Whitewater Rafting Colorado's Upper Animas River

Travel writer and adrenaline junkie Dan Oko shares his experiences rafting the white waters of Durango, Colorado's Upper Animas River—from initial nerves to rescuing raft mates and celebratory beers afterward.
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Rafting the Upper Animas River in Durango, Colorado
Rafting the Upper Animas River in Durango, Colorado  (Mountain Waters)

Watching lead guide Dale Womack lace up his combat boots and pack on a layer of body armor before adding his floatation gear lets me know that this is not just another day on the river. Under a Colorado sky dotted with clouds, we’ve arrived on the banks of the Upper Animas, the highest commercial put-in in the lower 48. From here, a 25-mile stretch of snow-pumped rapids drops through the San Juan Mountains below the old mining town of Silverton to the high desert of Durango and the Four Corners. It’s a two-day trip that Womack has made countless times. As he double-checks his kit and looks over the rigging on our raft, it’s clear he isn’t taking anything for granted. With boulders, fallen trees, old railroad ties, and other obstacles hidden beneath the roaring whitewater, it’s better safe than sorry on the Upper A.

The put-in is at 9,300 feet, but for the most part the elevation is not what’s making my breath short. Around the corner from our launch, we can hear the roar as the Animas begins its descent; the first day’s concerns include boat-swallowing drops at No Name Falls and Ten Mile Rapid. That roar, joined by the occasional trill of brightly colored Western tanagers in the trees along the riverside, never quits.

Having run whitewater from the holy Ganges in India to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, I learned long ago that every river has its own personality—but those river trips barely prepared me for this adventure. Dropping a stomach-curdling 80 feet per mile, the boulder-strewn Upper A is like a natural waterslide overflowing with rapids. We had discovered during the safety check the previous evening, when clients and a few guide-trainees had to leap into the bone-chilling main stem of the Animas River, still within view of downtown Durango, that the water would be brutally cold. I pray I will not have to swim again.

Because the area is so rough and remote, we’re pretty much on our own once our trio of rafts launches. Like other wilderness rivers—such as the Selway in Idaho, the lower canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas, and the Grand Canyon—self-rescue is the primary and most promising action in the case of an accident. That means if something goes wrong, it will be up to the crew and clients alike to look out for each other. The Upper Animas descends through a remote canyon skirting Colorado’s largest designated wilderness area, the half-million-acre Weminuche, celebrated for its three 14,000-foot peaks. Womack, a rock-ribbed former ski racer and part-time Red Bull event rep, catches me gaping and grins. “At this level, it’s like riding a fire hose,” he declares, surveying the river.

Published: 7 Apr 2012 | Last Updated: 10 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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