Shots fired
Boaters report being shot at while floating Animas River south of Durango

Shots fired

The Animas River in all its glory on the stretch of river south of Durango toward New Mexico. What's not pictured here, however, is the property from which two men shot at rafters on Sunday./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Jonathan Romeo - 05/25/2023

Flipped boats, booty beers, your supposed friends putting rocks in your drag bag – these are only some of the common risks associated with rafting.

What’s not so common, however, is having a semi-automatic rifle shot at you while enjoying a peaceful float. But that’s the situation two local boaters found themselves in this past Sunday.

“It was not your average day on the river,” Stephen Eginoire, one of the boaters, said.

According to Eginoire (who is a regular contributor to The Durango Telegraph), he and his girlfriend launched Sunday just below the Whitewater Park on the Animas River, intending to float about 24 miles down to Tico Time River Resort in New Mexico.

“We were having a great float; that section down there is amazing,” Eginoire said.

Around 3 p.m., that all changed, to say the least. About a mile upstream of the Weaselskin Bridge (which is about 5 miles south of Home Depot near the intersections of county roads 213 and 214), Eginoire’s girlfriend noticed two men get out of a dark-colored truck on river right.

As the couple floated by, the two men, hidden in vegetation, opened fire.

“They let off probably five or six shots at super close range to our boat,” he said. “It was just pow, pow, pow, pow in super rapid succession. I’ve been around guns my entire life, and it was definitely some kind of semi-automatic rifle.”

Eginoire and his girlfriend got down in the boat to take cover. As his boat turned, Eginoire was about to have a clear line of sight on the two men. It was at that time they jumped into the truck to get away.

“That’s the part that sketched me out,” he said. “They were totally f***ing with us.”

And the nightmare doesn’t end there. As Eginoire rounded a bend in the river, he heard the truck door open again, as well as another round of rapid gun fire. He said the bullets hit the water about 75-100 feet upstream of their boat.

“It was clearly an act of aggression,” he said. “It was not just careless shooting.”

Now past the shooters, Eginoire and his girlfriend thought about taking out at Weaselskin Bridge (located on Southern Ute Indian Tribe land), but ultimately decided to continue the float to their car parked at Tico Time.

“I’m glad we ended up going down there, but we were rattled the rest of the way,” he said. “But then we showed up at Tico Time in the middle of a freaking reggae festival happening … We saw an interesting cross section of people that day.”

Eginoire reported the incident to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, but it was determined the two men shot from SUIT land, putting it in the tribe’s jurisdiction. And here’s where things get… complicated.

Upon submitting a media request, the tribe responded in a formal statement: “The reporting party (Eginoire) stated they did not feel alarmed or threatened as they were unable to provide a description of the subjects, did not believe shots were fired in their direction, and the report was provided solely for informational purposes.”

However, Eginoire begs to differ with that account. “100% BS” was his response.

The Telegraph reached back out to the SUIT for more information. The tribe responded, “The provided statement is accurate.”

Uhh... OK?

Eginoire said he has not personally heard from the SUIT since reporting the incident, but he revisited the site Monday and was able to take a photograph of the truck in question and report it to tribal rangers. He was unable to get an address. Because the property is located on SUIT land, there is no information available on La Plata County’s GIS database.

Because the incident has so far not been investigated, the shooters’ motive remains unclear – whether they were trying to intimidate the rafters for being down there, or just being A-holes.

“Is it someone just f***ing with us?” Eginoire asked. “Or were they actually sending a message to not come down there? If they were trying to send a message, I wouldn’t go back down there until this whole thing is figured out.”

In the past few years, local groups have been trying to boost recreation on the stretch from the last take out in Durango at Dallabetta Park (behind Home Depot) down into New Mexico.

However, a lack of access to put-ins and take-outs has historically made the run difficult (previously, the closest public access was in Aztec, about 40 miles from Durango, which is a lot of miles to float in just one day). But that’s changed in the past few years. Tico Time now offers a boat ramp just below the state line, and a new boat ramp at Cedar Hill, farther downstream but before Aztec, opened this year.

Also, there’s been a longstanding perception that the river in this section had fences across it (there aren’t any), and there were deadly low-head dams and other hazards. But in recent years, Aztec and Farmington have made great strides in cleaning up the Animas and removing these hazards.

In 2017, for instance, the City of Farmington spent $1.1 million to remove the Penny Lane Dam, which had been responsible for a number of deaths. The spot is now a runnable, small rapid that also is a play feature for kayakers.

It’s all part of a cultural and economic shift in La Plata County’s neighbor to the south, said Mike Stark, San Juan County Manager.

“We’re looking to expand our economic-diversification opportunities, and outdoor recreation is really a no-brainer for us,” Stark said. “We have a lot to offer down here, and folks are finding us and putting us on the map.”

So, it’s not exactly great to have people shooting at recreationists using the river. As stated, because we don’t know the intentions of the shooters, it’s impossible to point to a motivation. But, it’s not uncommon for tensions to rise when recreationists enter areas that previously did not have a lot of use.

However, according to state law, as long as you stay on your boat in the water, it’s not trespassing. (Eginoire and his girlfriend said they remained on the boat the entire time.)

San Juan Citizens Alliance’s Gary Skiba said, regardless, tensions can rise between boaters and private landowners. The Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, for instance, has a long history of ugly boater-landowner conflicts. In 2020, a private landowner shot at boaters there, too, according to the river-runner forum Mountain Buzz.

“You have landowners who feel like if you cross their property, even when you’re on the water, you’re on their property, and that’s not true,” Skiba said. “No one owns the water; you have a right to use it. Water is a property of the state. It’s not their property.”

For Eginoire, the section of the Animas below Durango is one of his favorites. To top it off, he was excited to bring his girlfriend down for the first time.

“Just before the shooting, we were having a great discussion about how amazing the Animas River is, how it ties so many people of all walks of life together,” he said, “including people who clearly didn’t want us to be there.”