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Once more unto the breach, dear friends

October 3, 2011

Enjoy a five-day yodel down the Yampa and Green rivers with a human train of flotsam drifting through a landscape of no return. This is an encore presentation of a story first run in Today in 2009 by Paul Miller, an alumnus and staff member at CSU.

Our inveterate guide discusses a Big Rock Wall that we kayakers don't want to get near. Take me to the river

It isn’t all that scary to stand on the shore of the Green River and look out over the sand-colored, roiling water. What’s scary is listening to a guide talk about the perils coming up downriver.

On this toasty July afternoon, a small handful of us kayakers gathers around Darin, the lead river guide, while he scratches a map in the damp, flat sand.

“The river takes a right turn,” he says, “then you’ll see a rock wall on the right. The river undercuts the wall. You do not want to be sucked into it, so Do Not Go Near the Big Rock Wall.”

My wife, Annie, and I stand close to each other. We’ve been sharing a single kayak the whole trip without mishap, but now I’m trying to remember to whom we willed our fine Fort Collins home if things don’t work out.

Sand, sun, and standing waves

This is our fifth and last day on the river, a trip that started on the eastern edge of Dinosaur National Monument. For 70 meandering miles, we’d been paddling through sandstone canyons and rapids called Tepee, Little Joe, Five Springs and a dozen others. This is a rare place of vertical canyon walls painted with streaks of black, brown, tan, and orange minerals called desert varnish. Raptors circle high overhead, and dry gullies flanking the river show flash-flood debris dozens of feet above the beds. Sagebrush, greasewood, and saltbrush are overshadowed on occasion by small remnant groves of ponderosa pine, a surprise to see in this semi-arid desert.

In the evenings, bereft (thank God) of all things e-mailish or twittery, we can’t stop grinning. At one camp along a rocky shore, Annie goes for a solo stroll and discovers a small patch of native stream orchids (or chatterbox), Epipactis gigantea, growing along the bank of a small side stream.

This beautiful river has long been inhabited. Before Europeans started goofing around the canyons in the 1800s (including John Wesley Powell’s expedition, which rowed about 2 miles up the Yampa in 1869), Fremont Indians 900 to 2,000 years ago raised families, leaving haunting pictographs on rock walls. Before that, Paleoindians hunted giant bison and woolly mammoth some 8,000 years ago.

Digging deeper into the layers of time, huge brontosaurus, spiky stegosaurus, and other dinosaur titans thumped around some 145 million years ago, the skeletons of which happened to be preserved along with turtles, crocodiles, and clams.

Once more unto the breach - oh, yeah.It’s showtime

But now, on this final day of our trip, I’m once again looking downstream at the rapids and the low, visceral voice of tumbling water. Darin stands and asks if we’re ready to go. I compulsively tighten the webbing on my life jacket, then tighten it again.

“If nothing else, remember that self-rescue is the key,” Darin says. “We might be able to pull you out if you capsize, but don’t count on it.” I feel my innards constrict, like I’m looking over the edge of an abyss.

The oar boats pull out, and we follow in the kayak. At first the water is tranquil, then the pace picks up, then the rapids ahead start drumming loudly enough to vibrate my bones.

In seconds we’re swept into Moonshine Rapid and the urgent, quick force of water ripping over unseen boulders. I manage to steer the kayak straight through the first wild waves, a roller coaster of frothing river that pastes Annie full in the face and leaps back to drench me.

It’s hard to see anything other than the rapids beating and shoving and pounding on all sides, but we manage to avoid the nastiest boulders and currents. Turning another corner, I think the kayak is pointed dead ahead, but the river says otherwise, and in an instant we’re sideways, rocking almost upside-down in a rapid. Somehow we recover, float deliriously through another wave train, and paddle in a frenzy through S.O.B. and Schoolboy rapids. The Big Rock Wall has been avoided. In fact, I’m not sure I even saw it.

Moonrise over our home.

Long live wild rivers

On a relatively calm spot, I look back and see a daypack floating in the river – somebody’s capsized. Two men in our group didn’t make it through a rapid. I snag the pack, and moments later find out that both men are OK, albeit shaken and stirred.

But no time to dawdle. We rage through another set of rapids, then another, and I can’t help shouting, it’s just so exhilarating to ride over these moguls of water.

We turn another corner, and the river quiets down. It can’t be over, but it is. We stop for lunch at a beautiful spot made even nicer because we’re alive and drenched and drying under a brilliant sun.

Our take-out is just a few miles downriver. Although it’s too soon to leave, I’m standing in the Green - or the Yampa, or the Colorado, or the Arkansas - right now, feeling sand sifting and tugging away from under my feet. I loft a simple hope up into the cloudless sky, that this river and all others keep running until there’s no more sand left to move.

A longer version of this story was first published in Today@CSU in 2009.