First descent
New effort seeks to record tales of running the Upper Animas River

First descent

Rafters and kayakers take on the Upper Animas in July 2019./ File photo

Jonathan Romeo - 04/06/2023

by Jonathan Romeo


In spring 1982, Kris Walker and his friend, Paul Semmer, sat on the banks of the Animas River on the south end of Silverton, ready to travel into the great unknown and (somewhat) ready to make the first descent of the Upper Animas River in a raft.

Though kayakers had been running the gnarly and techy stretch of whitewater as early as the 1970s, no one had previously attempted to take down a full-sized boat.

“People always ask if you’re afraid of first descents, and I say, ‘No, because if you’re afraid to run a river, you shouldn’t be on it,’” Walker said. “You need to be prepared, in shape and have proper equipment, but it’s the attitude of going into it that makes the difference. Because you are stepping into this absolute unknown.”

Spoiler alert – as you can probably surmise from the fact we interviewed Walker last week – he and his companion survived the adventure. But, it’s stories like these that Casey Lynch, the founder and former owner of Mountain Waters Rafting, hopes to get down in the history books.

Lynch has recently started recording the legendary river running stories of the Upper Animas, which are to be archived at Fort Lewis College’s Center for Southwest Studies. Already, Lynch has sat down with 10 different boaters and has plenty more planned in the coming days. 

“Everyone up there has a story,” Lynch said. “And now, these stories will be available and open for public use, whether it’s students, future writers, whoever.”

And what better story to start with than the very first descent of the Upper Animas in a raft?

Paddling pioneers

If you’re unfamiliar, the stretch of the Upper Animas below Silverton is regarded as one of the most challenging and wild river runs in the Southwest. It’s known for its nearly 30 miles of continuous Class IV/V rapids, bitterly cold water and erratic flows.

And it’s extremely remote. To run the stretch, one either needs to put in at Silverton at an elevation of 9,300 feet or take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in. Either way, at the end of the trip, all boaters require a ride out by the railroad at the traditional take-out at Tacoma.

Walker and Semmer, however, didn’t have much of this information at the time.

Walker, for his part, got into river running in the 1970s and started building catarafts (a twin-hulled raft) to be able to run more technical whitewater. In the early years, Walker ran huge, remote rivers in British Columbia and Canada’s Northwest Territories.

In the spring of 1982, Walker ran an even further-modified cataraft in what’s considered the first descent of the Numbers and Pine Creek, very technical and tight sections of the Arkansas River near Buena Vista.

“It was a great run,” Walker said. “The boat was fast and maneuverable. I then called my boating companion Paul and said, ‘Let’s go try the Upper Animas.’”

Send it

Scouting on the river was limited, to say the least. Walker and Semmer walked the train tracks a little ways from Rockwood station north, and then from the put-in at Silverton down, about mile. In all, the pair had eyes on just 2 miles or so of an estimated 30 miles of whitewater.

Walker said he talked to a couple kayakers who had run the stretch for some insight, but it was only slightly helpful, because kayakers run the river differently. At the very least, however, they were able to say it should be doable in a raft.

“No one said, ‘You’re going to die,’ and I appreciated that,” Walker joked. I think.

After making sure the D&SNG would pick them up at Tacoma, Walker and Semmer trekked up to Silverton one day in late May 1982 and put on the river in one raft around 7:30 a.m. The pair were able to read and run most of the rapids but stopped to scout the biggest – No Name.

“You have to be willing to accept anything thrown at you,” Walker said of first descents (of which he’s done several. Walker also went onto co-found AIRE Rafts). “But you’re not lying to yourself – if you don’t have the confidence and knowledge, you’re probably going to get in trouble.”

On this day, Walker and Semmer were able to avoid any trouble on the Upper Animas, running all the rapids cleanly and getting to the take-out in just six hours with plenty of time to break down their gear before the D&SNG arrived.

“We were so focused on the river and concentrated on what’s coming next that we weren’t able to take in the absolute beauty of it,” he said. “And in the end, the Upper Animas was a stepping stone to much more difficult, bigger and more powerful rivers in Idaho.”

Campfires to recording booths

Every river has its own unique history and story, Lynch said, and the Upper Animas is no different, which is why he wants to record and preserve them before they get lost to time.

Nancy Wiley – whose father, Milt, was one of the first legendary kayakers of Durango – was taken down the Upper Animas in 1975, at the age of 15, in one epic father-daughter outing. The group was equipped with wool sweaters bought from a thrift store and thin nylon paddling jackets (brrrrr).

“I like to say, if that water wasn’t flowing, it’d be frozen,” Wiley said. “But I wasn’t scared or panicked. It was more matter of fact. Was it fun? That’s a good question. I was excited, it was beautiful, it was scary, and yes, I suppose fun.”

After, Wiley was hooked, and estimates that now she has probably run the Upper Animas more than 40 times. Once, at high water, she ran the entire 26 miles or so in about three hours in her kayak. A feat, sure, but far too short of a time to spend in such a beautiful place, Wiley said.

“There are special places in our world, and the Animas River Canyon is definitely one of them,” she said.

Amy Knight, who also recorded her story with Lynch, was one of the first women to row a raft on the Upper Animas with her friend Karen Glascock in 1984. A Mountain Waters Rafting guide, Knight said running the stretch never got old.

“There wasn’t a trip up there when I didn’t have butterflies in my stomach, because the consequences are huge,” she said. “It was lovely and awesome, but also nerve-wracking. You can be at your best, but sometimes shit happens. But we were young and having the time of our lives.”

And hey, maybe Lynch will ask me one day to record my own river story on the Upper Animas, in which one night, while doing a layover at the guide camp (near Needleton), one of my buddies woke up in the middle of the night to… relieve himself… and walked straight into a tree and punctured his eye, requiring him to run the river with a compromised eye the next day.

Another spoiler alert – we made it.

The good, the bad, the ugly

As the years pressed on, river running equipment improved (namely bucket boats gave way to self-bailers) and rafters became more familiarized with the Upper Animas. As a result, the idyllic yet dangerous run opened up to commercial trips. 

By the 1990s, three local companies – 4Corners Whitewater, Mild to Wild Rafting and Mountain Waters – were regularly running trips down the Upper Animas. But we’d be remiss to not mention the tragic price that sometimes comes with adventuring – in 2005, two people died on a commercial rafting trip, and another person died in 2009. 

For a time, the number of commercial trips plummeted on the Upper Animas, from 872 visitors in 2005 to just 167 in 2006. The traumatic experiences, however, caused guiding companies to rethink their strategies and take a more cautious approach. 

Now, customers who want to go on an Upper Animas trip must have previous rafting experience and be in good physical condition. Some companies, too, will throw customers in Durango’s Whitewater Park to see how they respond to the chaos of being in water. In turn, no one has died since that 2009 incident.

“You can do everything right, and still something bad can happen,” Lynch said. “It takes a lot of experience from guides to get down safely, but also a certain amount of luck.”

Far more people could be named in this story in the history of running the Upper Animas. But, suffice to say, Lynch wants them all for his archives – the good, the bad, the ugly (and he’s looking for the first kayakers to ever make the true first descent of the Upper A).

“I’m not going to get them all,” Lynch said. “But one thing you realize is the camaraderie up there. There were a ton of practical jokes in all directions, but when the chips were down, everyone looked out for everyone else on the river.” ?