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Reading the Roaring Fork

Eben Harrell

“Eventually,” Norman Maclean wrote, “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

Water has cut through the psyche of many an artist. Storytellers particularly feel drawn to it. They, like fishermen, speak of “reading” the water. Maybe it’s because all rivers have a story to tell.

For one, rivers tell of the massive geological forces that brought the landscape we know today grinding and churning into creation. But rivers also tell stories about us, the small mammals who populate their shores.

What can the Roaring Fork River, which snakes 60 miles from east of Aspen to the edges of Glenwood Springs, tell us about the Roaring Fork Valley, and about the society that has sprung up on its shores? What secrets lie hidden on its banks?

To find out, I enlisted the services of local river guide Rick Covington. Covington runs Up Tha Creek, a commercial rafting company based in Glenwood Springs, with trips spanning the length of the Fork. He’s an authentic river man ” running trips in the valley since 1977, logging his first raft trip at age 4 ” and he speaks of the Roaring Fork River with a perfect blend of authority, reverence and mysticism.

The first thing I should know about the Roaring Fork, Covington tells me over the phone, is that its upper sections are not navigable until late May. If I am going to learn anything, it will have to be on the lower Fork, which runs from the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers in Carbondale to where the Fork meets the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.

So on a ripe, hot spring day last week, I push off from Carbondale ” notebook in one hand, oar in the other ” and begin my expedition.

The first stretch of the trip travels through unadulterated landscape. Sunk far below the parallel-running Highway 82, and without homes or development on the shore beside me, I feel like a gumshoe Lewis or Clark, boldly exploring into the unknown.

One of the most striking things about untouched nature is how ugly it can be. It’s not all wind and the willows sort of stuff. Spring runoff clouds the Fork an excrement brown this time of year, and for stretches at a time, the banks are lined only with tangled bushes, browned-out grass and the skeletons of dead or dying trees.

This made my first encounter with the Aspen Glen Golf Course even more startling. The Jack Nicklaus-designed course was constructed along the banks of the Roaring Fork in the late 1990s as a downvalley playground for the resort-seeking rich. As we approach, the mangled, wild riverbank gives way to an emerald green fairway and carefully manicured green.

It is here I learn my first lesson. Nature is not neat. Tightly mowed fairways are neat. Nature is messy, chaotic and often unsatisfying to look at.

Which is not to say that it isn’t impressive. Even if the immediate surroundings are not postcard-perfect, there is plenty to admire.

Mount Sopris, draped in ceremonial white garb this time of year, is momentous and impressive. It makes me want to gather round a campfire and beat drums. Along the shores are black rocks from congealed lava that spouted from Sopris millions of years ago. You can’t find that sort of awe-inspiring presence on a par-3, even if Jack Nicklaus designed it.

The highlight of the trip comes during the Aspen Glen stretch, though. On the branch of a tall tree we spot a bald eagle overlooking the river. Even at such a height, the sheer bulk of the bird is stunning. We squint up at him, both of us cupping our hands over our eyes to block the sun. Not prone to sentimental pangs of nationalism, I still notice that to someone on the banks, we probably have a striking resemblance to two men saluting our national symbol.

Covington and I are becoming fast friends. In me, he sees interest and curiosity, the desire to get more from this trip than some whitewater sprays and a sunburn (although by the end, I will have received both). In Covington, I feel respect for a man who has dedicated his life to a form of pantheism, in worship and in service of nature. Just yesterday, he tells me, he jogged 13 miles so that he could kayak the Crystal River on his own.

A little further downstream we encounter a sign that reads: “Now entering private property. No stopping. No hunting. No trespassing.” A sign like this is anathema to a river rat like Covington, as are the multimillion-dollar mansions standing austerely on the banks.

When Covington first started rafting the Fork nearly 30 years ago, the area was almost completely undeveloped, save a sprinkling of homes near Glenwood. Today, myriad developments line the banks ” from the holes and homes of Aspen Glen to the car dealerships and strip malls of West Glenwood. At one point, we see the rear ends of large SUVs teetering over the banks.

“It’s changed so much. Not the river. She’s the same. But all the development around it. It’s unrecognizable to me in only 30 years,” Covington says.

It’s extraordinary to think that a river millions of years old can see such profound changes in its surroundings in just 30 years, a fraction of a second of geological time. This perspective isn’t particularly flattering to our species; it’s tough not to think of humans as a repulsive infestation, locusts on the banks.

Yet the river, to my surprise, looks healthy. It still flows hard, bubbling and churning over rocks, tickling the banks. There are no signs of environmental damage, at least none that I can discern. But as Covington points out, environmental damage doesn’t always show itself; rarely do we get the graphic displays of the Exxon Valdez.

In fact, he continues, pollution is usually hidden. It’s impossible to tell what stealthy damage has been done to the ancient waters, just as it is impossible to believe that no damage has been done at all.

Near Glenwood we leave the freshly constructed mansions of Aspen Glen and pass by older riverfront houses. These homes, with their pastel colors and jagged architecture, are distinctly 1970s in style. They were the mansions of their day. Now each one seems small and antiquated, almost like a dollhouse after Aspen Glen’s mega homes.

Will the mega homes one day look small? Will the banks continue to green out with high-end resorts and golf courses, or will they be blanketed with concrete strip malls and car dealerships?

How long will we last on the banks? The way a river keeps time, can we possibly hope to be long-term tenants on its shores?

As we merge with the Colorado River, the end of our trip, I have to fight the urge to ask to keep going. I want to float west, and see what other stories the river tells in its relentless journey to the sea.

This was too much, though. I had floated down the Roaring Fork River to find answers about the valley in which I live. But like all great storytellers, the river had left me only with more questions. I can’t wait to listen to her tale again.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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