Not recommended: rubber raft saves 1961 float trip
June 23, 2017
The late John Fetcher of Steamboat Springs, who died at 97 in February 2009, was well known for the dams he helped to build, including Willow Creek/Steamboat Lake, Yamcolo and Stagecoach. But it turns out, he also had a passion for the wild, un-dammed Yampa River where it flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Moffat County.
It was 56 years ago that Fetcher and a group of whitewater enthusiasts packed their boats and provisions down the steep Bull Trail from the rim of Yampa Canyon to the river just above Harding Hole. They were bent on floating beyond the Yampa's confluence with the Green River and beyond to Split Mountain in Utah.
Their 1961 trip took place even as the federal Bureau of Reclamation was in the midst of building the giant Flaming Gorge Hydroelectric Dam on the Green in Utah (the dam's hydroelectric generators began operating in August 1963 and the dam was dedicated the following year).
Fetcher described his expedition's experience on the river in late June/early July 1961, in a letter to Chief Park Ranger F. Paul L. Webb, in which he strongly recommended an unorthodox piece of safety equipment.
As an experiment in water safety and rescue, I ran three of the rapids, Schoolboy, Englesbary and another on a rubber mattress. This is a safe and easy way out if any boats are damaged beyond repair.
John Fetcher, 1961
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Fetcher told Chief Ranger Webb that he had successfully floated through Schoolboy Rapid in a primitive air mattress.
"As an experiment in water safety and rescue, I ran three of the rapids, Schoolboy, Englesbary and another on a rubber mattress," Fetcher wrote to Chief Ranger Webb. "This is a safe and easy way out if any boats are damaged beyond repair."
As I read Fletcher's typed letter, I couldn't help but wonder (tongue in cheek) how much easier John Wesley Powell's 1869 first expedition down the Green and through the Grand Canyon in oak dories might have been if only they'd had inflatable rubber mattresses with them.
To be accurate, Fetcher's group was floating in low-water conditions, and his party had set out with two types of river crafts seldom seen in Yampa and Lodore canyons in the 21st century. Their primary boats, three Kleppers (folding wooden kayaks), a Folboat (another brand of folding kayak) and a fiberglass boat, which put in further downstream at Echo Park, were getting dinged up in collisions with rocks.
We can imagine that they had very little room in their boats for fresh food. Did they even make portable water filters in 1961?
Lucky residents of Northwest Colorado who won the lottery over the winter and claimed permits that allow them to launch their rafts at the Gates of Lodore for a float down the Green River are in for a lightning fast trip this summer. It may be a trip that doesn't require a great deal of strenuous rowing.
After double average snowfall last winter in the Wind River and Teton ranges, the Green was flowing at 7,897 cubic feet per second June 23. At those flows, the river miles should fly by. However, the federal Bureau of Reclamation anticipates dropping mid-summer releases to between 1,500 cfs and 2,300 cfs depending upon how much water is needed to maintain river flows below the confluence with the Yampa at 2,300.
Throughout it all, Lodore Canyon will remain beautiful even if its characteristics as a desert river have changed since the dam was built.