River Rescue on the Yampa River
In the late 1960s, at age twenty-five, I was the lead guide for a group of youth and young adults on the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument during the spring runoff. About a day and a half into the trip, there was a small rapid, actually just a large hole caused by water flowing over a huge boulder in the river called Five Springs Draw.
Upstream from this rapid, for several miles, the river was flat and placid. There were usually five to six boats in each boating party, and it wasn’t uncommon for several of the boats to tie together, in order to socialize and engage in sing-alongs. On this trip, I was close to all the boats, but not tied to any of them. The guides on the boats that were tied together weren’t paying close attention to their position in regards to the upcoming rapid, and I admit that I should have been more attentive to the approaching danger.
Just before the three boats dropped into the hole, the guides frantically tried to untie the rafts, and gain control with their oars, but it was too late. Three boats went into the hole and two flipped over. In a split second, there were twelve people in the freezing cold spring runoff water, wearing only bathing suits and lifejackets. Boats were upside down, and everything that wasn’t tied down was now floating in the water.
The current was swift, dangerous, and cold. Guides scrambled onto the top of the rafts and began pulling in passengers. Others, out of reach of the rafts, began swimming for shore on both sides of the river. A mile down the river, the upturned rafts were either towed to shore or they floated there on their own.
I landed my boat, and immediately began to assess the severity of the situation. Most importantly, was everyone accounted for? Heads were counted; two were missing, and the question was, where were they? Were they still floating in the river beyond the bend where we couldn’t see them, or did they make it to shore somewhere upriver? After scouting upstream and downstream, it was discovered that the two missing kids were across the river, on a wide sandbar, that extended from the water’s edge to the canyon wall, a distance of about 50 feet.
To make the situation even more dangerous, the stranded kids could not advance downstream, as the sandbar ended at the point where the fast, flooding river now slammed against the sheer, vertical limestone cliffs.
They were stranded, and the only way to safety was for them to get back into the river and swim/float across to where we were. But they were kids and they were scared; I could see that on their own, they were not about to attempt a swim across a swollen, rampaging river. As trip leader, and the one responsible for the safety of the group, I would have to cross the river, join them on the sandbar, and coax them to follow me into the water and swim for the opposite shore.
To get to them, I had to be above them before entering the water, and then swim hard to reach the other side before the current swept me past them. As I made my way upriver, my route was blocked by steep ravines, that came down to the water’s edge, forcing me to leave the shoreline and climb the sloping cliffs, in order to proceed farther upriver. But in doing so, I lost sight of the exact position of the stranded boaters. When I thought I’d gone far enough upriver, making my way along ledges and boulder-strewn slopes, I began my descent to the river following a small canyon.
I was quite far above the river at this point, and the canyon I was following quickly dissolved into a series of pour-overs that kept increasing in height the farther down I descend. My concern was that I would eventually reach a point where I could no longer descend to the river and in turn, wouldn't be able to climb back up the way I had come, making me as stranded as the kids across the river.
I reached a pour-over that I estimated was about a thirty-foot drop to the sandy catch basin below. Before throwing down my life jacket and following after it, I scrutinized, very carefully, the rock wall leading downward, to make sure there was a way back up, as it was always easier to climb down than to try climbing back up. Confident that I could get back up, I climbed down and followed the streambed to the next pour-over. Finally, I could go no farther; the next waterfall was too precipitous in its drop, and if I went over, there was no way to climb back up. I backtracked to the last waterfall and the thirty-foot climb, which was straight up. Without incident, I was able to scale the wall and continue back up the canyon, to the point where I entered it.