The Yampa River in Colorado.

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Conservation Be Dammed? Rafting One of the West’s Last Wild Rivers

The Yampa is vulnerable to the region’s need to tap new water sources.
Jul 10, 2015· 8 MIN READ
Kate Siber is a Durango, Colorado–based correspondent for Outside magazine.

One remote stretch of the Yampa River, in Northwest Colorado, inspires fear in even the most veteran boaters. Beneath a forbidding 1,700-foot sandstone cliff, Warm Springs Rapid drops through boulders for about a quarter of a mile, causing a frenzy of violently churning whitewater. In the dwindling sunlight of a late afternoon in June, a group of six raft guides and 21 passengers dotted the shoreline, examining the rapid with quiet solemnity. Furrowing their brows, the guides pointed at the maelstrom and traced a route, hoping to minimize the chance of capsizing. The challenge was to pull against the river’s considerable current, which fiercely sucks boats of all sizes into the maws of the biggest waves.

“If you swim through that one,” said Stefanie Wessel, the lead guide, pointing at one raging recirculating hole, “it would probably push you really deep, and you’d pop out somewhere over there.” She pointed about 50 feet downriver. “You’d be under for maybe six seconds, but it would be a loooong six seconds.” My stomach fluttered. One passenger turned pale. We stared at the river in silence, then walked back to the boats, strapped on our life preservers, and donned our helmets.

“Remember,” said Andrew Corson, a shaggy-haired 26-year-old guide. “Don’t panic!”

It was the third day of a five-day raft trip with the outfitter O.A.R.S. down a 46-mile stretch of the Yampa to its confluence with the Green River in Utah, followed by 26 miles on the Green. According to river guides and experienced rafters, this is one of the country’s best five-day river trips, with scenery that rivals the Grand Canyon’s, a steady string of Class III and IV rapids (out of five; Class VI is essentially a waterfall), and spectacular side canyons with fossils, pictographs, and the detritus of one-and-a-half centuries’ worth of outlaws and cattle rustlers.

I came here to see what a wild river looks like, why one might be worth preserving, and what might be lost if this one were sacrificed to the West’s growing thirst for water. The Yampa holds the distinction of being the last major free-flowing waterway in the Colorado River Basin, the region’s great plumbing system and the most dammed and diverted basin in the country. Without big dams, the Yampa is free to be itself, barreling down the canyon in a brown torrent of snowmelt in springtime and weakening to a trickle in the winter. Because it has so far escaped the drive to dam rivers that consumed the West throughout the 20th century, the Yampa allows endangered fish such as the Colorado pikeminnow—rumored to grow to six feet long—and the humpback chub to thrive. On its banks, the smooth, bare trunks of cottonwoods and expansive sandy beaches tell the story of a river left to rage, unhampered by human meddling. It also acts as a unique laboratory for biologists and a museum for lovers of the outdoors. Many of the Yampa’s contemporary explorers have never before seen a wild river.

Click the arrow to view a GoPro video of running rapids on the Yampa River. (Video: Jason Andersen)

Though the Yampa may yet be free, it is nonetheless vulnerable. As the West suffers through one of the worst droughts in 1,200 years, competition for water is heating up. Colorado is developing a statewide water plan, due in December, to resolve a large projected shortage caused by a growing population and a diminishing water supply.

“One of the debates in the water plan is whether the state should support a new project that potentially brings water from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range” and its big cities, Matt Rice, director of Colorado Basin Programs for the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit American Rivers, told me before I left for the trip. “Because the Yampa has so much water and it’s this amazing, free-flowing place, it’s going to continue to be a target for large-scale diversions.”

RELATED: Dams Are Being Blown Up All Over America, and That's a Good Thing

It has seen dam proposals in the past. In the 1950s, environmentalists successfully defeated a huge project that would have flooded the Yampa and the Green. In 2006, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District studied building a dam at a different location on the Yampa. The utility hasn’t pursued the idea, mostly because of its high cost and environmental dangers, and currently no dam proposals threaten the river’s flow. But the river has no protections for except for its shores, which lie in Dinosaur National Monument. “If the Front Range wanted to divert water,” said Rice, “there’s nothing that would stop people from doing that.”

The scene of a past environmental battleground seems a good place to examine our collective relationship to water. How much do we need water and the economic growth it facilitates, and how much do we need pristine wildlands? Should we engage more thoughtfully with efficiency and conservation before tapping new sources? Does the political and social will to make hard choices about water use and land use exist, or are we destined to muddle through and manage a vastly different future with the same strategies and methods we employed in years gone by? As populations across the West swell, the drought persists, and the climate changes, a question will eventually arise: What is the true value of one last wild river?

The Yampa River in Colorado. (Map: Marc Fusco)

At Deerlodge Park campground, where rafting excursions put in to the Yampa, the shore is a wide floodplain dotted with cottonwoods, an uncivilized expanse that appears African in its breadth. Floating peacefully downstream on a yellow raft, we curve beneath monuments of white Weber sandstone and enter a canyon striped tan and red by the fluctuations of an ancient inland sea. After four miles, we camp on a sandy beach framed by purple-tinted cheatgrass and huff up a side canyon peppered with the fossils of small prehistoric sea creatures.

“There was once no water here whatsoever,” says Russell Schubert, a skinny 27-year-old guide who vibrates with enthusiasm. He stands on top of a loose, rugged ridge overlooking the river. “It was just vast Sahara-like desert with huge dunes.”

It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around a time frame so large one’s own lifetime is an almost nonexistent fraction. But perspective is one of the gifts of a landscape like this. We need the reminder of our own smallness as we need an essential nutrient. On the river, the body instinctually slows down. The nervous system quiets. The mind focuses, and there is a spacious quality to time itself. I find the opportunity to stop and watch a turquoise-bellied lizard breathe tiny breaths, to listen to thunder roll around the sky, and to watch the shadows of insects rove across the land as evenly as satellites.

Our days assume a calming pattern. We eat breakfast as the sunlight creeps down the canyon walls and warms our bodies. We pass over quiet flatwater and bounce through wave trains that taco the boats and douse the passengers. In the afternoons, we camp on beaches formed by the movement of sediments critical to a healthy river—sediments that dams disastrously hamper. Everywhere, natural cycles are apparent. The cicadas clackety-clack in the trees, and their spent skins litter the bushes. In the heat, plants wilt and turn brown before our eyes. During a rare rain, the desert comes alive with thousands of greens and the heady fragrance of sage. Each droplet reflects a fleeting verdant world.

Rocks along the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument are as old as a billion years. (Photo: Kate Siber)

All of this—the rapids, the amphitheaters of stone, the riparian oases and stands of elegant ponderosa, the bighorn sheep, and the bright-yellow warblers that flit about the trees—could have been underwater. The 529-foot dam the Bureau of Reclamation proposed in 1941 for just below the confluence of the Green and the Yampa would have backed up both for miles, maybe dozens of miles to Deerlodge Park or even farther in a wet year.

The 20th century was an era of unprecedented dam building across the West. It allowed big cities to grow in places John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer who first piloted a boat down the length of the Colorado, called too arid to be habitable. Americans loved these dams. They were the biggest constructions human beings had ever created and symbols of our power and progress. But a small group of people began to see that the dams could also be destructive, inundating priceless landscapes and irrevocably altering ecosystems.

It was the first time in American history a group of citizens stopped a big government project. To be saved, a place has to be known.

Ken Brower, environmental journalist and son of former Sierra Club executive director David Brower

Led by David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club, a group of environmentalists launched a protest against the proposed dam at Echo Park. They lobbied on both coasts, produced slide shows of the river, published articles, and led sympathizers down the Yampa to see what would be lost.

One of the people who accompanied Brower down the Yampa was his son, Ken, then eight years old. Ken later became an environmental journalist, writing about wild places and endangered creatures. He happened to be on my trip making a film about his experience on the river more than 60 years after his first descent.

Toward the end of the journey, we stopped at the would-be dam site, on a small sandy beach in a tight canyon. If environmentalists hadn’t won that battle, we would have been behind thousands of tons of concrete and beneath hundreds of feet of water. Houseboats would have floated above our heads, Jet Skis buzzing around and clouding the water with pollutants. Instead, we saw a cathedral made of stone and a shock of greenery. The lulling sound of a riffle, and violet-green sparrows swooping and skimming the water, soothed us.

“It was the first time in American history when a group of citizens stopped a big government project,” said Brower, now a trim white-haired 70-year-old, as he sat in the sand. Many, he said, credit the campaign as the beginning of the modern environmental movement, which later saved the Grand Canyon from a proposed dam, and helping pave the way for the boom in environmental legislation in the 1960s. Part of what was so powerful about the campaign was simply exposing people to the outrageous beauty of the area. “To be saved,” said Brower, “a place has to be known.”

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Other than the ladders long-gone dam prospectors left behind, you would never know this canyon was once under threat. It is a rare refuge of solitude, where rocks as old as 1.1 billion years evoke a sense of invulnerable timelessness. But a feeling of gratitude washes over me when I contemplate that we are only here because of the grit and grace of people who already lived and died. It occurs to me that we must keep remembering.

“David Brower once said that they only have to win once,” Wessel said later, rowing lazily around a serene cliff-framed oxbow. “We have to win every single time. The dam site is still there. The river is still there. The idea is still there. We humans just can’t leave things alone.” Perhaps that is the real value of a wild river—it shows us what is possible.

A cliff above the Yampa River is streaked with desert varnish, a coating made by microorganisms with the help of surface runoff and minerals including manganese and iron. (Photo: Kate Siber)

When I awake on the third day, the sky is ominously overcast. Backlit halos of fog shroud the buttes above the river. This is the day we meet Warm Springs Rapid—but not before we pass through more miles of placid flat water, past caves and canyons that hosted Fremont Indians, eccentric hermits, and some of the country’s earliest river runners.

From a distance, Warm Springs is just a band of fitful whitewater on the river’s horizon line. As we approach, the sound of the rapid reverberating off the cliff roars louder and louder. We pull to the right bank and tromp down a weathered footpath to survey the features, which can change as rocks shift or debris falls in. I ask Wessel if she’s nervous.

“If there’s no fear, no butterflies, you’re not giving it enough respect,” she says thoughtfully. “I think it’s good to get to that point in your life—to be totally terrified—on a regular basis.” She pauses. “It reminds you how awesome life is.”

Wessel and I are the first to set off. I sit in the bow, clutching the ropes as she leans on the oars, stepping hard on a rail for leverage. The deafening sound of whitewater drowns out all voices. Sixty-two-degree water hurtles against the boat. Wessel deftly ferries right and squeaks past the biggest hydraulics until the last one, known as Surprise, appears. She squares up the boat, and we dive bow first into a wall of water, emerging right side up and utterly soaked. I turn around. Wessel is grinning, water shearing off her helmet and down her face.