The Animas River has received a barrage of incidents over the past week, but Durango’s rafting industry remains undeterred.
The biggest problem the rafting industry faces isn’t the incidents themselves – which include mudslides to the north and sewage spills to the south – but the perception that the river is unusable despite the opposite being true.
“It’s really a perception problem that we’ve been dealing with all summer,” said David Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers and Adventure Tours. “If the perception is that the river is contaminated, well then the river is contaminated.”
Mudslides that occurred last Tuesday turned the Animas River into a murky brownish river filled with debris. However, discolorization is a normal indicator of higher water levels, which the river has desperately needed this summer. When runoff from the snowpack reaches the river, it changes color, Moler said.
“I think a lot of our clients don’t expect to raft on crystal-clear water,” he said. “When you are rafting on crystal-clear water, that’s a good indicator that the river is pretty low.”
Moler said his company has seen cancellations tied to the flooding, but not because customers are afraid of the chocolate-colored river. Most cancellations have occurred because the area where they were staying got evacuated, or their scheduled ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was canceled.
“The discolorization of the river actually hasn’t impacted us in that sense as much as the mudslides themselves have,” Moler said.
Flexible Flyers Rafting, a local rafting company, hasn’t seen unusual changes in rafting cancellations and has had no internal discussions about canceling rafting trips, owner Erik Jorgensen said.
“As long as there is not huge debris going by, then there’s no canceling that’s going to be happening,” Jorgensen said. “The rafting is just fine and secure.”
However, the company has been attempting to persuade potential customers interested in inflatable kayaks or tubing to raft instead due to the debris.
If debris flows are heavier, the company won’t allow tubers or inflatable kayaks to go at all. They stopped using inner tubes and kayaks a couple days after the initial floods on July 17.
“The water was sludge basically,” Jorgensen said. “It would have been uncomfortable. There was too much debris in the water to have people literally sitting in the water, whereas when they’re in the raft, they’re in a much safer position.”
The north side of the Animas River near Oxbow Park and Preserve has been stopping a lot of the debris and trees that have come down the river from the 416 burn scar, Jorgensen said.
“We’re not having too many problems with wood or anything of that nature coming down into the water and ruining it.”
During raft trips, it’s common for rafting guides to allow rafters to jump in the river during slow sections. Since the floods, the company has discouraged this and most customers aren’t willing too, Jorgensen said.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure people are comfortable and safe,” he said. “We won’t let anybody go if we feel that it is of consequence.”
Rafting companies faced another issue Friday when an overflowing sewage line spilled into the Animas River near Santa Rita Park. Despite the leak, rafting companies weren’t severely affected.
“The biggest thing is that the contamination is below where we take out at so it didn’t affect our primary run in the Animas River,” Moler said.
The city maintained communication with the rafting companies regarding the status of the river after the spill, Moler said. The city told rafting companies not to continue past Santa Rita Park and advised them to take out at the river access point at Ninth Street bridge.
Moler notified his clients that the water wouldn’t affect the routes and it was still safe to raft. He continued to take out at Santa Rita Park.
“If you run a restaurant, and the restaurant three doors down from you is closed, does that mean you close?” Moler said.
“That’s kind of the mentality we have. It’s below where we take out at. Why would we stop?”
On Saturday, the city instructed rafting companies to take out farther south at Cundiff Park. The city was concerned of the safety concerns of having large buses and trailers parking on the shoulder of the road with one-lane traffic, city spokesman Mitchell Carter said.
The industry has had a difficult summer, but the rafting companies haven’t dealt with anything they haven’t seen before.
“We run on a natural, free-flowing river,” Moler said. “We depend on Mother Nature a lot of the time. We’re pretty resilient as an industry provided that the perception doesn’t get changed.”