By Amanda Nichols
Canoes and the Dolores. In Colorado, these are two of river-running's most uncommon sights. Open canoes on the frigid, raging rivers during the state's late-spring runoff are just as rare as any boatable amount of water in the elusive Dolores River, tucked away in the state's southwest corner.
What's hidden there was considered by many one of the three best river trips in the United States, alongside the Grand Canyon and Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon. The construction of the McPhee Dam in the mid-1980s choked off paddling seasons, tapering them to the point that the river has not run for the past five years. The long dry spells on the river are due to a deadlock of erratic snowfall, coveted water rights, and dam managers who have no interest in wasting a single cubic foot of water on paddlers. The river only sees a release when the reservoir is completely full after a heavy runoff. Even then dam managers wait until the last moment to announce their plans, leaving boaters scrambling to make the run on short notice. This year parched paddlers were told to expect a ten-day, then a three-day, and finally a five-day release on the river, the last announcement coming after the spill had started and those who may have wanted to extend their trip were already in the canyon.
Living just across the border in southeast Utah, we knew we had to get on the water while it was there. And with our neighbors' 16-foot canoe soaking in the sun, we had our open-decked weapon of choice. Needless to say, we weren't the only paddlers in the area who rallied south to the news of announced spill in Colorado's canyon country.
Our river ranger friend Britt warned that the Dolores put-in would be like a Phish concert: hula hoops, people congregated around coolers, outhouses without toilet paper and general mayhem. Our plan was to leave the trailer of raft gear at home and launch a light canoe mission to get through the chaos. With our borrowed beater canoe, we packed our cooler with 3.2 beer (the first time Utah beer has been smuggled into Colorado … ever?) and headed to the river. When we arrived at the freshly mowed BLM boat ramp, Britt's predictions weren't far off. We carried our boat past the lines of trucks, rafts, trailers, and hand-crank margarita blenders and spotted a four-foot-wide opening in the mess of gear to rig our canoe for a quick launch.
As we floated away from the put-in, the river was a thick and soupy torrent of 1,200 cfs, whipping down the channelized meanders at a brisk pace. The willows were creaking and quivering, excited that their river was finally aflow. The bed was so narrow that at times, a perpendicular 18-foot raft would've created a dangerous bro-strainer.
Lucky for us, we were able to squeeze by the rafts, cruising under sculpted sandstone walls and pinyon-juniper slopes in our trusty Pelican, once pinned on a rock and abandoned before being rescued by another river ranger friend. Plastic, dented and questionable, Zak and I planned to "experience the Dolores" by blasting past the other crafts and doing our best to avoid the Crowdorado mayhem. Since we typically raft or kayak, it took Zak a few tight corners and slammed rocks to dial in his J-stroke while I remembered how to draw.
We passed group after group that had bushwhacked their way through the willows, looking for long lost campsites to pitch their tent. Once again, losing the raft was the way to go; we were able to tuck our canoe into a thicket of willow and camp under the stars.
The next day, however, the hectic game of bumper boats started to unwind beneath the blue sky and deep red cliffs. We leapfrogged with a half-dozen other groups through the day, each pass accompanied by genuine smiles of satisfied river runners. We were greeted with waves, hellos, and then some: beer, candy, camp offers, hike suggestions and even a FlaBongo session.
In the end, the Dolores's scene was one of camaraderie and pleasantry unlike anything I've ever experienced on a river. In attempting to avoid other boaters, we were missing the spirit of this run. It wasn't one of competition or scoring the best camps. It was about floating through a canyon that for the last five years had been nothing more than a silty creek.
When the Dolores runs, the boating community unites. And it turns out Coloradoans don't mind canoes: On the Dolores, all crafts are welcome.
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