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Once more unto the breach, dear friends

July 30, 2009

Over the past five days, our merry band of 19 river rafters has yodeled down the Yampa and Green rivers, a human train of flotsam drifting through this stunning landscape. Now we're on shore, listening to Darin, the lead guide, describe how the rapids ahead just might churn us to bits like a blender.

by Paul Miller

Darin is kneeling, inscribing a map in the sand with a stick. The next series of rapids are doozies, he says, and it’s a long stretch. He etches hazards such as big boulders, killer rock walls, and sandstone blocks that lurk in the river like wicked pinball bumpers.

He stands up, looks over all eight of us, his motley crew of kayakers. We’re the only ones in the group willing to try the rapids. The rest of the group will ride in the big oar boats with the guides.

“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 lower abdomen constrict (along with other intimate anatomy), like I’m looking over the edge of an abyss.

Hermit habitat

I glance at John Calderazzo, a teacher in CSU’s English department. His helmet is mashed down over a wide-brimmed hat, making him look like a 15th-century conquistador. John’s going to try kayaking the rapids, and I have no doubt he’ll make it.

With his beard, John looks the way I’d picture Pat Lynch, one of the more well-known hermits we’ve been hearing about who wandered through the canyons from the 1870s to 1917. He lived on scavenged food and hard-baked wits, and as legend has it, befriended a mountain lion who brought him fresh deer kill. He died at the age of 98, and was buried at Lily Park, some 70 miles upstream from where we now stand.

Song of water

It’s easy to see why people like Pat Lynch would spend decades roaming this landscape. Vertical sandstone walls give way to hidden defiles and Seuss-like hoodoo spires. Douglas fir grows right out of sandstone cliffs, and raptors glide on warm thermals high above the mighty Yampa, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.

(Photo: TIger Wall, Dinosaur National Monument)

I like to think the benign spirit of Lynch has been watching over us the whole trip. In the evenings, bats work the night air with acrobatic ease, carving turns that defy physics, and a full moon lights up canyon walls like a miracle. We gather on wide sand beaches and talk about all things great and small, a murmur of conversation that blends in with the voice of the river. You can’t help being captivated by the song of water moving to the pull of gravity, carving new canyons and arroyos and slow, lazy meanders.

It has been a marvelous ride.

It’s showtime

“Self-rescue,” I think to myself, trying to remember how you do that. Hang on to the boat for dear life, that’s how.

Now the oar boats are pushing out into the river. We’re supposed to follow them, so I shove the kayak into the water. Annie scrambles into the bow, and I take my place in the stern. At first the water is tranquil, then the pace picks up, then the rapids ahead start drumming loudly enough to vibrate my gullet.

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, too.

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 stay upright, float deliriously through another wave train, and paddle in a frenzy through S.O.B. and Schoolboy rapids.

Men overboard

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. I shout again. And again.

John, that wiry river rat and writer, makes it through all the rapids in high style, but his buddy, Barry, capsizes. Barry’s fine, but he’s pretty mad that the river dumped him so unceremoniously.

I think he’s done a great job self-rescuing, something I’m still not sure I could do - but then I find out that Shane Bondi, a delightful world traveler in our group, helped haul his sopping hide out of the river. Still, I give Barry high scores for trying.

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 more beautiful because we’re alive and drenched and drying under a brilliant sun.

Long live wild rivers

Our take-out is just a few miles downriver. Although it’s too soon to leave, I’m standing in the Green River, 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.

Photos by Stephanie G'Schwind and Shane Bondi

Part 1 of the Yampa River story, posted on July 23, 2009