Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Boating Solo

                                                      Boating Solo

After several years of low flows, big water has returned to the Upper Colorado River and it looks like it might be around for awhile.  This is good news for farmers, recreationists, and especially the fish. Being a raft guide, there is almost nothing better to see than lots of water in the river and plenty more yet to come which now exists in the form of a healthy spring snowpack.

  It’s the third week of June, and next week things get real busy real fast.  Schools let out all over and people begin to flock to the Centennial State for the cool weather and numerous outdoor adventure opportunities.  No matter where you live in the not-so-United States, odds are things are better here in Colorado.  It occurred to me the other day that it’s been several years since I’ve rafted my usual stretch in water this high.  Even though I’ve floated this same section of Colorado River over 500 times, the vast majority of those trips have come in the 900 cfs to 1,500 cfs range, which is a perfect level for float fishing.  Only rarely does the river ever go outside that range. In the spring it can go as high as 12,000 cfs, but it is usually only high for a month or two, and thats not at a prime level for fishing. In drought years it might go lower, as it did last year, with levels as meager as 500 cfs which create numerous navigation hazards and warm water temperature problems.  The Lower Upper is not a tailwater fishery, but it is dam-controlled, and not just by one dam but many.  Denver Water, Northern Water, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado River District all have dams that influence the flows we get down here.  The result is that the river flows don’t get as high as they would without the dams, since the operators are filling their dams in the spring.  But then the flows don’t get as low as they otherwise might in August and September, as that precious liquid gold gets released then keeping flows pretty consistent all summer.

 This week the Colorado has been hovering around 4,200 cfs, and that is a very fun level to run it at. The sheer volume of water squeezing through the narrower sections of the river canyon causes wave trains that cause rafts to ride over them rhythmically, like being on a smooth cantering horse.  And because the river channel was formed over many millenia by flows of 20,000 cfs before the dams, even flows of 5,000 cfs are pretty paltry compared to how much water the river channel could accommodate. Rivers such as the Eagle, Arkansas and Clear Creek are popular for white water rafting but are also pretty dangerous.  Their gradients are steep, they are full of floating wood and strainers, and have numerous rocks in the river channel which create obstacles and dangerous waves.  The Lower Upper Colorado has very few of those things, just a couple of bridges to keep your boat off of. 

  When I first moved up here sixteen years ago there were four one lane bridges spanning the river, but over the past few years they’ve all been replaced by more modern designs. One bridge in particular posed a significant safety hazard, the “twin bridge” near Red Dirt Creek.  The Red Dirt road bridge had four rusty I-beam supports, oriented not towards the river’s flow but perpendicular the bridge deck.  This meant that they occupied more real estate than necessary in the water.  Sometimes during runoff there will be lots of stuff floating in the current, and that flotsam used to be very attracted to those old bridge supports.  The line you took on Tuesday might not work on Wednesday, and if you thought you had it dialed in you might have to make a last moment adjustment in a big hurry!  Compounding the difficulty was the fact that there is a railroad bridge located immediately upstream of the road bridge, meaning there were five obstacles to worry about when passing the two bridges.  In 2011 when the river reached a peak of 12,000 cfs, boaters were warned away from the area by urgent notices from the BLM saying that this reach was not navigable. 

  Of course I didn’t put too much stock in that, and I ran it regularly that spring all the way up to its peak.  Getting past the bridges meant having to get way down in the boat to fit underneath the railroad bridge (and removing the front lean bar) but it was very doable, though not for the faint of heart.  In the week leading up the peak flow, the river went up about a thousand cfs a day, but I was on the river for each of them.  Each day was a little faster and higher than the one before, but not by much, and I was able to adjust my lines all the way up to 10K and higher.  But that old bridge was scary, and its rusty sharp i-beam tore a five inch gash in my left pontoon a few years earlier.  You could never take running it at high water for granted, it was always a white-knuckled, tight-sphinctered affair.

  But two years ago the old bridge was replaced by a much more raft-friendly design. Its supported by two round concrete pillars set wide to the sides of the natural river channel. This should have made it much safer to navigate, but there is a problem with the new configuration.  When the bridge was being built, two temporary coffer dams were made that extended from the bank to the base of the pillars, to facilitate their construction.  That summer, rafting past the bridge was more fun than usual since the coffer dams effectively constricted the river’s flow and forced it all into the middle. A large wave train was formed and it was a blast to run.  Once the bridge was finished, the final step involved removing the coffer dams to allow the river to spread back out to its full channel width.  Crews removed the large rocks that formed the coffer dams, or at least most of them.  Some of the rocks got away from the trackhoes and rolled into the main river channel that was intended for boating traffic.  They spent two days in the river trying their best to remove the rocks to no avail. 

I knew that the rocks were there, since the low water last summer laid bare all of the underlying geology that had only been hinted at in previous years by the surface waves they created. I tried running the middle of the river that year several times and always hit rocks, sometimes very hard.  In the end, the only clean line past the new Red Dirt Bridge was to hug the right bank, and to run between the new pillar and the rocky bank.  This year, I’d been wondering whether the river under new bridge could be run straight down the middle now with all of that extra water, and there was only one way to find out. 

  Starting this coming weekend I’ll be on the river a lot for the rest of the summer, but wanted to check out the new run without paying customers on board first.  On Sunday I decided to run it and see.  I thought that my wife’s nephews would want to come, but in the end they chose not to.  I called a couple of neighbors and they all had plans, so I decided to run it by myself.  It was a beautiful late spring afternoon, and a perfect day to be on the water.  I put in at the Pinball ramp and shoved off, thinking that anyone who could have been on this boat right now who wasn’t must be crazy.  There was so much current that I had to pull as hard as possible to get to the Dinosaur Rock on the opposite bank. The rock beside the river with the 280 million year old tetrapod tracks on it was now getting a little wet at the bottom. In really high water years it disappears completely, but this year I think it will stay dry.  Just below that on river left is a fiercely spinning eddy, and I put the boat right into the middle of it and it spun round and round like a 45 rpm vinyl record.  It had been years since I’ve rafted by myself, and I was really enjoying it.  The boat was lighter than usual, even though I had put some concrete blocks in the front to weigh it down a bit. And not having to watch flies in the water meant I could just float however I wanted while I scanned the hillsides looking for bighorns and bald eagles.  I couldn’t imagine anywhere better to be. 

 Approaching the only named rapid on the river, I decided to try something I hadn’t done in years.  Pinball Rapid is where the river runs under a railroad bridge while moving left.  The water’s force tries to run you up onto the bridge pylon no matter where you are in the channel, and safest side of the pylon to be on is the left, where there is way more room. At normal river levels, staying left of the bridge is difficult because there are lots of shallow rocks on that side.  So the way I usually go is right down the middle, then around the right side of a marker rock above the bridge, then point the boat towards the right bank while pulling backwards hard.  The rock breaks up the current just enough to give you time to do this. The bridge pillar is offset to the righthand side of the river, so that there is about a hundred feet of clearance on the left, but only about twenty on the right.  Normally I wouldn’t think about squeezing through that right side, its much narrower and there are a bunch of rocks blocking it. But when the river level is above 3,500 cfs or so, that right side becomes doable.  It had been several years since I tried it, but with an empty boat the time had come to reacquaint myself that line. 

I made sure everything was strapped down and approached Pinball going right down the middle.  The bridge seemed  to come closer much quicker than I’m used to, since one property of a rising river is that as a river goes up it also moves much faster. I looked for my usual landmark rock and saw a big standing wave where it should be.  I spun out of my ferry angle and turned into the wave, which my big cataraft crashed through, and that put me right into the tongue for the righthand slot.  I went right down the slot with my right oar stowed, into a big wave train formed by the water being squeezed between the bridge pillar and the rocky bank, whooping and hollering.  The line was just how I remembered it from the last time I’d done I so many years before.

 Next came Whirlpool Canyon, which was living up to its name that day. The river goes between a narrow gap in the river that creates eddies on both sides.  The lefthand eddy was particularly strong, and I drove the boat into it with a spin that the current accentuated and amplified.  My big boat just spun like a top with vertigo. In the center of Whirlpool Canyon is the deepest part of the Colorado River that I know of.  Once I dropped an anchor with a fifty foot rope there to hold the boat for fishing, but it didn’t touch bottom. It’s the first place to freeze completely over in the fall, and the last place to thaw in the spring.  Each spring river running the Lower Upper doesn’t begin until Whirlpool Canyon is ice-free.

Below Pinball the Colorado enters the heart of a red rock canyon, as pretty a spot as there is on any river anywhere.  I was happy to be there and again wondered why no one else wanted to do this but me. I reminded myself that I was not here for fun, but for research, and pulled over at Barb’s Hole to see how the river would fish at this level.  Barb’s Hole is so named because early in my guiding career, I was taking a couple named Mark and Barbara fishing when we approached this particular eddy on river left.  Other people had already caught fish here before, so I knew it was productive, but the rub was that the river goes past it pretty quickly, and anglers usually only get one shot at it. I gave the couple a heads up before we drew alongside of it, and they both made perfect casts into it using the double streamer setups I had tied on.  Mark came up empty but Barb shouted, “I got one!” as we flew down the river.  Mark pulled his flies in as I looked for a place to stop the boat and land the fish.  Barb was shouting excitedly, and Mark was watching her fish on the end of the line as it was pulled downriver by my boat.  He called out, “There’s another one chasing it!”.  We finally came up to another small eddy ­­­and I pulled the boat into it hard, dropped the anchor, and hopped out with my net to land the fish.  Barb raised her rod, and as I began to put the fish into the net saw another splash right behind it.  She had hooked not one but two trout, and there was a rainbow on one streamer and a brown trout on the other!  It would not be the last time I had clients with a double hookup, but it was the first and the most memorable. Ever since that spot became known as Barb’s Hole, and it will be as long as I ply my craft here. 

 On Sunday I tried to get into Barb’s Hole but the current was moving so fast I was only to get up onto the bank below it.  With a lot of effort I was able to work the boat back up the to bottom of the eddy, but close enough to cast into it, so I dropped my anchor and took a breath.  The canyon walls soared high above my head in the their fully crimson glory, and I opened a PBR and just took it all in.  Usually when I’m with clients I’m so busy re-rigging their flies and getting them drinks or digging out jackets and just generally working that I don’t get to enjoy my surroundings enough. But being by myself I could just do whatever the hell I wanted and that felt very liberating.  

  There were two rigged rods on my boat, a six weight with a double streamer set up and my seven foot fiberglass three weight with a caddis and mayfly on it. After a smoke and a cold drink I pulled out the glass rod and begin flicking the dry flies into the rotating bubble line. There wasn’t anything hatching, though I did see a single lonely caddis fly flittering around up near the dinosaur rock.  I knew that tossing the streamers into the seam between the eddy and river’s current gave me a much better chance of actually hooking something, but there is just something about the feel of a light, responsive fiberglass rod in one’s hand that is hard to beat.  Fly rods have become so damn efficient in their designs that they can do all the work for you and do it very well, but at the expense of the feel that makes you an integral part of the process.  It’s the same reason that bamboo rods still have a devoted, enthusiastic following. 

  I kept tossing the two little flies into the bubble line, not really caring if anything came up to bite them or not.  I’d lift them off them off the water, gently pull back the line through the air, and that sweet rod would bend and load and I’d feel it all the way down my arm and into my heart and soul.  I was so enjoying the mere feel of casting of that rod that I forgot about the fish, and when one came up and sipped that caddis out of the bubbles I almost missed it.  But I did hook him, and he tugged a few times on that line but the glass rod just progressively gave just as much resistance as it needed to.  The Tug, as they say, is the Drug, and with my addiction fed I dropped the rod tip and the fish came off the unbarbed hook of the caddis fly.  I’ve been fishing long enough now that sometimes I don’t even need to net the fish, and just knowing that I’ve been able to fool it is often enough.  Its why I can sometimes be a lousy fishing guide, for once clients have caught a few I’m ready to just try and encourage them to enjoy their surroundings, and to leave the fish alone. 

  Having hooked a fish I was ready to put the rod away, and I continued on down the river.  The cliffs above Jack Flats were in full color, and even though I’ve seen them literally thousands of times I never tire of the sight.  The beach at the Jack Flats campsite was almost gone, the river having risen to the level of the stone chairs that a guy camping there for a week last year thoughtfully created.  Below Jack Flats came the best wave train of the whole float.  On river right a large white volcanicky cliff juts out into the river, and forms a long row of standing waves five feet high.  The trick is to get as close to the cliff as possible without running into it.  With the boat so light it was easy to get it into position, and I rode those waves on my unseen horse like the Man From Snowy River.  

  Once out of the canyon it was time to kick back and enjoy the experience. There is a half-mile straight stretch that I often let clients row, for there is nothing one can possibly run into along it.  Kids really like doing this, and I’ve gotten some great pictures of them behind the oars with the magnificent red cliffs of Jack Flats as a backdrop. 

  But then that lazy stretch of river comes to an abrupt end as the river hooks right, and goes past first the railroad bridge and then the new road bridge immediately after it.  I strapped everything down again and checked out the hard right line, which looked easy.  However I wasn’t here today to do easy, it was after all a research trip, so I made some hard oar strokes to get into the middle.  There was a nice big olive tongue that pointed straight towards some fun-looking waves, so I headed for that.  The big rock I was worried about seemed to be covered.  Once in the vee-shaped tongue the boat took off, and I quickly realized that the rock was still there, just hidden by the frothy waves but not deep enough for my cataraft to clear.  I tried turning the boat and pulling hard to avoid it, but it was too late.  I slammed into it hard, stowed the oars and squatted down on the floor, waiting to see which side I would need to leap on to avoid high-siding it. But instead of one pontoon or another lifting up, the boat just hung there for a very long few seconds and finally began to slowly spin off the rock that I had put it on.  Very relieved, I hopped back onto my seat and grabbed the oars and pulled myself back into the main body of the river.  I had made a mistake reading the water and it hadn’t cost me, this time. Knowing all too well how unpleasant whitewater swims can be, I was very grateful to still be in my boat! I was also glad at that moment that no one else was, and that my bad decision hadn’t endangered someone else. 

 The rest of the trip to my backyard was uneventful.  Below the alluvial fan of Red Dirt Creek there was one last long wave train to run, but my big cataraft tamed it.  Back in August of 2011 my wife and I took a ducky through that and flipped it.  The river had come down from its peak flow and was “only” running at 7,000 cfs at the time. 7K didn’t seem too bad after two months of flows over 10,000 cfs, but we learned the hard way that much current in a cheap ducky is not the same thing as being in a 16’ cataraft. We had a terrifying swim of almost a mile, and my GoPro is still on the bottom of the river somewhere, if not in Mexico by now.

  I tied the boat up in my backyard and spent the rest of the evening trying to talk my wife into doing a moonlight float the rest of the way to my usual takeout a mile downriver.  However she was not to be persuaded, as she doesn’t like being on the river when it is too high, too low or wet. A river rat she is not. And so the next day I rowed it back to my waiting truck all by myself again, waving to the neighbors, thinking, “Why aren’t you out here too?”

                                                                     Jack Bombardier