CORTEZ • They drove north through the fields that the ancient Anasazi scraped, farming dry. Now the fields were fertile in this gracious season: alfalfa sprouting here, pinto beans there.
And visitors from every point of the Four Corners were turning onto this dirt road and that dirt road, eventually finding the seemingly out-of-place sign for Dolores River access. They headed down to the spectacular underworld somewhere between mountains and desert.
The put-in was busy, because the whitewater ran strong between the canyon’s soaring red walls, and because locals and visitors alike knew it would only be like this for so long.
“You’re all here at a momentous time,” guide Trey Roberts said before the drop. “You’re about to raft a big, famous, rare river.”
Jeanette Healy of Utah had been waiting 10-plus years for this chance on the Dolores. Doug Nie, a kayaker from Albuquerque, had been waiting even longer. Also here were Rick and Beverly Anderson, a young couple from Albuquerque as well.
“We figured we could do the Las Animas and Arkansas out in (Buena Vista) any year,” Rick said. “But this is our one chance to do Dolores.”
Chances have been tough to come by since the 1980s, when the McPhee Dam began trapping the water that Dominguez and Escalante found to be rushing during their 1776 expedition. El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, they called it — the River of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Since then, “the Dolores Valley has been a microcosm of the passing frontier, and later, the growth of the West,” Duane A. Smith wrote in a detailed history prior to the dam.
He chronicled the valley’s characters: “the devoted Catholic padre, exploitative fur trapper, searching miner, determined cattleman, fugitive Ute, optimistic town builder, enthusiastic railroadman, hardworking farmer, and noisy logger.” All settled the land before the reservoir, which Smith clearly saw as the next stark symbol of progress.
“Success and failure characterize (the valley’s) history,” he opined. “It has known sorrows, as well as its share of joys.”
Most joyful now are the boaters who had hoped this year’s snowpack would grant McPhee’s occasional controlled “spills.” As of last week, the Dolores Water Conservancy District expected releases to remain at or above 1,200 cubic feet per second through June 23, keeping the river fun until then at least.
That would mean a rafting season of almost one month here, which seems a short window. But longtime river rats regret to say that’s long for the Dolores.
Bill Dvorak, who’s frequented the state’s rivers since the ’60s, can’t recall a longer season. He ran the Dolores in 2017; his last time before that was 2009. “Every six to eight years is about when I get on it,” he said.
And he gets on it almost every floatable opportunity. The Dolores, after all, is easily his favorite river in Colorado.
“World-class,” Dvorak calls it, boasting “the most pristine slickrock canyon in the West.”
“To me, it’s up there with the Grand Canyon and Middle Fork of the Salmon. It’s right up there with the best in the country.”
And just as it is a microcosm of that old frontier story, so it is a stage for the modern struggle between water management and recreation.
Congress authorized the Dolores Project in 1968 as part of the Colorado River Storage Project Act that shaped the way of water in the West. Plans for lakes Powell and Mead sparked controversy nationwide, while locals on these dusty fringes grappled all the same with their home being changed forever.
Cortez, Dove Creek and outposts between got their long-term drinking water, as did the Ute Mountain Ute Nation to the south, which previously was served by a delivery truck. (The tribe’s casino and hotel is the grand realization of the commerce envisioned). The fields got widespread irrigation, reversing the fortunes of farmers.
But what would become of that storied river?
A pre-dam, unanswered proposal for the Dolores as a protected Wild and Scenic River described its mighty 250 miles spanning the mountains to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. Authors of the proposal hailed it “Colorado’s least known and most unique river,” showcasing dramatic views, varied ecology and petroglyphs and Anasazi ruins kept by the canyon.
They added: “The project contains no specific provisions for the releasing of water from McPhee reservoir in sufficient quantities to allow downstream boating.”
Provisions are still vague. Releases are indeed unpredictable, said Michael Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. The Bureau of Reclamation factors in current reservoir levels with never-perfect forecasts. Then there’s juggling ever-increasing demand: Farmers combine for the largest allocation of the supply, recent spreadsheets show, followed by the downstream fishery, tribe and municipalities.
“McPhee is a hard-working reservoir,” Preston said. “We use every inch of our active storage capacity to take care of things.”
On a smaller level, the reservoir feels the same strain of Powell and Mead, whose managers similarly fear the effects of climate change. The past 20 years have been McPhee’s driest stretch on record, Preston said.
So what’s that mean for rafting releases?
“It’s gonna happen when Mother Nature provides the snowpack, simple as that,” he said.
She came through in a big way after last year’s drought, springing the Dolores River Boating Advocates to action. At weekly Wednesday meetings with water managers and other stakeholders, they were there to push for spills, only possible by law when excess water is available.
Since mobilizing in 2011, the advocates have developed what leader Sam Carter calls “a really good relationship” with decision-makers.
“We trust each other,” he said. “Yeah, we wish there was more water and could have a spill every year, but it doesn’t work that way when water rights run the game.”
The “pre-dam” old-timers of the valley sound as if they’re talking about lost youth when they talk about the river. Those were happy days when they ran freely with the stream. Then it was stripped by the dam, the water leases, the highest buyer.
Not that Carter can relate. He’s a post-dam boater, a local since 2004. He’s only heard the stories. And he’s seen guiding outfits like the one he worked for in the ‘90s fade with the flows.
“I would love to see something different,” Carter said. “I think there’s a missed opportunity on having an expanded economy with more recreation. There’s tons of people that would come here, stay here, buy groceries and buy gas here, go to the restaurants.”
But no, he’s not optimistic. “There’s no change that’ll happen.”
Durango-based Mild to Wild Rafting is among the few outfitters still using the Dolores. From a company standpoint, it doesn’t make sense, our trip leader explained.
The unpredictable releases make it hard to book reservations. The remoteness makes logistics tricky and costly. Then there’s getting guides familiar with a river that’s hard to get familiar with.
Fortunately for us, the guy steering our boat has spent a decade in some of the West’s most wicked river canyons. He’s Christian Wright of Moab. He’s 35, but his unkempt shag of hair and clean-shaven face give him a younger look. He is, however, wiser than his years.
He can tell you the facts behind Dolores’ geologic fantasy — the names of the multicolored formations and the eras in which they came to be. He has many thoughts on many things. The way bucket lists confine us rather than unleash us, keeping us making lists rather than taking action. The way phones suck our ability for abstract thought.
As for the dam, Wright has a thought there, too. First, he must describe what he’s seen on the river.
The lack of commercialism ensures locals’ reign over the Dolores, but Wright has seen trash left behind and messy campsites after drunken parties and dogs barking and surely scaring away the desert bighorn sheep.
Then he speaks what most in his circle would call sacrilegious:
“Maybe it’s good we have the dam. Maybe we need the dam, because maybe we don’t deserve the Dolores River. But I don’t know. It’s my working theory.”
But Wright holds on to the belief that there is something to be personally and spiritually gained by the Dolores. That’s why he keeps a notebook safely secured in an ammo box, what he calls the Reflection Box, there for anyone.
“We’re entering this journey with this emotional arch,” Wright said to our group as we embarked.
The height of that arch is reached at Snaggletooth, the legendary Class IV rapid aptly named. Swirling eddies are like mouths ready to inhale, the jumble of rocks like jaws ready to chomp.
From an embankment, we stopped to analyze the beast. And yes, Wright was scared. “If someone says they’re not scared, don’t get in their boat,” he said.
Then he waxed philosophical again: “It’s like making a big change in life or going through a difficult time. What’s cool about rivers is, there’s a point where you go in, and you can’t back out. The river takes you. That’s pretty cool.”
Not cool when the boat crashes over a rock, and Snaggletooth swallows.
Two fell into the furious water.
“Grab ‘em! Grab ‘em! Grab ‘em!” Wright shouted over the waves.
They were yanked by the life vests, pulled back to safety.
And there is relief before celebration. And later there is camping under the diamond stars, casting the great rock walls in a glow, stirring imaginations over those high cathedrals and hoodoos storing deep time, remnants of those ancient people.
And the next day the river is wider and still, meandering out of the extreme canyon to a calmer landscape: lower rocks, bigger sky, bright-green box elder trees and tall willows and bird nests and butterfly meadows.
The trip was coming to an end. It was time to reach for the Reflection Box, where one began a message to the self and unknown readers to come: “I feel so grateful to raft on the Dolores ...”