A long-awaited river party burst through the gates of McPhee Dam over the weekend, sending hundreds of happy boaters into the rarely seen red-rock canyons of the Lower Dolores River.
The three-day whitewater release was announced last week on short notice, and within hours, the boat ramps at Bradfield Bridge and Dove Creek Pumphouse began filling up with local boaters and their brightly colored rafts, kayaks, canoes and dories.
“It’s like a family reunion. It’s wonderful!” said boater Jen Akers.
Thursday and Friday, a caravan of cars and trucks pulling boat trailers filled local highways, stopping for gas and stocking up at local gear shops and food markets.
By Friday morning, a parade of boats had disappeared into the sunny Ponderosa Gorge, the first leg of 97-mile stretch to Slick Rock that features lively rapids, epic camp spots, remote hiking, and spectacular scenery.
“To see water in the river is really nice, not just for the boaters but for the downstream ecology as well,” said BLM ranger Tyler Fouss. “Everyone is having a fun time, and there have been no problems.”
By the end of Saturday, 300 boats had made the Ponderosa Gorge Run.
This is the first time since 2011 that runoff has exceeded the capacity of McPhee Reservoir, triggering a required whitewater release. Winter snowpack and seasonal rains that reached above average the past two years could signal a crack in the armor of a lingering drought.
“Away we go, it’s been a long wait,” said raft captain Wade Hanson, upon launch at Bradfield. He’s a member of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, which is pushing for improved recreational and environmental flows on the river.
A distinct swampy aroma of the water becomes apparent.
“The years of low water built up moss and silt, and now it’s being stirred up,” Hanson says. “The river needs more regular flushing.”
As the river winds through the deep canyon, stands of old growth ponderosa, spruce and fir reach the shoreline below towering sandstone walls. Anasazi granaries hide in the cliffs, as do panels of ancient rock art.
Startled wildlife, unaccustomed to a human presence for several years, greet the boaters,including BLM staffer Brad Pietruszka, who ran the river Thursday during ramp-up flows to check for hazards.
“I stopped and at first did not notice that 10 yards away, a bear was lounging in the water with her cub on shore,” he said. “I jumped back in the boat quick, and they bolted.”
He returned the next day with his wife and children for an overnight trip.
At a grassy camp in Ponderosa Gorge, fresh bear scat was prevalent, making sleep a little elusive.
“We’re warning campers of a heavy bear presence, and to store food securely away and not keep it in tents,” Fouss said.
River otters swam among rafts to the delight of boaters, and a herd of desert bighorn sheep stared down from the cliffs at the commotion of the Pumphouse boat ramp.
A significant new river hazard at mile-marker 17.2 was scouted by BLM recreation specialist Jeff Christensen. Three large boulders recently fell from the upper cliffs into the river channel.
“It can be avoided river left,” Christensen said. Or float through into it, and take the first slot exit – the second one is pretty narrow for a raft.
Farther downstream at the mighty Snaggletooth Rapid, dozens of onlookers enjoyed watching boaters go through the Class IV whitewater.
Some oarsmen purposely maneuvered backward through the second pour-off, and others took it head on, often with passengers crashing into each other, holding on precariously.
Within an hour, two rafts got hung up on a mid-stream boulder after the rapid. A pontoon boat tried unsuccessfully to bump one off, then spun around and got momentarily stuck in deep hole.
A rope line thrown from shore and a helpful kayaker freed the worst stuck raft to cheers from the shore.
The crowds again applauded with excitement when a stand-up paddle boarder successfully navigated Snaggletooth Rapid, an act of sheer bravery and amazing balance.
Back in Ponderosa Gorge, Julia Anderson powered her inflatable kayak through the more mellow but still formidable rapids at Glade Canyon, celebrating with her kayaking girlfriends after each run.
“I was a little nervous at first, but gained confidence with every rapid,” she said. “What I love about this river is the gorgeous scenery, and being here with good people who are helpful.”
Added boater Jen Stark, “The river has a wild feel when there is a release. It is healthy for it and offers opportunity for people to explore a beautiful canyon.”