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Descent into the (magnificent) maelstrom

July 23, 2009

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

Story by Paul Miller

On this toasty July afternoon, a small handful of us kayakers crowd 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 big rock wall on the right. The river undercuts the wall. You do not want to be sucked into the big rock wall, so paddle like hell for the middle of the river.”

He outlines the rock wall in the sand with his stick, then makes squiggles where more rapids churn below. I’m getting close to swooning. Maybe it’s the heat and not fear. The sun, after all, is beating down on us in full nuclear strength.

“Then we go through a few more rapids, the river makes another turn, and you’ll see a big rock on the left,” Darin says. I know what’s next – Do Not Go Near the Big Rock.

My wife and I stand close to each other. We’ve been sharing a single kayak the whole trip without mishap, me in the stern and she in the bow, 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 mighty Yampa and Green rivers, a trip that started on the 4th of July on the eastern edge of Dinosaur National Monument at the Deerlodge put-in. For 70 meandering, magnificent miles, we’d been paddling through sandstone canyons and rapids called Tepee, Little Joe, Five Springs and a dozen others. The rapids are generally Class III, which means they’re exciting but not all that life-threatening. Seventeen people are in our group, some who kayak and others who ride in the big oar boats with the guides, and we’ve all made it. So far.

(Photo: Yampa canyon portal)

But there’s plenty of other excitement besides the river. 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 saltbush are overshadowed on occasion by small remnant groves of ponderosa pine, truly a surprise to see in this arid semi-desert.

We’re not crazy – but it helps

In the evenings, bereft (thank God) of all things e-mailish or twittery, we can’t stop grinning. Wild stories and hooliganism reign in camp, especially from the guides and others who can’t curb their enthusiasm. And who would want to?

We spend time hiking the canyons, pretending we’re the first to set foot in the area. At one camp along a rocky shore, Annie, my wife, 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.

Later, she takes a few of us on a field trip to visit the orchids. I move slowly, because for every foot in elevation gained, the view completely changes. Make that every few inches. No, make that every blink of an eye.

Long ago but close at hand

This beautiful place, this gorgeous river just a few hours north of Fort Collins, has long been inhabited. Before pioneers 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.

And digging even 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.

Although rich in mineralized bones, Dinosaur Quarry contains only a tantalizing fraction of the life that flourished in the wet, low-lying plains before unimaginable geologic forces warped and tilted the whole works into mountains.

I want my mommie

But now, on this final day of our trip, I’m once again looking downstream at the wild rapids coming up. The constant, visceral voice of the tumbling water is riveting – if not daunting.

Darin finally stands and asks if we’re ready to go. He scrubs off the map in the sand with a sandal. I compulsively tighten the webbing on my life jacket, then tighten it again. Maybe that’s why I can’t breathe.

Coming next week: It’s showtime