Faces of Rivers: Sage Martin, Executive Director of Mountainfilm Festival

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Sarah finds herself easily distracted by the beauty of the river as she runs the San Miguel trail

Outside my back door is a locals’ trail that drops down across a small creek, and then weaves through raspberry patches and aspen stands to the edge of the Keystone Gorge. The trail drops abruptly down to the San Miguel River, crosses a creaky footbridge and curls up the steep north side to complete a three mile loop. While I love to trail run, I find it hard to take too seriously as I’m easily distracted by nature and the ever evolving San Miguel River riparian zone. My husband likes to time our runs but will patiently (and frequently) pause the clock for my stops to examine a new flower, soft moss patches or draw a deep breath of petrichor on a rainy day. American Dippers bopping around the river rocks also provide great distractions.

At the top of the trail, after more than 700 feet of elevation gain, there’s a sweet reward … a swimming hole that beckons to wash the salt and trail dust from your body. One must occasionally brave a passing tourist, rip off your clothes and submerge yourself in the icy, refreshing water. There is always a gasp, a tingle and then a full consciousness shift as the warm rocks that encircle this perfect pool provide a moment of rest and reflection. Then it’s a mile home …. dripping, smiling and full of gratitude for the healing waters of the San Miguel.

Sarah and a shady river waterfall

In the winter, this loop becomes wild. Most days we make the only tracks and cat prints, feathers and partially consumed elk parts keep us moving at a nice clip. The river rocks are topped with snow piles that create a gurgling field of oversized frosted cupcakes. In every season of life, this river trail moves with me. The trees that hang on the edges of the river grab at my stress, the water pushes what matters back into my body, and the rocks surround and re-ground me. After 15 years, I’m not sure I could survive without this daily connection to the land and water.

The free-flowing San Miguel River begins in the San Juan Mountains above my home in Telluride, Colorado and ends 72 miles later at the confluence with the Dolores River with an eventual dump into the Colorado river. As it flows, it drops over 7,000 feet from alpine to a desert ecosystem. The San Miguel provides sustenance to plants and wildlife and is the grand centerpiece of our community as it winds through the middle of town and flows down the valley. Swarms of summer festival goers dunk and gasp in her cool waters. Locals fish from her banks and raft, kayak and paddle board during our snippet of a summer. We’ve hiked to her headwaters and watched her flow dwindle to a stream when the snowpack is low. Our collective anxiety is felt throughout town as we are forced to face the impacts of climate change in our tiny town high in the mountains and what life would be like without the mighty San Miguel.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?