Public Lands Month Conservation

The agony and the ecstasy

Rafting down the Colorado River from Loma to Westwater through the Ruby Horsethief sections.

Even when they’re beset by freezing rain or other forms of natural calamity, public lands bring peace, quiet, and miserable joy

Public lands aren’t always perfect. The fish don’t always cooperate, and the mosquitoes do not care if you are trying to have a moment of peace.

Consider it one of those Instagram vs. reality situations.

Like the old canoe on the side of the house, loosely covered in blue tarp, our Colorado family has seen and intimately experienced about every single weather pattern the Western winds can throw at you.

Mid-May on the Western slope brings unpredictable weather. Enough so that packing for a simple trip can be like preparing for an entire year’s worth of trips in one—all four seasons. Swimsuits and sunscreen, handwarmers and hats, gloves, snow pants, rain jackets, and boots all live within our 74 square feet of raft, just in case we need them.

And on this spring float, we need them. After waiting out an impromptu lightning storm at the boat ramp in the cozy, yet predictably pungent, confines of a tiny hatchback, we made the group decision to make our way down river. Minutes after shoving off, we were already wishing we were back in the warm confines of someone’s daily driver.

The wind changed swiftly, and as usual, not in the favor of anglers or boaters. It picked up quickly and pushed a sizeable rain cloud into the path of the traveling circus of colorful watercraft headed down river. The sky unleashed consistent freezing rain for hours on end during dismal hours spent trying to find camp.

Like most parents, my friends, my wife and I try to shelter our kids from those absolute miserable experiences on a day-to-day basis. Soccer practices get canceled for high winds in our neighborhood, and the local elementary school seems to close its doors at the prediction of snow these days.

But river trips rarely get canceled or postponed and therein lies their beauty.

Public lands, with their inherently unpredictable nature, give us all an opportunity to be miserable. Not the kind of miserable you feel after a long, challenging day at the office. The kind of miserable where you learn something about yourself and what your body can endure after repeated days of wind, sun, rain, snow and hail. The kind of miserable that makes you appreciate the break in the clouds, the wind dying down and the days when the fishing is at its finest.

If river trips on public lands were full of sunshine, endless fish on dry flies and swimming in eddy’s we would always have the same exact story to tell on our way home.

If big stretches of western rivers weren’t open to all for recreating, we’d probably own a camper and we would seek shelter from the storms and miss out on the misery, the joy, and the colorful memories they provide for all of us.

Every National Public Lands Day, and every day for that matter, our little family of river lovers give thanks for the opportunity to be humble and more resilient humans on our country’s public lands.