Trip Report: Yampa River, White Water Rafting, 5 Days

Yampa River, White Water Rafting, 5 Days
By Carl Harline
BOATING 06/11/2013 Class III

By Lori Flygare

Yampa... just the name makes this river trip sound like a party. And party it is! I'm writing this in the dirt outside my tent. I'm covered in sand, mosquito bites, scabs from banging into rocks and sticks, I have boat rash on my legs, and a sunburn. And yet... I'm smiling. This is a party. A big river, white water party with fun-loving fellow adventurers and gorgeous redrock surroundings showcasing the pre-cambrian and cambrian eras with dinosaur bones and petroglyphs to add to the grandeur.

Our adventure began with a ten mile smooth water paddling trip from Deerlodge Park Boat Ramp to Tepee Campground. There are eighteen in our party: Carl Harline-leader and organizer with a gift for making things fun. Julie Gregersen- free spirited, great cook, and caretaker to all, with husband Rich- expert kayaker and teaser. Rich Bennett and Michele Hutchins- always smiling and willing to help and share with everything. (Thanks for the one tooth toothbrush Rich! Lol) California boaters Sharon Spier our resident veterinarian who we relied on to fix all our aches and pains (she prefers non-complaining horses... but willingly treated whiners like us. Thanks Sharon!)... and her brother Bob Spier- fun loving, expert kayaker and pro schlepper (Jill's other half ☺). Donnie Benson- awesome captain and friend and patient instructor for us newbies. Thanks Donnie! June Wang- permit sharer, friend, and fellow paddler. Bruce Richardson- hard schlepping worker in spite of his broken pelvis and ankle only 6 weeks prior! Mark Jones- knowledgeable teacher about everything and willing to share that expertise. Mike Bullinger and Cheryl Baker- hardworking and cheerful and always making us laugh. (Thanks for showing us the butt dam and waterfall Cheryl!) Idaho residents Brandon Knuteson and Sam Jensen- happy, hardworking paramedics and expert river runners, with the added benefit that Sam (Samwise) is also a professionally trained chef! Great carne asada! Steve Pace- quiet and nice and pro river runner, Lanie Benson- friendly southerner that can take on any rapid in his cataraft. And me, Lori Flygare- newbie- trying to make myself invaluable in the dishwashing and gear schlepping departments so I'll be invited on more of these trips!

Our river running armada consisted of five oarboats, one 2 man ducky, one 3 man puma paddle boat, one fishcat and two kayakers. Almost everyone has great skill and experience except for a couple of us newbies that they mercifully take under their wings to teach the basics of paddling and rope tying and self rescue (in case we end up swimming in the rapids), along with teaching us how to pack gear so well and so tight we could probably fit an elephant in a shoebox.

Several hours later we land at our camp and begin the first of many days schlepping gear and setting up the kitchen and groover and tents and campchairs, then gather round for a tasty dinner of sweet potato chicken curry w/couscous made by dinner group 1 following Julie's cooking expertise. Things liven up with the delicious food and wine and laughter until exhaustion sends us to our tents for the nights.

Early morning sunlight and happy, noisy birds awaken us and we hit the day with tea and coffee to perk us up and a delicious breakfast of eggs and sausage and granola and yogurt and then begin the breaking camp routine packing gear into water tight drybags and ammo cans and dryboxes and rocket boxes that we schlep back to the boats where it's lashed and tied and binered in for the just-in-case-we-flip possibilities.

We are excited to take on the river today as we are headed for three big rapids on our sixteen mile course from Tepee Campground to Harding Hole. There is a head wind today making the flat stretches of water tiring to row and paddle but there are enough fun smaller rapids to keep us going. We reach the first of the big rapids, Tepee, and get our first big rush. Then hit Five Springs for another thrilling stretch of the river. The last big rapid before camp, Big Joe, has a reputation for big holes so we beach the boats before hitting the rapid to scout it out. It looks like a wet and wild death defying ride to newbie eyes like mine, but I hear a lot of expert opinions all around about how they view the river and how to run it safely. They use words like tongues and washing machines and sleepers and ping-ponging and I begin to understand how lucky I am to be in a group that knows what it takes to get through something so formidable alive.

June and I are in Donnie's Puma Paddle Boat and we work hard to follow Donnie's commands to dig in with our paddles deep and hard as we hit the big waves to pull us up and over and away from the giant sucking holes and menacing rocks and follow the tongue to safety. Donnie's a great captain, picking the best lines and heaping on the praise to motivate her crew into getting us safely through. We high-five and laugh and gasp for breath once we're safe then turn around to watch the others as they dance through.

Once at Harding Hole we schlep the gear and get camp set up for the night then hike through the beautiful redrock cliffs up to an overlook where we can see the weathered red and pink and white sandstone cliff walls and mesas and the muddy river below. Dinner is gourmet once again as team 2 led by chef Sam makes Carne Asada... I can't remember the last time I've eaten so well... this may be the first adventure trip I've ever been on where I actually GAIN weight!

Day three begins bright and early and we eat and break camp and schlep and tie gear back onto our boats. We have eighteen miles to paddle and row today from Harding Hole to Box Elder Campground. There are several smaller rapids along the way but we are headed to the infamous Warm Spring rapids that seem to have even the expert river runners mulling over. I feel the slight tension in the talk around me. Rumors have it sounding big and wild this year. Along the way we pull ashore for lunch and a fun hike to Mantel Cave to see the Fremont Indian ruins with stone storage bins and some vandalized hieroglyphs on the walls. Back on the river we paddle easily along, laughing and joking and splashing water on the other boaters. Carl's boat soon turns into the party boat when Julie and Sharon pull along and climb in followed by the kayakers tying off and we soon tag up for the fun. The scenery is spectacular with the red and pink and white sandstone walls with forest green pinion pines growing out of the cracks and crevices of the cliffs in death-defying positions. I jump out of the paddleboat to cool down and June gets to practice pulling me back in by my lifejacket.

We float past Tiger Wall- a red sandstone wall covered in cool looking tiger stripes caused by the desert varnish. And just before we hit Warm Spring Rapids we pass the Grand Overhang. Aptly named for it's huge, grand wall and monster overhang overshadowing us. After a few more bends in the river we take our boats into the eddy before the rapids and climb ashore to scout out Warm Springs. This rapid, like many others, is caused by a massive slide coming off the huge walls and dumping car size rocks into the river creating an obstacle course of boulders that in turn create giant holes with washing machine action and little or no room to maneuver around before the next giant boulder and hole in the frothing white water.

Upon our first sight of the rapids I hear some gasps and "oh s---s"! among a few other choice words, then quiet conversations between the captains about the best course to avoid being flipped...

After awhile a consensus of sorts is reached. Sharon and Julie decide to roll up their Duckie and climb aboard Carl's oarboat to safely navigate this section of the river. Donnie decides that the first big hole is too huge for her Puma and asks to be lined past the hole on the edge of the shore where we will climb back in and finish out the rest of the rapids hugging first the right shoreline, then the left.

We're standing along the shoreline when the first of another group of paid guides goes through. We watch two of their group barely make it through getting caught in some of the holes but breaking free. When the third boat goes through it gets caught in the second hole and turns sideways and immediately flips. The guide and his passenger are thrown into the raging water and we hold our breaths until we see their heads pop up further down stream. The last of the other group's boat gets through but loses a passenger along the way as well. Now that we've watched others navigate these rapids I think I feel a rise of tension in the air.

Our group begins the challenge with our two expert kayakers, Rich and Bob, who go first so they can rescue anyone who ends up in the water. The Duckie is stowed and the Puma is lined to a safe spot just below the first massive hole and the kayakers rocket down the rapids like kites in a hurricane and pull into an eddy below to await the first oarboat. Lanie takes to the rapids and sails through in his fishcat followed by Carl's oarboat. The water pulls powerfully towards the boulders and holes and those standing on the sidelines collectively gasp as Carl's oarboat is pushed into the second hole. It's easy to see that Carl's an expert rower because a split second later he pops out and maneuvers safely through the rest of the obstacles and to the eddy below. Next is Brandon and Sam's oarboat. Brandon is rowing and fighting the strong surge to the powerful second hole but gets sucked in and flips. Those of us watching from the shore hold our breaths as we wait to see their heads pop up from the raging water. After what seems like hours Sam appears barreling downstream but where is Brandon? I'm terrified he's caught in the washing machine action of the second hole, but Brandon suddenly appears climbing up on the overturned oarboat holding onto an oar. The spectators on the shore all glance at each other in relief and watch as Carl's boat heads over to help Brandon turn over his boat. Not sure who has picked up Sam or where he is. And we don't have time to find out because now Mike and Cheryl are coming down in their oarboat and once again get sucked into the second hole. Mike loses his grip on the left oar and fights the powerful current with only the right one. He tries to get the left and gets thrown from the boat. For a few moments Cheryl has no idea that Mike has fallen out of the boat and glances back to find him gone. She looks shocked and then leaps for the oars but then seems to see Mike and decides to rescue him instead and is also thrown out of the boat. Mike has grabbed onto the side of the boat with his oar and happily the boat stays upright and he rides it out to safety. And Cheryl is rescued by Lanie in his fishcat down below. Next comes Steve in his oarboat with Bruce as a passenger and they plow safely through. And now it's Rich and Michele's turn. Their oarboat makes it down the rapid but proceeds over to a shallower section on the left to try to pick-up Sam who is hanging out on the shoreline below and waiting for a ride. They hit a sleeper and end up high centered in the shallow rapids also needing help.

And now it's our turn. Even though we've been lined past the first hole we still have to avoid the second and third big holes and make our way down these wild rapids and stop somewhere near Rich and Michele and try to help get them off the sleeper. June and I take our places at the front right and left sides of the Puma and Donnie hops in the back. My stomach is sitting somewhere in my throat and my heart is buzzing like a hummingbird... I really really really don't want to end up in these rapids! Donnie guides us into the rapids and we rocket down the wild right side unmolested with her expert boatmanship, paddle furiously to get to the left side above the next hole and then pull into the shore as close to Rich and Michele as we can. Donnie hops out and gets hold of their rope and Rich and Michele begin rocking the boat trying to get it to dislodge off the giant boulder. They finally break free and now we try to get to Sam to give him a ride in our boat and end up in the shallow part of the river where we high center on rock after rock and Sam ends up wading back into the river to help rescue us!

An hour later we all find our way into camp and set up for the night. Once dinner is served we sit around laughing and talking about what happened and where those thrown from the boats ended up. It's been a crazy and exciting day so we turn in early to prepare for the eight miles we will do the following day.

Donnie awakens the next morning with a stiff and painful neck and spends the day recuperating on Brandon's oarboat, so Sam takes over as our supreme leader captain dude in the Puma. Today we will pass through the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers on our way from Box Elder Campground to Echo Park. There's a lot of paddling and I'm starting to feel the cumulative effects in my shoulders, but it's the boat rash I'm getting on the back of my legs from straddling the side that's actually bugging me the most. Now I see the wisdom in bringing long river pants... ah, live and learn.

The best part of this day is once we are in camp we hike along Jones Hole Creek and get to see some great petroglyphs and hieroglyphs along the walls. Then head up to a small waterfall where Cheryl teaches us the fine art of creating a butt dam atop the falls by sitting down and blocking the water in the little channel above and then jumping up and releasing the water so a huge rush of water will hit the person below standing under the falls. It's great fun and a great way to clean off all the accumulated sand in our hair and ears! Carl, Lanie, Brandon, Sam, and myself then decide to take an exploratory hike up Ely Creek where Brandon peels off half way to go explore a cougar's cave! while the rest of us continue to the ridge where we can overlook Island Park and the Uinta mountains in the distance.

The next morning brings in conflicting feelings of sadness and relief. It's our last day. We have 19 miles from Jones Hole to the Split Mountain takeout. We paddle against periodic head winds for the first 12 miles then pull ashore to scout the first of four rapids we will be running next: Moonshine, SOB, Schoolboy and Inglesby. And oh boy, Moonshine is once again a section to be reckoned with. I stare at the rapids with my hand over my mouth and watch another armada of ships with guides barrel their way down the middle of the river where the tongue runs between a succession of big rocks and holes. The other group makes it through safely though some get caught for a moment in one of the biggest holes.

Our captains make the decisions of where to run their boats and Sam sets us up and gets June and I paddling fiercely while he guides us perfectly down Moonshine then we all run safely through the next seven miles of big and crazy rapids until we reach the boat ramp at the end of our run. We schlep gear and fold up boats and get everyone ready to go home and there's lots of hugs and "hope to see you soon" all around. It's been a fantastic week and one I hope to repeat again! Thanks to everyone for everything you did to make this a fantastic river trip! Hopefully, we'll do this again next year.