A large, whitewater raft carrying several paddlers toward Smelter Rapid bucks through splashing foam. Just as the raft begins to punch through the rapid, it stalls and rocks back. Then it’s all over. The Animas River claims another boat, dumping the occupants into its murky wrath.
The crowd – hundreds on the banks – goes wild.
After a lull, Animas River Days is making a comeback.
“That’s our goal, to make it bigger,” festival coordinator Kasey Ford said Saturday.
She said between 1,500 and 2,000 spectators came to Whitewater Park at Santa Rita Park to check out everything from dual-slalom kayak races and boatercross races to stand-up paddle boards and river boards. A beer garden and food are being offered all weekend, along with live music from a stage on the water’s edge.
Ford said the plan next year is to have an official grand opening for the whitewater park after the waterfront landscaping is complete.
She hopes the new park with help expand the festival.
“We want to get more people involved and keep growing,” she said. “It used to be huge, and then it tapered off. We’re trying to get it back.”
Ford said there’s an overhead between $10,000 and $15,000. Organizers network and gain support from donations and sponsors.
“We scrape it all together,” she said. “We want more people to get interested in the river and conservation of the river.”
She may be on to something. More than ever, river rats are coming in different shapes and sizes, from huge rafts to tiny boats, stand-up paddle boards to river boards. On Saturday, they were all on the water – or in it.
Longtime festival organizer and competitor John Brennan called the rapids among the best in the West.
“It’s like jumping on a freight train going by at 50 mph,” he said. “Right now, the top wave at Smelter is probably one of he best waves in the western U.S.”
He said the same about River Days, which is in its 32nd year. Brennan has been there since Day 1. He called it the best water festival in Colorado.
“I’ve been to all of them, and this blows them all away,” he said.
While you would expect to see rafts bending over walls of water and kayakers darting through foam, Anna Fischer of Surf the San Juans baffled the crowd as she navigated the entire whitewater park on a stand-up paddle board.
“Rafts are having a hard time staying upright,” Fischer said, “so it’s definitely challenging on a board.”
Mike Wegoyn of Bayfield was getting some odd looks as he walked the river banks in flippers, gloves and a full-body wet suit, hood helmet and all. He doesn’t raft or kayak. He river boards. He surfs the waves head first, lying on a board two-thirds as tall as he is.
“This is the only river sport I do,” he said before entering the water. “When it was over (5,000 cubic feet per second) it was pretty rough, now it just feels like the ocean.”
With river festivals throughout the state, participants have options. Lisa Adams has competed all over the world.
“Personally, I like Durango better,” she said. “I’d rather be here.”