This spring, the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado finally became floatable, to the delight of Rocky Mountain river runners. And as its waters rose, so, too, did the spirits and environmental consciousness of those fortunate enough to run her and witness a waterway once again restored to its rightful place as a river.
During traditional years of late, withholding extra water, the McPhee dam upstream reduces the Dolores to an unrunnable, large stream. But this spring, thanks to ample runoff and a release schedule for the first time in over a decade, flows exceeded 1000 cfs for nearly six weeks, even topping off at a robust 4,000. This extra water washed away sediment deposits, helped the fish, and kept paddlers entertained – as it did myself and a few friends, who wanted to experience it first hand.
The Dolores has multiple put-in and take-out locations, making it an easy river to pick your own adventure. It is possible to raft the entire 330 miles from Bradfield Launch past Moab to Lake Powell. It is also easy to stop shy of the famous whitewater in Cataract Canyon, or, if time is a constraint, float from Bedrock to Gateway, a short and relaxed 44 miles.
We opted for something in the middle, a 96-mile float through Slickrock, Paradox, and Mesa Canyons.
From the first moment we sat on the rafts we were awestruck. The scenery started sliding by as the river’s current pulled us downstream and the large canyon walls began telling their tales. From Wingate red sandstone to remnants of mining and irrigation operations, every bend in the river had a different story. The color of the stone was as varied as the terrain, from Gypsum to the green of Uranium.
As the canyons led to side canyons we began to explore beyond our rafts. Scattered along the river are hidden treasures like pictographs, dinosaur footprints and dried-up waterfalls. Tamarisk and cottonwoods cover the shore and campgrounds are found where the wildlife allows. Eagles, hawks and vultures soar overhead, and occasionally, as with the roar of Class IV Snaggletooth, the sound of whitewater drowns everything else out.
We were insignificant humans in a bevy of craft and toys – from rafts and catarafts to kayaks and stand up paddleboards – with everything we needed to experience a week in the life of a river reborn. And in so doing, we became a bit reborn ourselves.