“No man ever steps in the same river twice” has become increasingly literal for river runners in Durango’s ever-changing Whitewater Park.
As the Animas River approaches peak flows, hitting 2,900 cubic feet per second on Thursday, and with the official start of Animas River Days, which includes Saturday’s unofficial water parade, members of the boating community are trying to make it clear: This is not the same Animas River as last year.
“The new additions to the Whitewater Park create an entirely new element to what we’re used to rafting down the Animas River,” said David Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers. “For the first time in a long time, you’re going to see boaters start scouting and even some portaging, but that’s part of rafting: You need to scout rapids.”
In 2014, the city of Durango began to fine-tune a section of the river in city limits, though it had made small recreational enhancements since the 1980s. The 7-acre Whitewater Park flows alongside Santa Rita Park, starting at the wastewater treatment plant.
With the ongoing improvements, John Brennan, a member of the Animas River Taskforce, a group of river users organized to provide input on construction of the Whitewater Park, said the park now has Class III rapids that surge to Class IV at 2,500 cfs, and a handful of dynamic features.
Over the past few years, the city has gone back into the river during fall, winter and springs months of low water to make adjustments to the rapids, an ongoing and expected process the city said comes with altering the path of a river.
Yet last October, the city’s Utilities Department began a $1 million construction project just upstream of the Smelter Rapid in an effort to direct more flows into the city’s water intake for municipal use. The construction of the park had limited the amount of water flowing into the intake.
The project also diverted the river to stop it from eroding the contaminated banks of Smelter Mountain, a former uranium tailings dump site. Construction of the Whitewater Park exacerbated both issues, said Steve Salka, the city’s utility director.
In doing so, the city added several new features, including different channels you can take depending on the river flow and a “high-flow fish ladder,” which help fish move upstream, to the section above the Whitewater Park, creating new and challenging obstacles just before you enter a set of six rapids.
The untested additions initially raised some concern among river runners this spring when a daunting, recirculating hole appeared on the left side of the river above Smelter Rapid during low-to-mid flows, which trapped a few unlucky rafters.
Right now, the danger from the hole is washed out because water levels have risen above 2,500 cfs. Still, as boaters navigate the new man-made challenges, there is an air of caution as more people take to the river.
“I’ve been running the same river for 40 years, so it makes it interesting,” said Andy Corra, co-owner of 4Corners Riversports. “It’s not as straight forward, but the relative danger isn’t different than before.”
The Animas River Taskforce’s Brennan agreed, adding that people must scout and portage if necessary.
“And for God’s sakes, put on a PFD (personal floatation device),” Brennan said. “I can’t believe all the stupid people that still get on the river without one. And you should never inner tube (the Whitewater Park).”
Some rafting companies said the new additions to the Animas River might require them to portage on commercial trips, creating an unwelcome inconvenience, though one that lasts only a week or so.
The city of Durango, in altering the entrance to the Whitewater Park, made an easy-to-reach boat ramp for those who want to take out before the rapids and created a few eddies where people can pull over and scout or portage.
Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation, said the city will monitor flows this season and make necessary adjustments, if needed, after the summer.
“Because the river came up quickly this year, we weren’t able to complete work (on the rapids in the Whitewater Park),” Metz said. “So we’re observing. We don’t want to get in the river if we don’t have to.”
As for the unofficial main event of Animas River Days – the always entertaining “Parade” – Brennan said river runners should be careful. He added that the Parade, where a chaotic procession of river runners, some of whom have imbibed beforehand, charge down the Animas and through the Whitewater Park, is not actually a part of the festival.
“It just sort of happens every year,” he said. “And it’s fun. Even long before the Whitewater Park, there was tons of carnage down there. But everyone takes care of everybody. I never worry much about it, at all.”