Packrafting the River of Sorrows

Winter was very kind this year, with drought defying, dam busting moisture and a record setting amount of powder days across the West. I’d hazard a guess that there were a record number of sick calls this winter, too. And isn’t it curious how those calls seemed to align with each low pressure system? But that is neither here nor there. What is here and there and in nearly every thirsty watershed is water.

With such an abundance of snow melting from the hills, rivers that haven't run in years are now floating boaters through overgrown canyons and forgotten rapids. Among boaters, the proudest of these waterways may be the Dolores River in southwest Colorado. Prior to being sucked dry by damming, irrigation, and climate change the Dolores was a significant tributary of the Colorado River and was known for it’s varied scenery and unspoiled desolation. Sadly, most years McPhee Dam barely releases enough water to keep a rattlesnake hydrated.

This year, courtesy of winter’s bountiful crop, a too full reservoir and much more melt water to tame has forced the Bureau of Reclamation to allow boaters their fun. For the first time in 15+ years, the Dolores has scheduled, legitimate flows for 10 weeks! Boaters are rediscovering overgrown campsites, forgotten ruins, and hitting rocks long rinsed of another generations plastic and rubber.  

Travis, Keri, and I almost didn't spend three days enjoying 47 miles of what the Dolores has to offer. Why did we almost not do this when we’d been planning it for weeks?

Keri waking with a jolt to my loudly issued four letter word and the slamming on of car brakes will explain that question. And no, it was not a wreck or collision with something that was once alive but is now dead, but is still alive because hitting something didn't happen. It was a forgotten piece of gear and a dose of humility.

Climbing shoes, climbing harnesses, climbing ropes, ski poles, skins, ski boots, PFDs, boat seats, bike shoes, bike helmets, bike wheels, headlamps, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camp shoes, stoves, stove fuel, maps, tent poles, tent, crampons, gloves, utensils, water bottles, etc…

That is a rather long, and most certainly, incomplete list of items forgotten by others on trips I’ve participated in over the years. I’ve always taken pride in not being one to subscribe to the PLAM method of packing (pack light and mooch) and having what is required. Hence, the surprised waking of my loved one with an obscenity and screeching brakes when I realized our drysuits were still hanging in our closet at home. And this happened three hours from home. Without drysuits, we’d be dangerous and down right miserable at best or dead of hypothermia at worst and likely we’d be dangerous, miserable, and then dead.

Our third companion, Travis, made this situation all the more humbling. I love Travis like a brother, but he has forgotten a fair number of the above mentioned items. It’s one of his more endearing qualities and we’ve shared many a laugh as a result. And now he had a massive trump card. Damn.

One of Travis’ other endearing qualities is how much he is absolutely not a morning person. Six hours of napping in his truck bed wasn’t going to be an issue.

I’m sorry to say he didn’t get that 6 hour nap thanks to Keri’s idea. She knew a poor student living off ramen and bean burritos who didn’t have plans and wanted to make a hundred bucks. She met us over halfway, saving the day.

We finally made it onto the river and it did not live up to it’s namesake as we shared a collective smile for three days and each mile. Winter, thank you for your generosity. 

We spent our first day floating and camping among vanilla scented Ponderosas.

Beautiful, sunny days and still frosty night; defining spring in the rockies

Always another story
Inner warmth

Ruins and whitewater on the second day

800+ year old hands spread this clay
Your's truly, photo by Keri
Anxiety, fear, intrigue. Scouting SnaggleTooth IV
Winner goes first?

Flossing Snaggletooth IV
Travis, just avoiding becoming a cavity

Drastic change from our previous night's camp

Morning enlightenment 
Breakfast on the balcony. Photo: Travis

A final few hours of change

Big walls and green yield to

Thirsty brown halls
The End


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