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Paddling to the Colorado River Summit

“What better way to help refresh our efforts to protect rivers like the Dolores and the Colorado than to get our partners and ourselves out on the river?”

-Peter Mueller
The Nature Conservancy's North San Juans Project Director

“We are most likely headed for dry and warm weather, and carrying tarps instead of tents will help when our canoes fill up with water.”  

My email sent two days before our launch was meant to set a minimalist goal in preparation for a lengthy 75-mile canoe trip through the arid southwest on the lower Dolores River, a tributary of the legendary Colorado River

Our six-person crew represented conservation partners across the Colorado River Basin: recreational boaters, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and a trio of Nature Conservancy ecologists and project managers. 

What better way to help refresh our efforts to protect rivers like the Dolores and the Colorado than to get our partners and ourselves out on the river?

Our journey was also designed to deliver us to the Colorado River Summit, a first-ever event in Moab, Utah to showcase the many partners the Conservancy works with across the six-state Colorado River Basin and the 15 integrated water management projects currently underway. 

The conference was a show-and-tell of all the good things that the Conservancy brings to conservation on the Colorado River: conservation planning at a scale large enough to make a difference; a collaborative, multi-partner approach; and ambitious goals.

Our team of six canoeists exemplified similar strengths. The one thing we didn’t have was a great deal of canoeing experience. 

A Tale of Two Rivers

To fulfill the vision of boating down a long stretch of the Dolores River, we had to begin our journey at the river’s confluence with the San Miguel.

The Dolores River is dam controlled, and its base flows are allocated from what is called the “fish pool.” One of the major ecological challenges in the region is that this water has proven to be insufficient to sustain native fisheries. 

Finding additional water has been a conservation goal for the last twenty years. 

Despite the enormous challenges, our crew is working more closely than ever with the irrigation companies that use Dolores water to find solutions to meet a multitude of emerging agricultural, human and ecological needs. 

The San Miguel River is a stark contrast to the Dolores—it’s free flowing with natural spring flooding, healthy riparian communities and a thriving native fish population. The San Miguel is the region’s ecological star.

As we loaded the boats at the put in, it was easy to take in this contrast. The San Miguel, even in drought, was contributing over 400 cfs of clear snowmelt waters. 

The Dolores’s 40 cfs swirled in dark concentric circles like a chocolate milkshake in a blender. 

We built dams in the West to settle and develop what was an inhospitable climate. We made the desert bloom, and the communities here have thrived—first on ranching, then on energy and most recently with recreation. 

None of this would have been possible without Bureau of Reclamation initiated water development. We have moved well beyond a Monkey Wrench mentality, and replaced it with collaboration, planning and the West’s legacy of reinventing itself.

The Launch: Where’s the Water?

The Bureau of Reclamation’s McPhee Dam was preparing to implement a new set of reservoir release guidelines to benefit native fish this year, but then the snowpack literally disappeared in what are typically the biggest months for precipitation, March and April. 

When we pushed off from the sandy shores that mark the confluence of the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, the river was less than half its typical flow. 

As we took in the low water level, out came the coolers, guitars, field guides, and even an expedition mascot, Snuffleupagus at the helm of one of our canoes.

Boat trips in the southwest are often synonymous with grand indulgence, from lawn chairs to battery-powered blenders--you name it, it’s been on many storied trips down the West’s famous rivers, from Cataract, Desolation and Grey to the Grand Canyon. 

The only gear I succeeded in turning back was a case of V-8. We launched at noon, the high and hot sun overhead and many miles of slow moving water in front of us.

Day 1: Slow Going

The heavy boats were slow to turn. As if trying to prove it, I immediately took the old 16-foot family Gruman made of aircraft aluminum nose-first into a chunk of sandstone sitting indifferently in the middle of the river. 

The second canoe fared no better, getting momentarily broadsided by the very same rock. We improved from there, got our strokes down, affirmed the need to communicate early and often, and made our 23 miles well in advance of an evening light show that electrified the red sandstone before falling below the horizon.

Day 2: Getting Bumped

Our first action on the second day, of course, is coffee—plenty of coffee. 

I was nervous about the day, nervous about getting my partners and colleagues down a much more challenging 23 miles. The coffee I plied them with as they linger in their sleeping bags was not about making them feel warm and toasty in the chill of an early desert morning, but an attempt to roust them out of bed. 

It works to some degree, and we are back on the river at 10 o’clock. The low water immediately hangs us up on our first rapid. We spend an hour retrieving pinned boats and surprised and cold colleagues who got bumped out of their boats. 

This routine repeats itself again and again, and by 3 o’clock, we still have not covered half our miles.

“No need to worry,” says David Graf from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, who senses my anxiety. “No one really cares about when we pull into camp, we’re just psyched to be here.” 

I get it and let the afternoon sun ease me into the joy of the journey, paddling down a beautiful river with good friends.  

At Work on the Colorado River

The Conservancy has been working for decades with the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, and public and private water managers throughout the West to benefit nature and communities along the Colorado River system.

The waters of the San Miguel and the Dolores nourish the Colorado River, which supplies water to Lake Powell and then Lake Mead. These reservoirs fuel the West. They are the green alfalfa for cattle in Texas, the romaine in the Cochella Valley and the lights of Vegas. 

But in our effort to meet these growing human needs, we have often overstepped nature’s line and placed dozens of fish and streamside habitat on the brink of collapse. As the health of rivers go, so too does the health of most wildlife in the West. 

While there’s a call to protect and restore our rivers, there’s also a century of private and public water development funded and affirmed by our political and legal systems. 

There is cause for hope, however, as our shared desire to restore these rivers is turning into action.

We make our last portage along the one-mile stretch of Stateline Rapid as the sun does its magic on red rock canyon walls facing west and the moon rises as dinner is called: burritos by headlamp.

Day 3: Reaching the Confluence

No morning coffee in bed this time—we have our longest day ahead, and our crew needs little reminding. 

We have figured out the delicate balance between rapids we can run and those where we are better off walking the boats in the slower water. It’s tedious and slippery work walking the long and still heavy boats on the margins of the river—but so much easier than trying to pull them off the rocks where they inevitably get pinned. 

My Gruman got pinned hard on the second morning, putting a three-inch hairline crease into the hull. Duct tape kept most of the water out, but I was weary of doing it again. 

We got through Rock Slide, our last significant rapid, paddled another hour and then beached ourselves on warm slickrock for lunch and a well deserved cat nap. 

Later, we reached the confluence with the Colorado River, and despite the late hour decided to push on in hopes of reaching the conference 13 miles downstream. 

The Final Stretch

We were on smooth but slow-moving waters now, and the river’s ease gave us time to reflect. How often do we give ourselves this time? 

It’s great to work on restoring rivers and sharing a passion of this work with a group of very dedicated partners. 

Though the rivers will see a muted peak and Powell and Mead reservoirs will continue to drop this year, our shared adventure binds us together.

We take pleasure in paddling into the twilight, knowing our work to conserve the Colorado River will be like an epic river journey—bumpy at times but with a destination that makes it all worthwhile.

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