Monday, June 14, 2010

The River of Lost Souls

It had been two years since I had paddled in Colorado and I was itching to get back. With family to visit, great boating, and lots of other fun things to do, we picked Durango as our destination. I’d had my sights set on the Upper Animas for some time and hoped to finally get on a trip. We arrived in town to find the river at a rather high level. But as the week progressed things were starting to drop with peak daily flow only reaching around 3,000 cfs on the Durango gauge, a good medium level according to the New Testament. But the weather forecast showed high temps for the weekend....

The Upper Animas starts just below the town of Silverton, CO at an elevation of about 9,300 ft and flows at a rate of 80 feet per mile over 24 miles as it winds its way through the San Juan National Forest to the Tacoma power station (with the option of running the Rockwood Box or hiking out along the tracks to the Rockwood rail stop). The river flows in a deep canyon between the 13,000+ ft Vestal, Snowdon, and Twilight peaks. The run can be done in a day or as an overnighter with camping at the Needleton train stop about half way down. We chose the latter.

I had planned to meet up with my good friend Chris Menges, from Crested Butte. The plan came together quickly: We were meeting local paddler Eric Parker (our TL), Ryan and Cari from Telluride, and Cameron and Marcia from Taos, NM for a train assisted overnighter on the Upper A. It was starting to get hot and the gauge was rising... I was starting to get a bit nervous.

Day 1:

I checked the town gauge first thing Saturday morning (It had risen to 4,000 cfs) and headed to the train station to meet Chris and load our camping gear onto the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train. It would be dropped off at the Needleton train stop, half way down the run, where we were planning to camp. After meeting the crew and a leisurely breakfast (cooked by Eric’s mom, thanks so much!) we started off on the 50 mile drive to the put in at Silverton. Our gear was on the train and Jeff and Lisa (Eric’s wife) ran shuttle for us, simplifying logistics greatly and allowing for a crack-of-noon start with plenty of daylight to spare.

The put in

Coming down the hill into Silverton you get the first glimpse of the river (and the last flatwater we would see). It was not the light green we’d seen just 2 days before but was now running significantly higher and very much brown. I don’t tend to get all that nervous on new runs but the continuous nature of Colorado streams was definitely on my mind. We were up against potentially very high water with likely little place to stop. (The level when we put on was about 1700 cfs on the Silverton Gauge, peaking at 2800 cfs later that day)

Flow at the put-in

After a quick safety talk (“if you swim, you are swimming for your life”) we quickly pulled on drysuits in the summer heat and slid into the cold water of the Animas. Being no stranger to cold water and cold weather paddling I wasn’t worried about the temperature of the water, just its speed. Once we pealed out of the eddy below the put in and ducked under the railroad bridge downstream things started picking up fast. The big water characteristics of the run developed quickly as big class III wavetrains quickly turned into even bigger class IV wavetrains. The gradient picked up fast with numerous constrictions and large holes. The general character was definitely fast and furious. For us East-Coasters I would compare it to running the 2nd drop of Lost Paddle (but not shallow) , or Little Falls at 6.5 ft for DC people... over and over for miles. Eddying out often involved cramming into some micro eddy against the shore and grabbing onto whatever shrubbery was available.

Maggie, Cari, and Cameron in one of few larger eddies

Although very fast and definitely continuous (very few eddies big enough to fit the whole group) it boats quite easily. With few distinct features, and only a few named rapids the overall nature of the run is fast big water with few required moves so long as you keep an eye ahead for big holes. The danger in the run arises not so much from the difficulty but from the consequences of a swim. A swim on the Upper Animas has great potential for being extremely long (with class IV wavetrains that go on for miles and no eddies in sight) and flush drownings are not uncommon here. The loss of paddles, gear, and boats is also very likely in the event of a swim. The railroad tracks and ultimately the train itself do allow for escape in the event of an emergency.

Not long into the run we came across the first named rapid, Snowshed (class IV) which required navigating between two large holes. Everyone followed through blue angel style and we continued on through more big water fun to scout the first major rapid, Tenmile (Class V). Everyone climbed out of their boats for a quick lunch break and a long scout of the rapid. I forced down my PB&J and hiked along the tracks to view the action: a very long rapid with about 3-4 large holes lined up on center but easily avoidable on the left, followed by diagonal flow requiring a strong right to left move to avoid a large pourover on the bottom right. Seemed doable, but with continuous class IV wavetrains that continued for miles I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Had this been one of our Eastern rivers with a big pool at the bottom I would not have hesitated but there was much less room for error here. Only Eric, Chris, and Cameron chose to run the rapid.

Some confusion ensued as the rest of us set out hiking down the railroad tracks with the intent of setting safety for the others. Marcia and I experienced some separation anxiety from the rest of the group as we walked too far down the tracks and weren’t sure where the rest of the group was. Meanwhile another member of the group had come across a paddle snake in one of the few shallow sections of the run out and was subsequently separated from their craft. Thankfully the swim was relatively short with effective self rescue and other members of the group were able to retrieve the paddle and corral the boat into some logs from where it was eventually extracted and ferried across the river to its owner. We all reunited and continued a short distance before reaching the next, and most significant Class V; No Name.

Cameron and Eric scouting No Name

No Name ( a lot bigger than it looks!)

Eric, Chris, and Cameron set about scouting the drop while the rest of us immediately shouldered our boats and set down the tracks once again. I must admit that one of the most challenging aspects of Colorado boating for me is the elevation. Though I feel perfectly at home in the water, on land I definitely feel the extra thousands of feet. Portaging in the intense summer sun wearing a drysuit drained my energy quickly and the extra heavy boat was a considerable burden. Luckily this would be the last (and least) of the portages for me. We positioned ourselves to set safety for the guys running the drop: a complex combination of ledges and holes with another long Class IV run out. All three cleaned the drop and we continued on towards camp. The last rapids before Needleton contained no real distinct features but continued on for miles of class IV wavetrains with absolutely no where to eddy out to take a break. After a while I started getting slightly dizzy from the constant bobbing. We reached Needleton late afternoon and I was happy for the break.

The Needleton train stop/camp is a combination of private and national forest service land. It is set in a wonderful wooded area with hiking trails, natural springs, and awesome riverside camping. A number of A-frame shelters provide cover and a footbridge across the river provides access and an amazing view. We set up camp and enjoyed a relaxing evening. Eric whipped up an awesome dutch oven enchilada dinner and we roasted marshmallows over the fire, couldn’t have asked for a better ending to an awesome day.

Needleton camp

When we'd arrived at camp I noted the water level using visual gauges (some trees and a rock near the bridge). The flow was definitely getting higher and as the water lapped closer to the previous night’s high we wondered just how high it would get and what we were in store for the next day. The color of the water was darkening and picking up speed as large trees began to float down. Everyone crashed early and fell asleep to the sound of a raging river and the thunder of rolling boulders. Things were definitely getting rowdy.

Maggie, Cari, and Marcia at the Needleton bridge

The camp kitchen

Day 2

The next day we woke to a much quieter river. The level had dropped back down to what it had been when we took out the day before alleviating some concerns. We dined on another great dutch oven meal: egg, potato, cheese frittata with guac and bacon. Yum. After returning all of our camping gear to the train stop we waited for some time. The convenience of not having to haul all our gear with us included the price of a long wait, but well worth it. Once the train arrived we quickly loaded up our camping gear, pulled on drysuits and hit the water. Everyone was anxious to do some more boating.

Cari getting read to load the train

The second half of the run has a very similar feel to the first but is generally more mellow and boats easier. After a few miles of fun class III-IV wavetrains we arrived at the final class V of the run; Broken Bridge. Everyone got out to check out this long, complex rapid; a series of huge class V holes (5-6 I lost count) blocking most of the width of the river. Conveniently they are all on one side allowing the rapid to be run entirely on the far left. This time I was confident I could run it successfully so I joined the guys while the other set safety. Pealing out from the eddy below the actual broken bridge I knew this was going to be big. Although avoiding the largest holes there were still plenty of huge waves and wave-holes to punch. We ran down the far left, ducking tree branches along the way. I managed to find an eddy along the way and though this wasn’t part of the plan it worked out fine. This was way bigger than anything I’d run thus far and quite possibly one of the largest big water rapids I’d seen. I had a good run through the bulk of the rapid with only one quick delay for some quick playboating in a hole near the bottom. Overall a great time!

Eric heading back up to run Broken Bridge

After Broken Bridge we regrouped and continued on through more huge wavetrains and amazing scenery. After a quick lunch break with paddled through two awesome mini gorges, the Lunch and Dinner gorges. Although the run through the gorges did not increase in gradient significantly, the constriction of the flow and elevated walls gave a moderately boxed in feel. Each had some unique features including massive holes and boily eddy lines that definitely wanted to play. Overall the lines were straightforward and we bombed through with few stops reaching the takeout after only about two and a half hours on the river (not bad for 12 miles and scouting/portaging).

From Tacoma you have the option to continue on through the Rockwood Box (Class V) or hike out along the tracks to the Rockwood train stop. We had paid extra to be able to put our boats on the train and no one had the interest/motivation to continue through the more challenging box run. We had two hours to kill before the train arrived so after hanging up gear it was nap time. We waited for the first train to pass (the second was the one with the freight car with our gear). Four of us started down the tracks so we could meet the second train to unload gear, the rest stayed behind to load boats.

Nap time

The hike out along the tracks is by no means difficult, nonetheless I was happy not to have to carry my boat for the 2.5 length of the Rockwood Box. Hiking out along the tracks is technically trespassing but as long as you stay out of the way of the train they generally look the other way.Though completely flat, the hike out on the tracks did provide a bit of additional adventure. Shortly into the hike we had to cross over a railroad bridge. Everyone took their time as the railroad ties posed a good tripping hazard. The bridge is narrow and there is no place to escape to should a train come through (jumping off the bridge could likely result in a swim of the Rockwood Box…yipes). We weren’t worried about the train but rather the small follow-cars that come whizzing by fast and quiet. Sure enough , just as we got across the bridge, the power station caretaker came flying by. Just a little added excitement.

Crossing the railroad bridge

As we walked we got to view a few glimpses of the Rockwood Box below. Here the walls close in and significantly constrict the flow. There is no escape once you enter the box. The first major rapid, Mandatory Thrashing, didn’t look too bad from above but I imagined how enormous it likely was given our elevated view (a few hundred feet above the river). Perhaps another time.

Rockwood Box

Mandatory Thrashing

Once past the box we hustled along as narrow passages would have required getting plastered up against a wall should a train come along . The tracks are very exposed to the strong summer sun and we all wished we had more water with us (luckily there was a large jug of it waiting for us on the train). I was happy that I had packed hiking clothes and shoes in my boat and put on lots of sunscreen. We arrived at Rockwood a bit dehydrated but with time to spare. The train arrived shortly with our gear. At this point we had to pack up and part ways as everyone headed home. I made it back to town in time to make a dinner reservation with Jeff, David, and Carolyn at Cyprus, a great Mediterranean place. How could ask for more?

The train delivers our boats and gear

This was one of the best paddling trips I have had in a long time and it was wonderful to make new friends and experience such an amazing river. I hope to return again soon! (See the Animas Gallery for more photos)

The Crew


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