In their element: Durango whitewater kayaker keeps pushing his limits

Molly Maxwell
The Daily Times

Editor's note: This is part of The Daily Times' "In their element" series. On the last Thursday of every month in 2015, we'll publish a profile of a Four Corners resident who embraces fitness or the outdoors. Read more stories at


DURANGO, COLO. — A significantly smaller snowpack this season left skiers bummed out, and now that sentiment has spilled over to kayakers. Southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico's "current snow water equivalent" are both below 50 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Typically, there's been more than twice as much snow run-off at this time of year, based on a 30-year average.

Maybe it's the light rain falling outside that has him feeling optimistic, but 42-year-old whitewater kayaker Tony Miely still has a positive outlook for the season.

Miely has not been whitewater kayaking his entire life. Growing up outside Chicago, he enjoyed canoeing when he was younger and was on the swim team. He considers himself simply a "water guy."

But, by far, whitewater kayaking is his specialty and has been for more than 20 years.

"Kayaking is a real close connection to the water, because you are on your own, you don't really have a lot of other folks to rely on, like you do with a team of rafters or in a canoe," he said. "You are sitting about as low in the water as you can get, in a craft. You are very connected to the dynamic currents."

Since then, kayaking has consumed much of Miely's life. He worked in a few different paddling shops, actually molding kayaks at one business, before moving to Durango in 1999. He began working at 4Corners Riversports, and, a couple of years later, he bought into the company.

In 2009, Miely lost his right hand after he was involved in a vehicle rollover wreck.

Laying in a hospital bed in Denver after the accident, he said he had fleeting thoughts of not being able to return to kayaking. But, he said, "I knew there had to be a way to figure it out."

Over the next several years, Miely did just that. Because lower-extremity amputations greatly outnumber upper-extremity amputations, there was not a prosthetist in the area, at least at the time, who could help him. So Miely traveled to Denver, working through the process of finding prosthetics that worked for him.

One particularly ill-fitted prosthetic hand-paddle he tried lies somewhere at the bottom of the Animas River.

But for the past four years, Miely has only had to cross the street to work with Bryan Lott, a prosthetist at Durango's Hanger Clinic who is just as enthusiastic about improving technology for active amputees as Miely is about kayaking.

"Tony is an anomaly because he is a world-class kayaker," Lott said. "He pushes the limits, not only of being an amputee, but of kayaking as well."

Miely stays busy, even in the off-season. He guides snowcats with the Silverton Powdercats and is an avid mountain biker and snowboarder.

"Even though he regularly kayaks class four and five rapids, he'll float class two and three with friends and have a great time," Dickey said.

Miely, however, just likes being out on the water.

"I like the connection with the moving river," he said. "It can take you to some amazing places."

Molly Maxwell covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at