Entering Yampa Canyon. Photo: Amy Kober
Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers organized a trip down Colorado’s Yampa River in early June, to raise awareness about the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin (see interactive map). This post is the first in a four-part series about the trip.
Warm sun, blue sky, and white puffy clouds. Tall cottonwoods and western bluebirds. A brown river sliding by our packed yellow rafts, tied up at the Deerlodge put-in.
We’re going on a river trip.
This is the Yampa, one of the Colorado Basin’s, and the nation’s, last wild rivers. American Rivers named the Colorado River the #1 Most Endangered River in the country in April, and protecting the Yampa is one important puzzle piece for ensuring a healthier Colorado Basin in the long-term. The purpose of this five-day trip is to bring leaders together to explore the value of the wild Yampa and discuss the river’s future.
There are 20 of us – decision-makers, local officials, conservation advocates, scientists, and journalists. The trip was organized by Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers, and is supported by world-class outfitter OARS.
The Yampa River flows 250 miles through Northwest Colorado’s farms and ranches, and towns including Steamboat Springs, before joining the Green at Echo Park . While most rivers in the Colorado River Basin have been dammed and diverted for water supply and hydropower, the Yampa remains wild and healthy – an example of what rivers in this region were meant to be. There is a dam on the upper Yampa but it is far enough upstream that the river’s natural flows and functions are essentially intact.
We have lunch in the shade of the cottonwoods and look at a map of the river, spread out in the grass. Pat Tierney, who has floated the Yampa for 33 years in a row and is a professor at San Francisco State University, gives us a lesson in geology, pointing out locations of the Weber and Morgan formations. This river flows through a mind-boggling expanse of time. The canyon walls tell a story that is millions of years old.
The Yampa winds through Dinosaur National Monument, home to the fossils of dinosaurs like stegosaurus and allosaurus. And just walking the riverbank it’s easy to find small marine fossils, hundreds of millions of years old. Adding to the layers and layers of time are the Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs, the Ute archeological sites along the river, and the initials of homesteaders, fur traders, and outlaws inscribed on the canyon walls.
Bruce, our guide from OARS, gives the whitewater safety talk and then it’s time to get on the water. We start downriver, leaving the open sky of the put-in and soon the ancient walls rise up and we’re in the canyon.
In the evening we camp at Teepee Hole and swim, cooling off in the hot sun. After dinner we sit in a circle around the campfire. As it gets dark and the stars come out, we talk about our work and our connections to the river.
I am five months pregnant, and in the midst of our discussion about consumptive and non-consumptive water use, instream flows and biological opinions, I feel the baby kick just as a shooting star arcs over the canyon wall. It’s one of those almost too-perfect moments wild rivers are full of.
Over the next several days we’ll dig into the science and economics and the policies that shape how the river is managed. And wrapped up around all of that will be our experiences, both shared and personal, that make this river real, alive, and part of us.
Why protect the wild Yampa? For me, on this first night, the reasons and moments are already piling up.
Help restore water to the Colorado River by joining Change the Course. Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.