On Colorado’s Yampa River, a family-friendly whitewater rafting adventure
We spent the last five days raft the last undammed tributary of the Colorado River Basin. Our journey so far has been far from silent. There was the crushing of Class III and IV whitewater rapids, and cheering cries as those rapids sent life-giving river water into the boats. The children, seven in all, peppered the guides with questions, laughed until they fell off their camping chairs, played raucous games of tag and hide-and-seek and demanded seconds of dessert . They did not remain silent. Aged 10 to 16, they bonded quickly on the first of our five-day trip. Since then they have become a tight-knit cohort and their energetic bond has extended to the rest of us, seven middle-aged parents and seven older people. We started the river journey as strangers, but within 24 hours of setting off on the Yampa, we became a team of like-minded adventurers.
Certainly, the river guides bear the responsibility for our adventure. Not only are they responsible for getting us safely through the myriad of rapids and carrying us to the boat if one of us falls, but they are also responsible for feeding and hydrating us while teaching the history of this remote and amazing prehistoric region. square.
A river guide explains the do’s and don’ts of rafting etiquette
Of all the rivers in the Colorado River tributary, the Yampa is the last without a dam. In May and June, snowmelt from the Colorado high country swells the Yampa, creating prime boating conditions. We’re here in early June and the water levels are looking sporty at Deerlodge Park, the Dinosaur National Monument boat launch where we’re kicking off our trip.
I wanted to take my family to the Yampa because it’s fluid. The location of the river within the monument protects it, but one of the guides explains that it continues to be threatened by diversion projects upstream. I am a novice boater and am captivated by the prospect of an undammed river out West. I’ve read enough environmental activists like Ed Abbey and Marc Reisner to know that the rivers have caused enormous controversy. As Mark Twain would have said, “The whiskey is for drinking, the water is for fighting.” That the Yampa has resisted efforts to build dams along its scenic stretches seems like a small victory for nature.
I also chose the Yampa for its beauty and history. On this trip we travel back in time traveling west through the beautiful sandstone canyons of Yampa. The rock dates from the Jurassic Period, which ended about 145 million years ago, and is part of the Morrison Formation, a unit that stretches across the western United States and, according to the National Park Service, often contains dinosaur fossils, including other creatures.
There is also an abundance of cultural relics left behind by the nomadic indigenous peoples who used the Yampa Canyons for around 1,000 years. Our guides promise early on that we will see petroglyphs, pictographs and a massive natural dome that inspires as much reverence as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Then there is the very act of floating. The Yampa is known to be a playful river with several large rapids that lead to a huge one: Warm Springs. Formed by a massive landslide in 1965, this rapid ranges from Class III to Class IV, depending on water depth. Before plunging into the fierce and roaring section, we hike along the bank, over rocks, to spot Warm Springs from the safety of firm ground.
I admire the power of water, so fierce that it seems alive. I don’t have the knowledge to know exactly what line we’re following, and that makes me particularly grateful to our guides, die-hard river rats whose maneuvering the oars and navigating the difficult sections of the river seem without effort, even when the situation is difficult. This becomes clear about 45 minutes after spotting Warm Springs, when one of the guides gets caught in a hole near the end of the rapid. His boat rocks upwards in a motion known as the “high siding”. It’s the last boat to run the rapid, and those of us downriver watch with wide eyes as it manages to right its raft and free it from the hold of the rapid. It’s an act of strength and expertise, and her serenity is remarkable, though she later acknowledges the difficulty.
Floating down a lazy river, paddlers dive into a different kind of actuality
Again, most river lovers are rather cold, even if they have a passion bordering on fanaticism when it comes to white water. They are unlike any other enthusiast I know. River dwellers adore trips of decades past, and each winter dutifully apply for coveted permits granted by federal agencies on a limited lottery basis to float the nation’s wildest rivers. If they are lucky enough to obtain one of these permits (and few are), they plan expeditions that require navigational expertise and massive amounts of gear. They talk enthusiastically about the freedom of the river and how the weather changes on the water. They call it “river time” and talk about the sublime beauty of leaving everyday life behind and becoming one with time, water, the natural world. Their circles of friendship revolve around other equally avid boaters, and many pass on their love of the river to their children through multi-generational travel.
I think about it on the last day, during the silent part of our float. I’m not the kind of person who usually thinks it would be fun to camp with 17 strangers for the duration of a work week. And yet, I’m here for our last day, sad to say goodbye. This trip – and the camaraderie between all of us – has helped ease the anxiety I have accumulated over the past few years. Pandemic anxiety. Sadness at the death of a loved one. My own fears of aging and complicated emotions as my children grow and become more independent. Every day on the river, in the sun and in sync with the movement of the water, I relaxed in a way I didn’t even know I needed.
And it’s not just me. In conversations with other people on this trip, I get the impression that we’re all dealing with big things – at least the adults. Children paint their nails, wrestle in the sand and jump off the rocks. But adults are grateful to be disconnected from cell service and the news, from the pressures of home, society and family. Being on the river is an exercise in presence, and with each passing day, being in the moment becomes easier.
As our flotilla rounds the final bend of the Yampa, just before it joins the Green, we reach an area known as Echo Park. A guide breaks the silence by slapping his oar on the water. The sound ricochets off the sandstone walls and loops back. Another guide slams an oar and another bellows. The echoes return and inspire the rest of us to release our own voices.
It could be a cacophony. But instead the sounds intertwine as we strangers have weaved our own lives over the past few days and return something more melodious than otherwise.
Around a bend, I turn back to Echo Park and call out. But we have crossed the sweet spot. No echo answers me. I see only the sandstone walls and calm water. Above is the scorching sun and a big blue sky. The momentum of the river propels us forward. Ready or not, it will soon be time to go. And when the time comes, and I reluctantly step out of the raft and onto the boat ramp, I understand more intimately why some people turn their lives upside down for river trips. Because one trip on a beautiful wild river is not enough.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @racheljowalker.
Oars has been operating commercial river voyages since 1969 and offers a range of voyages within the United States and beyond. Trips on the Yampa River take place in May, June and early July, after which the water levels drop too low for viable rafting. Yampa trips can last four or five days and prices start at $1,349 per adult.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.