Whitewater Rafting Colorado's Upper Animas River - Page 2

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Rafting the Upper Animas River in Durango, Colorado
Rafting the Upper Animas River in Durango, Colorado  (Mountain Waters)

The landscape, with lonely couloirs still boasting snow beneath dramatic stone-faced peaks and never-ending evergreen forests climbing the mountainsides, helps to remind me that I have signed up for an adventure and not a mere walk in the woods. These mountains are home to elk, black bear, bighorn sheep, and most likely mountain lions. Mining villages have come and gone in the past century, with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad a last link between historic Silverton, which continues to offer a rough-edged escape for recreationalists contemplating the Weminuche Wilderness, and the tourist-friendly town of Durango in the valley below. I am able to find a modicum of comfort in the knowledge that Womack’s employer, Mountain Waters Rafting, has maintained a sterling safety record during its three decades of leading trips. The original owner of Mountain Waters, Casey Lynch, pioneered running the Upper A 30 years ago, and Womack has 22 years of experience as a river guide and hunting outfitter.

Ready to push off, I strap on my brain bucket, splash water on my face, and slap myself a couple of times to get my adrenaline up like Paul Giamatti did to that kid in Win Win. What could go wrong, right?

With Womack at the oars, and me, there are three additional paddlers in our boat. Two are middle-aged fellows in their 50s, Matt and Eddie, who run a construction crew in Durango—friends of Lynch if memory serves. The third is a new guide, Kevin, an Upper A virgin who studies biochemistry at local college Fort Lewis. Soon we are rocking, with Womack bellowing at us to keep paddling as we bounce off house-sized boulders and swirl downstream like an enormous rubber-sided pinball. As we approach Ten Mile Rapid, our boat and the two other Mountain Waters crafts pull off to scout the situation, and ensure that we will be able to run a safe line as we get ready to bash through the three-quarter-mile slot canyon that gives Ten Mile a Class V rating (rapids are rated from I-VI, with the most difficult VI considered unnavigable). Womack decides we will run the rapid river left to avoid the major obstacles and the “tractor beam” current that threatens to dump us in the rowdy recirculating set of holes just below.

Back onboard our raft, time seems to slow down as Womack positions the boat above the churning whitewater. The adrenaline pumping through my brain makes my first efforts to paddle seem sluggish. I was never much of a science student, but I know enough about fluid dynamics to recognize that when water reaches a constriction, it gains exponential force. In physics, this is described as Bernoulli’s principle. Of course, anybody who has ever placed a thumb over the end of a garden hose knows you can create a powerful stream out of the mildest trickle of water. With the Upper A running close to its limit of 4,000 cubic feet per second, we were indeed about to ride a fire hose.

All eyes forward, we slither down the chute of whitewater and make a couple of quick turns. Big waves smash over the thwarts and threaten to wash us out of the boat, and the lag between my thoughts and actions vanishes just in time. I am crouched now behind Eddie, syncing my every stroke with his, feeling the boat twist and shuck like a go-go dancer, when all of a sudden the raft hesitates and goes into a little shimmy. Up front, Matt and Eddie look at each other and appear to levitate out of the raft and into the water. Matt, in particular, is caught off guard and reaches for his friend before he realizes in Wile E. Coyote fashion that he, too, is totally up in the air. Kevin the chemist and I dive into action, pulling these burly construction dudes back into the boat. As we depart Ten Mile, high fives erupt all around.

“The anticipation of swimming is always worse than the actual swim,” declares Matt, wet and happy.

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