Friday, May 11, 2012

Cast away

Before the shipwreck
It wasn't how I'd intended to launch the river season. But somehow it was the perfect way to go into it: fully immersed.


It was April, and my buddy Jono was visiting from San Francisco. For his last day here I'd planned a grand nearby adventure: a canoe float down a lovely cottonwood-lined and redrock-backdropped length of our home-town Animas River. And a new stretch for both of us: As many miles as I've logged on the Animas in the past decades, this run had eluded me. So it would be for both Jono and myself a beautiful gift of the beneficent spring.

It would be, I assured him, just a two-hour cruise ...

Jono and I have been on several multi-day canoe ventures together, so this one seemed like a leisurely trip -- from Baker's Bridge, at the north end of the Animas Valley, down to Trimble Lane, where we usually put in for our relaxed canoeing floats down the valley to town. This stretch is, I was told by a kayaking friend of mine (renown for his class-V paddling expeditions, which should've perhaps been a red flag), a flat-water float through wide, slow, early-season low-water meanders.

It was, he told me, just a ... two-hour cruise ...

So with spring springing, the river beckoning, and our confidence rising like the runoff, my out-of-town paddling pal and I rustled up a few other buddies and their canoes, and we set out upon our beloved waters.

At this point, in retrospect, I have to acknowledge that I was, perhaps, somewhat overconfident. This was due, maybe, to the several months it had been since I'd last dipped a paddle. In fact, there were so many auspicious and positive portents -- a great weekend with an old friend, the cottonwoods sporting sheer green negligees of tender leaves, the sweet sun pouring down like golden honey -- that it seemed like this float was meant to happen. Maybe it was.

So … we wouldn't need much, then, right? And, besides, it was only flatwater. And we are experienced paddlers. And it is right close to home. So … Floatbags? Naw. I'll bring this little plastic bottle as a token bail bucket. Spare paddle? Well, it's somewhere around my garage ... I'll find it next trip. A little ballast, perhaps? I'll throw in a daypack of gear and a few beers. Dry bags? Well, I'll bring one, but why bother sealing it?

It was, after all, just a ... two-hour cruise …

Actually, for us, it ended up about a three-minute, one-hundred-yard cruise. Paddling anyway. The next quarter-mile we swam. The next hour was spent running up and down the cobblestone bank, recovering gear while gesticulating a cryptic and comical sort of sign language toward our river-faring comrades. They had beached their boats on the far shore so they could also gather our various jetsam and flotsam washing up on the other side of the river.

We also waved and pointed toward my treasured red Legend canoe, full to the gunnels and stranded on a rockbar in the middle of the river. Our so-called "friends" would just wave back, hoisting our salvaged beers in thanks, holding my dripping Rockies hat aloft, displaying my sopping daypack full of our warm gear. And laugh.

"Well, Gilligan, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into," I joked to Jono in my best Skipper voice. He shivered in his wet jeans and waterlogged boots (yes, I told him that attire would be fine for such a dainty trip), while squinting out over the cold river, mumbling something about his new sunglasses.

The last hour of our two-hour cruise involved lining our stranded boat back to shore. And then there we stood. We'd recovered all our gear except the pint-sized bail jug, Jono's new sunglasses, and the contents of four now-empty beer cans. We looked downstream, at the cold river, and at the rest of our flotilla leaning on trees and sitting on their canoes, flaunting their dryness.

That was when we prudently chose to abort the first river run of the year.

We bowed to the river, waved adieu to the other boats, threw our soaked remains in my canoe, and humbly carried our watercraft back to our truck. In two hours we'd gone from Gilligan's Island-style comedic castaways to a riverine Adam and Eve -- well, in this case, maybe Adam and Evan -- getting cast away from our Eden for disrespecting the rules of the place.

So, was the first river run of the year a failure, then? No way. This experience was, in fact, I believe, the perfect way to start the new river season. Because now I will go into it the right way: With humbleness. With respect. With proper preparation. With more warm clothing. With sealed dry bags. With extra beer. Because the river doesn't abide cockiness. That's why it's so good for us.

Jono and I, by the way, are determined to tackle this unsuccessful venture again. We may even make it a yearly ritual, to remind us of our lesson in respect for the river. We could call it the Annual Baker's Bridge Classic: a triathlon consisting of a hundred-yard paddle, a quarter-mile swim, and a three-mile trot along a rugged shoreline pulling a submerged 16-foot canoe.

The river will always win.



Read this story in the "La Vida Local" column in the Durango Telegraph
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