Like a good piece of sheet music, the Animas River has its A notes and D notes; its quarter, half and whole notes; its flats, sharps, tempo changes, staccatos, trills and accents.
“Basically, a river is a sheet of music,” said Dave Eckenrode, a senior guide with Durango's Mountain Waters Rafting. “Running a river is like reading a sheet of music: The trees and rocks are your notes.”
The musicians – guides – always are looking ahead, flowing with the page as it flies forward, letting the instruments – the bodies and the boat – reflexively glide through the riffs as they hit.
And if every river is a composition, the Upper Animas – a world-class, 28-mile-long Class V stretch of rapids nestled in a canyon surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and blossoming meadows – has to be Beethoven's Fifth.
“When it's rock 'em, sock 'em, it's one of the most fearsome (stretches of river) around,” Eckenrode said.
“That place is magic,” Mountain Waters co-owner James Wilkes said.
“It's 30 miles of absolute mayhem. It's got so much different personality at every water level, so you never really know what you're going to find up there,” longtime Upper Animas runner Dale Womack said. “Beautiful and mean and fun, and everything a body needs.”
Eckenrode has run the Upper Animas for two decades, not missing a summer since he started in 1992. But he's not the first to play its tune, and if he ever stops, he won't be the last.
Like good music, it gets better with age.
In the summer of 1981, Wayne Walls, who founded the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Outpost before founding Pagosa Rafting Outfitters and Wilderness Journeys Pagosa in Pagosa Springs, decided to scout the Upper Animas for a raft run.
With more than 100 continuous rapids, including vicious Class V's such as the signature No Name Rapid, the stretch was considered kayak-only at that point. Walls chartered a helicopter, scouted the river, then ran it in a 13-foot, nonself-bailing boat with two others.
All went smoothly the first run until No Name, when the two bailers/paddlers were washed out of the boat.
Alone, Walls and the raft got stuck on a rock, leaving him high and not so dry. Using the bailing buckets, Walls' swimming buddies eventually pulled him off the rock, but the name stuck: To this day, it's called Wayne's Rock.
“We wanted to prove that a raft could make it, and we did,” Walls said.
Soon after, Walls invited Casey Lynch, Mountain Waters' founder; the late Milt Wiley, Four Corners River Sports' founder; and some of their friends to run the Upper Animas on a few private excursions.
Instead of taking the river head on, “we (portaged) around a lot of the bigger stuff on that first trip up there,” Lynch said. “On the second or third, we ran the bigger stuff.
“The first time running No Name, we made it through right-side up, and we were kind of surprised.”
Just like Walls' first trip, the crew was left to their own devices to keep the nonself-bailing “bucket boat” from sinking. The party included two guys bailing the boat, two stout paddlers and one rower, Lynch said.
To even attempt that run in such a craft, Wilkes said, almost is unthinkable today. But the river was runnable, that much was clear. And if it could be run, it could be run for a price.
A partnership for access
One obstacle remained: getting out of the wilderness. That first summer, Walls and company walked out along the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks – “a long haul and a long day,” Lynch said.
When they got to the bottom, the police were waiting; Wiley volunteered to take the trip to jail. A trespassing charge and some negotiations later, though, and the Upper Animas runners had an agreement with the railroad.
By 1982, following in the footsteps of Walls' Rocky Mountain Outpost, which had started commercial trips the year before, Lynch's then one-year-old Mountain Waters began running commercial trips of its own down the Upper Animas, using the train for transportation and working to establish a semipermanent camp on the river. Jerry Rapp's Rapp Corral and his pack of mules and horses supplied the camp, picking up supplies from the train and carrying them into the Weminuche Wilderness.
Thirty years later, Mountain Waters is the last of Durango's early Upper Animas companies and the oldest in town to still run the stretch.
The inspiration for making it happen?
“The only two-day, Class V in the southern United States; the highest commercial launch in the United States (9,000 feet); travel in an 1880s steam engine; the largest wilderness in Colorado – I don't really understand the question; just pick your reason,” Lynch said with a chuckle.
“It's an amazing, amazing place.”
Changing the Game
New boat technology made “amazing” possible.
First it was the cataraft – two pencil-tipped, inflatable tubes linked together by a metal-framed platform complete with bench seats. More stable than the traditional inflatable raft, they don't have to be bailed because the center is open. Without them, commercial runs wouldn't have been possible.
“We evolved through five generations of catarafts – a great find before self-bailers were present,” Lynch said.
By the mid-1990s, the next great thing already was coming down the river – and Womack was on it.
The first time Eckenrode saw an E-bow series, self-bailing raft with its pointed front, plenty of “rocker” curve on the sides and low, heavy ballast, Womack was charging full-bore down the Upper Animas “just crushing the holes.”
That raft “changed the game on the Upper Animas,” said Eckenrode, making it easier than ever to square up rapids such as No Name – no bailing and less swimming required. It made large-scale commercial rafting possible. “They revolutionized what we were doing out there.”
The man in that first E-bow upped the ante, too.
Womack had been running the Upper Animas since 1987 with Rocky Mountain Outpost, but when he joined Mountain Waters in 1996, he changed the company, Wilkes said, providing a role model for an up-and-coming group of guides at an already iconic organization.
“I felt we had an A team,” Eckenrode said. But “when Dale came over, I felt we had Stanley Cup contenders. Everything got better as a unit.”
Technology and tragedy
The river continues to evolve, shaped by constant rockslides and a water level that fluctuates between 1,000 and 7,000 cubic feet per second depending on precipitation and aided by the river's steep gradient and quick elevation drop.
Then there's the river's unpredictability.
“There's a lot of mayhem to be had,” Womack said. “If it's not bears eating your food or jumping on your boat trying to eat your food, it's swimmers, or rafts flipping or trees falling in the river.”
The local rafting companies, the technology they use and the attitude with which they approach the river have changed even more.
When Wilkes signed on as a guide with Mild to Wild Rafting in 1998, local companies were “super serious,” he said, rafting the river only in dangerous high-water phases with a macho, old-school mentality.
“Mild to Wild was just starting to blow up, and Mountain Waters was still king, and then it all shifted while I was there,” Wilkes said.
Mild to Wild started to take a different approach, not running the Upper Animas at high water alone but also in more relaxed water, surfing boats, playing around, “and things got a lot more fun” as the old school bridged into the new school, he said.
Mild to Wild upped the commercial stakes, as well, Eckenrode said, changing rafting from a mom-and-pop, hand-out-fliers-downtown enterprise to an aggressively marketed, Internet-driven endeavor.
The “explosion of digital media” has been a big boon for his company, senior Mild to Wild guide Andy Steiniger said. “It was basically sandwich boards and the booths (before).”
But few people wander into town and end up on the Upper Animas; they come to Durango just for this particular outing, which costs $500 or more for a multiday trip, train ticket included.
“It's more of a destination trip,” Steiniger said.
With those changes, companies started taking more people up the river – people whom Wilkes said probably “weren't worthy to be up there.”
That's a trend on rivers, Lynch said. Everyone starts “pushing the envelope” with new technology and more gumption, then tragedy hits, and it drops back down.
For Durango's rafting community, that tragedy struck in 2005.
Daryle Bongrief, a Mild to Wild guide, and passenger Scott Licona of Texas drowned when their raft flipped in the Upper's Ten Mile Slide Rapid. They were the first deaths related to commercial rafting on the Upper Animas, Lynch said at the time.
A close friend to the close-knit community, Bongrief's death was a punch in the gut.
“That day will never leave my memory,” Eckenrode said. “Oh, it's horrible.”
Running any river, especially one as wild as the high-season Upper Animas, carries risk. Wilkes said everyone who ran the Upper knew that a death eventually would happen – a customer with an undisclosed medical condition, most likely. But not drowning; not a guide.
“And the fact that it was one of us was mind-blowing,” Wilkes said. “That was the reality check, big time.”
The disaster spooked everybody. The seriousness returned, and caution became king.
From 2005 until Lynch sold Mountain Waters to Wilkes and Dan Bechtel in January of this year, Mountain Waters virtually stopped its trips on the Upper Animas.
Ushering in a new era
But with what Eckenrode described as a “fresh, new, go-get-'em attitude,” Bechtel and Wilkes are pushing Mountain Waters into a new era.
Wilkes said he and his co-owner, both with guiding backgrounds, aren't interested in chasing dollars. There are better and easier ways to make money, Wilkes said.
“That's not what it's all about. It's about the culture,” he said. “I want to re-create what I came to in the '90s.”
With low water levels brought on by the winter's lack of snowfall, this year was a perfect “test run” for the new ownership, Wilkes said.
Although many of Durango's rafting companies have permits for the Upper Animas, only Mountain Waters, Mild to Wild and Four Corners consistently run it, and Wilkes said “everyone's just psyched to see Mountain Waters back.”
“Once we're up there, it's like one company,” Steiniger said. “We're all the same.”
Between Eckenrode and Womack, Mountain Waters boasts the most Upper Animas experience, and with something to strive for, Wilkes said all his guides are stepping up their game, trying to impress the veterans and earn a place on the Upper Animas – a rite of passage that Eckenrode said no guide ever forgets.
River running “radically changed my whole life,” Wilkes said. “It's fun to share it.”
That attitude, along with ever-improving technology, is revolutionizing the way Durango's rafting companies keep their customers – and their guides – safe.
With every trip making use of satellite phones, satellite GPS messengers, high-tech radios and more, helicopter evacuations are available at the press of a button.
Personal safety has improved, as well.
When Steiniger started with Mild to Wild in 1999, warming and waterproof clothing amounted to “a Walmart fleece and these fisherman's jackets,” he said.
Now, with the burgeoning water sports outfitting industry, it's thick wetsuits, improved life jackets and helmets and GoreTex drysuits – “about the most amazing thing that ever happened,” as Womack put it.
“Everything's just better,” Steiniger said.
Those changes, though, won't likely mean much for the river itself, which, because of its difficult logistics – the railroad still provides the only transportation to the river – remains difficult to access. That allows only several hundred people a year – 411 in 2011 for an economic impact of almost $122,000, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association – to brave its features.
And advances in skills, boats, technology, marketing and attitude aside, Mother Nature always will be the one in control on the Upper Animas.
“If you think you're above the river, you're going to get a mighty smackdown,” Eckenrode said.