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Animas River Days returns, drawing an excited crowd

Rafters speed down the Animas River during the Animas River Days Raft Slalom on Saturday at the Durango Whitewater Park. (Nick Gonzales/Durango Herald)
Peak flows and freestyle nationals add to cheer at Durango Whitewater Park

With the Animas River peaking at 3,280 cubic feet per second at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday, it was a perfect time for Animas River Days at the Durango Whitewater Park.

The festival, which began Friday and continued through Sunday, includes river surfing, stand-up paddling, freestyle kayaking, boatercross, raft and kayak slalom, an inflatable rodeo and a costumed river parade. It has taken place every year since 1983 – with the exception of 2020, when it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben Peters of Durango said he has been to every Animas River Days since he was 12, 16 years ago. Saturday morning, he competed in the kayak slalom races.

“My skirt imploded on the last run,” he said. “There was surf around the wave and so I crossed the finish line with a half-sunken boat.”

The kayaker was excited to compete in boatercross, in which multiple kayakers try to race through the gates at the same time, in the afternoon.

“It’s probably the most fun event that we’ll have all weekend,” he said.

A group of rafters navigates Durango Whitewater Park’s features during Animas River Days on Saturday. (Nick Gonzales/Durango Herald)

Peters said the relatively small size of the event compared with ones on the Front Range and the course in particular are reasons he has returned year after year.

“There’s less people and a really great river – there’s tons of variety on the course,” he said. “When the water’s changing – like it’s gone up like 2,000 cfs in the last two days – you see a total range of features coming in throughout the course. It’s cool that the whitewater course can be good at so many different levels.”

Durango Whitewater Park, however, is not the only whitewater drawing festival attendees to the Animas.

“We’re going to go paddle tomorrow the upper Animas, which is like the most legendary 24-mile run in Colorado,” Peters said. “You go do a competition and then you go get wilderness kayaking. Can’t beat that.”

Nevertheless, he said, there was more energy at the festival itself this year.

“We’ve got the freestyle nationals, so there’s definitely say there’s a bit more higher-caliber boaters here in quantity,” he said. “I think everyone’s just stoked to be out at an event again. Everything got canceled for us last year, so everyone has a year of pent-up excitement to be getting on the water.”

This marked James Kerr’s first time at Animas River Days. The Fort Lewis College student, originally from Indiana, was drawn to the region for its outdoor recreation and learned how to kayak from a friend in the last year.

He had kayaked the whitewater park before, but never during the festival.

“It was great,” he said. “The water is peaking right now, which is really nice, but it’s also nice just to see the whole town getting out and doing stuff, feeling comfortable. Nobody is wearing masks, you can see everyone smile so it’s really nice and really different.”

Kerr said it is important to have community events like Animas River Days return after the pandemic.

“I really like the boating community, and I like the Durango community, and I think it’s cool to have these types of events that kind of like bring people from all over and people from Durango together in one spot,” he said.

Rafters fight their way upstream in an effort to clear a gate during the Animas River Days Raft Slalom on Saturday at the Durango Whitewater Park. (Nick Gonzales/Durango Herald)

This was also the first Animas River Days for Gene and Pam Wakefield, who moved to Durango two years ago and split their time between Colorado and Tucson, Arizona.

Now that he and his wife have had the chance to be spectators at the festival, “we’ll go every year now,” Gene said.

“Putting myself in that kayak and vicariously exploring and enjoying and meeting those challenges – I can’t do that, but vicariously, I can live it through them so it’s kind of cool,” Pam said.

The Wakefields had kayaked before, but not on the Animas.

“I need it to be a lot smoother than this,” Pam said.

ngonzales@durangoherald.com

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