Steamboat Springs The last thing several Lowell Whiteman School students expected to see as they kayaked the Gates of Lodore on the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument was an upturned raft.
"Uh-oh," Whiteman junior David Lea remembered thinking. "Something bad had happened to someone."
Shortly after seeing the upside-down raft, the students saw a woman huddled on the eddy to the left of the river. She didn't have a sleeping bag or tent and had very little clothing and some food and water.
Her supplies were strapped inside the upturned raft or gone, down the river.
Jim Linville, who teaches geography at Whiteman and has led the kayaking trips for 22 years, said the woman told him she had been alone for about 24 hours after her friend went downriver to get help because there was no cell phone service.
The Whiteman group was on a kayaking trip as part of the school's Desert Week from Oct. 5 to 9. Desert Week provides outdoor education trips for the students. Other groups went climbing, horseback riding, canoeing and canyoneering. Students on the kayaking trip in addition to Lea were Brian Alsberg, Will Findell, Galen Goldscheitter, Errik Hill, Colin Klein, Erik Petersen and Karsten Thompson. The adult leaders with Linville were Brian Smith, John Morse, Hugh Newton and Robbie Shine.
Linville said they met the woman Tuesday, the second day of their trip. They found out she was a recent cancer survivor who had set off three days before on a six-month rafting trip that will culminate in the Grand Canyon. Linville said she was an experienced rafter in big water, having run the Grand Canyon 28 times, but not technical water. Linville said they had the manpower to remove her raft from between two large boulders where it had been pinned before going vertical and flipping over.
Linville declined to provide the woman's name because she is still on the river and couldn't be reached for permission.
"It was one of those deals where there was no way we could leave this woman there," he said. "We had no idea if her friend had gotten help. I knew there weren't a lot of trips down the river. It was obvious we had to help this woman."
And he said they were eager to lend a hand.
"The cool part was they were willing to help," said Smith, who teaches math and physics at Whiteman. "The only agenda they had at the present moment was to do what needed to get done."
Led by Linville and Hugh Newton, members of Routt County Search and Rescue, the students helped rig a pulley system to remove the raft from between the boulders.
After about an hour to assess the situation and another two to execute their plan, Hill said they got the raft flipped over and to the left side of the river. Linville said the woman had tied her gear so well that none of it had come loose and drifted down the river in the day it was upturned. She joined them for two days before heading off on her own.
Findell, a junior, said that he and Hill, a sophomore, had done rescue exercises in the spring but that it was cool to put their knowledge into practice.
"It's one thing if we were just going downriver enjoying ourselves, but it's another thing to save this woman's trip - long trip," Findell said. "She would have been there much longer."
Findell said it felt good to be able to help.
"I was glad she was safe," he said.
Hill said: "I feel better as a person to help someone."
Walt Daub, head of the school, said the story about the kayaking trip didn't begin circulating around Whiteman until about halfway through the Monday after the students' return. Daub said the story didn't shock him.
"It doesn't surprise me a bit," he said.
Linville said the purpose of the trip was to teach the students how to kayak. They train on the Yampa River in the spring and the upper Colorado River in the fall. He said the students are taught rescue techniques, but performing one "added a new dimension to the trip."
"It's one of those things I don't think I could explain to them," he said. "When they see it, they appreciate it. I think it's huge."
Smith said it was a cool experience for the kayakers to stop their trip to help the stranded woman. He said the adults on the trip emphasized at the beginning that it was a community - they work together, and it's a team.
"Sometimes in those experiences, the kids don't always realize, but they're building that sense of team and community," Smith said.
Lea said the woman was thankful, and the students have continued to keep in contact with her since returning to school.