Stories of a famous Dolores River rapid and how it got its absurd local nickname – the Chicken Raper – were shared with a packed house of boaters at the Sunflower Theatre in Cortez last week.
The story takes place in the 1970s on a formidable stretch of whitewater where the Dolores River crosses into Utah, also known officially as Stateline Rapid.
Cody Perry, of Colorado-based film company Rig to Flip, presented the new documentary short about a memorable guiding trip that took place in May 1975.
Passengers included a group of U.S. government officials and scientists who were documenting the river to determine whether it was eligible for a federal Wild and Scenic River designation under President Gerald Ford.
One of the guides, Dennis Schell of Rocky Mountain River Expeditions, was on the Sunflower Theatre stage to reminisce about the early days of running the Dolores River before it had been dammed.
The rapid was named after his future wife, Chris Raffin, who was training to be a guide, and was the subject of a good-natured wisecrack by trip leader Mike Ferguson.
Raffin had a garage sale sleeping bag, Schell recalled in the film, that came apart during the night. When she emerged one morning from her tent, she was covered in feathers, including on her face.
“Mike looks at her and says ‘We’ve got a chicken raper here in camp,’” and the offbeat nickname stuck, Schell says.
Later while running Stateline Rapid with a group of Bureau of Land Management staff, she and other women rescued one of them who had fallen out of the boat, pulling him back in.
The video short also shows Raffin pulling a passenger back into the boat who had fallen out at notorious Cannonball Wall, just past Snaggletooth Rapid. Adding to the feather legend was the scene above Stateline of an eagle capturing a blue heron by the neck in flight, Schell said.
Raffin became a well-respected river guide, and was one of the few women guides at the time.
“After the rescue of the BLM guy, we all decided to call the rapid Chicken Raper,” Schell said. “Chris and I became a river romance story, and were married in 1981.”
She suffered an untimely death from cancer in 1983.
“Chris was a wonderful nature-loving person, and a great guide,” Schell said. He said in recent years the local name and legend of the Chicken Raper rapid began gaining popularity on social media and boating forums.
Before construction of the McPhee Reservoir dam, the Dolores could be ferociously wild during big water years, he recalled, and the paddle boats were low-tech that took on a lot of water and ripped easily. Schell estimated Stateline flow to be 10,000 to 11,000 cubic feet per second during the trip.
“Looking back we should have been more scared, and we were fortunate we got everyone through safely,” he said.
The trip included “Duane,” then the mayor of Cortez, and George Kelly, author of the book “Rocky Mountain Horticulture.” Writer David Sumner, then editor of Colorado Magazine, also documented the early Dolores river trips with photographs and articles. Now deceased, his collection of photos of those early days on the Dolores River have not been located.
“We have tried to track those photos down, but have not been successful yet,” said Perry.
The first one to mention Stateline rapid was the famous pioneer boatman Doc Marston in 1948. He called the rapid The Narrows, probably because of two large rock features in the middle. When he first ran it, a crowd from Gateway gathered on the banks to watch the daredevil feat.
In the 1970s, there were not the detailed river maps of today, Schell said. The lower Dolores wasn’t the ideal guide trip because of the technical whitewater, much of it rarely run, and its extremely remote location. Stitched together topographical maps and a flyover before the May 1975 trip provided the basic beta, and the rest of it was pure courage, skill and some luck.
“The pre-dam stories on the Dolores are of great interest,” said Perry. “The footage from the 1970s was done with a 16 millimeter motion film camera. Here’s a shoutout to the guy who carried that down there and captured rapids and rescues from those early days.”
The Cortez showing of “The Story of the Chicken Raper” was to recognize the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Wild and Scenic River Act. The Lower Dolores River was the first river to be studied in Colorado for protection under the Act. The lower stretch below McPhee Dam is still considered “eligible,” but has never been designated by Congress.
The showing was sponsored by the KSJD and the Dolores River Boating Advocates. The video can be seen on the Rig To Flip channel on Vimeo.com Rig to Flip also made the recent “River of Sorrow” documentary on the Dolores River.