The Lower Animas flows right through the heart of Durango, and by many accounts, it is the heart of Durango. Locals SUP the flat water upstream from the 32nd Street put-in, kayak class III Smelter Rapid, and boat the entire stretch in duckies, rafts, and inner tubes.
The river would only be high enough to float a raft for a few more days before the last of the spring run-off ran out, and it seemed like everyone in Durango was on the water that morning. Rafts rigged for fly fishing, commercially outfitted trips, and family floats lined the bank. Rob and Amy brought an inflatable kayak for their son, Henry, and his friend Sammy, and Steve took the oars of Rob's raft. We launched, bobbing downstream atop clear, cold water, bouncing through splashy, Class II rapids, and pinballing off rocks that are submerged at higher flows.
Floating the Animas isn't a wilderness experience by any stretch of the imagination, but you still see things from the water that you might otherwise miss from dry land: the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge steam engine chugging north on its way up to Molas Pass, the gleaming glass library overlooking the rapids, a sweet sand beach perfect for pulling over and letting the kids splash and make sandcastles for hours, and the many footbridges crossing the river, linking bike paths and leafy neighborhoods to downtown. The Animas's main event, though, is Smelter Rapid, a series of sizable holes that doubles as Durango's slalom course and whitewater park. Rob casually recalled the time they flipped in Smelter with a raft full of young kids—they quickly scooped everyone up—so we pulled over above the rapid to scout it just in case.
At low water, Smelter looks like a liquid roller coaster, a series of whoop-de-doos with couple of rocks thrown in for good measure, but no big moves required. Amy volunteered to walk around it with two-year-old Maisy, and Steve took the oars and picked a nice line right through the sweet spot of the waves. Water crashed in over the bow, dousing four-year-old Pippa, ten-year-old Ainsley, and me, but the raft bobbed right through—a wild, wet ride that was over much too soon. Behind us, Rob and Henry rammed a rock and dumped the duckie. It would be the second time that day that both of them swam, but judging from the goofy smiles on their faces, they didn't much mind. The only casualty: one of Rob's flip flop.
There aren't many towns where the local Walmart doubles as a rafting takeout, but that's where we were headed, a few miles away. Below Smelter, the river got bonier, with no clear channels through the rock gardens. We bumped and bounced downstream, passing Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, with a deck overlooking the river, a trail leading up from the water, and enough room to tie a couple of rafts while you run up for lunch.
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