Although it’s probably impossible to prove, one would be hard-pressed to find another person who has rafted the Upper Animas River (excluding commercial trips) more than Skippie.
The longtime, charismatic local, by his own estimation, has run the Upper Animas – an unmatched river trip known for its remoteness, beauty and danger – somewhere in the ballpark of 60 to 80 times since he was introduced to the whitewater gem in the late 1990s.
“I was overwhelmed by the scenery and the river,” he said. “How could you not be addicted?”
The Upper Animas River is unlike any other river trip in North America, and not just because of its revered, if not notorious, whitewater.
Starting in Silverton, the Upper Animas tumbles down deep into the San Juan Mountain through 26 marathon miles of Class 3 and 4 rapids, which at certain water levels, rise to Class 5, considered the threshold of what is possible in a raft.
Adding to the allure and mystique, the only way out of the canyon (other than a grueling hike) is to load all the rafting gear onto the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, hop on a train car and ride back to civilization.
For years, the Upper Animas was considered runnable by kayak only. But in the early 1980s, a group of intrepid rafters decided to challenge that notion.
“We wanted to prove that a raft could make it, and we did,” Wayne Walls, owner of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Outpost, told The Durango Herald in 2012.
Not long after, commercial trips began running the chaotic and unpredictable stretch of river. Then, in the mid-1990s, the creation of “self-bailing” boats (which essentially drain themselves through the floor of the raft) as opposed to “bucket boats” (which require people to bail out water), changed the game.
“They revolutionized what we were doing out there,” Dave Eckenrode, previously with Mountain Waters Rafting, said in 2012.
Karl Zeller was born in 1953 in Portsmouth, Virginia, but his family would land in Durango when he was about 13 years old after his father, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, was transferred to help with permitting of the newly established Purgatory Resort.
Skippie, who now typically wears a Hawaiian shirt that juxtaposes his grizzled look, recalls his childhood was spent exploring the wildlands of Southwest Colorado with his three siblings.
“The woods were ours,” he said. “We were pretty much free to wander around. But at that age, you’re not unlike a dog – you know where your food and bed is, and you come back.”
After graduating Durango High School, Skippie said he had three options.
“You could go to college, but I was so sick of school at that point, join the military or hang out in Durango and learn to drink better than I already was,” he said. “I decided I was out of here.”
So, he joined the Navy, at a time when the Vietnam War was winding down. While stationed in Portsmouth, Virginia, of all places, Skippie stayed with his aunt whose circle of friends, as he describes it, were “suburban hippies” who opened him up to a freer way of thinking.
“That group of suburban hippies probably defined my adulthood,” he said.
It was at this time he started working construction. At a job on St. Thomas Island in the Caribbean, he had a pull to become a sailor, to “learn the waters and the wind,” but ultimately came back to Durango in the early 1980s for his brother’s wedding.
Skippie become a ski patrolman at Purgatory Resort for the next 35 years or so, and started a construction company called Rico Boys Construction for work in the summer. But little did he know just a year or two later, after he returned to Durango, he’d begin his journey to learning the water.
The winter of 1982-83 was an epic year for snowpack in the West, and when that snow started to melt, rivers rose to levels not seen in years. (Of note, 1983 was the year the Glen Canyon Dam almost overflowed, and a group of rafters accomplished the fastest run through the Grand Canyon, as described in the book “The Emerald Mile.”)
It was also the last year before the completion of McPhee Dam, which plugged up the Dolores River, and the first time Skippie took the oars of a raft. Living in Rico at the time, he jumped on a friend’s trip, and was hooked.
It’s almost impossible to sum up all the reasons why he loves rafting, but in good spirit, he tried.
“The freedom, the camaraderie, the independence of being in control of your destiny on the oars,” he said. “I immediately got into it. It’s like playing music, writing – pick whatever you want, but immediately my mind went to the subtleties of reading water.”
But the river does have its reality checks. He’s flipped his boat three times on the Upper Animas, one of which was in a rapid called “No Name,” and it was the only time he can recall in his nearly four-decade career of rafting that he was actually afraid.
“Intimidated, anxious; yeah, I feel that all the time,” he said. “My wife says when the butterflies don’t appear, you need to quit because you’re not paying attention. But that time, I was literally afraid.”
According to an accident database kept by American Whitewater, four people have died on the Upper Animas since 1995. But as rafting companies refine how trips are run, the river has become relatively safer. An estimated 500 to 600 people take the trip each year, but no one has died since 2009.
James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting, said Skippie was friends with all the old-timers who started the company. Now, when a commercial trip is scheduled, Wilkes almost always calls Skippie to see if he’ll join for added precaution. And almost always, Skippie says yes.
“As he likes to say, and we do too, when we bought the company years ago, it wasn’t an asset listed, but Skippie did come with the company,” Wilkes joked. “He’s just run it more than any guide. He’s just really into it.”
For Skippie, the Upper Animas truly looms as some sort of spiritual mecca that tests both body and spirit.
“When the river’s running high, the rest of the world goes away,” he said. “It’s probably one of the few times, dare I say the only time, the rest of the world no longer matters. A brief period of time though it may be, it’s attractive. It’s extremely attractive.”
email@example.comAn earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Karl Zeller, and incorrect spelling of his hometown.