The Animas River Whitewater Park at Low Flow

A view upstream along the Animas River in Durango. This is at the foot of the takeout ramp below the whitewater park. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the setting looks like we are in a desert, but actually it is a microclimate that just affects this side of town. Durango actually has plenty of trees and the mountains on the other side of the valley are forested.

I went to Durango, Colorado in 2015 but the Animas River was on the brink of flood stage after a snowy winter and unseasonably warm temperatures. As a result, I just ran a class II section upstream on the verge of flood level and didn’t bother with the whitewater park. The water levels were so high that commercial rafting shut down, and the difficulty goes up in the park with a constricted channel and increased gradient. This time I wanted to actually paddle it, even though conditions were lower than optimal. Someday I hope to get it at a moderate flow but fluctuating levels are part of the sport of whitewater paddling and we ignore these details when we are on the river having fun.

The level was pretty low, around 240 cubic feet per second, but still adequate. I scouted some other sections of the river and it looked too low for a long float. I really was interested in the City of Durango’s Whitewater Park anyway, since it offered convenience and greater likelihood of getting help if something went wrong. It also has a nice concentration of rapids in a short distance.

The entrance to Smelter Rapid flows over these wing dams that raise the water level upstream to provide a reliable inlet for the public water supply for Durango.
Unfortunately the top rapid, and the most well know, Smelter, is formed by “wing” dams on either side of the river, originally installed to provide a reliable water intake for the city, and at the low water level and it definitely was not something I was interested in running, nor did I see anyone else running it. The only clear line was on river left and featured a very dangerous looking pour over into an obviously retentive hole. I can’t approve of modifying a river bed to put in a feature that will create such a dangerous recirculation.
A view down Smelter at September low flow. This rapid looks completely different at snowmelt levels. It was a bit bony looking though runnable and I had to resist the urge to launch into it below the wing dams after I had time to knock off the rust. It didn't seem wise to try it. As always, everything looks a little smaller, and the current looks slower in the photos.

Anyway, the drops below were good to go, and ranged from pushy class II to class I riffles. A rock-garden rapid below the park had just enough water to navigate to get to the conveniently situated takeout ramp. I did 3 full laps, although I admit I was afraid to play in the larger holes, since I haven’t done an eskimo roll in 3 years. But it was fun to run down the rapids and practice fundamentals like ferrying, eddy turns, j-turns, and edging drills. I discovered that I was little bit tippy, having lost some of my edge awareness of the playboat, but was pleased that having lost over 20 pounds this year, and nearly 40 pounds over the last three years meant that my Wavesport Project 52 “spud” playboat handled much better than the last couple of times I paddled it. I’m very happy with myself for having lost the weight.

The first drop below Smelter.
The second drop below Smelter. This one looked like a good play hole, despite being a bit frowny, but I skipped it since I couldn't be sure I could hit a roll.

The next two drops were good, splashy fun, and good places to rebuild my fundamentals. I spent quite a bit of time doing ferries, peel outs, s-turns, and practicing edging. It all came back eventually and I started surfing.

I took plenty of time front surfing on one of the nice constructed waves and found I was soon front surfing automatically on the smaller waves, controlling the boat with my edges and the occasional rudder with the paddle, and staring off into the distance at the Rockies. It felt really good to be back on the water. It felt so good that I didn’t want to go back. On the fourth lap, I didn’t bother running all the way to the bottom and just took out after the last of the artificial drops. I was getting a little tired, probably mostly from carrying the boat back up, and needed to hit the 5 hour drive back to Flagstaff to be ready for work the next day, so I reluctantly left the park.

Here is a GoPro video I made of one of the lower, "easier" drops in the park in June 2015, when the snowmelt had the river at a higher level.

It’s a good whitewater park, although not quite as good as the nice park on the Arkansas River at Buena Vista, Colorado. But it is much better than the unforgiving Olympic Section of the Ocoee River in Tennessee. It also features easier access to the river bank than other parks I have seen, and I have never had parking issues. I will be back for sure, hopefully next spring when the levels are up again. My intermediate plan is to get some winter runs in on the Verde River in Arizona, about 45 minutes from Flagstaff. If I can stay sharp enough, I should be ready for the higher levels with the spring snowmelt season.


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