Jacob McCoola: Rowing from Steamboat to Lake Powell | SteamboatToday.com

Jacob McCoola: Rowing from Steamboat to Lake Powell

Stroke, stroke, stroke






Courtesy Jules Poma

Jacob McCoola's excursion might have been closer to home than others, but it was no less adventurous — even if it started just a mile from his front door.

McCoola spent nearly 50 straight days last summer rafting from Steamboat Springs to Lake Powell, a distance of nearly 600 miles. While "stroke, stroke, stroke" became a mantra, he didn't have to listen to it echo off the canyons solo; friends joined him along the way.

"I did it for the adventure and to escape the drudgery of living a life for other people," says McCoola, who's now pursuing his master's degree in Portland, Ore. "All winter, I worked up to 80-hour weeks in a hot kitchen saving money to go back to school, while my skis, hiking boots and boats sat unused in the basement. That isn't a way to live for very long. People need exploration, whether they know it or not."

After negotiating the trip's logistical hiccups, including permits, gear and provisions, McCoola drove his truck to Hite, Utah, and then hitchhiked back to Steamboat. On May 16, friend Jason Peasley drove him and his raft to the put-in near the KOA campground, where he shoved off.

After passing through Craig he floated through Duffy and Juniper canyons before his first and only time off the water. "Cross Mountain Canyon was a bit too high, so we did a quick portage up to the Little Snake," he says. "Other than that, my boat didn’t leave the river until we took out at Lake Powell June 27."

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Next came aligning with the required permit for the five-day float through Yampa Canyon, where he joined the Green River at Echo Park. After Split Mountain Canyon, a few days on the flats brought him to Desolation and Gray canyons.

Miles traveled: 600

50 days

Dates: May 16 – June 27

Factoid: Lake Powell is named in honor of one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, who first ran the Grand Canyon in 1869. Its dam, completed in 1963 and rising 710 feet above the river, took 17 years to fill and is the country's second largest man-made reservoir.

"The wet spring made it rainier than expected," McCoola says, bemoaning the task of drying wet gear. "It tested our gear and attitudes. It also created standing water in Uinta Basin, notoriously one of the worst mosquito-breeding grounds on the planet. At one point I counted 90 bites on one arm."

From there he emerged into a flat-water float through Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons through Canyonlands National Park before braving Class IV-V Cataract Canyon just below the confluence with the Colorado. It was here, with the river flowing 40,000 cubic feet per second, where the most harrowing moment of the journey occurred.

"It was crazy big water," he says. "One of our rafts flipped before Big Drop, so we had to chase it and a swimmer seven miles down the canyon. We ended up running it in two days instead of four. We found him at the bottom of the canyon in relatively good shape, but it was pretty humbling and intense.”

Rapids behind them, in Lake Powell they wended through massive silt banks before finally arriving at Hite Marina and a well-deserved hot shower.

Despite his introspective solo time behind the oars, having companions along was key. "I was joined by everyone from professors, scientists and outdoor educators to children, old friends, first-time rafters, poets and musicians," he says. "Apart from bringing resupplies, they provided a great change of perspective. You build great relationships with people on a river."

While he admits he fought through some adverse conditions, McCoola "was so psyched to be out on the river that the tough moments were just a wonderful part of the experience.

"Overall, it was one of the most amazing journeys of my life, physically, mentally and spiritually," he says. "It was great to get to know a place so intimately. Rivers are a perfect metaphor for life and being able to live that metaphor is a privilege."

The hardest part, he says, wasn't battling rapids, bugs or weather but biding adieu to the friends who joined him and deflating his raft at trip's end. "Saying goodbye to amazing friends, both new and old, at each boat ramp was tough," he says. "And so was having to take out at the end. Sometimes you just want to keep going but there's a dam in your way."

—Eugene Buchanan 

Miles traveled: 600

50 days

Dates: May 16 – June 27

Factoid: Lake Powell is named in honor of one-armed Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, who first ran the Grand Canyon in 1869. Its dam, completed in 1963 and rising 710 feet above the river, took 17 years to fill and is the country’s second largest man-made reservoir.