September 30, 2016

Rafting the last undammed tributary of the Colorado River. Words by Ken Voeller. Photos by Ken Voeller and Seth Brown.

“The pullout to scout Warm Springs is on river right,” said Trevor. “Be sure not to miss it. If you do, you’re running it blind.”

The river is a dark, murky shade of brown — swollen with snowmelt and the recent rains. It’s a sunny, but a cool breeze cuts the air. Spring in the desert can be hit or miss. It can beautiful and hot one minute, and bitter cold the next. It doesn’t help that every little riffle we hit throws ice cold water onto our bodies and into our faces.

It was the third day of our five day raft trip down the Yampa River, the last undammed tributary of the Colorado River. The Yampa is born in the mountains around Steamboat Springs, Colorado and runs west for 250 miles before connecting with the Green River and flowing into Utah. We were rafting the fifty mile stretch through Dinosaur National Monument, a region famous for its fossils and towering sandstone cliffs. This is Canyon Country, the beating heart of the American West, a land of cacti and rivers and petroglyphs and glistening desert sandstone.

There are eighteen of us — linked together in some way or another by college, work, friends, and other outdoor expeditions. We’re a ragtag bunch — the type of people who like to wear neon in the desert and drink river temperature koozie-wrapped cans of PBR. Trevor and I had just launched a company called Bramble — an outdoor company that uses products to help protect our wild places — and, luckily for us, this was technically a “work” trip to shoot some product photography and gather content for the next few months.

We pulled ashore above the rapid and got out of our boats. The canyon cast a shadow over our little section of riverbank, and the wind had picked up. We hiked down the shore to take a look at the rapid. Though we didn’t know it at the time, the recent rains had pushed the flow of the water to over 14,500 c.f.s. The average for this time of year was 9,000. The water was moving.

“What do you think of entering the rapid river right, and then pulling hard to the left to get around that hole in the middle?” I asked Trevor.

“I don’t think that would go,” he replied. “There’s no way you’d be able to make it across the river when it’s moving that fast. You’ve only got two or three strokes once you’re in the current. If you miss even half a stroke you’re going into the hole.”

“So, what’s the move then?” I asked.

“I think we should sneak it to the right. It’ll be close, but as long as you don’t get swept too far into the current you should be okay.”

We made our way back to the rafts and shoved off from the bank. The roar of the rapid echoed off the sandstone walls. Rooster tails of white water sprayed into the air. And then there was only the river and the raft.

Take a few gentle strokes to get into the current. Not too much now. Don’t want to get too far into the river. Remember there’s the huge gaping hole down the middle. It would flip a raft like it was flipping a pancake. Enter the rapid just right of the tongue. Kiss the big hole with the bow of the boat. Now pivot and pull away from the rocks on river right. A little more, a little more. Good. Punch the wave and hold on. Be sure not to lose your oar against the rocks on the right. We’re through the worst of it now. Eddy out and wait for the other boats.

There’s nothing in the world quite like an overnight raft trip, especially on a wild and untamed river. For a few days, your little group of individuals becomes a living, breathing village. It’s a sociological experiment disguised as an outdoor adventure. Every day, you load your kitchen, dutch oven, food, tents, beer, liquor, toilet — the “groover” for those of you in the know — and set out down the river. We’re a traveling caravan. A wagon train. A motorcade. And we’re all sharing something incredibly powerful in one of the most beautiful and wild places in the world.

Ed Abbey wrote “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” Floating slowly down a river, or standing on top of a mountain, or rappelling deep into a desert canyon makes you feel something. Truthfully, we’re all still searching for exactly what that something is — but as long as we keep looking, we’ll need wild places to look in.