Proximity to lakes and reservoirs make paddle sports accessible for Four Corner residents

Virginia A. Jones
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Aside from the fun, many Four Corners residents tout the virtues of paddle sports for a simple reason: their accessibility.

"There is something for everyone, and it's one of the only sports where the pros in the field are 50 years old," said Scott Burchfield, a student and instructor in San Juan College's Outdoor Leadership, Education and Recreation Program.

For many, the less tangible aspects of paddle sports — a broad category that includes canoeing, kayaking, rafting and paddle boarding — are what keep them coming back to the water.

"It's a feeling of just floating on the river — at ease and at peace with no worries," said Rod Baade, welding room supervisor at Jack's Plastic Welding, an Aztec company that manufactures, among other things, inflatable boats and related gear.

In the Four Corners, paddle sports are particularly accessible because of the number of bodies of water within an hour or so of Farmington, said Rick Paige, a member of the River Reach Foundation, a Farmington nonprofit that aims to protect the area's rivers.

Among the nearby large bodies of "still" waters are Navajo Lake, which sits on the Colorado-New Mexico border, and Vallecito, McPhee and Electra lakes, all north of Durango, Colo. Medium-sized lakes include Lemon Reservoir and Jackson Gulch in Mancos State Park, which allows only electric motors. Small lakes include Farmington Lake and Colorado's Pastorius Reservoir and Haviland Lake.

A variety of paddle craft — from stand-up paddle boards to large, inflatable rafts — can be found on still and running waters, as well as on rapids, helping to create a network of recreational waters.

Paige is also involved with the Four Corners Paddle Trail Project, an initiative to designate and include the Animas and San Juan rivers as part of the National Paddle Trails system.

Officials involved with the project, which involves connecting the rivers in Colorado and New Mexico, say the National Park Service designation would help increase stewardship of the rivers and encourage tourism.

There has been progress on the project, Paige said. Recently, focus has been on safety and water hazards, and now organizers are moving toward evaluating and identifying improvements to river-access areas.

The project highlights what many people already know:

"We live in a mecca for paddling," said Marcel Bieg, director of the college's outdoor program.

Bieg got his start rafting in the Boy Scouts and then, in high school, moved to kayaking and extreme sports. But, for beginners, he suggests taking a safety class to ensure you get the most out of being on the water.

Even if you are just tubing, Bieg said, the most important piece of equipment is a personal flotation device. That's because water adds another element of challenge and danger beyond that of land sports.

"Learn to do the sport correctly because the river, even at low water, can be a dangerous place," said Errol Baade, general manager at Jack's Plastic Welding, adding that hazards, like diversion dams, low-hanging branches, downed trees and flash floods can be deadly. "Hypothermia can be a factor after the monsoons, which lower the water temperature."

Paddle sports also involve a stewardship of the resource.

When Farmington Lake opened to non-motorized watercraft in May, it also opened an inspection station to check for zebra and quagga mussels, an invasive species that can disrupt the food chain and affect native fish species. Scott Ashley, an inspector at Farmington Lake, said a single mussel can produce a million eggs in its lifetime, 100,000 of which can mature to adulthood.

Farmington City Council on Tuesday approved allowing craft with electric motors on the lake, and those boats must also pass an inspection before entering the water.

At the Quality Waters below Navajo Dam, signs warn of whirling disease, a parasite that affects native rainbow trout and salmon. Anglers and paddlers are asked to help prevent it by washing their equipment.

Being a careful steward of local waters allows them to sustain recreational enjoyment for years to come.

"Get out, exercise and enjoy running the river," advised Rod Baade.

Virgina A. Jones covers the outdoors for The Daily Times.