Whatever floats your boat: Take a look at our first dip in the South Platte, twenty years ago

This week's cover story, "Water World," takes a look at the river that runs through Denver: the South Platte.

Two decades ago, then-Westword staffer Robin Chotzinoff wrote her own cover story (with Kenny Be illustrations) about the Platte, a true piece of immersion journalism. For "I Cover the Waterfront" in the July 24, 1991 issue, she traveled from one end of Denver to the other -- while floating the Platte. It predates our online archive, but we're re-floating it. Dive in!

It's slow. It's shallow. It's flat. Meet the Platte.

Driven from the mountains, a crystalline drop of melted snow, adding droplet by droplet on its merry way, now leaping, now bouncing, from course to course, silver trout joining its chilly route from peak to plain, the mighty mother of rivers appears on the rocky seam of the Front Range like a shining liquid ribbon of splendor. And we come to her, supplicant, as hungry for beauty as we are parched by thirst, generation upon generation, grateful issue of the ever-flowing, ever-growing Platte.

Oh, bright waters, free me from my city-stifled confinement! Help me to assume a phony French accent and a leathery squint as I float downstream, from Chatfield to Gates Rubber to Brighton to the Gulf of Mexico.

That's the plan, anyway.

The Lower Depths: Dartmouth to Alameda

Eleven-and-a-half miles of the South Platte flow through the city of Denver. The mighty Mississippi they ain't, but they're the only game in town. So off I got to Sears for a raft. It's a steal: only $18.85, boxed up and ready to go. The four-color illustration on the box shows a family splashing and having fun. Just to seem professional, my husband and I purchase paddles and life vests.

At nine the next morning, we hitch a ride to the spot where the South Platte crosses the Denver County line at Dartmouth Avenue. We drag the boat through the native vegetation, across the bike path, through the beaver-chewed woodlands and into the Platte. (Actually "into" is misleading. "Onto" is more like it. At this time of year, the river has a mean depth of about three inches. In fact, that's what Platte means: shallow.)

And here we get our first real look at our craft: four feet long and three feet wide with a foot-thick inflated gunwale surrounding a bathtub-like center depression supported by the kind of air mattress most often seen in toddler pools.

I say: "What is this, a joke?"

He says: "What are you, a wimp?"

Glaring at each other as only the firmly married can, we put out to sea. He climbs in the bow, I climb in the stern. We fold and compact our limbs. I wedge my big toe into his kidneys. He jams his elbow between my ribs.

"So paddle already," he says, flailing away.

"Mr. Bligh, I presume?"

"Quit mouthing off. Paddle."

So I paddle, snickering mutinously and not bothering to tell him that the reason we have failed to achieve floatation is that my butt is grounded on a sandbar. Undaunted, he decides to pole, Mississippi-style. The cords on his neck stand out from exertion. Just at the right moment I lift my derriere, and off we go, down the Platte.

"For your information," I say, "we are putting in just north of Grant Frontier Park, site of the Montana City gold camp, established in 1858, and abandoned four years later. The settlers took down their cabins and floated the wood downstream to the rival mining camps of Auraria and Cherry Creek. Twenty-one years ago, students from the Grant Middle School restored a log cabin and made it the showpiece of a park I would have enjoyed visiting if you hadn't been in such a snit."

"I only did this so I could go fishing, and you wouldn't let me bring my fishing pole."

"Your hook would've punctured the Titanic here," I say.

"This is a perfectly good boat."

"Besides, there's nothing to catch in this river, anyway," I lie, knowing full well that the Platte is crammed with carp, crappie and the occasional trout. But why should I cater to this man? He's no Huck Finn. I had a better time cruising this river with Jed Wagner, a man my husband has never heard of, a man who rides his bike to work, a man from Nebraska. I wish I was with him right now.

It was all so wholesome. We met at the Denver Parks and Recreation Department warehouse on South Huron Street, and together Jed and I crossed the street to Habitat Park. ("I don't know whose habitat it is," Jed confessed.) But we soon moved on to more familiar territory -- the Platte bike path, part of the 130 miles of city trails that Jed and his crew of four maintain by mountain bike or John Deere machine sweeper.

"It's the cutest little tractor you ever saw," he said lovingly. That day, though, Jed had to take his bicycle, and nothing on the riverbank escaped his attention. It had rained heavily the night before, and wisps of eroded earth encroached on the path. "I hate dirt," he said. "Something must be done about it."

Jed's been doing something about it ever since he moved to Denver three years ago to work for the Platte River Greenway Foundation, the organization that seventeen years ago embarked on the seemingly impossible task of transforming the South Platte from one of the nation's polluted rivers to the greenway it is today. Since '74, the foundation has constructed more than fifty miles of trails along the river -- and when the parks and rec department created a position to maintain the trails that run through Denver, Jed jumped to fill it. He's aided by a corps of seasonal workers, "anyone who can afford to live on $6.05 an hour. It's an adventure," Jed hastened to add, "but then, life is an adventure overall. One of the finest things is coming out here to plow snow at five in the morning in the winter. The streetlights gleaming, no one around, but you already see footprints. It's ten degrees. It's serene."

More serene, perhaps, than dragging one's butt down a riverbed at a turtle's pace in ninety-degree heat.

"It's great, isn't it?" my husband asks. He would. He's lying backward, on me, paddling lazily and dripping murky water on my face. My hair is trailing in the Platte and now water is oozing in behind me. Not only that, I swear I can hear the hiss of air escaping from some crucial part of the...

"Yee-ha! Rapids ahead! Paddle, honey!"

I don't dare look. On the riverbank, two scantily clad boys glance over, unimpressed by our daring. I paddle madly.

"Don't paddle now!" he screams.

"I have to, we're going to hit a rock! We're going to drown! We're going to..."

"Shut up! Don't paddle! Paddle! Stop! Go! Go! Stop!"

"I hate you!" I scream, as we're sucked into a vertical drop of, oh, a foot. Maybe a foot-and-a-half. For a moment it's exhilarating and then...

"You jerk!" I yell. "You just sat on my ankle! I think you broke it!"

"Quit your whining."

What am I doing in this primitive wilderness, anyway? In the willow branches to my right, something slick and slippery, something furry and wet, something rodentlike, is crawling and splashing. But I can't say Jed didn't warn me.

"Sure, we got wildlife," he said. "Night herons, blue herons, jackrabbits, muskrats, snakes -- water and garter snakes. Little teeny lizards that run around. Little clouds of bugs that end up in your teeth and your chest hair. I found a deer at Eighth Avenue the other morning. He was dead, but still..." Creatures great and small. Jed loves them all -- with the exception of the beaver. "There's beaver lovers and tree lovers and the balance shifts back and forth," he explained. "A beaver can cut down a hundred-year-old cottonwood in two nights. Trees don't replenish like beavers do."

Regeneration is an age-old dilemma here in the wild. I wonder how long it takes a human tailbone to heal. On the bright side, the Platte River Greenway is wheelchair-accessible.

Wait, what's this? A feeling of flotation, motion, depth! I stick in my paddle -- yes, the river is two feet deep! True, two of our boat's three air chambers are punctured, but this could still work! Look out Mississippi Delta, here we come!

"Hey, will you paddle instead of sitting there like a geek?"

Too late. We're trapped underneath the cement piling that holds up Mississippi Avenue. Gross, it's covered with slime. I recoil and the boat flips over like a pancake on a griddle, dumping us both out. I scream, swim like mad, cling to the bridge and scramble onto a tiny ledge, breathing a mile a minute. Below me, Lud stands in the knee-deep water, calmly bailing.

"Okay," he says, "all dry. Hop in."

"Forget it."

"What are you gonna do, stand there all day?"

"I'd rather stand here all year than get in that boat again."

"This is a perfectly good boat."

"I can't hear you. The water's running."

Eventually, we cut a deal. He will float the rest of the river, alone. I will swim for shore and leave town with some truck driver, cutting my losses. Or maybe I'll just walk along the river. Some people weren't meant to float through life. But then, Jed warned me about that, too.

"People who hang out by the river are people looking for something to do," he said. "They come to other parks for a specific reason -- to play volleyball, run, have a picnic. They come down here for no particular reason at all. Look at that guy." Jed pointed down the bank to a man almost totally camouflaged in the underbrush. "He's cutting willow branches. I don't know why. And that guy..." he pointed out an emaciated black man in shredded clothes who stared back with wild, yellow eyes. "We call him Evil. He's here every day. He walks miles and miles."

Still, if you had to get into distance walking you could pick a worse trail. As I head north, my sodden sneakers squelching, I pass yuppies with mountain bikers, the homeless with bedrolls, the aimless with beers and a legion of kids on skateboards. "I ain't never going home!" one screams as he rolls by. Every once in a while I also see my husband floating smugly down the river, eyes closed, nose pointed at the sky.

Near Alameda Avenue, he gets his comeuppance when a chute I call the Butt-Breaker sucks him into its greedy maw, forcing him to hit bottom (in more ways than one). His paddle flies away, his bandanna gets wet, his mustache droops. Finally, he stands up, snatches what's left of the boat, and storms ashore.

Well, well. Looks like I'm on my own.

The Middle Ground: Alameda to Confluence Park

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Lewis and Clark. Me and Larry Whitney, Denver parks and rec maintenance worker. Larry's job is to trim weeds around rocks in riverside parks. When I meet him on my journey, though, he is lying on the grass, his head cradled on his shovel. Noon approaches. Bicycles whiz by. Larry surveys them with an air of detached content.

"Most wearing helmets," he observes. "Good idea. A lot of bike wrecks lately. That gravel is slicker than snot."

Across the river, Lyle Larsen, encased in a spacesuit, a welder's mask over his eyes, wields his sandblaster, eradicating graffiti. It will be replaced almost instantly, in an endless stream of artistic expression and gang tags.

I want to lounge with Larry, but I must move on, as the river moves on, which is seemingly slower than grass grows -- and certainly slower than graffiti artists. So on I amble, past construction foremen shouting instructions over PA systems, through fields of amaranth and thistle, past spanking clean restrooms and sparkling water fountains. I pass almost unnoticed by some serious fisherman, including an ex-rodeo clown so battered by his trade that his angling bones are all that's left. A zen-like peace pervades until someone catches an enormous carp with large, sensual lips. It looks like something out of a Japanese engraving. We stare silently until the fisherman throws it back. The carp swims off, pushed by the current of a city drain pipe.

Which brings me, kicking and screaming, to the subject of urban drainage. This is what Denver's Urban Drainage and Flood Control Department head Scott Tucker tells me: "The Platte is basically drainage." This means that the next time our southern dams fail or overflow -- as they last did in 1973 -- the excess water will run into the Platte. Places like the Children's Museum, the new baseball stadium and the relocated Elitch Gardens might become swampland aquariums. "Yup," Tucker confirms, "they could all go."

To keep this from happening. Tucker's department stays busy performing "a lot of little tweaks." They pile up rocks, take down rocks, construct dams and pore over topographical maps. And just to be friendly, "every time we mess around in the river we try to improve it a little," Tucker promises. Hence the boat chutes that make it possible to raft the entire length of the Platte with as few portages as possible -- barring nautical incompetence, and Tucker doesn't seem to have that affliction. Once a year, he takes his department on a rollicking raft trip.

"When I came to Denver in 1970, the river was a dump," he says. "It was a huge problem. It's gotten a lot better. I've fallen in the Platte during our yearly water fights. It hasn't killed me yet."

A reassuring piece of knowledge, because much against my better judgment, I am about to get back in the killer Platte. This time, though, I put myself in the professional hands of Cody Hamilton, owner of Platte River Rafting Company. Compared to the white water she's run, the Platte is a mere...drainage. She's made wilderness videos. She knows the wild. Not only that, she's an Equity actress who's just finished the run as the "stuffy old duchess" in Me and My Girl at the County Dinner Playhouse.

This spring, Cody and her partners launched what was for them an unusually urban business venture. Armed with a flotilla of neoprene rafts, they proposed to take to tourists on a scenic trolley ride from their headquarters near the Children's Museum, drop them on a sandy bank and float them down to Confluence Park, where the Platte meets the more chi-chi Cherry Creek.

"It's time people saw the Platte as one of the better city rivers," Cody says. "It's really come back. Now we're in the top 10 percent of clean for urban rivers. It's great for water fights."

"The Platte is not dangerous at all," adds Cody's head boatman, Andrew Schneider. "It's real easy, real tame. You get tons of people who swim around in it, without lifejackets, even."

As if on cue, three waterlogged seven-year-olds run by on the bike path.

"Hey," Andrew asks them, "you want this old piece of insulation? You can have it." He fishes in the water for what looks like a giant sponge. The children ignore his largesse, a strange move, in Andrew's opinion. "Styrofoam, insulation, boogie boards -- you can raft all of them," he says. "I went through Confluence once on a piece like this and broke up all over the place -- baboom!"

Compared to my Sears special, this raft is a cruise ship, and yet the word "baboom" makes me very nervous. Cody hastens to say that her trips couldn't be safer. "We do all kinds of people," she says. "We had 25 Russians from St. Petersburg. We do the handicapped, the elderly, little kids. It's safe."

"Yeah," Andrew says, "and if you go unconscious these lifejackets will keep your head up, anyway. So okay, occasionally people like to fall out of the boat. If they do, grab their shoulders, bob 'em once and pull 'em back in."

We float out under the West Colfax viaduct, startling two men who have set up housekeeping there. A blue heron flies low above the water. "Audubon guys go nuts on us," Andrew says. Weatherguys would, too: Thunderclouds move in. "Rafting and rain is fun," Cody says, "but for lightning you get out." We hit three chutes with a lighthearted splash. Next comes the boat ramp at Confluence, which we hit at a gallop as the rain begins.

We pull the boat out in a downpour so thick I can barely see what's universally considered to be the showplace of the Platte. Indians camped here. Fur trappers met here. Gold miners came here to strike it rich. After that, things went downhill fast. By the '70s,Confluence was equal parts landfill, industrial sewage and hobo convention center. Today, the trash has been transformed into a grassy amphitheater with docks and bike paths and bridges.

But my attention is drawn to three teen boys from the deep.

Clothed in cutoffs and flippers, they tread the Platte, cans of Milwaukee's Best floating alongside. Neither rain nor sleep will keep them from their appointed fun.

The Upper Reaches: Confluence Park to 51st Avenue

I've moved just a few hundred yards from Confluence, and already it's clear: This is the best part of the Platte -- as Pacific as the rest is Atlantic, as wild as the rest is groomed. Up here, you expect the unexpected.

"Kids love it," says my old friend Jed, who is on his way north to the county line. "They get away with stuff. Graffiti, burning holes in the boardwalks, chopping down trees for no apparent reason. I'm talking vandalism, I guess."

Indeed, when we arrive at Globeville Landing, Jed is surprised and delighted to find the water fountains still intact. "People take a hacksaw to them to watch the water spurt out," he theorizes, "but not today. Go ahead, drink some. It's pure river water."

After I spit a mouthful at him, he says, "just kidding."

A hundred year ago, this was the front of Riverfront Park, a high-toned amusement park complete with baseball stadium, racetrack and a half-mile steamship ride featuring light opera and heavy gambling. In place of this former grandeur is the Hotel, a well-known homeless hangout that sometimes reaches three stories of glorious junkitecture. No one's checked in at the moment, unless you count a laidback seagull cruising for garbage -- and not finding any -- in the shallows.

"I've found some interesting stuff up here," Jed says. "I found a cremated body in a very nice box. One of my employees found a couple having sex on this boat ramp, totally naked. Later on, we found a sex aid right in the middle of the path. I have nothing against people having sex, but I wish I could tell them not to do it where everyone can see."

A more appropriate place might be the old redstone drain, with its '40s keystone style. It's full of storm drainage right now, but in the winter, Jed says, it makes a concealed, if not comfortable, hangout.

"It's good-looking, isn't it?" he asks. "I think it's kind of a shrine to the drain gods. I'm almost sure people pray here."

"Or throw bottles, or something," says Kevin Lewis, one of Jed's crew. Kevin's been machine sweeping for several hours in the sun. "It's dusty, quite warm, hot," he says.

Luckily, the upper reaches of Denver's Platte hold several places where the parched can buy something stronger than water -- not that Kevin would dream of doing such a thing on the job. The disembodied beer sign we see floating above the willows turns out to belong to Blue Chip Cafe, where, I later discover, you can buy fifty-cent drafts and enjoy the good food and authentic atmosphere of one of Denver's oldest truckstops. Further up the Platte is the only riverfront McDonald's in Colorado, complete with state-of-the-art Ronald McDonald playground and more truckers. (And this just in: The Campus Lounge has opened a concession stand at Confluence Park, and it's already a hit.)

Wildlife alert. Signs of native activity. On the summit of the bridge north of Globeville Landing, someone has braided a six-foot-long strand of shredded bicycle inner tubes. Who? Why?

"Bungee jumping?" Jed wonders. That's the nice thing about this river. No one owns it, so no one can tell people not to do things on it. It's not like the manmade lakes in the parks. The South Platte goes on to the Gulf of Mexico. What kind of jurisdiction do you have over that?

None, and that's what made this country great, I muse, as I stumble ever northward through hills of scrub and marshes of pussy willow and past flocks of sheep behind rolls of prison-camp wire. From the men in dusters and the smell of no return, I know this must be the Denver Lamb Company's slaughterhouse.

But a few feet below certain death, life. Down in the river, where the sandy bottom shimmers in the heat, I see Jim. Yes, Jim from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's the same muscular black man, his pants rolled up around his knees. He's scooping water onto his head, splashing, soaking himself. I run down the riverbank to talk to him, but when he sees me coming he beats a retreat. By the time I reach the river's edge, he's faded away along the railroad tracks.

At the north county line, I chew on a blade of grass and watch him go. It's time to get back to the river. No major excursion, you understand. I just want to get my feet wet.