As the snow piles up, boaters start dreaming about spring melt water that will fill local rivers.
But depending on the river, a permit may be required – triggering a bureaucratic lottery that inspires a subculture of river runners vying for limited access to coveted whitewater.
In the Southwest, popular rivers like the Colorado, Lower San Juan, Salt, Green and Chama all require permits for certain sections, and it can take years before your turn comes up. Then it’s time to carefully choose your boating party.
Hence the annual river permit party, hosted recently by the Dolores River Boating Advocates at the Dolores Community Center.
There were stacks of permit applications, live country music and dancing, kegs of beer, a river gear auction and adventure movies. But most important, the party is a chance to connect with the boating community and start the negotiations.
It is a game of persuasion and trading, says longtime boater Wade Hanson.
“I’ll invite you on my permit if you return the favor,” he said. “That’s how I got on my first San Juan trip. Then I was hooked, bought my first raft and learned to row.”
There are tricks to the trade in scoring an invitation on a boating trip. What can you offer? Boating skills, gear, shuttle transportation, meal planning, camp cooking, can-do attitude, fireside guitar playing?
“It doesn’t have to be about being a great boater,” said Jon Rezabek. “A lot of it is whether you are willing to work hard with a team. You have to be able to pull your own weight.”
Multiday boating trips require a lot of effort, from rowing, packing and unpacking to scouting, braving big rapids, responding to occasional rescues, setting up camp and preparing meals. Then there’s the dreaded “Groover Duty” – hauling and setting up the portable toilet.
“There is work and a certain amount of risk, but the rewards of adventure and fun times are worth it,” said Rezabek, who is applying for a Grand Canyon river trip permit.
A weighted lottery system was put in place that is more fair, he said. Every year, you do not pull a permit increases your chances the next time you apply.
Having some outdoor experience and basic gear is also helpful for a trip invitation, said kayaker Ladonna Darland.
“A trip leader wants to know that you are prepared, like having the right gear, an extra paddle, life jacket, good shoes, a first-aid kit,” she said. “You should know how to swim and have done some research on the trip.”
To gain experience and avoid risky solo trips, she signed up with meetup.com, an outdoor adventure website that organizes group trips for boating, hiking, backpacking and climbing.
Having a positive attitude and a sense of suffering graciously are also important for members of a boating trip, said rafting guide Everett Strazza-Whalen.
Handling rain, wind, mud, searing heat, wrecks, annoying personalities and a shortage of ice are all part of the trip.
“You are out in a wild, remote place, and it can be tough going sometimes. Everyone has to be supportive and rely on each other,” he said.
In creative attempt get an edge in the permit application for a weeklong trip on San Juan River, one newlywed couple wrote, “Please, please, it is our honeymoon” over and over again on the envelope in colorful markers. It might have helped, they said, because they got the permit.
You can learn a lot at permit parties.
“What I like are all the older boaters that are here. They have the most experience and the best stories,” said Jay Swanson.
A common theme at the party was that boaters are a welcoming bunch for newcomers looking for adventure.
“Book a commercial trip, apply for a permit, show up at a put-in or at this party, and you will become part of the boating community,” said Rezabek.
Check online for information on river permits at recreation.gov for the San Juan River, Grand Canyon of the Colorado, Westwater Canyon, Ruby-Horsethief, Chama River, Salt River, San Juan River and Green River. Information on the Chama River can be found at blm.gov/visit/rio-chama.
Some permit application processes have been delayed because of five-week government shutdown.
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