With my partner Cari’s birthday always falling on the Summer Solstice, it’s usually up to her to decide how we spend the longest day of the year. This year, with temps in the 90s here in Santa Fe, we were excited to get out on the river in our Alpacka rafts with our friends Doom and Lizzy from Four Corners Guides, where we spent our Solstice evening on the San Miguel river…
As with everything outdoor-related in the era of Covid, the team at Alpacka Raft has been swamped with orders. We ordered some factory seconds last year but never used them as by the time we received them, it was already too late in the season. Their packrafts are made in Mancos, Colorado and for an in-depth look at their operations, I suggest reading Spencer’s Reportage located in the Related columns in the footer of this post.
For those unaware, packrafts are unique in that they are cargo-oriented vessels – when you choose the optional cargo zipper on the stern of the raft. This zipper opens up and you can fill the rafts up with your camping gear, freeing up the hull area for a dry bag with your easy-to-access items. You could literally float for weeks at a time, pending available services and re-fuelling options. And since they’re essentially giant dry bags, your goods stay safe and secure.
Packrafts are great for lower-flow rivers where the CFS might be too low for other vessels. They can literally float in shin-deep water and are more maneuverable in tight whitewater conditions than bigger oar boats. Yet, this ease of access can also be very dangerous as people with little to no whitewater experience can quickly get in over their heads – literally – and are at a high risk of drowning. Packrafts are not toys, so please before you run out and buy one, be sure to seek out professional whitewater training. Which is exactly what we did for Cari’s birthday.
Leaving Santa Fe, we drove up to Mancos to attend a safety course with Doom from Four Corners Guides on the Animas River in Durango, Colorado. Doom taught us how to maneuver a packraft down a river safely, learning proper eddy-out, ferrying, and self-recovery practices. We navigated Class II and Class III rapids, all within the safety of Doom’s guidance. I cannot stress these sorts of classes and training procedures enough.
We really wanted to make sure we got the basics down on this trip as we were hoping to float some of our local rivers, the Chama and the Rio Grand.
Upon completing the course, Doom prepped us for an overnighter where Lizzy – his fiancé – and their dog Saddle would join us on the San Miguel river, towards the end of its navigatable season.
Rivers have seasons in that the flow, or CFS, dips down too low for vessels to navigate. With our ultralight packrafts, we’re able to run rivers with 200 CFS flows, allowing us to portage the rafts if it gets too low and still be able to maneuver through tight spots. The San Miguel sees little to no oar-boat traffic, i.e. no commercial entities will guide this river.
Four Corners are one of the few packraft-oriented guiding services in the USA.
The Hanging Flume
Our plan was to put in on the San Miguel in an area with a high CFS and take out just south of the confluence of the Delores River. We’d spend the night at an idyllic campsite, under an old mining flume that clings onto the sheer cliff face high above the river.
The official name for this particular chute is the Hanging Flume due to its precarious installation. The Montrose Placer Mining Company built the flume in the 1880s to facilitate gold mining. Some sections of the flume remain attached to the canyon wall, providing for neck-tiring entertainment as you paddle through the San Miguel’s canyon slowly, craning your head up to witness this truly awesome bit of late 19th-century engineering.
Construction of the Hanging Flume began in 1887 and took three years to complete. Two dozen workers participated in the build, suspended from ropes onto the cliff face, where they handed down materials and tools to others who were anchored to the sandstone walls. Utilizing 1.8 million linear board feet of Ponderosa Pine lumber, the project cost approximately $100,000 in material cost alone.
The completed flume spans 12 miles and is elevated up to 75 feet above the river. When it was completed, the flume was 6′ wide and 4′ deep, conveying 80,000,000 gallons of water each day for the mining operations. This marvel of engineering was only utilized for three years until it was abandoned due to the closing mine. The Montrose Placer Mining Company dropped $1,000,000 into the mine and its engineering projects – including the flume – yet only made $80,000 in gold.
The Hanging Flume is registered in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
We arrived at Scullbinder Ranch, Doom, and Lizzy’s cabin that is their base of operations for Four Corners Guides. Doom, with the help of some friends, built the main ranch house utilizing two shipping containers, lots of salvaged materials, and steel over the course of last year. What an intense Covid project! As we pulled into their driveway, a neighboring hillside was enveloped in flames caused by dry lightning.
Needless to say, tensions were high as the flames billowed with each burst of wind. Firefighters eventually quelled the flames using aircraft but it was an interesting way to begin a trip.
Even with the threat looming literally overhead, Doom and Lizzy maintained composure and we began to go over our itinerary. We went over our gear, how to load it up, and the day’s itinerary which involved shuttling our vehicles. We loaded up the Four Corners SUV and headed out to the put in. Soon we were in the water and floating down into the majestic Delores River Canyon.
With only minimal obstacles, a few strainers (trees that have fallen into the river), and one or two rapids, it was a mostly uneventful float. The highlight of the trip was when Doom and Saddle took on the rapid with Saddle attempting to jump out of the boat while Doom grabbed onto his PFD, bringing the pup back on board safe and sound.
Cari and Lizzy came through shortly after, exhibiting a cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor.
We made it to camp as the sun was setting in the canyon, sat around, and discussed the day’s events. In the morning, we had an even easier paddle with the highlight being an epic rope swing swimming spot. Shortly after, we left the cool confines of the river and made it to the takeout, with temperatures pushing 100º.
The heat was real. Like a blowdryer to the face. Yet it made for plenty of motivation to hastily pack up our gear and start on the long drive back to Scullbinder Ranch.
This was such a sweet and short trip and was certainly one of the more entertaining ways we’ve spent the Solstice. This week we have some epic Swift Campout content on the way but I felt like this was a story worth sharing. One of the trips Four Corners guides is a bikerafting trip, which includes utilizing bikes and packrafts to complete a big loop.
If you have the time and the resources, I can’t emphasize what a fun outing this is. Holler at Four Corners Guides for available tours!
Thanks for reading. :-)