The Endless River by Jack Bombardier
Looks Like the Year that Every River Lover in Colorado
has been waiting for…
The Endless Colorado River by Jack Bombardier
I live along the mighty Colorado River, and throughout the year its changing moods are always interesting to observe. Sometimes the river runs low, and sometimes it runs high. There are times when it’s as clear as vodka, and others when it looks like chocolate milk (and sometimes that can be on the same day).
I’ve seen trees and oars and coolers and full beer cans and dead beavers and people (live) floating by in it. It can be as warm as bath water, and cold enough to make your genitals disappear if you fall into it during the wrong time of year. On some trips, anything you throw into it seems to get gobbled by a trout, and on other days it takes nothing less than a stick of dynamite to move a fish. But in the winter, it can seem to the naked eye like it’s not even a river at all. The ‘Upper C’ gets covered under a blanket of snow and ice and seems like it ceases to exist. The crowds of the summer are long gone, and the river Road goes quiet.
This can be one of the nicest times to be here. Bald eagles are still stalking the few pieces of open water, morning and evening the deer and elk can be seen crossing the road, and otters are easy to spot against the frozen banks. In the morning, the trees and shrubs along the river form an icy coat caused by the disparity between the water and air temperatures. This causes the river to look like it’s got crystal chandeliers along its length, at least for an hour or so before the sun melts it.
But the river is not dead, or even dormant. Under that ice, the river keeps flowing with all the force it’s had all year, though it’s just hiding from view. But the river never sleeps, for it’s always there flowing by with its ceaseless, perpetual power. It might not be visible to the naked eye, but every second of every day of every month of every year that ole man river, he just keeps Rollin’ along. Even though I may not be floating on it, or swimming and fishing in it, the river remains a big part of my life. That’s because I shovel that snow off it where it flows past my backyard, and ice skates on it. Some years I get to enjoy that experience for longer than others. There was one winter that we got almost no snow at all, but that made great conditions for river ice. In other winters there’s excellent ice until we get a big snowfall, and then with the snow too deep to move by hand, the skating season comes to an early end.
This winter has been great though. It got cold early, and I was on the river by Thanksgiving weekend. Most years, it’s not safe to venture out until Christmas. But it stayed cold this year, for most winters there’s a week of chinook weather that warms things up, but we really haven’t seen that this season. It started cold, stayed cold, and is still cold. As a result, the river ice in my backyard is still two feet thick. It usually starts to melt off around Valentine’s Day, but not this year.
This winter the ice has been perfect, maybe the best. Since the water was so clear and froze so quickly, you can look down into it and see suspended bubbles in it, like a lava lamp. Preparations for skating began before the ice even formed, back in the late fall. We had a low water year in 2022 which caused algae blooms to form. When the river level dropped in November, that algae now floated on the surface. If I allowed the ice to form with those algae in place, it would make for a bumpy, uneven surface, so it had to go. I wandered up and went out a couple of times with a rake and dragged it out. If anyone saw what I was doing it would have made for a strange sight, for who rakes a river? but I knew that it would make a big difference once the ice formed. I also keep my dory tethered up to my dock for most of the year, so I can go out for a row whenever the mood strikes. I was also able to dislodge a lot of algae by putting my boat on top of it, and rowing hard back and forth.
When the cold weather finally came and the ice began to form, I used my dory like an icebreaker to ensure that we got a nice, flat sheet to begin with. When the ice forms slowly, it makes ridges each morning as it grows. The first onset of ice was full of ridges, so I would back row my boat onto it forcefully to break the bumpy ice off. Again, to anyone watching this process, it would have looked very strange. Finally, when the really cold weather came in, I was a little late getting my boat out of the river, so it got stuck in the ice like Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance. I had to chop it out with an axe, and then hack away a spot to get my trailer into the river to pull it out.
But all that effort paid off for once. The cold weather came in early, and it stayed cold, which doesn’t always do. One year we had our normal early weather, and the river froze, but a warm spell in December melted it all off and my wife and I did a float on Christmas Day. Not this year. By Thanksgiving weekend, it had already frozen to the point that I could get out on it, and that usually doesn’t happen until the end of December. The first few times I go out onto the ice, I usually wear neoprene waders, a PFD, and have a long rope nearby, just in case. I went through the ice years ago trying to get a dog out, and don’t want to ever recreate that experience again.
The mountains have gotten lots of snow this year above 8,000 feet, but down here at 6,200 feet, it’s been more limited. There’ve been plenty of mornings that we’ve woken up to an inch or two of fresh powder, but I’m able to clean that off the river ice using a wide plastic push shovel. The resulting ice surface I’ve been able to maintain is about 350’ long, and from 15’ to 25’ wide. Over twenty years of trying to create skateable ice, I’ve learned that if I can keep the snow off of it, the sun will usually do the rest. Each day the sunshine micro-melts the surface, and then it freezes at night, so each day it becomes better and better. Right now, the ice on the river is extremely smooth. There are some cracks to be wary of, but they’re obvious.
A couple of weekends ago, I invited over some friends with kids to play hockey on it. It was great to see them enjoying the outdoors the way I did as a little kid. When growing up, I learned to play hockey on frozen ponds in New England. When I got older, I played on indoor rinks for youth and high school hockey, but it never felt as free and open as being outside. I always felt like a great pond hockey player, but once I put on a helmet and pads and was surrounded by refs and lights and horns, I was never more than average. There’s just something special about skating outdoors, and it doesn’t matter whether it is daytime or nighttime. Last week was especially beautiful, as the full moon lit up my rink and gave everything a blue glow. There was no need for a headlamp, for the moon and solar lights lining the ice surface was all that was needed.
It’s now the middle of February, and the ice won’t be on the river for much longer. In most years it’s already begun to melt off by now, and so I’m just going to try to appreciate it for as long as I can. It was warm enough today to really soften up the ice, and a reminder that spring is just around the corner. When I got home from work it was dark, and before going inside I decided to see what effects the day’s sunshine had created. Approaching the river, I was initially disappointed. The sun had turned my ice back into its liquid form, so my ice skating might be done for the year. But then as I got closer, I realized that it wasn’t water yet, it was still ice, but just so smooth that it looked like liquid. That was all it took to put a big gust of wind into my sails, and even after a hard day of work, I was energized enough to go get my skates.
Sometimes I skate with music playing through Bluetooth headphones. Last night I couldn’t decide what to listen to, so I decided to just choose an album at random. The music my fingertip found was “The Endless River” by Pink Floyd. This made me smile, for with a title like that it seemed to be a perfect choice. It’s not a great album but it has its moments, and it was a perfect soundtrack for the skating I did on the river’s surface that night. The ice was so smooth that I could see the stars reflected on its gleaming surface. The river looked and felt like it was in a liquid state, not frozen. Jesus may or may not have walked on water, but this was much better than mere walking. This was low-level flying, like one of those swallows I love to watch in the summer whiz by snatching up hatching caddis flies. Skates allow one to move in ways not possible in any other manner. You can swirl and cut and glide and spin and feel more like a god than a mere human.
I wasn’t planning to be on the ice if I was last night, but I just couldn’t help myself. I’d skate up and down the length of the ice in a straight line or cover the expanse of it making zig-zag patterns from one side to the next. In spots, I’d just make tight circles going clockwise, then form a figure eight by circling hard in the opposite direction. All sense of time and space got distorted until it finally became irrelevant. Sometimes I’d use my LED hockey puck and practice stickhandling and shooting on my goalie net, which is adorned with solar mini lights. After Pink Floyd, there were other good tunes playing in my headphones, and it seemed like every time I’d think about stopping some good new song would start, and I’d keep on skating hard for another five minutes. Before I knew it, I looked at my watch and realized that more than three hours had elapsed since I first strapped on my skates. I was beginning to feel a bit tired, and ready to quit, but then another great song would start…
The best thing about this winter is what it portends for the rest of the coming year. A big healthy snowpack is just what we’ve been needing for a long time. The last time the snowpack looked like this was in 2011, and that was the year the Colorado River reached 12,000 cfs, and my backyard was underwater for two months. I don’t expect to see that kind of volume this year, since the reservoirs are lower to start than they were then, and the snow now melts off earlier than it used to. But still, we should have some kind of runoff this year, and with that a decent flushing flow that the riverbed could really use.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good runoff on the Colorado River, and even though I’m primarily a float fisherman I really enjoy running whitewater. Now that I’m on the wrong side of sixty years old, I’ve been wondering if there would ever be another good water year in my lifetime. After all, if I were an hourglass, there would be more sand in the bottom of it than there is left in the upper half. But this looks like the year that I and every other river lover in Colorado have been waiting for. 2023 is off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see what the next few months will look like!
by Jack Bombardier February 2023