High water

Photo courtesy Oscar Trono

Punching the entry wave in Snaggletooth Rapid, Memorial Day weekend, 1983.

What’s a sure-fire way (no pun intended) to put our community on edge? Mention drought. It affects all walks of life. Since moving back to Durango in 2002 amid smoky skies, I don’t take water for granted anymore. Even as a daydreaming, seasoned river rat, I now think more of self-preservation than the joys of simply “messing about in boats.”

A mere 30 years ago, drought was not unthinkable, but rivers always seemed full. Unbelievably, we frowned on high water permit cancellations and awed at the near failure of Glen Canyon Dam. During low snow years, our biggest worries were rocky ski descents in the high country and bonier rapids below. Today, I worry about low reservoirs and fire mitigation as I watch my kids play in our xeriscaped yard.

By human clock, Father Time and Mother Nature have expectedly changed me. Rivers are changing, too, but I wonder if their change is accelerating. There’s more river traffic these days, and how can we possibly assess the impact? Memories of high-water years in the Southwest might be the gauge I need to contemplate changes.

Although altered, the Colorado River is still the collection basin for local rivers, including the Dolores. As it drops through the Grand Canyon, it remains the quintessential Western river adventure. During robust water of the early 1980s, I paddled and rowed three trips down the Grand. The first 24-day sojourn changed my life, pointing me in the right direction: downstream. Two more trips (and one involuntary swim), at flows above 50,000 cubic feet per second heightened my sense of life: When swimming downstream, breathe in the troughs.

Sandwiched between those magical adventures was a five-day run on the Dolores in May 1983, before the McPhee Dam. Without obstruction, flows peaked into the already swollen Colorado. Although dwarfed, the Dolores held her own and hosted an unforgettable adventure with friends from Texas. I recall rattlesnakes, Dutch ovens, big water and a rapid called Snaggletooth. It’s unfair to distill the Dolores into one rapid, but I have limited space here. So, for sake of boatman’s lore, I’ll share another tale of Snaggletooth: “There I was. ...”

Upstream of Snaggletooth, kayak-sized driftwood and chocolate water were ominous. Locals couldn’t remember the Dolores so high. At flood stage, rapids often wash out, but as we approached, a familiar roar quickened my pulse. Figuring a portage the safest option, I looked to a river mate as the roar intensified. With cowboy logic, he smiled, “I didn’t drive a thousand miles to portage Snaggletooth.” What’s more, I had flown in from Alaska. His calm bravado quelled all thoughts of portage, if not the butterflies in my stomach.

Not surprisingly, the large boulder that normally defines Snaggletooth was submerged. One raft-munching hole lurked in its place, hidden downstream of white froth and a steep, surging wave. An undercut wall at rapid’s end offered little room for error. Punch the wave just right, you get a wild but clean ride. Miss it, you hang on.

Boatmen don’t conquer the river, she lets you pass. On our ticket, two lead rafts found a clean line, but unmercifully she pushed the following boats toward the hole. Another old adage, “Things happen fast on the river,” held true. In a few camera snaps, rafts swamped. All bailed mightily as the waterlogged boats bee-lined toward the wall. Ever fickle, she let one raft pass and held the other, flipping it for good measure. A quick rescue in calmer water eventually led us to a serene campsite, our private Margaritaville.

That’s how I remember it, but soggy memories aren’t always sure. Ah, but here’s to technology. Online historical data from the U.S. Geological Survey show that flows approached a noteworthy 7,000 cubic feet per second, unmatched since. Wistfully, I know the Dolores is changed, but she’s still a gem and flows spiked as recently as 2005. Likewise, river running has evolved, for better or worse. I’ve fond memories of no-toilet-seat rocket box “groovers,” wooden floorboards and bail buckets, but change is inevitable.

Change brings to mind, The Doing of the Thing, a must-read river book. It tells a compelling story of Buzz Holstrom, who in 1937 soloed his homemade boat down 1,100 miles of river including the Grand Canyon. At trip’s end, he hardly celebrated his return to normal life, much less his accomplishment. The Colorado changed him. Buzz is my hero, not for his “Believe It or Not” feat, but for humbly grappling with change. I think he got it.

Although not even remotely near Buzz’s universe, I have negotiated my way down at least 5,000 river miles, probably closer to 10,000, maybe more, but I quit counting. I simply passed the miles, many as an instructor earning pay, many as Huck Finn just looking to get away. Like Huck, I’ve learned a thing or two. We have the power to alter rivers, but they can change us profoundly, too.

Go get wet and get changed. Run the Dolores. Who knows what the next 30 years might bring?

Oscar Trono is a retired School District 9-R teacher. Reach him at otnlh@msn.com

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