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White-water rafting on the Arkansas River through Colorado's 1,250-foot-deep Royal Gorge. Photograph by Yellow Feather Photography

The Best Paddling Adventures in the West

Colorado and its neighbors may not have access to open water, but they're hotbeds for paddle sports of all kinds nonetheless.

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Colorado may not have open water, but the state and its neighbors are still hotbeds for paddle sports of all kinds. Whether you’re a rafting rookie or a SUP specialist, we’ll show you how—and where—to make a splash this summer.


Kayaking

Water: Colorado River, Loma Boat Launch SWA to Westwater Ranger Station
Location: Ruby and Horsethief canyons,
Colorado and Utah
Trip length: 2 days

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For Coloradans living in and around Grand Junction, the gentle 25-mile float down the Colorado River through Ruby and Horsethief canyons is an annual summertime pilgrimage. Local families depart from the easily accessible boat launch with slapdash flotillas composed of tent- and cooler-laden drift boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, rafts, and even giant inflatable swans. For those who journey from the Front Range to the Western Slope to experience the magic of the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado, inflatable kayaks (which you can rent for about $35 a day from Fruita’s Rimrock Adventures) are the only way to travel.

Sometimes called “duckies,” these open-topped kayaks are maneuverable and remarkably stable yet relatively lightweight—at least until you pack them with gear. And you will definitely have gear, because unless your craft has a motor, covering 25 miles of flat water in one day is unlikely. But that means you’ll have the happy opportunity to camp riverside for at least one night (although many groups stay longer). The Bureau of Land Management has 34 designated, permit-only, primitive campsites scattered along the riverbanks; spots are well marked with small wooden signs and can be reserved up to 60 days in advance.

Ruby Canyon
Ruby Canyon. Photograph by Ethan Welty / Aurora Photos

You’ll want to be on top of that reservation window—go to recreation.gov to get a permit—for two reasons. One, campsites get snapped up quickly once the river drops low enough—below about 5,000 cubic feet per second, usually starting in mid- to late July—to be safe for family trips. And two, you’ll want to secure one of the best locations to make camp. To be fair, there really aren’t any bad campsites; striking views of red-rock cliffs and verdant river bottoms make up for any shortcomings, such as minimal shade. There are, however, a few prizes: Mee Corner (for its shade, river views, and seclusion); Mee 1 (for its elevated perspective, access to short hiking trails, and flat shaded area under a cottonwood); and Black Rocks 1, 4, and 5 (all of which have sandy beaches, plenty of room for larger groups, and views of the river). The Black Rocks section of the canyon—which starts about 16 miles from the Loma boat launch—offers an otherworldly setting. Large black boulders rise up from the banks and emerge unexpectedly from the water, causing some of the very few “rapids” you’ll encounter during the trip. Geologists call this distinctive rock Vishnu schist and date its birth to 1.7 billion years ago.

Ancient rock formations aren’t the only eye-catching beauties along the waterway. Bald eagles reside in the canyons; their nests are visible from below, and their distinctive calls are audible throughout the day. Great blue herons, with their long, spindly legs and two-toned wings, stand motionless in the river’s shallow bends. Alert boaters can often spot wild turkeys, mule deer, and bighorn sheep on the banks.

Perhaps the best thing about this two-day jaunt, however, is that you don’t have to be constantly watchful. In the latter half of the summer and throughout the fall, Ruby-Horsethief exudes a laid-back, vacationlike vibe. You can easily set your paddle down, put your feet up, crack open a cold beverage, and close your eyes. Except for possibly drifting into the bank, you don’t have to worry about much—and that’s exactly how a getaway like this should be.

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Trip Tips

If You Go
Closest Town: Fruita
Where To Stay: Balanced Rock Inn
Where To Eat: The Hot Tomato Pizzeria; Aspen Street Coffee, 970-858-8888
Local Outfitters: Rimrock Adventures

Browns Canyon
Browns Canyon. Photograph by John Fielder

If You Like To Kayak, You’ll Also Love…

1. Below Filter Plant to Picnic Rock
Cache la Poudre River, Colorado

This 2.4-mile section of Class II and III river qualifies as the easy beginner run on the Poudre just outside Fort Collins. With only two Class III rapids to negotiate, paddlers will mostly find themselves navigating swiftly moving Class II water. You could sign up for a guided duckie trip (Mountain Whitewater Descents offers a half-day option), but if you’re comfortable in a boat, you can simply rent kayaks and go.

2. Rancho del Rio to State Bridge
Upper Colorado River, Colorado

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Flowing just southwest of Kremmling, the Upper Colorado is a river rat’s paradise. The Pumphouse Recreation Area in particular is a well-known put-in for intermediate and advanced rafters and kayakers; however, those looking for a few less toothy miles to run in an inflatable kayak should try starting at Rancho del Rio and floating the four miles to State Bridge. The water rarely churns with more force than a Class II, so families can feel comfortable taking the kids. Duckie rentals are available at the Colorado River Center at Rancho del Rio.

3. Lower Browns Canyon
Arkansas River, Colorado

Unlike the flat water you’ll find on the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado, Lower Browns Canyon (near Buena Vista) is filled with splashy Class II-plus roils that are navigable in a duckie. A four-hour trip ($75 per person) led by a Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center guide will help you make it downcanyon safely so you can enjoy one of the country’s newest national monuments.


Local Gear

Long Haul Folding Kayaks

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Based in Cedaredge, this 18-year-old company specializes in kayaks that break down to fit in a carrier no larger than a golf bag. That’s a relief for those who don’t have garages big enough for plastic boats. In 2016, the company debuted the York Folding Canoe ($4,600), a durable boat with plenty of storage space that will still tuck inside the trunk of your car.

Bighorn Sheep Canyon
American Adventure Expeditions takes rafters through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Photograph by Yellow Feather Photography

White-Water Rafting

Water: Arkansas River
Location: Bighorn Sheep Canyon and Royal Gorge, Colorado
Trip length: 2 days

There are plenty of occasions to get a paddle wet sans guide, but rafting through Class III and IV rapids probably isn’t one of those times. And, truthfully, having someone who knows not only the river’s secrets but also area landmarks, local lore, and the nearest spot to score an après-float sixer can elevate your experience. Another way to upgrade your rafting trip? Make it an overnight excursion with an outfit like Cañon City’s American Adventure Expeditions.

Many Colorado guiding services offer multiday white-water quests; however, American Adventure’s overnight setup ($300 per person)—including its two-day itinerary and riverside location—is unsurpassed. First, the 31-year-old company’s Cañon City outpost has quick access to two amazing stretches of the Arkansas River, neither of which is Browns Canyon, the most heavily rafted section of river in the state. Instead, Cañon City guides ply Bighorn Sheep Canyon, a splashy introduction to (or refresher on) white-water action, on day one for overnight guests. Boaters board an old prison bus for the 13-mile drive to the upcanyon put-in. Then Class II and III rapids bounce the six-man rafts through a high-desert canyon, the walls of which are frequented by its namesake curly horned herbivores. For rafting newbies or those who are out of practice, this lenient stretch of water allows paddlers to get a feel for the activity, learn good form, and adopt a comfortable position along the way. Guides, such as the amiable Jake Bothe, will often explain—usually in a laid-back, SoCal manner—how to paddle and why synchronized strokes are so important. They’ll also get in a few good-natured ribbings (“Hey, Slippery Butt!”) if you happen to lose your balance and take a dip in the river.

At the end of the first day, the rafts bob out of the canyon and slide onto a half-moon beach on American Adventure’s property. It’s a short walk to clean locker rooms with hot showers, a riverside patio for an adult beverage (it’s BYOB, but Bothe can direct you to the nearby liquor store), and a covered dining area for a cooked-in-front-of-you meal. There’s also a fire pit to cozy up next to before your party retreats to nearby sleeping-pad-equipped tents to rest up for the next day.

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Royal Gorge Bridge
Royal Gorge Bridge. Photograph by American Adventure Expeditions

Because American Adventure’s property is adjacent to the river, it can often get its boats into the Royal Gorge before other area guiding services. Which means that after devouring an open-air breakfast of eggs, fruit, and coffee, you’ll enjoy having one of the country’s best rafting runs all to yourself. As your guide shoves away from the beach and the current pulls you into the 1,250-foot-deep gorge, you’ll understand why Bothe was harping on your synchronized paddling skills: You’re not in Bighorn Sheep Canyon anymore. The gorge has big drops, huge waves, narrow chutes, and sheer walls that boats can bounce off of or begin to climb up before they flip over. Through all of the named rapids—Sunshine Falls, Wall Slammer, Corkscrew, the Narrows, Boat Eater—everyone must paddle, and paddle together (unless you find “Ol’ Slippery Butt” to be a term of endearment).

The worst thing about day two’s rafting run is that it’s too short. The moment you stop being able to hear your own heart pounding is the exact moment you want to start all over again. Fortunately, that disappointment can be tempered by a cold beer, warm sun, and the aroma of hamburgers grilling on American Adventure Expeditions’ river-adjacent patio.

Trip Tips

If You Go
Closest Town: Cañon City
Where To Stay: Royal Gorge Cabins
Where To Eat: Bunk House Burgers
Local Outfitters: American Adventure Expeditions; Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Yampa River
Yampa River. Photograph courtesy of O.A.R.S.

If You Like to White-Water Raft, You’ll Also Love…

1. Westwater Canyon
Colorado River, Utah

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Because the Colorado River churns furiously through this spectacular canyon, outfitters like Moab’s Sheri Griffith Expeditions often use oar boats—in which only the guide can maneuver the raft—so guests can hold tight through the Class III and IV rapids.

2. Poudre Canyon
Cache la Poudre River, Colorado

The rousing white water that courses through Poudre Canyon, just outside Fort Collins, rarely gets the attention lavished upon other Colorado rivers. That’s a shame because the Class II, III, and IV rapids here are just as exhilarating as any you’ll find on the Western Slope. Sign up with Mountain Whitewater Descents for the full-day Mishawaka trip and experience the seldom-paddled Lower Rustic section plus the Plunge, an action-packed ribbon of river that’s best run in June when the water is high and fast.

3. Yampa River
Colorado and Utah

A multiday rafting trip on one of the country’s last free-flowing rivers should be a bucket-list experience for every Coloradan. Hitch a ride with O.A.R.S. for rousing Class III and IV white water; views of Dinosaur National Monument; hikes to Fremont Indian artwork; and glimpses of geological marvels like the Grand Overhang, where a towering cliff arcs above the river. This route is only open in the late spring and early summer because of low late-summer flows, which means trips fill up quickly.

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Local Gear

Alpacka Raft

Brand new for 2017, the Gnarwhal (starting at $1,500) is a white-water-specific packraft made in Mancos. The new high-volume stern serves a paddler well in any situation but really demonstrates its abilities in high water. The Gnarwhal is designed for stability and durability, but it’s also light enough to be carried for extended distances into the wilderness.

Green River Graham
Canoeists paddle through Canyonlands National Park on the Green River. Photograph by Tim Grams

Canoeing

Water: Green River, Mineral Bottom to Spanish Bottom
Location: Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Trip Length: 4 to 5 days

Paddling 52 miles in a 16-foot, two-person canoe presents a few challenges—like where to stash the portable toilet and how not to get your camera wet. You’ll want to solve these packing quandaries (and others) before shoving off from the Mineral Bottom boat launch, because leaving essentials behind isn’t an option. And, yes, a camera is required equipment on a four-day journey that takes you through one of the country’s most remote and picturesque landscapes: Canyonlands National Park.

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Although the navigating—and campsite-finding, tent-pitching, and cooking—is up to you after setting sail, using an outfitter, like Moab’s Tag-A-Long Expeditions, to assist you with information about any required permits, rental gear (about $175 for four days for two people, depending on what you need), and shuttles (about $375 for two) is the most hassle-free way to get on and off the water. Once you’re on the river, though, logistics and stress melt away.

After all, it’s seldom that any of us get to Tom-and-Huck it down a river, much less a river like the Green. A tributary of the Colorado River that begins in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the 730-mile-long waterway winds through some of the West’s most spectacular red-rock chasms, including the isolated Stillwater Canyon just south of the Mineral Bottom put-in.

Depending on the time of year, the Green can flow through this section high and swift (spring) or low and slow (autumn), but selecting either mid-April through May or September through October will help you avoid sweltering summer temps. No matter when you go, there will be some paddling to do. While the currents in this mostly flat stretch will take you south, gusty winds, shallow spots, mid-river islands, and small rapids will require human power to negotiate. But employing those underused triceps isn’t too taxing, especially since the surrounding scenery—towering buttes, delicate spires, and gravity-defying arches, all set against a cerulean sky—will take your mind off your burning muscles.

Green River campsite
Campsite along the Green River. Photograph by Celin Serbo

Scoring a prime campsite on one of the Green’s beachlike sandbars is another good way to get some rest after paddling 15-some miles (daily mileage depends on river flows and the length of trip you’ve planned). Spots to make camp aren’t designated—this is serious backcountry—so you’ll have to be on the lookout for dry shoreline that’s sheltered from late-day squalls. Choosing a patch of sand is best done by 2 p.m. as strong afternoon headwinds often encourage boaters to snap up the most desirable locations just after lunch.

Speaking of caloric intake, you’ll have to bring everything you need, including plenty of water and ice, with you. A substantial amount of both will fit into a 30-inch ice chest, which sits in the center of the canoe. Tuck your nonperishables, plus other things you’d rather keep dry, in plastic bins with lids or doubled-up garbage bags.

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If you lose something overboard during your voyage, pray it’s not vital. There is zero cell service in the canyon—which, if you haven’t lost your only pair of eyeglasses, is glorious. Equally wonderful is the chance to dangle your feet in refreshing river water; see stars you never knew existed in an impossibly dark sky; hunt for long-abandoned cliff dwellings; catch a catfish with leftover bratwurst (it works!); and, cowboy coffee in hand, watch as the rising sun dances on the river and sets fire to the soaring walls all around you.

Trip Tips

If You Go
Closest Town: Moab
Where To Stay: The Gonzo Inn
Where To Eat: Twisted Sistas’ Cafe
Local Outfitters: Tag-A-Long Expeditions; Tex’s Riverways

North Platte Rive
North Platte River. Photograph by Marek Uliasz / Alamy Stock Photos

If You Like To Canoe, You’ll Also Love…

1. Yampa River
Colorado

Centennial Canoe Outfitters offers a three-day guided canoe trip ($389) along 34 miles of the Yampa River near Craig. During the day, you’ll glide by open meadows teeming with wildlife and through high-walled canyons dotted with nesting eagles. At night, you’ll camp along this hypnotic waterway while guides prepare barbecue ribs, salad, and apple pie.

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2. Gunnison River
Escalante Canyon Bridge to Bridgeport, Colorado

This 15-mile section of the Gunny, not far from Delta, makes for a lovely daytrip for DIY boaters. The river is mostly docile, winding through fruit orchards and canyon bottoms. Take care to notice the small boulder dam in the orchards section; there is a visible chute on river left. You’ll take out at Bridgeport Road. If you’re not into a solo journey, Centennial Canoe runs trips on the Gunnison.

3. North Platte River
Wyoming

The pretty hamlet of Saratoga, Wyoming, known mostly for its hot springs, straddles the North Platte River, an ideal-for-canoeing stream located 3.5 hours from Denver. For a late-summer float, rent a canoe from Hack’s Tackle & Outfitters, put in right behind the shop, and drift 10.3 miles down to Pick Bridge. Along the way, revel in views of large bluffs and swaying cottonwoods and keep an eye out for blue herons, deer, antelope, and bald eagles. Hack’s Tackle will run a shuttle for you from Pick Bridge for about $35.


Local Gear

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Colorado Canoe Company

Denverite Bill McDonald has been enthralled with wood boats since he was a kid. Today, his western red cedar boats—particularly the 14-foot canoe ($3,998)—are captivating a new generation of paddlers. So much so, in fact, that New Belgium is using a Colorado Canoe Company boat on the new label for its bohemian-style Pilsner.

SUPing on Chapman Reservoir
Chapman Reservoir is just one of many lakes in the Flat Tops Wilderness perfect for SUPing. Photograph by David Clifford

Stand-Up Paddle-Boarding

Water: Multiple reservoirs and lakes
Location: Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado
Trip Length: 2 to 3 days

Most people learning to stand-up paddleboard are chiefly concerned with getting vertical. But the drive to stabilize often means missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of the sport: paddling to the middle of a lake, lying faceup on the board, and losing track of time while staring into a big blue sky.

You could try this horizontal maneuver at any number of spots in the metro area (we like Boulder Reservoir, Chatfield Reservoir, and Cherry Creek Reservoir), but for a weekend full of fun in the water, head three hours west to the Flat Tops Wilderness. This 235,214-acre refuge is where the notion of wilderness was first applied to public land—and it’s little wonder why. Volcanic flat-topped cliffs melt into lush subalpine forests that—to the delight of SUPers—are dotted with more than 110 lakes and ponds, many of them accessible by your average SUV.

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Even those unfamiliar with the Flat Tops have likely heard of Trappers Lake, the second-largest naturally occurring body of water in the state. For sheer beauty, it’s difficult to beat paddling around the edges of this 1.5-mile-long, half-mile-wide jewel. As you glide along, peer into the clear water to see cutthroat trout; gaze over the burn areas of the Big Fish and Lost Lakes fires; and consider a hike up to Little Trappers Lake. Because Trappers Lake is well known and because there’s a charming cabin resort nearby (Trappers Lake Lodge & Resort), you will share the lake with others. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, you should seek out similar SUP experiences at Sheriff Reservoir, Yamcolo Reservoir, Upper Stillwater Reservoir, and Stillwater Reservoir.

If you’re into a more private paddling experience, the northeastern section of the Flat Tops—the most easily accessible part from the Front Range—provides that, too. All along County Road 8, from just outside Yampa until you make a left onto CR 8A toward Trappers Lake, you’ll find splinter roads, some of which lead to less-visited lakes. The signage in the area is decent, but having an atlas will come in handy. For a two- or three-day adventure, seek out Crosho Lake, Chapman Reservoir, and Vaughan Lake, all of which you can drive right up to. If you’re lucky enough to be able to shoulder your board (some inflatables fold up into tidy backpacks), take the easy one-mile trail from Crosho Lake to Allen Basin Reservoir. At this out-of-the-way treasure, you’ll be the only SUPer in sight, which means no one will judge you when you put down your paddle, put your hands behind your head, and simply take in the view.

Trip Tips


Lessons Learned

Paddle sports aren’t quite as easy as they look. Acquire the skills necessary to have fun—and be safe—at the following places.

Location: Confluence Kayaks, Denver
SUP Instruction: Yes
Kayaking instruction: Yes
Canoeing instruction: No
Guided trips available: Yes

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Location: Alpine Quest Sports Edwards, Vail, and Glenwood Springs
SUP Instruction: Yes
Kayaking instruction: Yes
Canoeing instruction: No
Guided trips available: Yes

Location: Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, Buena Vista
SUP Instruction: Yes
Kayaking instruction: Yes
Canoeing instruction: No
Guided trips available: Yes

Location: Mountain Sports Kayak School, Steamboat Springs
SUP Instruction: Yes
Kayaking instruction: Yes
Canoeing instruction: Yes
Guided trips available: Yes

Location: Renaissance Adventure Guides, Denver
SUP Instruction: Yes
Kayaking instruction: Yes
Canoeing instruction: No
Guided trips available: No


Proper SUP Paddling Technique

5280 asked John Blackshire, a sponsored athlete with Steamboat Springs–based paddleboard maker Hala Gear and founder of the Colorado SUP Club, for a few tips on proper SUP techniques.

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The Grip

“Getting your grip right is really the most important thing. With one at the top of the paddle and the other on the shaft, your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.”

The Stance

“Beginners will want to straddle the center grab loop for the most stability. Feet should be hip-width apart, maybe with one foot slightly in front of the other. Knees should be slightly bent for lake SUPing; knees will be very bent for river SUPing. If you need to move your feet, you’ll want to do a little jump up and re-place your two feet simultaneously instead of ‘walking’ your feet into place.”

The Stroke

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“There are essentially five parts to the SUP stroke: the reach, the catch, the power phase, the release, and the recovery. To start paddling, you’ll want to reach as far forward as you can comfortably go, keeping your arms extended and very straight. During the catch—that’s when the paddle enters the water—you’ll want to ensure the entire blade enters into the water. There should be very little splashing. Then you’ll hinge at the hips, engage your core, and think about bringing yourself toward what you should consider to be a ‘stationary’ paddle. What that means is you’re not paddling with your arms; you’re using your entire body. Press down with your top hand, then pull with the bottom one. Once the paddle is slightly behind your feet, pull the blade fully out of the water. Relax your entire body; this helps create rhythm and gets you read for the next reach. Repeat.”


If You Go
Closest Towns: Yampa, Hayden, Steamboat Springs
Where To Stay: Wild Skies cabin
Where To Eat: Antlers Cafe & Bar (Yampa), 970-638-4555; Wild Goose Coffee at the Granary (Hayden)
Local Outfitters: The closest place to rent a stand-up paddleboard is in Steamboat Springs; try Mountain Sports Kayak

Twin Lakes
Twin Lakes. Image via shutterstock

If You Like to SUP, You’ll Also Love…

1. Lake McConaughy
Nebraska

The sandy beaches and clear waters of northwestern Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy—a 3.5-hour drive from Denver—not only provide SUPers with an oceanlike setting in middle America, but they also make for an effortless spot to car camp. That’s right: You can set up your tent right on the beach, no advanced permit required. Rent a SUP at Stetson’s Corner Store on the northeast part of the lake.

2. Twin Lakes
Colorado

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Tucked into a scenic valley just 20 miles from Leadville, Colorado’s largest glacial lakes make for a stunning day of paddling. Even well into the summer, the surrounding 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks still wear dustings of snow while you splash around in blue waters wearing nothing but a swimsuit and sunscreen. Rent a board at Twin Lakes Boat Rental or Twin Lakes Canoe & Kayak Adventures.

3. Big Soda Lake
Colorado

For those looking to paddle a bit closer to home, Big Soda Lake in Bear Creek Lake Park in Lakewood provides a family-friendly way to spend time on the water. With a remarkably pretty swim beach and water that’s bluer than it should be considering its metro-area location, Big Soda Lake definitely draws a crowd on summer weekends—but that’s part of its charm. Rent a board at the on-site marina.


Local Gear

Badfish Stand Up Paddle

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Born in Salida, Badfish’s newest inflatable SUP, the Rivershred ($1,049 to $1,099), does exactly what its name implies: It sucker-punches white water and tames river waves with its specially designed nose and a back-loaded width that provides stability.

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