Free Flows the Yampa

Luckily, the cavalry is on the horizon. The Bureau of Land Management is moving forward with a Resource Management Plan that would label three sections of the river, including Cross Mountain Canyon, suitable for Wild and Scenic designation. While the move would likely lead to protests and court proceedings before any sort of Congressional act, conservationists have an extra bullet in their chamber: former Colorado U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, who is now Secretary of the Interior, is a major proponent of keeping the Yampa pristine (see Elevation Outdoors’ feature on Salazar on page 10). “Having that designation would be a tremendous help,” says local river conservationist Kent Vertrees. “The Yampa deserves it.”

I was just a water droplet of a man when I first rafted the river on a five-day trip with my family in the fifth grade. I remember kissing the desert-varnish-striped Tiger Wall for good luck and giving my mom a bouquet of Indian paintbrush at camp, my face reddening like the flowers when a female guide saw the gesture.

A more life-lasting bond came when I moved just a block from its banks in 1992. Ever since making my home in Steamboat Springs, I surf its waves at lunch, kayak its hair-raising tributaries, and even paddleboard and tube it with my young daughters when the area’s snowmelt subsides. You can soak in riverside hot springs on the town run, eddy out to grab a burger and a beer, and plunge into its deep pools to escape summer’s heat. There’s a Yampa festival—complete with the world’s first Crazy River Dog contest—and I even high-fived James Brown at the dedication of his namesake overpass in town. The Godfather of Soul blessing one of the river’s bridges speaks volumes for the river’s own soul (that local high-schoolers stuffed the ballot box in a naming contest is beside the point).

img_5231_fixLike any relationship, of course, the best memories I have of the Yampa come from a longer courtship, namely floating Yampa Canyon to its confluence with the Green. Every winter, clusters of river runners get together to hold permit parties and send in lottery applications for the right to float regulated rivers across the West. High on the list: Yampa Canyon, a 71-mile run through Dinosaur National Monument, including the Green’s Gates of Lodore section. Last year the river office received 4,297 applications for just 284 lottery spots, putting the success rate at a slim 6.6 percent—about the same as staying dry through Warm Springs rapid.

Get one of these permits, however, and you’ll remember the trip for life. En route you’ll pass outlaw hide-outs, Indian ruins, pristine beaches, slot canyon side hikes. You’ll navigate the rollercoaster of Split Mountain Canyon. You’ll camp beneath desert stars and hear guitars echo off the canyon walls.

Nowhere have I felt the essence of the Yampa more than while happy-houring on a ridge above the Mantle Cave camp. The buzz might have helped, but none of us needed it when a lightning bolt burst out of the sky and sent a juniper into flames directly across the river.

“Nice shot, Delaney!” yelled Drew to a kayaking friend of ours who had recently passed away. Whether it was Delaney signaling us or not, we watched the flames spread throughout the night, traveling underground through root lines and then popping up a hundred yards away from the initial strike.

Then came the trip where, thanks to a dentist friend, I procured six riverside stitches on my pinkie finger after I smashed it with a rock while pounding in a horseshoe stake. I kayaked the whole river with that finger wrapped in gauze and a condom and sticking up like the devilish digit of Dr. Evil.

There are countless more reasons why this river will always be dear to my heart. The Frisbee 500 tournaments on its wide-open, white-sand beaches; exploring abandoned cabins that once housed outlaws; deciphering 1,000-year-old Fremont ruins and rock art; hiking to the evasive Princess Pools and Butt Crack Falls; showing my daughters the cool magic of Whispering Cave; and knowing that every time I reach the confluence, I’m retracing the path that John Wesley Powell pioneered 140 years ago.

img_5146_fixMuch like Powell and that hitch-hiking cowboy whose herd we rounded up through its stream, the river has seen its share of jams over the years. But still it courses on, offering a metaphor for life: The Yampa will likely escape some of the challenges it faces—as it did the Echo Park Dam—and fall prey to others, in which case it could use a helping hand, just like our riverside wrangler. It won’t be easy, and it might meet resistance from some who don’t love the Yampa the same way I do, but while the Pumpback project might make it easier for wandering winter cattle to get back home, I’m sure that even that  cowboy would appreciate the importance of the Yampa holding on to its lone, free spirit. Eugene Buchanan is the founder of Paddling Life ( and former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Paddler magazine. He is a member of New York’s Explorer’s Club and the author of Brothers on the Bashkaus (Fulcrum, 2007). He lives with his family in Steamboat.

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