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  • This article by Jonathan Thompson originally appeared in the Apr 15, 2010 issue of High Country News.
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Topic: Culture & Communities     Department: Heard Around the West     Comments: 0

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On the river

News: Apr 15, 2010
by Jonathan Thompson

As spring moves reluctantly into the West, thoughts turn to streams brimming with snowmelt. The Animas River, which winds through Durango, Colo., may be that community’s hottest flashpoint. For years, tension has been building between the river’s inner-tubers – a ragtag fleet of low-budget floaters -- and just about everyone else, especially commercial rafters. It’s the recreation-town equivalent of a civil war.

The commercial rafters go into battle in brightly colored life-jackets, or PFDs, visors or baseball caps, river sandals, nylon shorts, and deep but controlled suntans that emphasize biceps toned by rowing oversized passengers through too-shallow waters. They wear menacing knives strapped to their PFDs at chest level.

Tubers, on the other hand, prefer more minimalist garb – shorts, bare feet, bikinis, or, to the consternation of some and delight of others, absolutely nothing. PFDs are taboo, a six-pack of beer de rigueur. Soggy bologna sandwiches pair well with Schlitz. A blistering sunburn serves as tuber war paint.

For business reasons, rafters tend to be a respectful bunch. Tubers, fueled by cheap booze, are often more boisterous. Other river users complain of tuber nudity, littering, drug use and, on at least one occasion, of a tuber breaking in and using the toilet (“They didn’t flush, the lid was up and my husband (or I) hadn't been around,” one riverside resident told the Durango Herald). Sometimes, tubers get into trouble and have to be rescued.

So the city council is considering new rules this spring, like a curfew, life-jacket requirement and river beer-ban. Commercial rafters will likely rejoice. Just imagine you’re a guide with a boatload of tourists who paid hefty fees to be safely ferried downriver. You are sober. So are they. You point out the clearing where the radioactive tailings pile once stood, and warn your clients to brace themselves as you approach the river’s most dangerous rapid. Then, on the left, three tubers pass by: A drunk guy in jeans, another one with a paunch, his bologna sandwich raised high, and a bikini-clad young woman on a tube she got at the gas station for five bucks. They make it through the dreaded rapid without a problem. And you watch your business go down the drain.

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