Mike Tavares of Richmond, Virginia, paddled into a crashing wave between competitions during Animas River Days at the Santa Rita whitewater park Saturday in Durango.
Tavares, however, wasn’t in a boat; he was on a stand-up paddleboard.
“The water level is great this year,” he said. “It’s my first time surfing and paddling on the Animas, so I’m super-stoked.”
SUPs, as they’re called, are becoming a more common sight, and this year’s long-standing river festival – started by local paddler Nancy Wiley in 1982 – is no different. There are three new events dedicated to the SUPs – more than ever before.
Festival spokesperson Hope Tyler said there are several new aspects this year all based around the new vibe that Santa Rita is taking on, in and out of the water.
“Well, there’s the new park,” she said of the whitewater park that opened last year. “We’re one of the few parks that has eight features.”
On dry land, the hardscaping is complete. Now, the landscaping begins.
“This is what you’re going to see for upcoming events,” Tyler said.
Local rivers have spiked as snow continues to melt in the high country, coupled with good amounts of precipitation the region has received late in the year. One of the warmer days of the spring, the brown water carried logs and debris downstream picked up by the swell. Tyler said bets were going around the festival on what Saturday’s high water would be.
“We just hit 2,000 this morning,” she said. “People are excited.”
The competitions were so many, one would end, and another would begin – kayaking slaloms, SUP slaloms, SUP and boatercross. Every so often, rafts fully loaded would charge through the waves. There were dog tricks and film screenings. On Saturday night, an evening freestyle kayak competition was to be held.
On Sunday, the third day of the festival, there will be clinics all day offered by 4 Corners Riversports.
Animas River Days events coordinator Stacy Falk said competitors came from all corners of the globe.
“Last year, we had 40; this year, we have 100,” she said. “And they’re from England, France, New Zealand.”
Several professional athletes came specifically to represent SUP, spearheaded by whitewater instructors Anna and Drew Fisher of Surf the San Juans.
“The pros that are here are here because of them,” Falk said.
Ross Montandon of Noddingham, England, is on a four-month U.S. tour kayaking with his team. After the kayak slalom races, he stepped away to steal a look at the river.
“It’s like a traveling circus,” he said about his tour. In Durango for the first time, Montandon said the beauty of the West is the access.
Tyler said the 3,000 to 4,000 people that line the river for the annual river parade bear testimony.
Falk, who called Saturday “the most insane day of her life,” said event officials worked hard to make the festival stand out.
“If we want to get a sponsor like those big events that we want to compete with have, we need to prove that we can get people here, and we proved that (Saturday),” she said.