Jennie Lay, left, Judy Ross and Rich Lay soak up the solitude in Little Yampa Canyon on Sunday during a two-day float trip on the Yampa River.

Photo by Tom Ross

Jennie Lay, left, Judy Ross and Rich Lay soak up the solitude in Little Yampa Canyon on Sunday during a two-day float trip on the Yampa River.

Tom Ross: Solitude in Little Yampa Canyon

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

We didn’t bash through any Class III rapids in Little Yampa Canyon during the weekend, but we glimpsed eaglets in their nests and spooked owls from their daytime roosts. Those wildlife encounters were enough to make the weekend worthwhile, but we also enjoyed some great companionship and memorable meals during the 33-mile float from just south of Craig to the historic hamlet of Lay.

It had been three years since my last overnight river trip and I was raring to go Saturday morning when we pushed off from South Beach, even though I knew this would not be an adrenaline trip. I just wanted to get behind the oars and pull hard again.

South Beach is one of 13 access points along the 134 miles of Yampa River State Park. The Bureau of Land Management, which manages some of the land in the canyon, has an agreement to manage public access points along the Yampa as part of the Yampa River System Legacy Project. It receives major funding from Great Outdoors Colorado. Much of the land is privately held, and frequent signs keep floaters updated on where they can and cannot beach their boats.

Portions of the Yampa River have been listed as being potentially eligible for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers list; a final decision could come soon. So it’s not a coincidence that among my companions on the float trip were advocates with the Wilderness Society and the Colorado Environmental Coalition. I’m not oblivious to Northwest Colorado natural resource politics and how strongly opposed some residents are to National Wild and Scenic Rivers status. But that’s not what last weekend was all about.

We spent little time talking about the controversy associated with the issue. No one issued a sermon or handed out pamphlets.

Instead, we went on short walks to spy the bleached skulls and antlers of mule deer. Our group looked for fragile wildflowers and imagined walking up every remote canyon. We scratched our heads (our own, not each others) in wonder at a series of giant tractor tires that must have been deposited years ago by the river at flood stage. Today, there are shrubs growing out of their doughnut holes.

Mostly, we reveled in the solitude. We saw a handful of railroad workers on the first day and three friendly ATV riders who came down from Duffy Mountain on the second day. Oh yeah, we also came around a corner to see hundreds of inquisitive sheep staring at us from the riverbank and the cliffs above.

We tested our endurance at the oars when wicked winds blew up the river in late afternoon. And we packed in firewood and mesquite charcoal so we could relax with a few cold beers while grilling pork chops over a sturdy steel fire pan, which allowed us to haul our ashes out of the canyon.

Miraculously, we even got a cell phone signal in the middle of nowhere Sunday morning. It allowed us to keep our Mother’s Day obligations.

The trip from South Beach to West Duffy Mountain would be ideal for canoes and families. There are no rapids to negotiate. You don’t need a special permit other than buying a state park’s pass if you leave your car at one of the put-ins or takeouts. And it’s close to home.

By the time we pulled our rafts up the difficult takeout at mile 106 we had formed some new friendships.

That’s a big part of what river trips are all about.

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