Tuesday, May 20, 1980. Warm Springs Rapid on the Yampa River, about four miles above the Yampa’s confluence with the Green River in far western Colorado. We launched a few days before on a river swollen by spring run-off, camping at Teepee and Harding Hole, marveling at the amazing sunsets (Mt. St. Helens, which had been smoking for a couple of weeks, exploded the day we launched). We were trading off rowing two boats; a ten-man surplus raft and a strange hybrid boat, a 33-foot military pontoon called Stubby with 32-inch diameter tubes that had been cut down to 16 feet long by Glade Ross, the Park Ranger at Lodore and former Hatch boatman. Glade had warned us about Warm Springs; “it’s treacherous,” he said; “you have to scrape the spiders off the rocks on the right to make a clean run. If you end up in the Maytag hole, you’re a goner.” He reminded us that the first boatmen through had drowned. All of us had some river experience—in fact we were doing back to back trips, getting off a Desolation Canyon trip only a couple of days before we launched on the Yampa–but it was our first time down the Yampa.
I was at that most dangerous stage as a boater; I’d been on the river for a couple of years, had run below Flaming Gorge, Lodore, and Desolation Canyon, and thought I had it all figured out. Still, we were so unnerved by Glade’s warning that we landed a full quarter-mile above Warm Springs, since we could hear it but didn’t know where it was. We thrashed our way through the bushes along the river bank and finally found the usual pull-in, right at the top of the rapid. We scrambled along the teetering boulders to where we could get a look at it, and it was, in a word, impressive. I was rowing the ten-man and had two passengers, whom I wouldn’t know if I saw them on the street today. I took a perfunctory look and started back to my boat; it was a long walk.
I got back to my boat and pushed off; as soon as I got to the head of the rapid, as the current caught me I realized I’d made a serious mistake. There was no way I was going to be scraping spiders off the rocks on the right; I was in a huge wave train down the middle and it was all I could do to keep the boat straight. I didn’t even see the big hole in the middle of the wave train until we were on top of it; I heaved to straighten the boat and somehow was catapulted right over the side, headfirst into the river. By the time I came up, the boat was yards away and moving faster than I was; I’ll never forget the double-take of the guy in the front when he turned around.
By then I had my own problems. The life jacket I was wearing was an old surplus Mae West, and I knew the back pouch had a leak. When that happened, the kapok that provided flotation soaked up water like the sponge it is and it became a sinker. I was wearing my favorite NPS hat, and made a grab for it, but it was gone. It took me about fifteen seconds to travel from where I went out of the boat to the edge of the Maytag hole at the bottom, and I remember it felt like I paused at the lip of it. Then it was all brown water and froth and OH MY GOD I CAN’T BREATHE and rocks and more brown water; I circulated inside the hole a couple of times, my feet hit a rock and I pushed off, desperate to escape the churning. Somehow I shot out onto the rock garden below for a ride that left me bruised and abraded all over, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another minute a wave washed me up onto a flat rock, well below the campground, just above the Surprise Hole on the right. It was four years before I could row a boat again.
Which was at Warm Springs in the highest water anyone had ever seen, but that’s another Warm Springs story. Warm Springs is one of those rapids that everyone has a story about; you don’t just run it, it’s always an experience. It impressed Rod Nash enough that he included it in his beautiful book about ten major rapids, The Big Drops. Some come for the challenge, others because it’s the price you have to pay to earn the sinuous sandstone beauty of the lower Yampa, culminating in Echo Park at the heart of Dinosaur. Warm Springs is a moody, intimidating place to this day; it seems to create its own weather. You can be basking in sunshine but when you come around the last corner, the sky is gray and threatening, and the upstream winds can blow you around when you run the rapid. By the same token, I remember a miserable trip where it rained the whole time. But as we scouted Warm Springs, the clouds parted and bright sun streamed down onto the rapid. We looked at each other and ran—as fast as you can run on the Class V scout trail—back to our boats. By the time we got to camp two miles below, it had started raining again and didn’t stop until we took out two days later.
We think of rapids as somehow immutable, as if they’ve always been there, but that’s not true; rapids are very dynamic. They come and go and change all the time. Warm Springs just happened to go through major changes when there were plenty of people around to see it happen. Before 1965, Warm Springs was a riffle. People swam it all the time, and ran it in folding touring kayaks. No one remarked on it because nothing ever happened in it. It’s a beautiful spot, with a dramatic sandstone cliff soaring above the river, but the rapid? Meh. That changed overnight on June 10, 1965. A strong late spring storm front was moving across northern Utah, laden with water ready to dump somewhere. It caused major flooding in Daggett County and the Uinta Mountains as it moved across the border region between Utah and Wyoming. (see sidebar). It gathered more strength as it moved across the cold waters of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and by the time it reached the sandstone canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, it was an event waiting for a trigger. Over Warm Springs and Iron Mine draws, the trigger was pulled, unleashing a storm of epic violence and proportion.
The Yampa was known as a family-friendly river, a place to take the kids. There were a couple of big rapids but they were straight-forward runs. Lodore Canyon, next door on the Green River, was the dangerous one, a long chute of fast, complicated rapids. So by the mid-1960s, there were a lot of people running the Yampa. Hatch and Western ran it commercially, but it was a favorite for the small but active private boating community of the time. That day, June 10, 1965, there were half a dozen commercial trips on the Yampa in various places, probably close to a hundred people. Two parties happened to be at the epicenter of the day’s events.
The first was a group of friends from California, led by George Wendt, later founder of O.A.R.S. They were students from CalTech in a 10-man and a folding kayak, camped under the soaring cliffs at Warm Springs. It had been raining, hard, for a long time. As it got dark they realized the sounds they were hearing were more than the rapid; the whole hillside above them was on the move toward the river. They ran as fast as you’d expect—George saving the boats first—and watched a dim cataclysm. Bruce Julian, another of the friends, had been in an old cabin trying to get out of the rain but soon re-joined his friends, and within the hour the cabin was buried under tons of rock and mud and mashed up trees. They spent what you can imagine was a long night, got up the next day and took out at Echo Park. They reported the flood to the Park Service.
The second was a few miles upstream, but their experiences became the start of the legend of Warm Springs. A two-boat Hatch trip, with Les Oldham and Al Holland at the oars of 27-foot military pontoons. On Les’s boat was a group of friends from Colorado, on the other a troop of miserable Boy Scouts; and Al’s younger brother Bob, along to help Al out with camp chores. They were above the rapid and didn’t know about the flood, only that it had rained and rained and rained. They were just making miles; they knew there were no rapids all the way to Echo Park. But now there was. The riffle at Warm Springs was a shifting dam with a whole spring river flowing through it. Les was in the first boat, sitting on his life jacket. Al remembers seeing the other boat disappear over an unexpected horizon line, and then he had his hands full with his own boat. They caught up with Les’s boat and the people told him Les had gone over the side. Al and Bob looked, for hours. They swam the swollen river and looked on the other side and swam back. No Les. He wasn’t found until over two weeks later, in Island Park. Al is haunted by that last sight of Les to this day.
There were lots of other boats on the river; private trips, Hatch and Western commercials. All of them made it safely but not without mishaps and near misses. Each one of those boaters, and thousands since, have had their own experiences in Warm Springs. That feeling on seeing it, that adrenaline rush like no other, has been repeated thousands of times but each experience is unique to the one who’s there, gripping a rope at the top of the rapid. In an attempt to capture some of those, the University of Utah created Warm Springs Oral History archive in its Special Collections department. I was at the Law School’s Stegner Center Symposium, talking to George Wendt, Dee Holladay of Holiday River Expeditions—Dee had run Warm Springs the day after George, Al, Bob, and Les–and Jack Schmidt of USU during a break between sessions. Warm Springs came up and George and Dee both shared memories and Jack and I looked at each other and said “we’ve got to do a project on this.” So, to make a very long and bureaucratic story short, George Wendt and I did just that. He did the boats, I did the paperwork of permits and applications. We gathered everyone we could corral that had been there, along with a film crew and a still photographer and a great team of experienced boatmen, and spent five days on the Yampa in June 2008. The NPS let us stay an extra night at Warm Springs—another permit application—but it was a wonderful experience; the weather was perfect for filming, misty and moody, just like, the cameraman remarked, the weather forty-three years ago. We interviewed everyone many times over, in camp, at the overhang high up on the hillside where the George Wendt and the others took refuge that night, walking all over Warm Springs Draw, tracing the path of the slides, sitting next to the rapid. The archive also includes historical photographs, film and interviews with others about Warm Springs. It’s open and available to the public during regular business hours; you don’t have to be a student. You’re encouraged to add your own photos and experiences to the archive; contact the Multimedia Archives, Marriott Library, UofU: 801-585-3073, or find them on the google. You can see a short documentary on Warm Springs, produced by Rig to Flip, a Colorado non-profit, here: http://vimeo.com/109045576. A new book will be out soon on the Yampa by Pat Tierney, former Dinosaur River Ranger, river outfitter, and founder of the Yampa River Awareness Project. Colorado’s Yampa River; Free Flowing and Wild, with photography By John Fielder will be available September 1, 2015. More information at www.johnfielder.com
In August of 2009, just a year after our history trip, massive chunks of sharp-edged Weber sandstone fell from high on the cliffs. No one was there at the time, which is a good thing; pictures taken a short while later look like bomb craters on shore, plus some sizeable pieces in the upper end of the rapid itself. You can read the Park Service report on it here; if you’re familiar with the rapid be prepared to be amazed at the photos: http://www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/upload/The-2012-Rock-Fall-at-Warm-Springs-Rapid.pdf The Yampa is still wild, undammed, although there are always plans for dams on the upper river. You can help keep the Yampa wild; contact Friends of the Yampa for more details on how to keep aware of what’s happening to preserve the wild river.
There I was, the old river saw goes. Anyone who’s run Warm Springs Rapid has a “there I was” story, and the Yampa is still wild, undammed. There are many more stories yet to come.
Les Oldham wasn’t the only person lost to the killer storm of June, 1965. Just a day before Warm Springs rapid was created, the same storm passed over Daggett County. The floods devastated the county’s roads, ranches, and towns. On June 9, 1965, the Woodruff family was camped at the Palisades Campground in the middle of Sheep Creek Canyon when a small dam on the hillside above the campground gave way and a fifteen-foot wall of water, trees, and rocks roared over them. Their station wagon was found upside down under four feet of mud, but it was weeks before most of the bodies were located. The youngest son was never found. Today a memorial marks the spot.
You can pay your respects at the memorial on the Sheep Creek Loop Road just west of Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Despite those sad events of fifty years ago, Sheep Creek Canyon is a great side trip if you are traveling around Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Sheep Creek Canyon, just west of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, was declared a Utah State Geological Area because of the spectacular scenery created by the uplifting of the Uinta Mountains. Towering cliffs of Weber sandstone hang over tree-lined Sheep Creek. Before Flaming Gorge Dam was built, the highway between Manila and Vernal ran through Sheep Creek Canyon, so today’s visitors can make a loop in either direction. The narrow, paved road crosses the Uinta Fault, showcasing a billion years of geologic history with twisted layers of rock and huge, gushing springs. It’s also a good place to see wildlife like bighorn sheep, deer, elk and a variety of birds. There are several beautiful picnic areas and the historic Cleophus Dowd Ranch is well worth a stop. Dowd homesteaded the canyon in the 1880s, but after losing an argument with a rival rancher in 1897, was buried near the ranch house.
Visitors driving south from Manila to Vernal on Utah Highway 44 can access the Sheep Creek Canyon loop about five miles south of Manila. If you’re going north from Vernal to Manila on Utah 44, look for a turnoff about 14 miles past the Greendale Junction, where US 191 goes to Flaming Gorge Dam and the East Flaming Gorge highway. The loop is 13 miles long and mostly paved, although the road is narrow and twisty. It’s generally accessible but may be temporarily closed by snow in the winter. In any season, it’s well worth the extra hour. A geologic road guide is available at http://www.utahgeology.org/road_logs/uga-29_first_edition/OP_guide/sheepcrk.pdf