The first day on the river was very short and very hard. We didn’t get on the water until 5:30 in the afternoon of Monday, May 3d, and then we only went three miles down river.
It took forever to get organized at J’s house in Montrose, to gather all the equipment and drive to the put-in place on the Dolores River at Gateway in Colorado. The day before, our hosts had ferried cars around so that there were vehicles were waiting for us at the take-out spot in Utah, four hours away by road. (Right: The Dolores River in Colorado.)
Everyone had a lot of stuff, packed into waterproof bags. I had two duffel-bag sized drybags myself.
Lashed into the boats were three 70-pound metal bins of refrigerated food, dry foodstuffs and liquids, plus four 20-gallon jerrycans of potable water weighing about 80 pounds each. There also were several large metal boxes containing kitchen items, a fold-up table, chairs, propane tanks, stoves, charcoal, tarps, the latrine and various other sundry stuff.
Everything had to be rigged onto the boat so it would stay no matter what. There is a saying on the river that came to be proven absolutely true on our trip: Dress to swim and rig to flip.
(Left: The boat I rode in with Jy, middle, captained by G, who oared from the back. The life vest I was wearing absolutely saved my life. Photo by B.) There are some descriptive terms on the river that also came to be proven true. The way was "bony" which meant there were a lot of the rocks exposed above the surface which made for a difficult passage, and the water was "skinny," meaning it was shallow and likely to hang up a boat.
There is a dam upriver of our put-in spot, and our two river men were dissatisfied with its release, reckoning the purposeful discharge from the dam was barely sufficient for us to progress downstream. The river flow was 1200 cfs, or cubic feet per second, and they wished it had been 2,000 cfs at least.
More water means less danger, apparently, because less rocks are exposed. This was all pretty esoteric to me.
Down river we went in the late afternoon, the leaky rubber pontoon boats taking on water constantly and losing air continuously. The boats were so laden, overladen, with all the gear and everyone’s stuff that they rode low in the water.
For an hour the trip was idyllic. The three boats paddled and oared on a broad calm river through a wide canyon with high hills and towering cliffs defining the nearby horizons.
Then we approached what the guidebook said was a difficult Class III rapids at a diversion dam. I didn’t know what a diversion dam was but a far off din of roaring water down river that steadily grew to thundering definition garnered my attention.
The river was calm though, because we were in the pooled up backwater of the diversion dam. Finally we could see a tiny line of leaping foam running across the broad water horizon, signifying the trouble spot.
We put in to shore and got out of boats to take a look. The sight was astonishing. (Left: The Diversion Dam. Photo by B.)
In Colorado, ranchers own the bottom of the rivers which run through their property and hence, they can indiscriminately disrupt the water flow of the river. Here the rancher had bulldozed huge boulders across the river during the summer, when the river flow is minimal, and created a diversion wall for the water so that it would flow into an artificial channel the rancher cut into one bank leading into his fields.
The two Coloradans explained that by partially diverting the river, the rancher thus saved the cost of electricity that running a pump from the river would entail. The problem was that the diversion dam made the river impassable at that point for our three small boats.
From the bank beside the artificial dam, we watched the water pouring over the obstacle in a tremendous torrent, hence the roar, and falling three feet or more into a series of holes in the water below the dam. There were jagged rocks strewn about everywhere on any potential landing points amidst the tortured water underneath the dam.
The two river men, who had never been on this stretch of river before, saw the obstacle as a problem to be solved, getting the boats over that dam. They discussed using this or that tongue of water flowing over and past the dam to shoot over the barrier rocks, and then the quick actions that would be necessary upon hitting the boiling water in the boulder field below the dam.
The leader of the paddle boat, T, nixed that talk entirely. "Portage," he said simply.
It was 7 o’clock and we needed to set up camp soon. If disaster overtook a boat at the dam site, it could be dark before we could effect a rescue for the boat and its occupants.
The vote was to unload the boats above the dam, cart (portage) the contents and the boats below the obstacle, and re-enter the water after rigging the boats again.
This is humping! It’s a lot of work, especially with a full load of crap such as we had.
The beauty in T’s suggestion was that we would have to unload the boats anyway, to make camp. Why not do it there, camp, and proceed below the hindrance on the morrow.
The two river men took it as a bit of a defeat, I think, saying they had never portaged before, but they bowed to the popular will. The banks were steep and also muddy and sucked at our shoes and caused us to slip and slide as we unloaded the three boats.
We cooked a dinner of bratwurst sausages in the dark and slept under the stars beside the deafening diversion dam on a ranch road running alongside the man-made water-bearing channel. We didn’t know if the land was public or private, but I suspect we were trespassing. (Left: Looking back at the diversion dam as we left the next day. Photo by B.)
The night was very clear and very cold, just at the freezing point. We had gone just three miles and I was worn out already.