El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, River of Our Lady of Sorrows, now commonly referred to simply as “The Dolores”.
The history of this river is as extensive and depressing as the name(s) would suggest. Explored in 1765 it has been the lifeblood of humans for thousands of years in the area. Today we grow lots of alfalfa and divert nearly the entire river basin for that purpose. With the construction of McPhee Dam in the late 1980’s the river and it’s history were written yet again. Today, when water managers allow, you can put in at Bradfield Bridge. An area that seems dilapidated, only because of the lack of use in the last twenty or so years.
Originally one of the west’s great multi-day trips, it is now a trip that occurs only during particularly wet weather cycles in the basin. You may only have the opportunity to run this river once or twice in a decade. If you do get the opportunity it will be on incredibly short notice (sometimes just days or a week) as the reservoir must legally fill, and then “spill” the excess inflows in order to make boatable flows.
2019 was not supposed to be one of those years. Particularly wet spring conditions dramatically altered the runoff projections. Water managers scrambled to adjust their calculations as unprecedented weather patterns took hold in Southern Colorado. For those not living here, we had two feet of snow fall on Rabbit Ear’s Pass on the summer solstice…
While we put on the river with flows approaching 1200 CFS, typically the flows range from 40-75 CFS. Fishing and recreation are all but a memory below McPhee, as such the facilities reflect the sterility of the water itself.
Campsites were hard to find, all of them having seen infrequent use since the late 1980’s. Most of them were overgrown and unrecognizable.
The most famous stretch of this river is Snaggletooth Rapid. When the river would run free, Snaggletooth was a name that would give even the most experienced boaters pause. It was a barometer, a test of ones skill. At one point the Dolores was the most heavily used whitewater run in the state of Colorado. Check out this footage from Rig to Flip. Amazing stuff.
The opportunity was one that I would not let pass. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I will go again when the chance occurs. Rafting down the Dolores was being surrounded by immense beauty, and at the same time, immense sadness. I hope that someday my children will be able to run this river, with far greater frequency that we are afforded today.