Intro: Memories of the River of Sorrow ~ The Land Desk

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The first part of an essay about the beleaguered lower Dolores River

Jonathan P. Thompson
Oct 27

NOTE to readers: This is the first part of an essay about the beleaguered Dolores River in southwestern Colorado and a boat trip I took on it years ago, when dam operators released enough water from McPhee Reservoir each spring to support downstream boating and the riparian ecosystem. The occasion: Sen. Michael Bennet is expected to introduce legislation later this year establishing a national conservation area on a 60 mile stretch of the river below McPhee Dam. Look for the second part of the essay this Friday. 

On the morning of May 29, 1998, three friends of mine launched a canoe, a kayak, and a raft from the Bradfield Ranch put in along the Dolores River below McPhee Dam on a three day tour. I, the only non-pro boater in the group, tagged along for the ride. The trip would turn out to be fairly typical for the lower Dolores, which is to say it was incredible, beautiful, at times terrifying, and served as a salve for wounded psyches. I mean, there was the thing with the coffee … well, I’ll get to that … but otherwise the trip was extraordinary in large part due to its timing. 

We began our journey on an infamous day in Four Corners Country history, oblivious to the bloody mayhem unfolding within a dozen or so miles from where we were. That was mere coincidence. More significantly, we were experiencing what would turn out to be one of the last bountiful boating years on the lower Dolores. Within a couple of years climate change-induced drought would set into the San Juan Mountains, lake levels would plummet, and the big spigot on McPhee Dam would be virtually shut off more years than not, rendering boat trips like ours impossible. And just over a couple of decades later, the stretch we floated would be reduced to a series of deep puddles, downstream river gauges would flatline for weeks on end, and the future existence of the once mighty River of our Lady of Sorrows would be thrown into doubt. 

We weren’t cognizant of any of that, though. All we knew is that we’d managed to get a few days off from our respective jobs and that we were slipping onto the river before that year’s generous releases from the dam had ebbed for the summer. 

God knows I needed it. I was living in Silverton then, running a little bakery with Wendy, and gearing up for the tourist season to come while still reeling from my father’s death earlier that spring. So when G called me up and invited me on a trip down the Dolores, where I had spent a lot of time with my father, albeit none of it in a boat, Wendy pretty much pushed me out the door. I met G, who was living up in Pitkin County at the time, in Ouray. We drove through the Disappointment Valley in the last light of dusk and camped out near Slick Rock so we’d be in position to do the shuttle first thing in the morning. 

We launched on one of those outrageously perfect, blue-sky-warm Four Corners days. The river was running at the 1,300 cubic feet per second, which was about half of what it had been a couple weeks earlier, but plenty to push us along at a rapid but conversational clip. We weren’t in a hurry, but we also didn’t want to dally since it was Friday and the crowds likely would be out looking to get in one more float before the season ended, and we wanted first dibs on the prime campsites. 

We talked about the things people talk about when floating down an iconic Western river, which is to say not much of consequence. Well, all of us except B, that is, who yammered on in his deep, gravelly voice about the coffee he had brought back from a recent trip to Guatemala. He had packed a pound of the black gold in our food box. “You’ve never had coffee like this, Jonny. You just wait!” He talked it up so much that I almost begged them to pull over, set up the kitchen, and brew me up a pot in the middle of the day—but I figured that might violate some code of the river so I kept my trap shut. 

In the middle of the afternoon, somewhere deep in the Ponderosa Gorge, we eddied out at a big flat spot in a glade of butterscotch-scented, girthy pines—an ideal river campsite. B had let me try out his canoe, which was a little bit scary and tough on the knees, besides, so I was somewhat relieved to be done for the day and ached for a beer and to just laze around in the sun before it disappeared behind the rim. As we were de-rigging the raft and setting up camp another party of paddlers floated by. 

“Hey!” One of them said, “Did you hear about the bank robbers?”

“Bank robbers?” B yelled. “What bank robbers?” But that kayaker was already out of earshot, leaving the next guy to answer: “Heavily armed fugitives. They think they’re down here somewhere!” The rest of his words were lost in the wind. 

“Did he say something about a cop getting shot?” I asked. Everyone just shrugged their shoulders and kept setting up camp. “Did you say something …?” I yelled, before realizing that guy couldn’t hear me either. “He said something about a cop getting shot. And about them coming down here, didn’t he?”

“Ahhh, nothing to worry about,” D said. “Have a beer.” 

I took a big, cold, sudsy swig. It wasn’t enough to dull my anxiety, though. I was already mildly terrified of the gnarly rapids that lay ahead—I’m not a water person and I’m really not a churning-, hypothermia-inducing-whitewater person. Now I had something else to freak out about: gunned-up maniacs invading our camp, stealing our coffee even before I had a chance to sample it, and taking us hostage—or worse. 

I took another swig, and then another, warily watching the rim. 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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