Monday, August 24, 2009

Reservoir dogs: of Navajo and Nighthorse

Someone called it "the New Mexican mating ritual."

There were nine of us sitting on a cliff overlooking an arm of Navajo Reservoir. We jumped fromthe cliffs and swam and just sat gazing out over the flooded canyon filled with blue water, the rounded and crumbling tan sandstone cliffs dotted with pinion and juniper, watching the clouds float above and the boats play below.

It was the last day of the summer for our gaggle of teens, and so, as has been our ritual the last few years, we packed up and headed south for the cool and clear impounded waters of New Mexico's northernmost so-called "lake."

That's when a jet ski driven by a big guy, with a girl with a pennant of brunette hair flying behind and her arms wrapped around the driver's ample waist, buzzing loudly up and down the channel in front of our band of rocks, decelerated and turned into our little cove.

He stopped his machine somewhere on a rock shelf somewhere below us, out of sight. Then he shot loudly out back into sight -- minus his girlfriend -- and proceeded to put on a screaming, splashy display of sharp turns and jumps and spins on his manly machine right in front of us. For the amusement of his girlfriend? To impress her? Or, as someone sharply pointed out, perhaps as some sort of homo motorus mating dance?

Whatever it was, it was damned silly. And loud. And somewhat annoying, even if amusing.

But that is the nature of Navajo Reservoir. It is 35 miles of the San Juan River (plus arms up the Pine and Piedra rivers) flooded and given over to water-borne motorsports in the arid Four Corners highlands.

Yes, despite my personal aversion to big-ass water projects, even we can appreciate coming down here for the cool respite of the lake its cliff jumping and scenery. And I can even enjoy the motorhead wildlife watching, as big, expensive boats circle the busy lake aimlessly over and over and over ...

That's fine. But here's a proposal: How about making Lake Nighthorse -- the reservoir filling Ridges Basin for the Animas-La Plata project -- a lake for non-motorized recreation?

Already in the Four Corners, the major reservoirs backed up behind the region's big dams -- Navajo, McPhee, Glen Canyon, and Vallecito, in particular -- have been given over to the water-machine culture.

So, how about water recreation for those who seek quiet, and peace, and human-powered enjoyment of lakes?

Ridges Basin is perfect: It is surrounded by what's left of the Bodo Wildlife Area, sacrificed for the Animas-La Plata Project -- and originally deeded by the Bodo family to remain forever wild for wildlife) -- and so, despite the travesty of the condemning and destroying of the heart of the wildlife area, would still honor the place and the intent of its creation.

And, I believe, as the only lake set aside for peace and quiet and paddling and rowing, it would become a big tourist draw for the Durango area. The motorheads have plenty of other places to go -- all those once wild canyons now submerged.

Let's have a place for that, even after flooding, still honors that peace. And those of us who seek quiet.

After all, we need places for our mating rituals, too.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Floating the San Juan in August ...

... is like taking a slow boat to Utah. Or, uh, in Utah. Through Utah?

Well, whatever it is, is certainly is slow. Especially this year, when our annual dose of welcome monsoonal weather has failed to materialize over the Four Corners.

Last weekend, I got to do five days on the lower San Juan -- Mexican Hat to Clay Hills -- with some folks I've never been down with before. Some I've known, some I met there. Some who've been down the San Juan before, some for whom it was their first visit.

Some Augusts at this time of year, the river can be in the thousands of cfs. And there can be floods and fluctuations in that flow. A few years ago, we were on the San Juan at the end of summer, when over night the flow bulged. We went to bed with the river a stately 1,000 cfs, and awoke to a bullying 10,000 cfs in the morning. It stole our groover and a bunch of gear, too, but this was a thief in the night, and there was nothing we could do about it. We were fortunate we'd tied our boats high and securely.

Not so last week, though. Last week we found the river slow and gaunt -- a mere 500ish, with its skin hanging off as wide beaches and long sandbars, and its bones showing through in rocky rapids and bouldery midstream obstacles.

Case in point: I humbly admit I suffered my first-time-ever wrap in Government Rapid -- usually an all-bark/no-bite class II bit of splashy water. This year it was a sieve of boulders, a sandstone net that snagged my cataraft like a rabbit in a snare.

I bowed humbly to the river as we tugged and low-sided and tried to pry and finally got roped off the rock. The river this year seems determined to remind me to always be respectful ...

Aside from that, though, our float time consisted of mainly long, lazy days on the water. On the second day we floated for 17 miles -- which took us a good 10 hours. And what did we do in those 10 hours -- and all the other hours we spent on the slow boat ... across? ... Utah over five days?

Talked. Sat silent. Looked. Smelled. Felt. Thought. Didn't thought. Rowed. Didn't row. Did nothing. Drank warm cheap beer. Which was everything we set out to do.

But isn't that the San Juan River? As staggering a landscape as the canyon of the San Juan is -- with its crumbling-layer-cake limestone ledges and cliffs, its herds of Bighorn sheep, its sprawling sandy campsites, it's fantasmagorical sidecanyon hikes, and its opportunity for day upon day upon night upon another day of such beauty -- it isn't all that popular. We saw two other parties on the river, and it turned out I knew one of them.

The reason, I believe, is that the San Juan doesn't offer big whitewater, which deters most folks, given its remoteness and long shuttle (the 56-mile lower, Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, section, anyway). It's slow. And so, for mst, especially younger, more adreline-addicted younger river runners, there's nothing there.

They're wrong. Everything is there.

Everything for us, anyway. For our kind. Because with its slow, sweltering loveliness, the San Juan is a river for poets and drunks (two traits that, in my experience, are often correlated). Not loud, hammering, sloppy, sotty drunks -- but philosophical, pagan, playful, active, convivial drinkers. Like us.

And families. And both other parties we saw, including ours, were parents with kids. Fellow San Juanistas.

Slow floating down the San Juan suits me. It suits me and all those fellow San Juanistas. Enough said. And it suited this band of companions brought together for this particular trip this particular time down this, the Four Corners' family river.

Gathered on our slow boats to through over across in around and within our kind of place.

Check out more pics from the San Juan here:

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Great Animas River Afternoon Urban Expedition

Alright, it wasn't exactly an expedition. And it wasn't "great" in scope or ambition or epic-ness.

It was just an afternoon, and it was urban, and it was just our everyday downtown Animas River.

But it was "great" in the everyday sense of very much fun.

Yesterday a small gathering of us townies rallied a run through downtown Durango, down the low-flowing Animas, to get out of the heat, away from chores, and onto the river. Even if was just a 200-cfs trickle. And even if it was just through town.

What at bigger flows is a quick hour-long blast north to south through town -- 29th Street put-in to the old saw mill site -- took us three hours. Lots of float time, but lots of rock maneuvering and narrow chute paddling, too. The low water also gave us a chance to study the bone structure of what are whitewater sections at higher water.

We certainly weren't alone, either. Tubers, anglers, swimmers, sunbathers, beer drinkers, squirt boaters joined us on our downtown playground. Even a forlorn looking family of four passed by on a big commercial raft, threading the rocks and revelers while their guide earnestly regaled with them with Durango history on their "two-hour whitewater adventure."

That it wasn't. But it was, as we had set out to find, recharging, relaxing time on the water, with friends, right in our own town.

This, too, is a big part of what our kids will remember about their growing up in Duranago -- summers days spent bobbing the Animas in tubes and duckies. And with all the rest of us who love and appreciate our little river through town.

Check out more views of Durango from waterline here: