Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

Stories From The Water

Back to Stories From The Water

New York Times 2005

The New York Times
June 17, 2005
ADVENTURER; On the Dolores River, Whitewater, Running Deep and Fast

AT 3 a.m., I slip out of my tent and make a quiet pilgrimage to the river where the inflatable rafts are tethered. The gear boat’s padded bench is the perfect pew from which to worship the moonless, ink-black sky, pierced by innumerable pricks of light. On this first night of our trip down 47 miles of the Lower Dolores River in southwestern Colorado, it’s sort of hypnotic to think that the Anasazi, whose 1,000-year-old granaries and pictographs still adorn this isolated red-rock canyon, must have enjoyed the same aperture on the stars.

We’re camped on a grassy bank, a hundred yards upstream from a stretch of churning hydraulics known as Snaggletooth, a Class IV-V rapid choked with giant boulders, where sleeper rocks just below the surface hide violent pour-over ledges that drop into ”munchers”—holes that can trap a kayak or flip a raft like a coin. With record snows burying the San Juan Mountains, the Dolores is a roiling funnel of runoff, flowing as high as 4,200 cubic feet a second in May.

It’s been a miraculous spring for river runners, with high water across the West. Rafting and kayaking outfitters who had to sell off treasured family cabins and dip into savings to stay solvent after six years of drought are suddenly having a bumper year. As I drove out of Santa Fe, N.M., heading north for the Dolores, I passed a flotilla of bright-colored kayaks bouncing down the Santa Fe River—a startling sight, since the river has been bone dry in recent summers. In coffee shops around town, I’ve been hearing river rats’ tall tales about ripping up the Taos Box rapids. But their euphoria is never more palpable than when the Dolores is mentioned.

The lower section of the Dolores runs north for 173 uninterrupted miles near the Colorado-Utah border, dropping 3,000 feet in elevation before emptying into the Colorado River. It has a short, sweet season, usually beginning in late April and ending in early June—but only when there’s enough snowpack. Water levels have been so low since 1999 that rafts couldn’t run it. Few kayakers even tried it because it often meant more portaging than paddling. Meanwhile, river otters and blue herons flourished.

In its brochure, our outfitter, Dvorak’s Kayak & Rafting Expeditions, calls the Dolores ”a river of many moods,” which, given the unrelenting thunder coming from old Snaggletooth, must include cranky. It’s also icy cold at 46 degrees because the Dolores is fed from releases of snowmelt kept nicely chilled at the bottom of the McPhee Reservoir 20 miles south of us.

I’ve brought two of my three sons along—Graham, 10, and Griffin, who turned 8 the day we put in. I note the ominous-sounding ”Snaggletooth disaster recovery camp” marked on the waterproof guide’s map, just below the rapids that are now drowning out the sound of my own breathing. I’m beginning to feel nervous. I close my eyes, say a prayer to the river gods and spritz a ceremonial handful of river water up at the heavens before returning to my tent.

Three hours later, our lead river guide, Noah Marquis, 29, is wildly spinning a river runner’s coffee pot above his head to pull the grounds to the bottom by centrifugal force. With a soul patch sprouting from his leathery-brown chin, and kayaker pecs and biceps bulging through his tank top, he looks his résumé—he’s spent the last 12 years running the world’s most demanding whitewater from Nepal to Ecuador. But the Dolores is still among his favorites. Our other guide, firing up the camp stove and whisking pancake batter, is the laconic Matt Dvorak, 20, son of Bill and Jaci Dvorak, who were among the first outfitters in Colorado back in the 1970’s. Matt’s biceps are tattooed with angry-looking scars.

”Are you a pirate?” Griffin asks Matt, as we sit around the breakfast campfire. ”What happened to your arms?”

”Oh these?” says Matt. It turns out he’d been attacked by a drunk with a switchblade, after winning one too many foosball games in a bar. Having seen his sangfroid on the river, I can image Matt deftly deflecting his attacker. Like every other river guide I’ve met over the years, he’s got Clint Eastwood cool in the clutch.

After breakfast we all hike down to scout Snaggletooth. Noah and Matt are hopping from one boulder to the next, parsing the river. Like fitting pieces of a puzzle together, they’re picking out lines, visualizing the sequence of moves that will let them safely punch through the seething holes. ”It’s a game of endless second-guesses, and split-second adjustments,” Noah says cheerfully.

Before our rafts are unleashed on Snaggletooth one at a time, the boys and I and our fellow guests, a jolly family of Texans, are given a quick course on what to do if we’re tossed from the boat and have to swim. We’re told to keep our feet up on the surface and pointed downstream to avoid submerged rubble heaps of tree trunks and rocks that can trap a foot or a leg. Then we’re supposed to ”relax into the cold” and try to steer ourselves to shore.

”Most of all, watch for the throw rope,” Noah says solemnly. ”Grab it!”

There’s a giddy excitement as we don our gladiator armor (Neoprene wet suits and booties, yellow rain slickers and life vests) and prepare to plunge into a pulsing, surging, masticating force. Having heard a few of Noah’s ghoulish river sagas over the campfire last night, we’re fully aware that a river can toss a raft skyward, crash over it, or hoist it up the side of a rock until it buckles.

Blissfully undaunted, everyone’s spirits are high—except Griffin’s. The guides have determined that given the speed and temperature of the water, it isn’t safe for an 8-year-old to raft Snaggletooth. He’ll have to hike around it.

Choking back tears, Griffin quietly tells me: ”It isn’t any fun to watch, Mommy. Please tell them I can do it.” I feel his disappointment, but I’m also relieved. Noah explains that if he were thrown from the raft, Griffin is so light he could be a mile downstream before they could scoop him out.

The first boat, with all five Texans paddling hard on Noah’s commands, takes the giant pour over head-on, with enough speed to get the raft across a muscular hole, but not before being bucked hard, rodeo-fashion. Noah then artfully sleds over a line of rolling ”haystacks” and weaves through a maze of monster truck-size boulders, riding the fast chutes of whitewater between them. When they’ve safely cleared Snaggletooth, Noah lashes his boat to the shore and sits with Griffin atop a fine viewing rock to console him as he waits to rejoin us.

Graham and I climb in the gear boat with Matt, who’s already decided the boat is too heavy to pass through that first foaming hole. His eyes are sweeping the riverscape ahead. In his characteristic gnostic silence, Matt’s chosen a completely different strategy—to ricochet the raft through Snaggletooth’s boulder garden, spinning and bumping, timing each rotation to avoid getting pinned on a rock.

This is not extreme whitewater. But from the second we launch off the first wave, running this rapid feels epic—as if we’re riding frothy giants. Matt’s recalibrations of every angle and velocity are as fluid as the changing conditions. There’s probably some elegant algorithm of river physics that would explain our erratic spiraling path. But it couldn’t sum up the exhilaration, fear, cold, surrender of control and triumph I feel all in one tumultuous moment. Then, as quickly and seamlessly as it began, it’s over.

My heart is beating in a familiar tempo again by the time we pass the disaster recovery camp. Matt gracefully negotiates the next gnarly rapid, Cannonball Wall, with Zen-like aplomb, moving with the current, harnessing its force.

Shortly after the hiccups presented by next-in-line Three Mile Rapid, it begins to rain, gently at first, then in wind-whipped granules that peck at our faces and hands and soak us to the bone. Graham, who stubbornly removed his wet suit saying it was itchy back when the sun was out, begins to shiver violently. ”I can’t feel my legs,” he says, teeth chattering. Matt blows his whistle in two fierce bursts and both boats quickly pull to one bank. In the brief time it takes Matt and Noah to stall the boats and lunge into action, ripping high-tech rubbery-fleecy Hydroskin layers out of their packs, Graham is going hypothermic. His lips are blue, his body immobile.

With great difficulty, we stretch a skintight shirt, vest, leggings, a hat, gloves and wool socks over his wooden appendages. The cold has already set into my own joints, sapping all the strength from my fingers. Noah tosses me his sleeping bag and instructs me to swaddle Graham in it.

Matt spins the raft around so our backs are to the biting wind. Miraculously, Graham recovers enough in the next 10 minutes to breathe evenly again. The shuddering subsides. In another 15 minutes, the sun re-emerges, and we find a sandy beach where the guides whip out a lunch of trail mix, dried fruit and tuna sandwiches. We’re all ravenous. The children are horsing around as if nothing’s happened.

Later, floating past Disappointment Creek in glorious sunshine, Griffin is sitting cross-legged on the bow, gently bobbing through the waves like a little raja. ”Put the paddles to the water!” he commands. ”Get your backs into it, boys!”

The ultimate river runner, a merganser, escorts us through her mile of territory, making sure we don’t interfere with her nest. She dips and weaves, surfing the whitewater effortlessly, taking life’s cluttered waves head-on and making it look easy.

Rivers Wild

The Year of the Big Waters

THE rafting and kayaking season on the Dolores River may be coming to a close, but after a winter in which the Rocky Mountains were pummeled with snow, all the Western rivers that are fed by their runoff are having their first healthy flows in years.

Rapids are ranked from Class I (meaning moving water with small waves, suitable for beginners) to Class VI (nearly impossible and dangerous).

Just south of Vail, the Eagle River—so low the last few years that it’s barely been worth dipping a paddle in—has surged back to life this spring, offering Class V rapids through four-mile Gilman Gorge for gonzo kayakers, with more mellow fare further north. Heavy rains in May and June have extended the season on the Eagle through mid-July. It’s mostly a day-tripper river.

Flowing at three times its recent volume across more than 60 rapids, including some rambunctious Class III whitewater, the Green River is great for beginner kayakers, with trips available through a variety of outfitters through September. The Green, which also offers challenging rafting, threads south through Utah’s deepest canyon—called ”a region of wildest desolation” by the geologist-explorer Major John Wesley Powell. From July 23 to 30, Dvorak Kayak & Rafting Expeditions will run a classical music trip down the Green. Musicians from major orchestras take part in the trip then play in ancient sandstone amphitheaters along the way.

The Gunnison River, famous for its clear green water, is churning white this season, with a few wild-and-woolly Class IV’s that may deserve an upgrade. Accessible only by foot or horseback, the Gunnison is fed by slot canyon streams with crystalline swimming holes bordered by wildflowers. The season runs through September.

From the base of 14,000-foot Mount Wilson near Telluride in southwestern Colorado, the San Miguel River flows freely to the north through striated sandstone canyons and piney wilderness preserves for 80 miles, spilling into a desert confluence with the Dolores River. It’s an ideal family river, with Class II and III rapids along its upper stretches to ratchet up the adrenaline. This year the San Miguel is offering months of river running (April 1 through June) versus the usual tiny window of two-and-a-half weeks.

The last major undammed river in Colorado, the Yampa, courses through Dinosaur National Monument, where big horn sheep drink at the river’s edge. Every May and June this river rolls out Class IV-worthy waves, but this year’s generous snowmelt whipped up monstrous V’s in May at Warm Springs (considered one of the 10 big drops in the West) that have calmed down in the last week. The Yampa also has a serene side, with plenty of lazy floating past miles of tiger-striped canyon walls that shoot 2000 feet straight up.