Raised in a state that enjoys abundant clean water stored in thousands of natural lakes carved long ago by glaciers, I grew up hostile to the concept of strangling rivers. And, the good fortune of all those sparkling lakes meant I could carry my monkey wrench and rant against concrete. Fifteen years in Oklahoma with its turbid faux-lakes locked behind dams only added to my fervor. The red silt water of Soonerland left boat clothes and kayak gear stained a crappy crimson. Warm, windblown, and prone to bloom with algae, those reservoirs stored water resources but did not inspire me to lay down the hate.
Things change when your perspective uproots to the Colorado River system. Dams, diversions and tunnels are the reason there is a town here to call home. I have not started hugging the silly things but I have developed a peaceful co-existence. I never thought I could admit to being okay with a dam on my river, but I am.
The Uncompahgre River runs through the Ouray Ice Park. Normally it is a slight flow beneath solid ice bridges at this time of year, but it has been a crazy warm few weeks. The river has punched through and taken back the edges where climbers can safely stand as ice crashes down. The rusty water gushed past us yesterday and we commented that we could have worn our waders. Not long after, we decided it was too warm to climb and set off to go stand in the river rather than try to keep our crampons out of the stream.
The Uncompahgre is a fishless, polluted, and frolicking stream through the canyon and on north through Ouray County. Then it enters Ridgway Reservoir and something wonderful happens. The river that leaves that dam is an entirely different species—tailwater. The water is crystal clear, which makes it extra challenging to catch the giant trout that live within its margins and deeps. It is a special day when you can land a fish from the Uncompahgre at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. Yesterday wasn’t that special, but it was delightful to be up to my knees in a clean river playing a beautiful song.
I cannot imagine the Uncompahgre River without that dam. Strangely that does not bother me. I have discovered there is value in storing water, in appropriately chosen locations, and that the rivers that emerge from the belly of those beasts can be extraordinary fish habitat. The black and white I used to be confident in has acquired many hues. There are rivers that should flow free, but not as many as I used to believe.