Big Water on the Dolores!

Seriously, the last time I visited this river was in the late 90’s.  This is a pretty common theme among river runners in my age group.  Carol and I have run many rivers since we were married, but this 2017 trip would be a first for Carol.  So, after the epic winter of ‘16-17, and continuing storms that spring, the powers-that-be (Dolores Water Conservancy District) were planning to release 4000 cfs from the McPhee dam.  Our plan was set. We had a small group of experienced river runners that would meet at Bradfield Bridge on the evening of Tuesday, May 2nd and be ready to put-on the next morning.  We had decided to go during the week to avoid the crowds on the weekend.
After a day of rigging our 16ft raft with our Down River Grand frame in the driveway, a trip to the grocery store and liquor store, and a day getting things caught up at work we were off to the Dolores after a 20-year absence.  An 8-hour drive from Golden, CO later we arrived at the Bradfield Bridge Recreation Area early evening where we met the rest of our group. Denise and Don Oblak (recently retired after lengthy ownership of Canyon Voyages in Moab, UT); Errol Baade (Jack’s Plastic Welding) and Aaron Stone (Sawyer Paddles & Oars).
The next morning was very chilly so brewed strong coffee, ate bagels and lox, rigged and ran our shuttle down to Slickrock.  Apparently, there had been problems at the take-out, just upstream from the Slick Rock bridge.  Luckily DRBA (Dolores River Boating Advocates) had worked with a private land owner just downstream of the bridge who was graciously allowing boaters to use the property for river access and parking.  We met our shuttle driver, Dave, who gave our drivers a lift back up to Bradfield.  
When we arrived back at the put-in it was clear the river was on the rise. As expected, the folks at DWCD had announced they were going to gradually increase the flow from 2100 cfs up to 4000 by midnight on Thursday, May 4th.  It was also very clear this was going to be a unique experience. Once we put-on it became obvious from the growth of willows, reeds and tamarisk in and around the river that there had not been much water flowing down this river corridor in many years.  We thoroughly enjoyed the Ponderosa Pines which started appearing just a couple miles into the trip.  
We ate lunch at one of the Lake Canyon camps and were pleasantly surprised to meet up with a small group that had put on just a few minutes ahead of us that morning. They were on a 10-day trip that would take them down at Dewey Bridge. Eric’s two 13-year old canine companions, Clipper and Jumpa, had been the main attraction at the put-in and it was a pleasure to see them many times throughout the trip.  It’s worth noting that we did miss our first intended lunch spot due to the combination of swift moving water and a fair amount of vegetation on the banks. Going forward our plan was to send one boat with a passenger who was able to jump to the bank and secure the boat. Then that rower could jump out and catch the next boat and so on.  This strategy worked great the rest of our trip.
After lunch we continued floating in fast moving water through a maze of willows in the river channel.  Although it wasn’t super concerning, there were a few times when it wasn’t completely clear which channel to follow.  
We arrived at our first camp near mile 18 right across the river from the Anasazi ruins.  We had heard camps would be difficult to enter because of heavy overgrowth and were prepared with an assortment of bush whacking tools. But thanks to the efforts of earlier groups we had fairly easy access. We set up, changed into our camp duds and sipped Mules while enjoying the solitude of the river.
Day two started with a great breakfast and our group chatting about the upcoming pinnacle rapid called Snaggletooth.  After a safety talk, we put on and ran through the Ponderosa pines and several read and run class III rapids leading up to the big one.  Just below mile 27 we pulled into an eddy just above Snaggletooth on river left. This eddy fits 4 large rigs, so if you have a larger group you should consider using eddys upstream for more boats, especially at higher flows. 
We checked out Snag along the dirt road that happens to parallel the river and ran two waves of two boats at a time.  Our plan, due to the higher flow, was to run through the right side of Island rapid below Snaggletooth Rock and meet up at a great recovery spot on river right just below the island. All went well and our four boats regrouped as planned for several congratulatory toasts.
We continued to our second camp just below mile 29 on the right.  It’s a nice open space suitable for a large group, but there is no shade or shelter.  There are better camps between mile 30 and 32.5 for medium and small groups.  Of course, we made note of this the next morning…
Day three started much as the previous morning did, great breakfast, broke camp and safety chat among excited talk about the upcoming whitewater. If you like whitewater, miles 32.5 through 36 are for you.  Mile Long rapid is buried in this section, some previous guidebooks called it Three Mile rapid for a reason, solid class III read and run whitewater that’ll put a grin on the most die-hard river runner in any group.  What can I say other than, “Yaahooo!”. Enjoy.
At about mile 39.5 on the left we came across Tree Frog Canyon which is a shaded large or multi-group camp.  It’s the river trailhead to a super cool hike up to a small cave and a view of the goosenecks if you hike up to the ridgetop.  We shook out the legs on the hike, ate lunch and continued downstream towards Slick Rock.
From mile 41 through the new Slick Rock takeout around 47.5 there’s quite a bit of thick growth along the banks.  Our group floated through this area with the realization our trip was coming to a close.  The sight of highway 141 on river right about a mile and a half above our takeout made this a certainty. 
As we floated past the old takeout on river right at mile 47, under the bridge and up to the new takeout/put-in on river left our thoughts turned to how lucky we were to get the chance to float the Dolores with such great flows.  Our thanks went out to the Dolores River Boating Advocates and American Whitewater who work with the many shareholders in this area to ensure our privilege to float this river.
This season is looking very promising.  Although there’s never a guarantee, things are lining up for a recreational flow on the Dolores this year.  I recommend keeping an eye on the DRBA website for updates and river information.  And, keep your fingers crossed.


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