Raging river

Cross Mountain Canyon trip a true adventure for rafters

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To book a Cross Mountain rafting trip, call Bucking Rainbow at 879-8747. The cost is $115 a person, which includes lunch, gear and transportation to and from Steamboat. Trips run daily depending on demand.

— In Western Moffat County, the Yampa River unexpectedly cuts through Northwest Colorado's version of the Grand Canyon -- a dramatic setting few people would think exists in the midst of such a desolate stretch of land.

That's where raft guides come in.

Bucking Rainbow Outfitters/Blue Sky West is the only outfitter permitted to lead commercial trips through Cross Mountain Canyon, 20 miles southwest of Maybell.

The Cross Mountain day trip is the most challenging trip the company offers. Here, the towering canyon walls constrict the Yampa, generating Class IV and Class V rapids when the river is at its peak flow.

"Oh yeah, it's a guide favorite," rafting guide Kent Vertrees said.

On Tuesday, the Yampa was flowing at 2,500 cubic feet per second through the canyon. Bucking Rainbow began running the rapids at 4,000 cfs and will continue until the streamflow drops to 500 cfs.

As the water level drops, rocks emerge from the river bottom, and the trip becomes more technical.

"It's dropping every day," Vertrees said. "This weekend and next weekend and maybe a little longer (will be the only times to go on this trip). Anyone can do it privately, as long as you have the skill to navigate Class IV or Class V whitewater."

Unlike most Bucking Rainbow rafting trips, Cross Mountain is not for everyone. Previous rafting experience is recommended, but an athletic teen or adult who can swim, hike and follow instructions can run Cross Mountain. Young children will not be able to paddle through the rapids.

On Tuesday, we discovered why.

Sixteen rafters -- a mix of Routt County residents and out-of-town visitors -- left Steamboat Springs shortly before 9 a.m. We headed west through Hayden, Craig and Maybell before turning onto a dirt road that accesses Cross Mountain.

Vertrees and fellow guide Matt McArdle, who have nearly15 years combined experience running Cross Mountain trips, provided thorough safety instructions. We learned paddle commands in a stretch of flat water before the entrance to the canyon.

We left the rafts in eddies while we climbed above the canyon floor to scout various rapids with Vertrees and McArdle. The hikes weren't difficult, but there was some scrambling over fields of loose rock that border the river.

When scouting the river, the guides picked their ideal lines through rapids with names such as the "Osterizer," "Body Pizza," "Snake Pit" and "Pour-over City."

The scouting enabled those of us in Vertrees' raft to successfully paddle through stretches of Class III and Class IV rapids.

McArdle's boat, which carried more weight, more people and more out-of-towners, didn't fare as well. Several members of his boat fell in and swam the rapids.

The swimmers swam to shore or to the rafts manned by Vertrees and guide trainee Jan Bradley.

Toward the end of the trip, McArdle got too close to the canyon wall in "Pour-over City," flipping his raft and dumping all seven rafters into the water. While McArdle stayed with the raft, his guests were rescued or swam to shore. No one was seriously injured and, somehow, the sandwiches for lunch remained dry.

McArdle and Vertrees said raft flips are rare, even in Cross Mountain Canyon, but as Vertrees reminded us on the drive in, "All guides are just between flips."

Although a flipped raft is rare, rafters going for a swim in the Yampa on the Cross Mountain trip are not. Listening to the guides' instructions allows you to uphold the first three rules of rafting -- "Stay in the boat. Stay in the boat. Stay in the (darn) boat."

But the element of danger raises the level of excitement.

"That's what it's all about," Vertrees said. "It's a total adventure. It's one of the best adventures we have out of Steamboat Springs as far as true remote canyon -- no road, no railroad or power lines. That's why we didn't see a single paddler in there. It's a destination whitewater trip for people."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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