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A Eulogy to the Animas River

Editor's Note: In this eulogy/love letter, TGR Contributor Sam Morse pays homage to the Animas River in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. On August 5, 2015, the EPA accidentally triggered a massive spill into a tributary of the Animas. The contaminants from the spill included heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead. The Navajo have been particularly hard-hit by this tragedy, losing the ability to water their crops halfway through their growing season. Despite the recently announced reopening of the Animas and other affected waters, questions about the long-term consequences of this disaster persist.

Two rookies paddle at the command of a hungover boat captain on the Animas River. Dale Womack photo. 

Dear Animas: I’m sorry we screwed up. I say ‘we’ because we’re all complicit in the desecration that you’ve most recently been subjected to. But by now, you’re probably used to it.

After all, heavy metals have been leaching into you for over a hundred years from over 3,000 abandoned, decaying mine. Being disappointed in humans might not be new for you.

But you never complained, you rarely got anyone sick—you’ve been nothing but a trooper about the whole thing. For a long time, you didn’t even complain when people who were tasked with protecting you ignored that responsibility and kicked the can down the road. It’s true, you’ve killed some people, but most of them knew the potential price of your affection, and loved you anyway.

During a time when so many are seeking answers, and someone to blame, to me it seems more important to point out all the qualities that made you great in life, and worth fighting for to preserve in the future.

The Giver

The D&S Narrow Gauge chugs along next to the Animas River during the booming mining. Wikimedia Commons photo. 

Historically, you’ve been the lifeblood for entire civilizations. Something you’re well aware of—but that many don’t understand—is that you sustained more people in the Animas River Valley during the time of the Anasazi than you currently do today. For millennia, you’ve nurtured and cradled civilization, allowing people to learn your lessons, reap your treasures, and pass the traditions down from parent to child. You’ve given these secrets unselfishly, watching the cycle repeat itself throughout the ages.

RELATED: Three millions gallons of toxic wastewater, not one million, now polluting Animas River

Recently, while talking with Time Magazine about your befoulment, Navajo Nation President Russel Begaye emphasized that “The spill has impacted us [The Navajo] religiously, emotionally, financially.” Even before the spill, many Navajo Nation citizens already had harsh water scarcity as part of their daily lives. But now, the irrigation closures have come halfway through the Navajo’s growing season, and entire crops and livelihoods hang in the balance.

You’ve raised people. And most of the time, all you’ve asked for in return was stewardship.

In between paddle commands, Animas River godfather Dale Womack takes a moment to talk some shit. Sam Morse photo.

You’ve taught countless young men and women about life who then have taken that wisdom and sprinkled it like seeds into the hearts and minds of more people still. Your old friend and veteran, Upper Animas river guide Dale Womack, candidly admits that you taught him the truth that “In life, the only certainty is change.”

The Animas River taught me everything… it gave me confidence, the skill—the knowledge of how to read a river—all these really important things in life: trust, communication, leadership.

Personally, you (the Animas) have been one of my best teachers. By studying your currents and fractal patterns as a young man, I learned about setting up, going with the flow, not fighting the current, adaptation, cycles of death and rebirth, trust, confidence. Most of the things that a river guide implements day-to-day are in fact lessons that continue to be useful throughout the rest of that person’s life. This has been true for me, and many, many others.

Or, as your old friend Kelsey Edens summed it up: “The Animas River taught me everything… It gave me confidence, the skill—the knowledge of how to read a river—all these really important things in life: trust, communication, leadership.” 

Iris Gardner holds a surf session at Smelter Rapid in Durango, Colorado. Sam Morse photo. 

In spite of all those gifts, we humans just can’t seem to return the favor.

The ultimate human arrogance is the assumption that to pollute you is the same as killing you. You’ll be fine… but we won’t.

The good news is that you are stronger than us — that to write a eulogy for you is in actuality to write a eulogy for us. You’ve seen the birth and resurrection of mountains. You’ve watched the Earth rent asunder—then rise up again. The ultimate human arrogance is the assumption that to pollute you is the same as killing you. You’ll be fine… but we won’t.

The bottom line is that you, Animas, have an eternity to wait. But for those not operating on a geological timescale, like us, time is short indeed.

Now What?

Just below Silverton, the Upper Animas runs dirty after the cataclysmic Gold King Mine spill of 2015. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Unlike you, humans seem to be chronically short-sighted. Many people in your communities are now rejoicing because you’re “open" again, just as if three million gallons of cancer-causing toxins hadn't been unleashed into your headwaters.

Animas River, don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that you don’t look like nuclear diarrhea anymore, and it is indeed heartening to know that people seem concerned, but I’m worried that it won’t be enough to change our behavior.

The entrance to the Gold King Mine pours heavy metal sludge into Cement Creek high above the town of Silverton, Colorado. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time,” said hydrologist Tom Myers, who runs a Nevada-based consulting business. “Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”

So this means that during every spring's high water, when boaters want to enjoy you the most, ghosts of this disaster will awaken themselves in the river to the detriment of farmers, boaters, and a myriad of everyday citizens.

READ ALSO: The Animas is a hard mother–40 miles and 400 foot rock walls to ski one line

But in a rush to get back to business as usual, everyone who has “authority” seems to think that you’re pretty much good to go, despite the fact that “we really won't be able to see what the impacts are until all of the pollution has run its course [i.e. hundreds, if not thousands of years]. Time will tell what the true impacts are," the Director of Environment Colorado, Kim Stevens, recently explained.

The Upper Animas in full classroom mode. The gradient just keeps coming on this 30-mile roller coaster ride. Sam Morse photo.

It’s true, Animas, you’ve been declared safe! However, those that would enjoy you are being instructed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to:

  • Wash… thoroughly with soap and water after contact with sediment and surface water.

…and

  • Avoid contact in areas where there is visible discoloration in sediment or river water.

…and

  • Wash clothes after contact with sediments and surface water.

Closure signs gracing the banks of the Animas. Once again its normal greenish hue, the riverbed now contains toxic sediments of undetermined severity. Alexi Skye photo.

So we can go ahead and utilize you for recreation like we always have; but if we swim in you, we need to shower afterwards.

Surely we can take our children to your beaches and allow them to wade and play as they always have—until they stir up any sediment, which could be toxic to their nervous systems?

Of course, we can still enjoy the silver and gold-medal angling waters that you’ve blessed us with for time immemorial, right?

Unfortunately, that might be a problem, too. “The fish population is especially very sensitive to water contamination,” explained Stevens. For some reason, those fish that live in and breathe your water River Animas aren’t going to hack it in heavy metal poison soup.

So as long as we don’t eat the fish, and get an industrial-strength power washing every time you splash us, or our kids, everything is gonna be fine, right?

The Future

Kelsey Edens nervously scouts Broken Bridge Rapid. Sam Morse photo. 

To everyday Durango citizens, especially the ones who’ve known you intimately, like Kelsey Edens, the whole situation is an unresolved, slow moving shitstorm.

“[After the spill] It’s a different feel. They talk about how water is charged—you feel it in the ocean, you feel it in the river—it just feels different now,” Kelsey explained. “It’s more acidic, the PH is all off, even though they say it’s fine. It just doesn’t have that same charge to it. You know, it’s not full of life anymore; it’s just different.”

Ever a realist, Edens insists the problem isn’t in your waters, but in the patterns of behavior that would have us celebrating your reopening, even when countless time bombs exist upstream that could contaminate you all over again.

The problem is our culture, and what we’ve done to not only this watershed but a lot of other ones—we’ve just fucked ’em... I think the time to be apathetic is over.

“The problem is our culture, and what we’ve done to not only this watershed but a lot of other ones—we’ve just fucked ’em,” Kelsey lamented. “There’s over 20,000 mines just like this one in Colorado; I think the time to be apathetic is over. In a certain way, maybe this did need to happen so that we’d finally fix this before it happens again. Let’s get a good plan, stop blaming everybody, and just fucking fix it.”

nice article sam, everyone needs to be aware of what is happening here and this is a touching commentary

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