By Malia Durbano

Last May, four Fort Lewis College students began a prolonged 35-day connection with the local river that they too often took for granted. That’s no longer the case, after the students started an ambitious multi-sport river expedition at the absolute headwaters of the Animas River, which ends up flowing right through their college town of Durango, Colo., into the San Juan, and eventually the Colorado River. The crew headed upriver into the San Juan Mountains, hiking to the top of Wood Mountain, elevation 13,660 feet, skiing to the base, walking eight miles, and then kayaking to their rafting gear in Silverton, a high-alpine hamlet and start of the five-week paddling epic—though it wasn’t all paddle-powered. Nearly a month and half later, they crossed Lake Powell in a custom raft motorized with solar panels—something never before accomplished. The 15-foot raft propelled by an electric outboard motor crossed 100 miles of Lake Powell from Piute Falls to Glen Canyon Dam in five days.

Down the raging upper Animas in peak runoff.

More than a river adventure trip, the men documented the importance of water in a region currently suffering from severe drought. Immersing themselves intimately with the river and the Four Corners Region, the goal was, "to get others to love, care about and take care of this precious resource" explains Greg Cairns, director of The Current film, which captures the project and debuted Wednesday in Durango. "People need to be connected to this region to care about it. We want to engage the greater community and people all over the country to care about nature, the environment and the river."

Along the way, they interviewed more than a dozen farmers, river advocates and water agency officials.

"Actually living with the river, feeling the swirling eddies, the powerful thundering of the waterfalls, paddling against the raging wind and being blasted by blowing sand, the trip provided a holistic sense of what the river goes through," said Cairns.

Floating the San Juan River before its confluence with the Colorado.

Stephen Witherspoon, producer, summed up the adventure: "The experience was a dream come true to live on the river for five weeks. It was a rare opportunity and I was privileged to help create it and be a part of it. I walked away with so much, personally, professionally, and spiritually. Spending 35 nights on a cushy 3-inch Paco-pad—you can't go wrong!”

“Most of the time when I learn about rivers it comes in fragments, experiencing just the highlights of the system—this journey was different," added Cairns. "I saw the whole river, all of the dams, diversions, rapids, and wildlife. I see the Animas River almost every day, and now I know how it ends 200 miles downriver.

“The water that I drink and shower with is this river. I often take for granted the resources I use. We created a documentary about the local river to help us understand it, and hopefully help others as well. I can’t hope to know how to protect my resources without first understanding them."

Witherspoon summed up the broad experience by noting how the trip was a “hands-on way to research the impact people have on the river.”

A documentary chronicling the adventure will be released online at

Cruising across Lake Powell in the custom solar-powered raft