Taming the Upper Animas
Forest Service takes steps to improve boater safety

Water spills through the Animas River’s infamous Rockwood Box section, a series of Class V rapids before the river enters the unrunnable lower Rockwood Gorge. After a series of accidental deaths on the upper stretch of the river in the summer of 2005, the San Juan Public Lands Center has implemented changes to increase awareness of the run’s difficulty and increase safety./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Less turbulent times appear to be on the horizon for the Upper Animas River. Reacting to multiple fatalities during the 2005 boating season, the Forest Service is taking significant steps to improve the safety of kayakers and rafters venturing onto the difficult and remote stretch of whitewater.

The Upper Animas has developed a well-earned reputation among boaters. The 28-mile stretch boasts a steep and constant gradient, relatively few eddies and numerous Class V rapids. In addition, the river’s relatively remote nature, high altitude, more than 100 total rapids and cold water rank as hazards to be considered before putting on in Silverton. Nonetheless, the stretch draws hundreds of kayakers each summer and remains the highest put-in and one of the most challenging stretches of whitewater attempted by commercial outfitters in the state.

In 2005, significant snowpack pushed the difficulty of the Upper Animas beyond challenging and into the extreme. In mid-June, a local river guide and a client perished after their raft flipped in one of the Upper Animas’ Class V rapids, Ten Mile. Three others were rescued but the guide and client drowned before they could make it to shore. Roughly two weeks later, a private raft flipped in No Name Rapid, another Class V, and the passenger succumbed to hypothermia and then drowned. The three deaths made for the most tragic season in Upper Animas history, which contains only two other known fatalities, and gave public land managers pause to step back and look at ways to improve safety on the stretch.

“Back in 2005, we had three deaths on the Upper Animas, and they were all tragic,” said Richard Speegle, recreation program leader with the Forest Service. “After that season, we decided to take another look at our management of that stretch of river.”

The first step for the Forest Service was a sit-down with the eight outfitters who guide trips on the Upper Animas. Together the companies and the agency developed a new set of stipulations for Upper Animas outfitters, which go into effect May 1. The new rulebook requires 1,250 documented whitewater miles from guides; a minimum of two safety boats on each trip; and a maximum party size of 25 among several other requirements. The new stipulations are a strong step toward safety, according to Speegle, but the real concern is with private boaters not guided trips.

“We met with the outfitters that fall and came up with the new stipulations,” he said. “But we also determined that most of them were already meeting the new requirements. With that in mind, our real concern is for the private boaters.”

The Forest Service is particularly worried about inexperienced private boaters who may be in the dark when they put on in Silverton and are getting in well over their heads. As a result, the agency has replaced the sign-in box at the put-in with an information kiosk. The interpretive sign opens with language like “Boat at your own risk” and offering safety guidelines and a detailed river map explaining rapid locations and difficulties.

“We had a registration box at the put-in, but there really wasn’t a lot of information,” Speegle said. “With that in mind, we’ve designed an interpretive sign which includes a river map. Right at the put-in, you can see what lies ahead and say, ‘Maybe I want to write some of this stuff down.’”

Enhanced stream gauging will also be available to boaters this spring and summer on the Upper Animas. In past years, users could only view flows in Silverton and Durango, leaving a murky picture of what might wait downstream.

“There used to be only two gauges on the Upper Animas and it could be running 400 cubic feet per second in Silverton and 4,000 in Durango,” Speegle said. “But people want to know what the level is when they’re running No Name, so we collaborated and got a new gauge installed.”

The Forest Service partnered with the City of Durango, La Plata County, the Southwest Water Conservation District, the Bureau of Reclamation and Tall Timbers Resort in the effort. The new gauge is located roughly halfway down the Upper Animas at Tall Timbers and can be accessed online at www.water.usgs.gov/realtime.html.

In addition, mile markers have been added along the river bank to aid in rescue efforts, and the Forest Service is working toward gaining permanent legal access for a take-out at the Tacoma Power Station. With river season just around the corner and increased numbers of private and commercial boaters expressing interest in the run, the agency is hopeful that the new steps will make for many fatality-free seasons on the Upper Animas.

“It is one of the most unique stretches of whitewater in the world, and river season’s coming up quickly,” Speegle said. “Here’s what we’re doing to try to help.” •

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