Animas River Outfitters Hit Hard

Paddlesports outfitters dealt serious blow by the Gold King Mine toxic blowout

Read more from the group of kayakers who paddled the Baker's Box section of the Animas River north of Durango, Colo., on August 5, the day that the Gold Mine breach occurred near the river's headwaters in Silverton. Photo: Andy Hobson
Read more from the group of kayakers who paddled the Baker's Box section of the Animas River north of Durango, Colo., on August 5, the day that the Gold Mine breach occurred near the river's headwaters in Silverton. Photo: Andy Hobson

By Malia Durbano

The parking lots and storefronts for all of Durango, Colo.'s river outfitters are empty. Matt Wilson, owner of 4Corners Riversports says, "Business just came to a complete standstill. All access points to the river were closed last Thursday afternoon."

Wilson has refunded $30,000 from canceled trips in the last five days. "We are just in full damage control," he explains.

Erik Jorgensen of Flexible Flyers reports, "We just had to shut down. This was shaping up to be our best August since 1982."

"This is a nightmare,” Jorgensen says, summing up the sentiment of other local company owners. “We can't even take future reservations because we don't know exactly when the river will be open again."

Banks of the Animas River in Durango, Colo., Tuesday. Photo: Erik Jorgensen - Flexible Flyers Rafting
Banks of the Animas River in Durango, Colo., this weekend, as sediment begins to settle in the river banks. State officials announced today that the heavy-metal and pH levels have returned to pre-blowout levels, though the river will remain closed to public use through the weekend. Photo: Erik Jorgensen – Flexible Flyers Rafting

The EPA announced that the soonest the river will be open will be next Monday, August 17. At a press conference near the river at Santa Rita Park on Tuesday morning, EPA Regional Administrator, Shaun McGrath asserted, "We will continue to monitor the short- and long-term effects on the river. We are staying on top of it and hope the river will return to full use soon, but our top priority is to protect public health."

Press conference photo courtesy of Pamela Glasco, Durango Business Improvement District.
Press conference photo courtesy of Pamela Glasco, Durango Business Improvement District.

At the same press conference, pictured above, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper claimed, "This is only a short-term problem and only a blip in the economy. While we will take no risks with public health, we will get everybody back to the river they love. At the very least, we will offer low-interest loans to the rafting companies and offer some compensation for lost revenue."

Drew Kensinger, Operations Manager for Mild to Wild Rafting, has 38 river guides and four bus drivers out of work. They take about 150 to 200 people a day out on rafts, inflatable kayaks and SUPs. "This is almost the end of the season. We have to make our money while we can."

Ellen Southworth, trip consultant and guide for Mild to Wild, provided more details: "Our most popular trip is the half-day rafting,” Southworth said. “It's $56.18 per person. So multiply that by 150 – and you can see that we are losing a minimum of $8,427 a day! Guides like to put their paychecks in the bank, and we depend on tips for dinner." Obviously, there aren't any of those either.

Southwest Raft and Jeep owner Troy McLeod says his phone usually rings 50 to 60 times a day. "That has stopped," said McLeod, who's been refunding reservation money daily. His wife also brought to his attention that not only are they losing the credit card processing fee they paid when they made the reservations; they are also paying the fee again when they have to refund the money.

Marcie Bidwell, an avid kayaker, and executive director the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research and education in Southwestern Colorado, at least had some good news. As soon as the agency heard about the blowout situation, last Wednesday, August 5 at a closed mine 50 miles north of Durango — which dumped approximately 3 million gallons of toxic waste-water into an upper tributary of the Animas — they ran to the river to take water samples before the toxic sludge arrived in Durango. They tested the pH of the water and took samples at varying times over the next few days. "The dip in the pH was very short and by Friday at 4 p.m., it was back to normal. The dominant species are still alive. We'll monitor the long-term effects by watching the insects and vertebrates that live on the bottom of the river."

–Stay tuned for more coverage of the spill on CanoeKayak.com as the toxic waste-waters continue flowing down the San Juan River and into Lake Powell.

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Paddlers React to Animas River Spill

Another shot from the banks of Colorado's Animas River. Photo: Erik Jorgensen - Flexible Flyers Rafting
Another shot from the banks of Colorado’s Animas River this weekend. Photo: Erik Jorgensen – Flexible Flyers Rafting