Yet toward the end of the ski season, when I ask Bob Gleason, owner of Telluride’s popular Boot Doctors sports shop where he is known as one of the nation’s top ski-boot fitters, to switch gears from catering to the wintertime recreational needs of an exacting clientele to talk about the coming warm weather months in the San Juan Mountains, the broad smile that stretches across his face gives him the air of some benevolent Buddha, seemingly at peace and tapped into something beyond the cares of this world.
And, really, it’s no wonder. When the white gold that fuels the winter season here starts to soften and the snow melt plunges down the mountainsides high above Telluride to form the San Miguel River, it’s another opportunity for Gleason to get in touch with the natural world that fuels not only his livelihood, but his soul – only this time of year, in the form of a river guide.
Gleason, it seems, is one of the lucky ones. One of very few people who manage to exact a living from the things they love to do; a member of that rarified class that doesn’t just talk about its dreams, but actually lives them.
“It’s been a passion of mine since my early twenties,” Gleason tells me, describing a fateful summer weekend in 1976 when, as a student at the University of Colorado, he embarked on the first of what would become his innumerable river trips. In that case it was on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, where he drank in the natural beauty of rushing water, red-rock canyons and college group camaraderie that provided his first taste of a lifelong addiction.
“I was immediately hooked,” he says, describing how he bought himself a kayak not long afterwards.
“All I did in my spare time was go kayaking,” he adds.
Before long, Gleason was guiding his own trips. In 1983 he joined Far Flung Adventures, in Taos, N.M., where he stayed until moving to Telluride in 1997, because, he felt, it offered his school-age daughter better opportunities.
Commercial operators were already guiding San Miguel River trips by the time Gleason got here, but not long after that the Bureau of Land Management made a few more commercial permits available. One went to the Telluride extension of Far Flung Adventures, operated by Gleason.
Long story short: Far Flung Adventures in Telluride eventually became Gleason’s Further Adventures (he took Far Flung Further; get it?) which today operates out of the Boot Doctors storefront to offer a range of San Miguel River rafting and fishing trips, as well as guided mountain-biking tours.
While not known as a whitewater destination, in part because of its relatively short season, the San Miguel River is one of Colorado’s last free-flowing rivers, beginning just above Telluride to run some 72 miles northwest to its confluence with the Dolores River, near the former town of Uravan.
In between, it drops thousands of feet in altitude, so that it starts in alpine meadows and ends in a wide desert canyon.
“I can’t think of another river where you go through so many dynamic ecosystems in such a short distance,” says Gleason, who is especially fond of the canyon stretches and “being inside that space where geology is exposed.”
Below Placerville, nearly 21,000 acres of the river corridor were designated by the Bureau of Land Management as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1993. There, unlike other parts of the river, the riparian vegetation (including Colorado blue spruce, narrowleaf cottonwood, Douglas fir, thin leaf alder, water birch and red osier dogwood) has remained largely untouched by human activity.
And although the river is generally made up of intermediate Class II+ to Class III rapids, it’s far from predictable.
“The river is so dynamic; things are always changing,” says Gleason.
Or, as Cari Mackey, who co-leads the San Miguel Whitewater Association with Gleason, explains, “It’s enticing to Class II/III paddlers, but it’s shallow and really fast; if you take a swim, it’s really hard to get out.”
Mackey first met Gleason years ago when she was a novice kayaker paddling the Gunnison Gorge, which was a bit nerve-wracking for her at the time.
But Gleason helped put her at ease, she said, describing how his full-frontal embrace of the experience helped boost her confidence.
“When you’re a little nervous, it helps to have someone carefree around; it definitely helps take the edge off a little bit.”
For those newer to rafting, Further Adventures’ popular half-day trip from Specie Creek to Beaver Creek on continuously dropping and winding river through pristine riparian habitat is suitable for families with children ages 8 and up.
Its full-day trip to the deep Hanging Flume Canyon offers views of a historic wooden flume pinned high along the canyon walls in the late 19th century to aid miners in their efforts to extract gold from deposits found along the river. A mellow stretch, the run is also suitable for families with young children.
“It’s unbelievable what they did to create that flume,” says Gleason. “It’s such a great demonstration of the hardiness of the miners.”
A full day or overnight trip through Norwood Canyon offers a pristine wilderness setting through a roadless area with opportunities to camp and view wildlife, while the half-day Deep Creek to Placerville stretch is a more athletic adventure “for people that want a more exciting, bouncy ride,” ages 10 and up, Gleason explains.
The Deep Creek to Placerville and Specie Creek to Beaver Creek half-day trips are also easily combined into a full day trip.
Gleason attributes his successful career as a river guide to a combined love for people and nature.
Not to mention that “I always come up with a joke and a story,” he laughs.
“It’s good to be Irish.”
To book raft trips with the BootDoctors, call 970/728-8954 or Paragon Main St. at 970/728-4525.