It was a long shot: fly fishing for trout in the Heritage on snow covered lakes of the Rockies. But my guide, Mike McCormick of Wolf Creek Anglers, knew how to raise fish. The scene was surreal, the quiet white snow falling, the lake ringed in white, and our white Heritage looking somewhat out of place to this Florida oarsman so used to the vibrant colors of the tropics. We worked the banks and did well enough that I knew I had to try the fast moving rivers next summer.
These boats are designed for open waters, but I couldn’t resist the trout-rich waters of these famous rivers. The plan was to row and fish the Rio Grande River, the Animas River, the San Juan, and some more smaller lakes.
Heading west we packed a Heritage Classic 18 Double and an Ultra light Carbon 15 Single. The single lived on top of the Xterra for the entire trip, and I fell in love (again) with the Carbon’s light 60 lb weight. Loading and deploying was a breeze and I took full advantage, dropping in wherever the local waters beckoned.
The 18 was the more appropriate fishing platform as one could row and navigate while the other fished.
One of the first outings was a small lake known for large but shy, trout. The fly hatch hadn’t really come yet, so we left the fly rod behind. My 5 year old, Chase, was with me, and I set him up with a small spinning rod. Casting into several fishy looking spots yielded nothing, so for fun I let him cast into some baitfish pods, hooking several small perch. Leaving one on, I slow-trolled a bit. In a few minutes he had pole bent a reel screaming off line: his first.
Of the rivers to challenge, the San Juan was the most rocky. I wanted to discover what could and couldn’t be done. I launched the 15 Carbon for a nice 5 mile run. It was a stretch I’d done a few days earlier in a large inflatable whitewater raft, so I was familiar with what to expect. The first 3 miles held too many rocks to head bow first and cruise, plus the excitement and diverse water conditions were a thrill. I headed stern first “push-rowing” like a traditional river guide. The nimble Heritage would do just about anything I asked. I could power row for control, out-rowing the current to navigate left or right. Or I could use the shape of the Heritages keel as a rudder and row into the current, turning the keel left or right and using the current to pull me sideways… It took a while to get used to this type of rowing, but it was highly controllable. I could slip down a small drop, row dead-sideways, around a rock, back to the other side, and hold steady on another little rapid or wash.
The scenery is breathtaking, the quiet of nature remarkable. Being here helps me understand my new friend Yettie, a mountaineer who was hiking the Continental Divide. Yettie is making his 40th major high county hike, and I asked him why he kept returning. He told me that on the trail, every turn is new, no mater how many times you’ve done it, and it just doesn’t get old. Now, here on the San Juan, every turn of the river brings a new vista of beauty, Every elk sighting or rising fish a part of you feels new, just as Yettie was describing.
I had a rod with me, but there was no way to row this and fish alone. I could probably fish, but not catch, and what a shame, because fish were rising everywhere. Anchors are not allowed here, nor are you supposed to go ashore, so I settled for the thrill of the ride, knowing I’d be back with the 18 Double and a friend…
On the last two miles the water was more calm and deep. So I spun the boat around for some full pulls. Wow, I was flying. Blew by some river rafts, canoes, fisherman, adrenaline high.
The next river trip was the Lower Animas, just above Durango. I hadn’t scouted the river, but felt we shouldn’t encounter any trouble we can’t walk away from since this stretch of river is flanked by the highway. The family was game, especially my wife, Dawn, who proclaimed it an Adventure– lets row! So we loaded all 5 of us, Dawn and I, Sarah 13, Chase 5, and Conner 3, in the Heritage 18. It can easily handle this, plus backpacks, plenty of water, camera and fly rod. And the 10 lbs of rocks my sons collected along the way.
By highway, the river was 9 miles- or so I thought… to our pull out point. The 18 was not as responsive at up-river maneuvering as the 15 Single was. This was a new challenge. Quickly Dawn found shipping her oars and letting me handle the rapids from the stern seat was the best form of team-work. The whitewater and drops were all small, but what a thrill. The kids screamed with delight. The Animas is sand bottomed so the water color is like the Caribbean, and easy to see deep water from shallow. Very few fish rose, so I didn’t fish, which would have been too much going on anyway. We did the entire river bow-first, as there were few rocks to look out for. Still it was important to always watch out.
After a couple miles we came to a 2 foot rapid. I thought our trip was over , but Dawn would not here of it. “Drop us off and row over it!” she said, and I did. We never scraped a single rock on the trip, so I can’t report how much of an impact the fiberglass hull could take. In the Carbon 15 I bounced off rocks several times, and a later inspection proved no damage. Good advise would be to take along a roll of duct tape, which would patch about anything that could come at you.
The landscape is incredible as this valley is flanked on both side by 1000 foot cliffs. We saw deer, beaver, turkey, snakes, pheasant, and a couple over-friendly horses. My girls love horses so we stopped to pet, and one was determined to get in the boat. I managed to change his mind, but not before he topped the camera into the wet bilge. We turned it off and prayed it might dry out.
The river rowed fast downstream, with 2 experienced rowers, we enjoyed the cadence. Dawn and I haven’t done a big row together in a few years. We used to compete together. She is very good, never quits. redmtn-pass-lake
This whole trip has been an opportunity to redesign how we do Family. Dawn and I rise before the kids and go for a hike (but not on row days). Sometimes for miles, we talk about kids, changes, friends, Jesus. I notice this time makes her feel so much more connected the rest of the day. Intentionally, we volunteered as a family for several community projects, and the greater blessing was ours. In between rows our kids helped paint a high school, nanny sit an elderly lady, made meals for the sick, taught vacation bible school. We ate every meal together. The simple things are the most important things.
Back on he river; I thought this stretch was about 9 miles? Well, 6 hours later, with some pretty tired, and sun drenched kids, we arrived at our pull out point. A later look at the satellite view of the river showed it was more like 19 miles or more as the river did switch-backs the whole way. It was a great challenge a great family memory.
I also took a guided trip down the Rio Grand to see what those waters looked like, and it was very promising. And the fishing…wow, I think I caught 100 browns, and a rainbow that went 24“. But before I could return in the Heritage, the spring melt receded, making it too shallow to float, even in the Heritage. These river stretches are only floatable for a few weeks, maybe 2 months, during the early summer snow melt. We now have a warehouse in Colorado, so I’ve watched them turn from ice, to torrent, to meandering stream. If you stop in Pagosa Springs this June, perhaps you’ll join me on the Rio..