slipped an SD card in each pigeon’s backpack and released them into the air like doves at a spring wedding.
Barwick, looking on, climbed into his truck and headed back toward town. It would take him 30 minutes, but the pigeons could get back in 15 or 20, he said.
Driving down the canyon, Barwick said the pigeons can sometimes get distracted or take their time. Other times, the trees above the rafting and rental shop look like a much better perch than the coop.
“Hey guys,” he said back at Rocky Mountain Adventures, opening the coop door and peeking at its perches. “Anybody back?”
“Negative,” he said, scanning the flock. That trip’s carriers were going to take their time.
But it’s OK. That’s what backup SD cards are for, Barwick said.
Because while it may not be 100 percent functional, it’s all part of the fun.