Standing Up to the Yampa

At 11:00 p.m. on Friday September 2nd, we pulled into my friend’s guide company’s boathouse in Jensen, Utah, just outside of Dinosaur National Monument. We were greeted with a big hug, a cold beer, and my friend Emmet laughing and shaking his head at us. He was pretty excited for the upcoming sufferfest and was more than happy to do our shuttle and help Torin, Alex, Liam, and I in anyway possible. We were launching on the Yampa River the next morning–an idea so ridiculous it warranted two phone calls from the National Park Service. The first call making sure that this trip was actually happening. The second call politely asking us to change our itinerary for our own well-being.

Yampa 5 Alex Owens-Baird
Before we get into details, allow me to explain why this idea seemed equally questionable and comical to any authority on river running. The Yampa River was flowing at 150 cubic feet per second. This meant that there wasn’t really water in it. Nobody could give us any real information about what the Yampa looked like at this level. All that was certain was that we would not be able to actually paddle the whole 46 miles of the wild and free Yampa River. It would be painfully slow flatwater with multiple portages and a little hiking. The final 25 miles of the trip would be on the Green River and contain multiple class two and three rapids. The four of us are students at the University of Utah and had class on Tuesday. This meant that we had three days to complete the 70-mile trip. Did I mention we were on stand up paddleboards?
So we pushed off from the boat ramp at Deerlodge Park at 8:30 a.m.–far from an alpine start. After just a few minutes of paddling, we passed a gauge on the left side of the river. The water level was about two feet below the gauge. That probably should have been a good sign for us to turn around. And it would have been possible. We were only a few minutes downstream from the put-in. I believe adventure exists in its best form when there are uncertain outcomes. And man do I love adventure. We were excited to see the low water at the gauge and encouraged by the appropriate level of risk we were taking on–we knew would be able to safely manage it. Or would we?
Yampa 1 Alex Owens-Baird
The first few miles were easy. The river had a sandy bottom and the water was moving quickly. However, for better or worse, it didn’t take long for the character of the Yampa to change. We immediately entered a deep box canyon and were confronted with boulder gardens with a mere few inches of water on top of them. Our boards, although heavy, floated, for the most part, and we navigated channels of water wide enough for a paddleboard and nothing more. We had a casual lunch on a sandy beach and talked about how great life is.
Most importantly, we were confronted with the beautiful feeling of solitude. We were the only the people on the river. For one of the most coveted river permits in the United States, we knew that we were incredibly blessed. It felt unique. Some people try their whole life to get on a Yampa trip and there we were. Nobody for miles and miles. We could appreciate the beauty and grandeur of the remote desert canyon with only three other people. Of course, there was probably a good reason why nobody else was on the river.
Yampa 6 Alex Owens-Baird
We felt like we were making great time. After being on the water for ten hours, we talked about our location on the map. I informed the group that we were at mile 22 and as long as we ticked off a few more miles, we would be in a good place to finish the trip by Monday evening. We watched the sunset from our paddleboards and later had another look at the map to discuss a campsite for the evening. It was at this point when I realized I had misread the map the first time. It had been eleven hours, but we had only gone 17 miles. It was a shattering realization. I remembered all the people who had told us it would be a difficult trip. Their words echoed in my head, “It is not possible to paddle the river at that flow in that short of time”. For a fleeting moment, I thought that they might have been right. But then I looked away from the map and saw my companions smiling. They didn’t care where we were on the map. Or how much further we had to go. They didn’t care that it was getting dark, that we were hungry, kind of lost, exhausted, and that we could hear thunder in the distance.
We navigated many more boulder gardens–getting off our boards multiple times because it was too shallow to paddle. Just before 9:00 pm we saw a small sandy beach in the distance with our headlamps. We pulled over, determined it was just big enough for the tent and as long as it didn’t monsoon, we would be safe. A quick dinner and a bag of wine later, we fell asleep. When we went to bed that night, I don’t think any of us actually believed that we’d make it off the river in time. The lightning and downpours woke us up throughout the night, but fortunately we were so tired and sore we were able to sleep through most of it.
We launched at around 7:30 that next morning. Immediately after starting to paddle, the skies opened up. Big raindrops pelted us from above and we pushed and pulled our boards through more boulder gardens, at one point taking shelter in a cave. The rain stopped, as it always does in the desert, and we were greeted with 800-foot walls of gorgeous, pale Weber Sandstone that towered over us. The paddling started to get easier. Yes, we had many more miles to go, but it finally seemed like an accomplishable task. We passed landmarks like the Great Overhang, Cleopatra’s Couch, Tiger Wall, and eventually, we arrived at Warm Springs. Normally a class four rapid, one piece of information everybody told us about the Yampa at 150cfs was that the rapid was impossible to navigate at low water. When we scouted it, Torin saw a line through the “impassable” rapid, and styled it. We continued down river and got within one mile of the confluence with the Green. It was still light out. The whiskey revealed itself and we found a big sandbar. We slept well that night. There was no rain, lightning, and I think I smiled the whole time I was asleep.

Yampa 3 Alex Owens-Baird
Waking up at sunrise, we knew that the challenges on our final day would be entirely unique from the previous two days. The Green was releasing at around 2,000 cubic feet per second from the Flaming Gorge Dam and the class three rapids in Split Mountain were not to be messed with. Our paddleboards were leaking air, our bodies hurt, but the smiles could not have been any bigger as we pushed off from our final camp. We reached the confluence right away.
The 26 miles we paddled on the final day were breathtaking. The fact of the matter is that with river current and a quiet wind, SUPs can actually be faster (and more fun) than rafts. At around 10am, we passed a group of 25, they asked us where our rafts were; we told them we didn’t have any. We also told them we were coming from the Yampa, and they didn’t entirely believe it. Nonetheless, they told us we were their heroes. Before entering Split Mountain Gorge, we had a final meal and prepared for the biggest rapids of the trip. Class three rapids on a fully loaded SUP are intimidating. We didn’t have any other choice than to point the boards downstream and paddle hard. For the most part, we stayed upright. I swam twice and pinned my boat once. But it was relatively uneventful.
Arriving at the boat ramp was perfect, we high-fived and chatted with the other folks taking off the river. They were pretty shocked about what we had just done. I suppose we were too. Like a true friend, Emmet had done our shuttle and left us with some takeout beverages. We derigged our SUPs, loaded up the Subaru, and started the drive back to Salt Lake City.
Our time on the Yampa was certainly challenging, but it was so amazingly beautiful and spectacular that we could care less about the difficulty. Sure, we said our fair share of what the hell am I doing here when it was raining sideways or when we bivvied in wet sand waiting out the hailstorm. There were many times when the wind blew so strong that we started to move upstream in the opposite direction. We didn’t just tolerate the problems we encountered; we embraced them, loved them, and laughed through it all.
Yampa 4 Alex Owens-Baird
We could have been doing anything with our weekend. We thought about climbing in the Wind Rivers or some desert towers. We even toyed with the idea of going on a rafting trip to the Payette River in Idaho. Fortunately, when my friend Torin gets an idea in his head, he runs with it. He pursues ideas until fruition and works hard to accomplish the goal at hand. I admire this trait immensely and take great joy in putting different ideas into his head and then sitting back and watching him do awesome things. This trip was no different. I had jokingly suggested we attempt to SUP the Yampa in three days at 150 cfs and Torin said yes. Turns out Alex and Liam are damn good at saying yes as well.
Two months after we completed our trip, I found myself catching up with Emmet on a much more carefree desert float trip. He informed me that he recently had a conversation with a ranger from Dinosaur National Monument. The ranger told him that there were four self-support standup paddleboarders who completed a trip in three days. Emmet mentioned that he was friends with those folks. The story was noteworthy to the ranger for two reasons; it was the first self-support SUP trip in the history of the Yampa, and the trip was technically illegal because SUPs only have one chamber for air. Trips in the monument are required to have boats with more than one chamber in case of irreparable puncture. The ranger commented to my friend that they didn’t think we were actually going to do it, so they issued us the permit anyways. When we passed the river patrol as they were removing tamarisk from a campsite on the Green River, their jaws dropped.
I’m in my second year of Graduate School at the University of Utah and I am beginning to get burnt out. I get frustrated, unmotivated, bogged down, and I live in a state of constant exhaustion. However, doing things with people like Torin, Alex, and Liam inspires me and reignites my fire inside. It reminds me of a simple fact that I seem to forget too easily, because, the river always teaches us something. And our low water, self-supported paddleboard trip down the Yampa was no different. We can do anything we want. Some things are certainly difficult. But if we stay determined, committed, and a little bit stubborn, we can accomplish anything we want. So cheers to my friends and rivers, I would be nothing without them.


-Photos by Alex Owens-Baird

2 Responses to “Standing Up to the Yampa”

  1. Great story! A couple of friends and I did it in September 1981 in an old Coleman canoe and a sportyak at about 400. They dragged the canoe a lot and sort of wrecked it in a small rapid, but those colemans were indestructible and we put it back together with duct tape. I lined the aportyak past the first drop in Warm Springs, but ran everything else. We didn’t see another soul, and only went to Echo Park. We camped in a cave during a snowstorm and burned abundant cow pies to stay warm. Fabulous trip.

  2. Amazing story Nick. It seems like the definition of an adventure!

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