Comments needed about canoeing the lower Gunnison River

One of the Western Slope’s sweet little outdoor secrets is the stretch of canoeable flat water on the Gunnison River between Delta and Whitewater. Well, it’s almost flat. There is one rapid named Hail Mary that can cause paddlers to pause and boats to flip. I’ve seen it done.

A few years back at Hail Mary, I was with a commercial outfitter and a dozen couples in rental canoes. The female trip leader — blonde, athletic, oozing confidence and poise — had inspired a grandfather wearing jeans to paddle with her. His granddaughter came in my canoe.

The guide’s famous last words, which cost her grief in camp that night, were, “Just do what I do.” And she proceeded to paddle the wrong line and tipped her red Old Towne Discovery canoe. Grandpa got wet and had to swim.

Startled, the other novice canoeists turned to me and said, “Do we really have to do what she just did?” And I said, “No, follow me,” and we all made it through the rapid in time to help the guide.

The run from Delta to Whitewater can be paddled in as many days as you like, but a good pace would be four days and three nights camping on BLM lands, with designated camp sites now marked by wooden posts painted blue.

For outdoors enthusiasts, the lower Gunny has miles of cottonwoods, canyons and quiet. The three things we’ve lost in the 21st century can all be found there—silence, solitude and darkness, give or take the 100-car coal trains that parallel the river on their way to Grand Junction from Paonia.

Still, it’s a marvelous opportunity to get some upper-body exercise, camp on public lands and see a part of the Western Slope that is almost inaccessible by car. As visitation has risen, the Bureau of Land Management sees the need to work on a river corridor plan as part of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area Draft Resource Management Plan. I suppose that’s inevitable.

One of the ironies of designating federal wilderness like Dominguez Canyon is that such a label brings more hikers. What’s great about Dominguez is you can paddle to it. That canyon is one of the few wilderness areas in the state with access by canoes, which makes it a perfect weekend vacation for families and friends.

The BLM knows that there is increasing recreation pressure on public lands. Riparian corridors along rivers deserve the utmost protection, but do we have to go to a permit system on the lower Gunnison like we’ve seen on the stretch through Ruby and Horse Thief Canyons in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area? I hope not. Not yet, anyway.

The only bottleneck is at Dominguez Canyon, where there can be competition for campsites. My solution is to make the entire river corridor more user-friendly, from Delta all the way to Whitewater. Have better maps. Have volunteers thrash weeds, cut tamarisk, rake and remove cow patties and make more riverside campsites. Set more blue posts. Then I think congestion will take care of itself.

Make your feelings known. The BLM is seeking public comment between now and Sept. 23, so send ‘em a postcard, an email or even a full-fledged letter. Paddlers unite. Let’s see if we can have more cooperation and less regulation.

There is one problem with the proposed management plan, however, that no one anticipated. And next summer it could be serious.

As our monsoon season hit this year on July 18 a railroad bridge blew out after flash floods had raised the Gunny at Escalante Canyon to a staggering 4,500 cubic feet per second. River Guide Pam Fitz for Centennial Canoes saw the flooding and says, “I counted 35 railroad ties as we traveled Friday through Saturday to the bridge at Highway 141 and likely more were under water.”

I paddled the same stretch from Aug. 23 to Aug. 25 and saw something really frightening. Not only are wooden creosoted railroad ties positioned all up and down the river, but as the water has dropped, 9- to 12-inch rusted spikes have emerged to pose serious hazards for canoes, rafts, fishermen and swimmers. Just at the very moment the BLM is seeking citizen input on how to protect and preserve the river corridor, a new problem presents itself. Who is liable for the cleanup? And how do you remove heavy, wet, massive beams that are approximately 18 feet long and 18 inches square?

Contact the BLM and say, “Yes, we want to protect semi-primitive, non-motorized recreational boating in the Gunnison River corridor.” Ask for better river maps, more campsites, but no reservation system. At least not yet. Ask for primitive camping at Escalante Canyon and better facilities and security at the takeout at Whitewater Canyon. But in the middle, let’s leave it wild and scenic “thereby enhancing opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation experiences.”

But also ask who is going to clean up the railroad bridge ties with the sharp, rusted spikes? Right now, paddling Hail Mary Rapid is a fun technical challenge on a hot summer day. If wooden bridge ties get trapped in or near the rapid, flipping a boat could have dangerous consequences.

To comment on the draft management plan, write to:

Dominguez-Escalante NCA

Bureau of Land Management

2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506

Fax: (970) 244-3083

Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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