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Water is Life: Recreation on the River

“Water is Life: Recreation on the River”

Cheryl Cwelich

22 January 2019

Snow crunches underfoot, as we follow the trail around the riverbanks of Gunnison’s Whitewater Park, just west of Gunnison off Highway 50. Layla, a playful black lab bounces around through the mounds of white, occasionally venturing too close to the ice and water’s edge for her human companion, Paul Raymond, as he talks about his love of water and boating. “Water is unique in that it is one of the few liquids that expands when frozen,” Paul explains as we make our way through slender winter willows. “I love natural science, I’m kind of a nerd.”

Paul Raymond’s sandy beard matches his deep voice and big paddler shoulders – a rough and ready kind of guy, not a typical “nerd.” Wearing a pair of Western’s red and black shades, he fits the position as President of Western Colorado University’s Whitewater Club well. Since he was a youngster, Raymond has been in love with water, learning to kayak at ten years old at a summer camp, instructing at fifteen, and competing as a class V boater at sixteen. “As I always say, water is life.” Our conversation meanders through the challenges and highlights of boating, with him nearly even drowning once, though he has never let that hold him back from being on the water. Boating, like any recreational activity, has the potential to push you or even be scary. Paul keeps going. 

We continue to follow Layla tracks in the snow at the Whitewater Park; thinking of waves, boats and paddles. A Western Recreation and Outdoor Education student in 2002, saw the potential for a play area for boaters, and in 2003 the Whitewater Park was developed. The first drop feature in the Whitewater Park, one of the newest water rights on the Gunnison River, also raises the level of the water to the headgate of the ‘75 Ditch,’ the oldest water right on the Gunnison River, ending the necessity to put a bulldozer in the river every summer to create a partial dam to raise the level. That new water right held by the upper Gunnison District, is a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD), which allows for a certain amount of flow in the river for recreational purposes. This makes the Whitewater Park, site of the annual Gunnison River Festival in June, possible. It has become a hub for people looking to get outside, surf a wave, sunbathe in the autumn sun or walk their inquisitive and frisky dog in the crisp of January.

Boating for Paul Raymond goes far beyond the Whitewater Park, something he uses mostly for meeting up with buddies and instructing. When the spring runoff comes, he is up paddling in the mountain creeks. The Gunnison Basin is unique for its array of boatable creeks and streams, a testament to its usually enviable snowpack. Passionate and excited, Paul talks about different creeks, particularly the Slate River and the Oh Be Joyful Race, which brought him to Colorado in 2012. An avid kayaker then and now, he saw a video that had been posted online of some dudes sending it on the Oh Be Joyful waterfall during the race and Paul knew that he had to experience it for himself. “OBJ is a classic, and classic meaning that it’s the best of its kind.” For Raymond, it’s the kind of boating worth sticking around for. These days he is the Coordinator of the Oh Be Joyful Race, which help to educate the public on water issues and donates to a local non-profit conservation group.

At the end of this semester, Paul will be graduating from Western Colorado University with a degree in Recreation and Outdoor Education. He is looking forward to graduation, and he is hopeful for good water flows for the OBJ race this year. Last year, there was not a race due to low flows. Paul doesn’t worry too much about the future of water, trusting water managers to do what they do best, though it does concern him that water users can become too divided rather than work together. He also hopes to see science help in the development of reclamation and conversation efforts, especially for agricultural uses, which has the highest use of water. Considering how to bring water users together, Paul offers, “I think well organized and open discussion about water science, use, management, and planning are crucial to making sure that every group is represented and has their needs met.” Entering DU’s Sturm College for Law this upcoming fall, Paul will be facilitating many of those kind of conversations. For now, walking around the snowy banks of the Gunnison Whitewater Park, we, and a very happy black dog, hope that the snow keeps falling.

From the chilly banks of the Whitewater Park, I find myself inside the warm, wood cabin-style boathouse on West Tomichi Avenue, Carollyn Cherry, a kind-hearted and perceptive owner and manager of Scenic River Tours, smiles at me brightly. This boathouse sings of the countless visitors who have had the privilege of floating down the Gunnison River, SUPPing Blue Mesa… or experienced the thrill and rapids of Taylor Canyon. Old canoes from the Gunnison Gorge and maps from years previous speak to the depth of knowledge and skill of her and the SRT guides. Faces smiling and surprised in photos speak of guides, friends and companions here and gone with love, affection and nostalgia. As her surroundings show, Carollyn works in the recreation industry because she deeply loves outdoor recreation. Listing off her different favorites, she recounts: “Skiing, rafting, fishing, hunting, sailing, hiking, biking, climbing – Whatever you can name. I mean, where do you stop?!” she asks, laughing merrily.

Carollyn has lived and worked in the Upper Gunnison Valley for thirty years. After graduating from North Dakota State University, Carollyn saw an ad for CBMR’s former student program and decided to come out and ski for a winter. Like countless others in this area, that one winter turned into many and she never left. “I realized I could work outside and make a living.” Recreation has become her way of life; she and her co-owners, Ches Russel and Dustin Brown, have followed and made their passion for the outdoors their livelihood.

As the owner of a rafting business, water is a way of life. Giggling gleefully, she talks about how much she enjoys being on the river in her ducky “The river takes you places you can’t get otherwise.” As a lover of nature, water is life, flowing through everything, from the faucet, to the ditch, through the animals, such as bear, bobcat and elk, Carollyn loves to watch out her back door, and through to the river on which she plays and makes a living. For her, “water is a powerful thing, “it is all-encompassing, in every aspect of life.”

Looking into the future of water is unsettling. Climate change projections show a 10-25% decrease in average annual runoff. This is something that worries Carollyn, wishing we could prevent climate change. Hopeful with the snowy winter, Carollyn wonders if Mother Nature will be gracious and give us more water for the season ahead. She knows we need to listen to the Earth -“We are seeing weird things in the woods. There’s marmots in Almont and pika are at lower elevations that I’ve ever seen. We need to listen to the Earth.”

Being a business that relies on water flow, Scenic needs consistent water flows during the rafting season to stay in business. That could change with both climate and those in power. In order to deal with the effects of climate change on water patterns and a growing population, a demand management program on our rivers are being considered by seven Colorado River states. Demand management could mean reductions, voluntary or mandatory for consumptive users; the recreation community will benefit from the program, since it will leave water in the streams. Carollyn is very aware of the DCP, having attending many Water Congress meetings, outdoor recreation conventions and seeing articles in the local newspaper. With a state that is already “plumbed,” she sees the need for more, and intuitive water management. In a water-hungry world and future, her worry is, “the influence of power and money in decision-making.”

Carrolyn deeply appreciates the way the District manages water flow and works with every entity, including Scenic and the overall boating community, in the watershed management conversation. In her mind, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District is doing a great job juggling different interests. “They are making a difference in how water is managed.”

Water is life. It makes us, sustains us; it connects us to one another and to our home. We play in it, are challenged by it and use it in one way or another to making a living. Recreation isn’t just something the young kids and tourists do; we all do it in one form or another. Like water, recreating and playing are necessary to life. People like Carollyn re-create their lives around water in the upper Gunnison Valley. Fortunately, we have water managers in the Gunnison Basin that have made recreation apart of the water management conversation. Let’s keep that conversation going.

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