Tom Ross: A raft trip to hell and back
Gates of Lodore west of Steamboat offer float through history on Green, Yampa rivers
August 20, 2012
Steamboat Springs — For my summer vacation, I went to hell and back. I waved to Lucifer while I was there but was very careful not to bump into him. All in all, it was a fun-packed trip.
Lucifer, in this case, is a block of sandstone the size of a Volkswagen micro-bus that sits smack dab in the throat of a pulse-raising rapid by the name of Hell's Half Mile. The rapid usually is encountered on the second day of a raft trip in the Lodore Canyon of the Green River. The put-in for the float is in Colorado's Brown's Park about 125 miles northwest of Steamboat Springs.
Many a Steamboat river rat has met Lucifer before me. I'm a little chagrined that last week marked the first time I had rowed a raft through the Gates of Lodore. At the MarchFourth Marching Band concert Friday night, I ran into an old acquaintance who informed me that this summer marked his 19th trip down the Green to its confluence with the Yampa River and thence on to Whirlpool Canyon and finally the nonstop action of Split Mountain. It's quite a feat to have floated Lodore 19 times when you realize that only a handful of permits are issued each year through a lottery operated by the National Park Service.
The only way to have done 19 trips through Hell's Half Mile in a single lifetime is either to have sold your soul to Lucifer himself, or simply to have made fast friends with a lot of river rats. Copious gifts of beer don't hurt a bit.
The good friends who graciously included us in their trip last week had been applying for a permit for 14 years before their raft came in.
The only reason we could contemplate a whitewater raft trip in August of the low-flow season of 2012 is the fact that hydropower is being made upstream at Flaming Gorge Reservoir near Dutch John, Utah. During every 24-hour period, the streamflow was cycling from about 750 cubic feet per second to about 1,500 cfs. Even at its daily peak, negotiating the exposed and barely covered boulders in the river was a little like playing pinball.
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One of the many aspects that make the float trip so special is that the rapids were named by the original explorers of the Colorado River system who took part in John Wesley Powell's two expeditions that spanned 1869 to 1872.
On the first day of the trip, modern rafting parties discover upper and lower Disaster Falls. It was in the lower rapid that one of Powell's boats was smashed in half against a rock. They suffered the disaster of losing crucial food supplies as well as the boat.
After spending the night at Pot Creek Campground on our first night on the river, we launched the next morning to warm up on Triplet Falls just before pulling out in an eddy to scout Hell's Half Mile. A veteran member of our party showed us how it was done, and we all shoved off with renewed confidence — and everyone survived their 800 meters of purgatory.
Feeling full of ourselves that night, we celebrated with our own Olympic closing ceremonies, and when dawn arrived the next morning, we marveled at the vertical red walls of the Cambrian sandstone known as the Lodore Formation.
As I discovered on earlier trips down Desolation Canyon and the Grand Canyon, the best thing about a river trip is that after the third day, the hustle and bustle of the modern world melts away, leaving one to contemplate what the most meaningful experiences in life are.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com