FROM THE PENNY LANE Access Point in Farmington, rafters can see where the lazy pace of the Animas River abruptly ends in churning rapids. The highlight? An eight-foot drop at the culmination. “It’s just crashing back on itself, over and over and over,” says Cody Dudgeon, who co-owns Desert River Guides with his wife, Ryan.

It’s an intimidating introduction to any whitewater adventure, but also one that’s very intentional. Previously, the river was impassable at Penny Lane. Rafters, kayakers, and tubers were forced to pull their crafts out of the Animas and walk them to the other side of the dam. After a multiyear study, the city rebuilt this section of the river, which flows by a pump station, so it could be safely navigated.

“They’ve done a good job here,” says Dudgeon, whose company offers two-hour Animas rafting trips. “Farmington recognized the importance of safely developing outdoor recreation.”

Historically known for its agriculture and then for oil and gas, Farmington has worked to develop its outdoor offerings in recent years. Visitors can swim, kayak, raft, tube, and fish along both the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Desert River Guides owner Ryan Dudgeon.

After navigating the rushing flow of the Penny Lane rapids, the next few miles of the Animas trip holds scenic floats and even points where rafters can hop overboard for a swim before navigating more rapids to come. Although the river cuts through Farmington, at some points almost touching city blocks, the buildings, cars, and streets are rarely visible from the water.

The grassy banks and tall trees offer solitude and a peaceful buffer from civilization as the river wends toward Berg Park at the heart of town, where a quick succession of rapids keeps the day’s adventurers on their toes. “All forward!” Dudgeon calls out to the rafters, who must work together to pass through rapids without tipping. “Left back!” he continues, instructing the left side of the raft to paddle backward, while the right side paddles forward to steer out of trouble. Teamwork is essential while rafting the Animas, and when done successfully, it makes the adventure both memorable and fulfilling. It’s what has helped the adventure tour company thrive since the Dudgeons, both Farmington schoolteachers, founded it in 2021.

Local organizations like the River Reach Foundation, which puts on Farmington’s annual Riverfest, and San Juan College, which rents rafting and boating equipment, have long been invested in the rivers flowing through Farmington. In addition, the Desert River Guides and Farmington Clean & Beautiful organize a spring cleanup to coincide with Earth Day. “The recreational scene is growing,” Dudgeon says. “There are more private rafters in Farmington than there were 20 years ago.”

Everyone rows together.

The two-hour trip ends at a takeout not far from the industrial building that houses Desert River Guides and the off-road adventure company, Bear Automotive. Dudgeon’s bus is usually waiting to pick up the rafters and equipment before heading back—often to Three Rivers Brewery, for a celebratory pint and meal, as a final destination.

“Every time is a new experience, because it’s a new group of people in a new river,” Dudgeon says. “The river changes—I’ve never been on the same river twice.” Dudgeon enjoys the challenge of leading rafting trips on the Animas, and he’s learned to work with the river, feeling the currents running beneath him so he can harmonize the raft’s path with the river’s flow.

While rafting and outdoor recreation has kept Dudgeon near a river for most of his life, his appreciation runs deeper. “Maybe I’m just a thrill seeker,” he says. “But beyond that, I have a connection to what rivers mean for the planet and for the people who make use of them, whether it’s the farmer who needs it to water his field or the recreationist, like me, going downstream for an adventure. They connect all of us.”

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