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Floating One of the Last Wild Rivers: Yampa Journal, Day 3

We stop to kiss Tiger Wall before running Warm Springs rapid. Photo: Susan Bruce.
We stop to kiss Tiger Wall before running Warm Springs rapid. Photo: Susan Bruce

Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers organized a trip down Colorado’s Yampa River in early June, to raise awareness about the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin (see interactive map). This post is the third in a four-part series about the trip.

Day 1  *  Day 2

Day 3

Camped on the beach at Harding Hole, I’m in my sleeping bag under an old cottonwood tree. The birds wake me up at first light. We’ve seen so much wildlife on this trip so far, from western bluebirds, yellow warblers, and ravens to bighorn sheep, beaver, snakes, and scorpions.

The wild Yampa is an oasis for these animals in the desert. It’s also one of the last places in the Colorado Basin where we can find rare native fish like the Colorado pikeminnow. This fish evolved over thousands of years, adapting to the unique conditions of heavy sediment and seasonal high and low flows. Dams and reservoirs on the Green and Colorado rivers have eliminated much of the native fish habitat, so we’re lucky to have the Yampa.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, describes what happened to the habitat in the basin by comparing the river to a house: “Now all they have is half a bathroom and a couple of closets.”

We float for a while in the morning, then pull over on a large cobble bar near one of the few documented pikeminnow spawning sites.

Pat Tierney talks to the group about native fish in the Yampa. Photo: Amy Kober
Pat Tierney talks to the group about native fish in the Yampa. Photo: Amy Kober

We gather around Pat Tierney for a talk about native fish. He tells us pikeminnow could grow up to 70 pounds, and that it was once dubbed the Colorado white salmon – drawing the connection to the Pacific salmon I’m more familiar with, where I live in Oregon.

Like Pacific salmon, pikeminnow migrate. They can travel down the Little Snake River to the Yampa and back, more than 150 miles. Pat describes pikeminnow as part deep sea creature (because they live in the dark, naturally silty water) and part grizzly bear, because of their predatory nature. Truly a unique and remarkable fish.

What’s the value of a wild Yampa? For fish, the river is a lifeline. The Yampa may be our best chance to save species that are thousands of years old, from being lost forever.

The Yampa is rich in history - it's easy to find petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls. Photo: Amy Kober.
The Yampa is rich in history – it’s easy to find petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls. Photo: Amy Kober

Continuing downstream, we pass pictographs on the canyon wall, 800 years old. They are trapezoidal figures with arms raised. Every year they watch 5,000 to 7,000 rafters and kayakers float by – the Yampa is one of the most sought-after whitewater boating permits in the country.

In the afternoon we run Warm Springs rapid, the biggest of the trip. We’re lucky to have George Wendt, the owner of OARS, with us. He tells us how he witnessed the formation of this rapid during a flash flood in 1965.

Matt Rice and Amy Kober of American Rivers with George Wendt, founder and owner of OARS.
Matt Rice and Amy Kober of American Rivers with George Wendt, founder and owner of OARS.

This past winter there was a small landslide that further changed the rapid.

We get out to scout and watch the two other groups ahead of us run the rapid. Nobody has any trouble avoiding the big holes. When it’s our turn, we crash through the big waves and pull out safely in the eddy below, cheering as we watch the other rafts come down.

Scouting Warm Springs rapid. Photo: Kent Vertrees, Friends of the Yampa.
Scouting Warm Springs rapid. Photo: Kent Vertrees, Friends of the Yampa

We camp at Box Elder and set up games of horseshoes and glow in the dark bocce. We swim to cool off and eat chips and salsa barefoot in the sand.

There are many ways to answer the question, “what’s the value of a wild Yampa?” This afternoon, it’s about fun.

 

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