Giving back to our public lands: A day of volunteering spent on the Upper Colorado

Volunteers make their way down the Upper Colorado River as part of efforts for Grand County’s 27th National Public Lands Day on Saturday. Work included trash pickup and the clearing of social fire rings from Pumphouse to Radium.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

For Grand County National Public Lands Day, I joined a group of about 15 people early Saturday at the Pumphouse Recreation Site along the Upper Colorado River.

John Monkouski, the affable outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management Kremmling Field Office, outlined the plan. He said the first priority was safety, the second to have fun and the third was to get a little work done.

“The way I look at it, any day on the river is a good day,” Monkouski said.

We planned to spend the Grand County’s 27th Public Lands Day floating from Pumphouse to Radium. In between, we’d help clean up trash, scattered fire rings and old wildlife fencing as the area preps for some big changes next summer. Aside from me, the group was made up mostly of members from the High Country River Rafters and a couple representatives of BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

I knew the Upper Colorado River would be beautiful, but it still took my breath away. I continue to be stunned by Grand County’s recreational resources, and it was exciting to be giving back. That, coupled with Monkouski’s lessons on the history on the river corridor and land management efforts, made for an unforgettable day.

The Needle’s Eye rapid is visible Saturday from the Historic Argentine Trail, which runs alongside the Upper Colorado River. Along with volunteering, the efforts for the Bureau of Land Management’s Public Lands Day project included some education on the river corridor.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

Monkouski stressed that the Upper Colorado sees a lot of use between commercial outfitters and private boaters, totaling roughly 85,000 to 100,000 people a year. The 15 miles from Pumphouse to State Bridge is where the river sees the most traffic.

Even on the late September morning, there was a steady flow of rafters getting on the river at Pumphouse, which hinted at the intense crowds I’m sure put stress on this section of river all season.

“On some of our real high use weekends, between the commercials and the privates, it can almost seem like bumper cars going down through here — just one train of rafts going down,” Monkouski said. “But it’s an incredible resource and it’s public lands. We want people to enjoy it. We also want people to respect it, so that the next generation can come and enjoy it just as much.”

With the Upper Colorado at risk of being loved to death, the BLM’s Kremmling Field Office is hoping to add supplemental rules starting as soon as next summer. The biggest change will be a new reservation requirement for overnight stays from Pumphouse to State Bridge.

The Bureau of Land Management Kremmling Field Office’s outdoor recreation planner, John Monkouski, left, watches as volunteers scoop up the leftover ash from a social fire ring Saturday near the historic cabin on the Upper Colorado River.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

The reservation will have to be made through and the change isn’t final yet. Along with reservations, there would also be additional rules that are common along other popular rafting corridors. Specifically, campers would be required to bring a reusable, washable, portable toilet along with their own fire pan, with the requirement that they carry out ash.

Monkouski acknowledged that the rules might be a bit overdue, and that there could be a difficult education period for the campers on the Upper Colorado. The sites will be made available 60 days in advance and the overnight stays will remain dog friendly.

So, a big part of our mission Saturday was to remove the social fire rings to make way for the coming changes.

After a safety talk, we piled into the rafts and started down the Upper Colorado. We stopped in a few spots to pick up trash, and I filled my garbage bag with shards of glass, plastic and rusty metal.

As we approached the canyon, Monkouski pointed out the Historic Argentine Trail, visibly carved up into the rocks to the left of our rafts. He explained the Argentine Company built the trail in the early 1900s with the intention to bring mule trains along the Colorado.

We then pulled off just before the Needle’s Eye rapid. Left of the river, a manmade cave had been blasted into the canyon wall, known as the diversion tunnel. Water was just flowing at above 600 cubic feet per second, so it didn’t reach the cave, which was filled with standing water.

Monkouski explained that Argentine Company had also made this tunnel with the intention of damming up the river and creating another reservoir along what we know today as the Upper Colorado.

Volunteers take a break Saturday from work to explore the 175-foot exploratory bore hole that was blasted into the canyon wall alongside the Upper Colorado River.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

The railroad company, laying track on the other side of the river, didn’t want that though, and a seven-year court battle ensued over who had the prevailing right of way. The Upper Colorado is not dammed, so the railroad company won.

“As far you can see up through Gore Canyon was just going to be another reservoir,” Monkouski said. “I’m glad the railroad won and we get to float this river.”

Just down the river, we scrambled up some rocks to get onto the Argentine Trail. Along with spectacular views of the canyon that guaranteed I would be back to hike it, there’s also a pilot hole blasted about 175 feet into the rock. We all walked to the end of the dark cave, phone lights guiding our way, because how often do you get to walk that far into a mountain?

After a quick lunch in the canyon’s shadows, we continued downriver. We found dispersed fire pits everywhere, including next to the ruins of the historic cabin, which was a chow hall for workers attempting to build the dam. We dispersed the rocks and then shoveled ash into a bag.

Trash collected from a day of work on the Upper Colorado River fills the back of a truck Saturday at Radium. The river float was one of several projects volunteers got to participate in this year as part of Grand County National Public Lands Day.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

After cleaning up a few more campsites, we made it to Radium. The trash everyone had collected filled the back of a BLM truck, which looked incredibly satisfying after the day’s work.

The BLM has been doing volunteer river floats as part of National Public Lands Day for roughly 11 years. Usually, the turnout for the float is much bigger, according to Monkouski, but a second group launched from Rancho Del Rio on Saturday as well.

The previous week, students from Middle Park High School floated the river and helped remove a large chunk of fencing. Monkouski explained that grazing is no longer allowed along the river corridor, so the dilapidated fencing posing a tripping hazard and restricting wildlife passage is no longer needed.

The project we participated in Saturday was one of five across Grand. Roughly 250 volunteers come out annually for Grand County Public Lands Day, which has one of the longest running Public Lands Days in the country.

Along with giving back to Grand County — which is roughly 70% public land — I hope those other volunteers also got to deepen their understanding of the extensive management that goes into making our public lands enjoyable. Maybe they got to learn a few new things, too.

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