Boating the Dolores for the first time: a personal account

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When I heard there was to be enough water for boating on the Lower Dolores River this spring, I knew there would be a lot of happy rafters and canoeists, but I didn’t figure I’d be among them. Circumstances have combined to keep me off the Dolores – I had, in fact, never rafted it, except for one brief excursion many years ago at twilight, from below the dam down to Bradfield Bridge. Since I couldn’t see much of anything and spent part of the trip running along the nearby road rather than actually riding in the raft, I don’t count that as a true rafting experience.

FLOATING THE LOWER DOLORES RIVER

One in a series of many boaters steers his craft through Ponderosa Gorge on the Lower Dolores River on the first day of the 2016 spill. Photo by Gail Binkly

Since I wasn’t going to be able to go, I consoled myself with sour grapes. Oh, well, I thought. The Dolores is probably nothing special.

I’d certainly talked to numerous rafting enthusiasts who cherish the waterway, but I remained skeptical about all the gushing adjectives: pristine, beautiful, unique.

My first real experience with whitewater rafting came many years ago, when David and I and a friend, Terry, took a raft down the Arkansas through the Royal Gorge near Cañon City. Terry was a professional rafting guide, although he had never done the Gorge before. David’s experience was limited to floating tourists along a stretch of river in Pueblo that had scarcely a ripple on it. I was along mostly as ballast.

We eddied out before the first major rapid, Sunshine, which is fairly challenging, and walked along the bank scouting it. “No good standing here,” Terry said at last. “Let’s go.” We got back in.

Our raft swirled between rocks and down a five-foot drop; icy waves (it was June 1) splashed in. Suddenly the spare oar tied to the side of the raft came loose at one end and began banging against rocks, threatening to hang us up. David leaned over and tried to free the end of the heavy wooden oar, to no avail. It was now jammed between two rocks and we were stuck in the middle of the rapid, not moving.

“Cut it loose!” shouted Terry, who never shouts. David struggled to untie the knot holding the oar. He had no knife, but Terry kept shouting, “Cut it loose!”

Water was pouring into the raft like that scene in The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn go over the falls. “Bail!” Terry yelled at me. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. I tipped the five-gallon bucket over the edge and laboriously filled it again. A rather scrawny weakling at that point in my life, I could barely move the water-filled bucket, but I did my best. “Bail, bail!” Terry cried.

Suddenly we broke free – I later learned that David had somehow got the oar loose at last – and we were moving into calmer waters. My feet felt like blocks of ice. We were all drenched and shivering, and even the Colorado sun couldn’t warm us, although my thighs were already fire-red with sunburn. “I thought for sure we were going to flip,” Terry said, reverting to his laidback voice.

The rest of the trip was strikingly serene. When we got out several hours later, I was hungry, exhausted, cold to the marrow, mosquito-bitten and blistered. And I couldn’t wait to go rafting again.

There followed a period in my life when I jumped on a raft every chance I had, mostly on the Arkansas. But then I moved, and bought a house, and seemed to get bogged down with chores and responsibilities. Combine that with the infrequency of managed boating releases from McPhee, and the result was, despite living in the area more than 20 years, I had not experienced the Dolores.

As anticipation grew over the pending 2016 spill, modest as it was going to be, I made up my mind I was going to get on the water somehow. After all, it had been five years since the last boating release – who knew when another might occur? So I begged, whined, and wheedled until some kind-hearted folks agreed to carry me through Ponderosa Gorge, an 18- mile stretch between Bradfield Bridge and the Dove Creek pump station, in order to shut me up.

The one down side to rafting is that there is a lot of preparation. Shuttling between put-in and take-out, preparing snacks, digging out life vests, toting suntan lotion and bug spray and a million other items, stuffing it all in dry bags, tying everything down.

I was ready in my jeans, my long-unused rafting shoes, and a cap that made me look like Elmer Fudd (the only one I could find with a chip strap). I had no work to do, so I watched impatiently as my hosts labored, silently urging them to move faster so I could get on the water, dammit!

Dozens of other eager boaters were milling about the put-in at Bradfield. Some had driven from Denver, New Mexico, or even Texas, having dropped everything to seize their chance at the Lower Dolores. The air buzzed with excitement. It was a Saturday morning and the water was flowing about 1,000 cfs. In addition to the recreationists, some people were there apparently just to view the hubbub, and a few others seemed to be basically hitch-hikers hoping, like me, to find a boat with space for an extra body.

But finally, finally, I was in the “cataraft,” a high-riding craft, with Carolyn and Glenn, and we pushed off, and there was the familiar tug and lift as the current seized us.

Ah, yes.

There is something mesmerizing and magical about floating down a river. I fell in love with the concept, long before I ever experienced the reality, while reading Huckleberry Finn as a child. The satire was over my head, but I was transfixed by the idea of Huck and Jim on their raft, free and in motion, moving effortlessly from place to place. It’s like being on a train, but without the racket – the ever-changing view slipping past on both sides, energy and power beneath you.

It’s probably impossible for anyone to boat the Dolores without talking, or at least thinking, about the politics of water management. As depicted in “River of Sorrows,” a short documentary produced by Rig to Flip, the Dolores is famously water-short. Every drop is spoken for, every acre-foot tightly managed. McPhee Dam is a faucet and no molecule escapes it without the blessing of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Since the dam and associated Dolores Project came online in the early 1990s, rafting releases have occurred on average every other year, thought not with anything like such regularity.

This is a source of considerable frustration for boaters. The 2016 season was the quintessence of unpredictability: In the winter, conditions appeared favorable for a spill, then they didn’t, then there was probably going to be one, then not, then yes after all. It was going to be over Memorial Day weekend, then it was postponed a week, and when it finally came it was lengthened at the last minute for several additional days.

All the seesawing might have been the work of a crafty cabal dedicated to driving boaters mad, but of course it wasn’t. While the ultimate decision-making authority for releases rests with the Bureau of Reclamation, the unpredictability was on the shoulders of Mother Nature.

Operating a dam and reservoir is complicated stuff, and this is particularly true regarding the Dolores. There are many figurative hands holding out empty cups, wanting water for their special purpose: agriculture, municipalities, industry, native fish, a sport fishery, a healthy ecosystem – and of course, recreation.

And many of these needs conflict with each other to some degree even beyond the simple matter of supply. For instance, the timing of a dam release that is ideal for promoting native-fish spawning and growth is not necessarily the same as the best timing for a boating release. The flows needed to periodically flush silt from cobble and improve riparian habitat take away water that could be used to make a longer boating season – depending, of course, on how much excess water there is. In a really wet year, a lot of different needs can be met, but years like that are few.

Glenn and Carolyn are veteran boaters who lament the paucity of opportunities on the Lower Dolores. Like many others, they say more-frequent and more predictable boating releases would allow for the development of a robust recreational economy based on the river. As it is, they say, there is almost no chance for skilled guides to put their abilities to commercial use.

I repeated a question I’d heard others ask: Would more-predictable boating mean implementing a permit system that would do away with the zany, spur-of-the-moment feel of the Lower Dolores and lead to a dominance of commercial users over non-paying locals such as ourselves? “I don’t know, but I’d sure like to have that problem to figure out,” Carolyn replied.

Over the years, many efforts have been launched to enable differing parties to talk about the best way to manage the Lower Dolores River and corridor, the best-known probably being the Dolores River Dialogue. Carolyn and Glenn are skeptical that all the talk has accomplished much.

But others, including many boaters and groups such as the local Dolores River Boating Advocates, believe the dialogue helps, and are committed to working with the Bureau of Reclamation and DWCD to try to improve the situation.

One group representing diverse stakeholders is currently working on a legislative proposal to establish a national conservation area along the corridor from the dam to Bedrock, Colo. Another group called the Monitoring and Recommendation Team offers advice and recommendations to the BOR and DWCD about river management. A long-time Montezuma County official (who was not a raging liberal) used to remark that, if the river were managed logically, we’d send all the water downstream to Mexico, where the growing season is longer. That, of course, is not how things are done. The majority of the Dolores’s water nourishes a vast system of crops throughout Montezuma and Dolores counties and on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. The dam also stores water for municipalities. Some is allocated to industrial purposes. A sizable chunk is set aside for the fishery – though not enough, biologists say.

In dry years, most users share in shortages. In the darkest days of 2013, Dolores Project irrigators, the fishery and the Ute Mountain Tribal Farm all suffered through a 30-percent water supply.

In wet years, everyone is happy. It’s during the in-between years, such as this spring, that the maddening dance of uncertainty occurs, as water-managers seek to fill the reservoir but keep it from spilling over the top (a highly undesirable occurrence).

The BOR’s Vern Harrell develops an operating plan to project how the spill water will be released in relation to Dolores River inflows. He turns the operating plan over to the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the releases. Watching regional weather forecasts and Sno-Tel reports, managers attempt to gauge how fast the high snows will melt and come tumbling downstream, while balancing that with how quickly irrigation demand will start sucking water out of the reservoir.

To boaters it can seem as if they come last on the priority list, despite the fact that the need to protect boating is cited in documents associated with the Dolores Project.

But we did not dwell on all those issues as we glided downstream. It was too beautiful a morning. Glenn, a biologist, described the rarity of the beautiful ponderosa canyon that was slipping by on either side of us. The towering, yellow-barked ponderosas jutting up against the sandstone cliffs normally don’t grow in such a location and likely would not regenerate if they were ever to burn, he said.

Hawks, ravens, and turkey vultures wheeled in the sky. An otter popped its head up in the water near the shore. Ducks and other birds, startled by the sudden appearance of a river where none had been for several years, were fleeing nests they had built in the brush that now clogged the waterway.

The water was ice-cold and had a musty smell like the bottom of a fish bowl, something I attributed to the fact that it is released from the bottom of the dam rather than the higher elevations. (This is done to prevent non-native fish in the reservoir from being released into the river.) I was later told, however, that the smell resulted from the presence of organic matter deposited in the lake and river that is stirred up by the energy of the release.

Carolyn and Glenn wanted to camp halfway through the gorge, so we pulled over and picnicked with another group – Ryan, Maggie, and Kristen, who had kindly agreed to carry me the rest of the way to the takeout at the pumps. They had a traditional rubber raft that rode lower in the water, splashing us liberally – something for which I was grateful as the day heated up.

The three younger people had less interest in the never-ending debate about river management, but the topic still came up occasionally. One of the women said she thought there needed to be more talk about finding water for boating, “but when you bring it up with the farmers, they seem to get very defensive.”

Despite the fact that the river teemed with boaters in every possible size, type, and color of craft, as the day wore on we found ourselves alone for long periods. The fleeter kayaks and canoes had passed us, and we seemed to be on our own in this wilderness of stunning beauty. Ryan, who was at the oars, steered us so skillfully through the modest rapids that we were free just to gaze around.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I was seeing this view for the first time and that it might be years before I’d have the chance again.

McPhee’s managers are hopeful that filling the reservoir for the first time since 2011 will pave the way for a larger, easier-to-plan managed release in 2017. Then something close to an average snowpack this coming winter would be all that is needed to have a boating release two years in a row.

But, with climate change and La Niña looming, who knows whether that will happen? The worst-case scenario would be winter drought, which would mean another spring without boating.

Floating down the canyon, happily unaware of where we were on the river, we were surprised and saddened when the pump station suddenly appeared. The trip was over. I couldn’t begin to convey my gratitude for their generosity, but my guides seemed to think it was no big deal.

As I drove home, I realized that what is at issue on the Dolores is a form of access. Just as various user groups fight for the right to hike, Jeep, bike, and ride ATVs into the backcountry, boaters are seeking their own special kind of access – one that is non-motorized and quiet, that leads to places often unreachable any other way.

I had been fortunate enough to experience such access during a fortuitous alignment of factors that opened a window of opportunity.

I carry with me the memory of one blissful day, made bittersweet by the brevity and rarity of the experience.

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From July 2016. Read similar stories about .