The sounds of a mountain river pinching against a steep bank and pouring over large granite boulders are enough to wash out the chatter of excited voices. From a perch above the drop, we yell into each other’s ears, pointing, and pantomiming various oar-strokes necessary to pick apart this long, technical rapid. It’s one that we don’t want to mess up. Upstream, the bow-lines anchoring our vessels to the shore are under the full tension of the Animas River. Our fleet includes two rafts: a 30-year old 12’ Hyside named Tom Brady, and a brand-spanking-new 13.9’ Jack’s Plastic Dragonfly, a rental from San Juan College, explicitly labeled so with huge black letters across the tubes. Just the sight of these two boats perched above class V whitewater would likely send most swift-water professionals running for their whistles and SPOT devices.
Traveling through the mountains on a river full of freshly melted snow is an experience to behold. Especially this season. The sight of clean, cold water making its way from high peaks to the low valleys feels more like a mirage than an actual spring run-off. In a week, most of this water will be gone. What little snow is left melts awkwardly beneath swaths of red and brown dust blown in from nearby deserts, and extended weather forecasts encourage little hope for rain.
Still, it’s good to be up here, to connect with this river and the truly inspiring mountainscape through which it passes. Above the churning waters, a perfectly positioned Engelmann spruce clings to the rocks. Its root crown is exposed at its base, and within is a cool, dark space about the size of a mini-fridge. Inside, old letters are sealed in a glass jar, a bottle of Jim Beam sits half-full, there is a denim train conductor's hat, a boatman’s river knife and helmet, quartz crystals, polished river stones, sea glass and a weathered logbook in a small ammo-can. The log book is graced with dozens of names and journal-style entries dating back to the mid-1990’s. Many are from backpackers who passed through the area. Others remember a dear friend, lost to the river. There are entries from railroad workers, and even a few skiers who were there in winter.
It’s moving to see how different people connect to this place. How those who have come to this old tree above the river pay homage, let go, and perhaps so much more than that. There’s something about being in the mountains that makes us more human, more alive, and forces us to ponder our place in this world where we exist. I take a few moments to pull out a little something of my own, carefully placing it with the other items beneath the tree.
Back at the boats, excitement is running high. After exchanging last nervous hoots with the crew aboard Tom Brady, we launch out into the main current with our rental. My seat, bolted to the frame, sits high on the raft. I have a perfect view of the obvious horizon line at the top of the drop. Airborne mist and spray is all I can see beyond that. Turning the snout of the raft towards a boulder that marks my entrance into the rapid, I take a long breath and push hard on the oars.
May 19, 2018