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Fletcher Anderson

A tribute to a Wildwater Pioneer

by Kent Ford

December 5, 2005

Fletcher fully lived the life of an intellectual kayak dirtbag, using that term with utmost affection. His 1982 guidebook on Colorado rivers was one of the best, and holds some fabulous writing about the state of rivers and growth of Colorado, including issues of access still troubling paddlers today. I remember during one trip to visit his house, his son Leif was playing in the finely polished mold for building boats. In his deep, slow, thoughtful tone Fletcher addressed 2 year old Leif with his classic understatement: “Leiffff, if the owners of that mold saw you there, they would not be happy.” We continued our conversation with no more attention paid to Leif, who was raised to be independent in all the right ways.

Fletcher reportedly still holds the record for the fastest kayak run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon: 49 hours. This was in a wildwater kayak, and is a feat unlikely to ever be matched due to current day river regulations. His articles documenting suffering hallucinations in the Texas Water Safari helped popularize that as "the World's toughest boat race" It is a 260-mile canoe race along the Colorado river to the Gulf of Mexico. He boasted to slalom racers on the relative difficulty of marathon paddling. He worked in film before the days of video, frequently skiing backwards with cumbersome gear, getting extreme shots for mid 1970’s era Warren Miller style productions.

It seemed frequent that Fletcher was injured, in a cast of one sort or another, usually from skiing accidents. Most of his injuries were jumping or going too fast on skinny Nordic skis. (He helped run the Ski Sunlight Nordic Center for many years). Then he took up paragliding. I know he fell from the sky at least once in that endeavor, crashing badly, and resulting in numerous surgeries. I am pretty sure he fell from the sky one other time, with less severe results. He went on to fly fixed wing, and was instructor rated with over 4000 hours time.

But my favorite Fletcher experience involved no injury, just karma. It was circa 1978, on a paddling trip down the Roaring Fork River, which flows just outside of Aspen. On finishing the fabulous technical run, Fletcher and I hiked up to the road to hitchhike back to our cars, which had been left at the put in. After a few minutes, a white van pulled over to give us a ride. There was no passenger seat up front, only a bed in the back. We sat on the bed, as directed by the driver. As we headed down the road, the driver turned back to us bragging: “you guys are sitting on the biggest load of cocaine to go into Aspen this year.” A little more small talk, and then we all saw the Police roadblock ahead. The driver was instantly sweating bullets. Fletcher and I shared a quick glance, sure that we would give ourselves up at the first sign of trouble. We had 6 other friends waiting at the takeout along with our boats, so our innocence could be quickly proven. But the police officer flagged us down, checked the drivers license, and took a slow walk around the vehicle. “Son, looks like your left rear tire is getting a little bald. Have a nice day.” Half a mile down the road, the driver let us out, still shaking with tension.

But the story doesn’t end there. We still needed a ride down to the put-in. The first vehicle, a GMC Jimmy (an early SUV) pulled over, and put down the tailgate for us to sit on. As we headed down the road, we noticed a pile of Golf bags,,, and a nametag. I got Fletchers attention to verify, yes indeed the bags belonged to musician John Denver, who was indeed the driver. He wished us well on our river adventures. Upon our return to the takeout with the cars, we had a tough time convincing the others, “You’ll never guess what happened to us!”

I guess I was not all that surprised to hear that Fletcher had fallen from the sky again. Newspaper reports say investigations are ongoing as to why his plane was low enough to the river to crash into the gauging station cable. Given Fletcher’s love of the river, I suspect I know. We’ll miss you Fletcher!