Sucked in


The irony was uncanny. As I shouldered my boat to the river’s edge, muscled the tight neoprene seal over my lap and took those first few, unsteady strokes of the season, I was hit by an uncharacteristic wave of sadness. My first day of boating for the season also happened to coincide with another, less auspicious milestone. The day I chose to return to the Animas River was the same day the Animas-La Plata Project opened its floodgates and went full bore.

Sure, I had 12 long years from the first time I set posterior to plastic to prepare for this day, but somehow it still seemed surreal. See, when I first moved to Durango late in the summer of ’96, I was fresh off a priority-shifting trip down the Grand and well-versed in the works of Abbey, Reisner and McPhee. At the time, one more massive Western water project seemed all but impossible. And I was not alone in my thinking. I was joined in denial not only by fellow boaters but environmentalists and outdoors lovers as well. The opposition had mounted an impressive attack, arguing that surely there had to be a better way to satisfy Indian water rights than to pump river water straight up hill only to redeposit it back a couple hundred yards downstream. Bumper stickers declaring “187 ALP” popped up on beat-up pickup trucks throughout Durango as the ragtag river set rallied, as best it could between surf sessions, to oppose the project.

Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to playing to my own special interests here. In the decision to move to and stay in Durango, the Animas River played a key role. A new transplant to Durango and the river scene, there was something about that roiling brown torrent that simultaneously scared the shit out of me and kept me coming back for more. From the moment I bought my first boat (a radically short 9-footer), I set about learning to roll and paddle like it was my job, all in an effort to master the sport. However, I soon found out, as most do, that it is the river that masters you. I took my lumps, along with bruises, bloodied shins, lungfuls of water, tweaked shoulders and even an occasional black eye. I took the abuse not because I was a glutton for punishment, but because I was a glutton for payback. See, for a few blissful – and sometimes terror-filled – weeks every spring, I could do what most people never have the chance to do. I could set myself afloat on a free-flowing, wild river.

As I mentioned, perhaps it was a little selfish to think this way, but A-LP threatened to wreck all that, literally sucking the joy out of that small window of life. And so, I grew to resent the project, sure that some renegade monkey wrencher would ride up on his gilded bulldozer to save the day.

Needless to say, the knight in shining camo failed to materialize. And despite the valiant effort of a couple of small, endangered fish, A-LP plodded onward. Granted, during that long, slow, march to reality, A-LP lost some weight, and the new-and-improved version became more palatable to many of its detractors. Some even did a complete 180, admitting that the thought of a nearby motorboat mecca suited their maturing and more expensive water sports tastes just fine.

Nevertheless, to this day I harbor a tenuous truce with A-LP. And as I neared the colossal compound of steel, concrete and power lines that had sprouted from the earth, the old feelings of disdain and scorn arose anew. I half-expected to hear a deafening slurping noise, like a giant straw scraping the bottom of an empty glass, as I passed its pearly grates. Would A-LP finally suck me through its metal mouth like the fat kid in the Willy Wonka chocolate pipe, only to spit me out in the Lake Nighthorse recovery pool?

Alas, I merely floated by, the river quietly lapping against its new, artificial tributary. And I must say, the silent passage was strangely befitting of the new silence that had befallen public opinion on the project, which a mere decade ago was so clamorous.

Maybe it was because somewhere deep within those rising waters in that hidden basin, a centuries-old, empty promise was finally being fulfilled. And while I cannot dispute the wrongs of yesteryear, I can’t help but feel that two wrongs still don’t make a right.

– Missy Votel