The big float

Growth is not a term I would apply to my river-running career.

This was painfully obvious this week as I performed an annual ritual and filed my river permit applications. In years past, I've requested launch dates with a mind to big, hairy water in lonely locales. I've reached for journeys like Idaho's Selway, Arizona's Salt, and Cataract Canyon on the Colorado. Back then, I hungered for dozens of miles of Class IV whitewater embedded deep inside wilderness. And after the agencies held their river rat lotteries, I both succeeded (scoring the luxury of getting repeatedly trashed in my kayak in that big hairy water) and failed (waiting for weeks on end for that river permit that just never seems to arrive).

This year is already different. There was no permit party; no dozen applications filed in various relatives and friends names in hopes of snagging just one launch date; and no permit application for a trip exceeding 45 miles or Class II+ on the River Richter Scale.

Instead, the two applications that I filled out in 15 minutes were completely devoid of romantic value. If everything goes as planned, I'll be manning the oars on my NRS raft and downing cans of beer on the relatively placid stretches of the San Juan and Chama rivers this summer (Disclaimer: My kayak will be strapped on back of the raft in the continuing search for the perfect surf wave).

There could also be a potential bonus I've also been keeping my fingers crossed for a bloat down the Class II+ section of the Dolores. Although it is one of the West's last major river trips that is not permitted, I've been trying unsuccessfully to get down the dewatered Dolores for nearly the last decade. The bean farmers out at Cahone and Dove Creek have apparently been having quite a party during that same period.

There are also other upsides to my life as an emasculated riverman. For starts, the San Juan and Chama are two of the rarest and most appealing desert canyons on the planet. Secondly, the price of manning the oars comes with the the payoff of escorting my soon-to-be 2-year-old daughter into these places (The hope is that with steady training, she'll be rowing Dad's gear through Black Rock on the Salt and Ladle on the Selway by kindergarten). And while many of my playboater pals laugh at my loss of nerve, I know none of them have frantically reached for the handle on their daughter's infant-sized Stearns life vest as she giggles and bobs her way through Government Rapid on the San Juan. For the record, this moment of terror still hasn't happened but the image already regularly haunts my dreams.

The other plus is that anything will be better than my river career two summers ago during Durango's Season of Doom. As we all know, nearly every river in the West was merely a trickle when our viewshed was consumed by that apocalyptic billow of black smoke over Missionary Ridge.

During that thirsty spell, I gave no thought to boating. I remember being more concerned with rolling up my garden hose and watching as the lawn scorched to a fine biscuit brown. At the same time, our vegetable garden and months of work also withered away. Like many locals, Rachael and I had subjected ourselves to voluntary water restrictions. Next door, in my neighbor's yard, the Garden of Eden was in full bloom. Without shame, he watered at all hours of the day and his bluegrass required biweekly mowing and his tomatoes grew to the size of billiard balls. Meanwhile, the mighty Animas dribbled by a couple blocks away.

One day we crossed paths and pointing to my zero-scape, he sharply said, "I can tell you one place where they're not conserving water Las Vegas."

For a few moments, it made perfect sense. "Yeah, screw that downstream user," I thought. "The fountains, toilets and golf course water features can go dry. They'll learn a new meaning of the word Mirage."

But not much later, the Bureau of Reclamation started blasting in Ridges Basin. A couple of seasons passed, and suddenly that gaping hole on the side of the Animas near Santa Rita Park started to appear. At the same time, the Dolores River was flowing at 900 cfs above McPhee Reservoir and 9 cfs below, and the pinto bean party was going at full tilt. A few months later, there were applications for massive diversions from the San Juan to feed the Navajo Reservation and pushes for water systems on the Pine River and pipelines on the Dry Side to feed development. And the fundamental ring behind each of these marvels of mankind seemed to be "Yeah, screw that downstream user."

The trouble with screwing that downstream user is that it's the San Juan Basin that suffers. Short of my own degree in water law or large-scale demolition, I figure that San Juan permit may be my best recourse to dealing with the madness. It won't necessarily be high adventure (especially assuming Skyler stays in the boat), but I'm hoping that the lottery system will smile on me. I'm looking forward to getting back on the river, especially before A-LP denudes the Animas of flow and the Navajo Nation siphons a big portion of the San Juan at Shiprock.

And who knows? Maybe my personal pinto boycott will pay off this year and the Dolores will run again in spite of McPhee Reservoir. One trip in 10 years doesn't make for odds I'm proud of. But I've still got my fingers crossed. I hear that Class III rapid One-Holer is a real nail-biter.

Will Sands




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