Posted on June 8, 2016
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and is one of the most visited parks in the entire National Park system. It’s located in north central Colorado and has so many incredible natural features it can take days to experience them all.
It was the first National Park I ever visited and when I was 10 years old Smokey the Bear seemed real, the Park Rangers in their pressed wool uniforms and flat brimmed hats were super heroes, and the park itself was an outdoor paradise just waiting for me to explore each year on family trips.
With all the beautiful waterfalls, hiking trails, snowy peaks, and colorful meadows of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the feature I most wanted to see on my recent trip was the headwaters of the Colorado River. The last time I saw this river, I was a thousand miles downstream and fighting for my life as I struggled to break free from the current and reach the surface from deep under the cold water. Since that experience in the Grand Canyon, I’ve had a strong desire to see the source of the river that was powerful enough to flip my boat like a toy and humble me as an oarsman and a person…
“Where’s my boat”… I asked Doug, as I gasped for air and coughed up river water in an eddy on the Colorado in the heart of the Grand Canyon. With a soulful look, my teammate, who had just fished me out of the river and onto the deck of his blue raft, pointed back up river to the keeper hole I had just escaped. I could see it there – or flashes of it – an empty boat violently spinning over and over and over as the powerful current pounded away at it. In river-speak it’s called the “spin cycle” and it happens when a powerful current pours over a house-sized boulder in the middle of the river with such force that it creates an “upstream” wave that crashes back on itself. The result is an endless cycle of waves that beat each other up and if you get sucked into the middle of that fight – there is only one way out….. the bottom of the hole – and everyone knows – THAT’S the scariest place on the river. It’s a trap that’s easy to get drawn into and nearly impossible to get out of in one piece. I got flushed through the bottom almost immediately. My boat, however, was not so lucky and remained “stuck” in the trap – spinning helplessly in the hole. Unless the current pounded it through the exit point at the very bottom of the hole it would continue to take a beating until it was reduced to pieces that were small enough to exit on their own. I spent hundreds of hours building and sanding and painting the Portola and when I visualized the broken remains that might come floating by as I watched from the eddy it made me sick.
That was two years ago and it was the last time my wood boat, the Portola, navigated that river. Or any river for that matter..
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the 1,400 mile Colorado River comes to life as a babbling little brook several hundred miles upriver from the Grand Canyon. A few weeks ago I trailered my fully restored and freshly repainted Portola across the plains of Kansas toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. I had a lot of miles to think about that experience.
Since it was before Memorial Day, the park area seemed to be just waking up from winter. A few of the campgrounds were opening and most were unoccupied, new park rangers were still training for the upcoming season, and patches of snow were as numerous as the visitors were sparse. Night temperatures were below freezing above 8,000 feet and the river water was ice cold. As we rounded the corner high above the valley of the Upper Colorado where we would start our river journey the following day – the view far below was stunning.
The river snaked its’ way in lazy “s” curves through a valley that seemed to have 1,000 shades of green and then it rounded the corner and disappeared into a deep, dark canyon in the distance. We set up camp on that scenic stretch of the Upper Colorado River just outside Rocky Mountain National Park with towering bluffs on one side and dramatic peaks on the other. The flat valley beside the river had a rough-hewn log fence that ran the length of the river and when we set up our cots and canvas tents, it looked a little bit like a civil war encampment.
Directly across the river was a dead tree that served as a fishing platform for a mature bald eagle that entertained us daily with his aerial exploits and fishing prowess. Recent warm spring temperatures had accelerated the snow melt from the mountain peaks so the river was running higher and faster than normal. Just as we arrived however, the temperature dropped for the week and we woke up each morning to a heavy layer of ice and dew. By mid morning the sun dried the David Ellis Canvas Tents and Pendleton blankets that we hung out on the fence.
On our first morning, after a full breakfast of eggs, home fries, bacon and cowboy coffee, we jumped in our boats and pushed off to run a ten mile section of the Colorado none of us had ever seen.
The river carves its way through Little Gore Canyon and is known for walls that rise 1,000 feet up from the river in some places, spectacular wildlife that includes Big Horn Sheep, Mule Deer, Moose and the occasional black bear… and is well known for a couple of technical Class III Rapids called “Eye of the Needle” and “Yarmony”.
Those rapids were immediately on my mind as I settled into the rower’s seat of the Portola and wrapped my hands around the oar handles I had worn smooth by rowing the little wooden dory through the Grand Canyon just a few short years ago. The original Portola played a large role in the history of Colorado River running in the early 1960’s and was Martin Litton’s first Grand Canyon Dory in what would become a fleet of colorful canyon boats – all made of wood. The Portola was one of the dories used in 1964 on a run through the Grand Canyon that would help tell the story of the mighty Colorado. At that time, the river and the Grand Canyon were threatened with extinction by an appropriations bill from Congress that would’ve turned the Grand Canyon into a lake and taken the river with it. The bill was ultimately defeated, thanks to people like Martin and David Brower of the Sierra Club and the dedication of many passionate and talented people. The little wooden boats played a starring role in the fight to save the river by illustrating an elegant way to run the river and experience the Grand Canyon. We replicated that famous trip on the 50th Anniversary in 2014 and I rebuilt and rowed an exact replica of the Portola. It was on that trip that I rowed myself and my boat into the bottom of a keeper hole and almost didn’t make it out.
All the emotions of that encounter came roaring back as I heard “Eye of the Needle” just downriver and around the corner. After a two-year hiatus from rowing the Portola, the sound and the fury of the rapid brought back a familiar anxiety. For me – it’s always a pre-rapid routine where I quickly go thru my checklist: oar blade angle set, oars tethered, rescue rope in reach, life jacket tight, knife and whistle clipped, oar locks secured, spare oars ready and so on. Then everything slows down just before the first drop and I calmly answer my own questions: can I find the line, can I “hold” the line, will the boat respond to my touch, do I have the strength, what’s my contingency if things go wrong, do I have the nerve, do I have the reflexes, do I have the judgement to row this rapid well???
Everything moved in slow motion as we approached the infinity line of the rapid where the bottom drops out of the river and then suddenly… we dropped over and we’re “in it”… and everything picked up speed – the rapids, the rocks, the eddies, the line, the canyon walls – everything comes at you quickly – like someone hit the “fast forward” button on the river remote. My instincts and reflexes took over as I made subtle moves to hit my spots and follow the line and I was reminded – THIS is the reason I row – to find the rhythm of the river where the line constantly shifts between calm and chaos, and challenges you to find it and hold it as it sweeps you along through a rapid filled with loud noise, conflicting currents and wild confusion. It’s the art of working with the river to keep the boat in that sweet spot as it snakes its way through the rapid in the midst of all the influences that are trying to tear you away from it. It is the ability to stay calm, keep your head, and make the moves that you’ve made a thousand times. To run these rivers in a vintage (and somewhat fragile) wood boat adds an element of risk and reward that heightens the senses and makes every rapid memorable.
On that particular run, I found the sweet spot in “the Needle” and with bold strokes and no hesitation, I was able to ride the zigzag line through the maze of rocks and swirling eddies the entire length of the rapid without touching a rock. The Portola felt light as a feather and very responsive without the 500 pounds of goods and gear it carried on the 24 day adventure through the Grand Canyon two years ago. I was pleased. It was a great start to four straight days of rowing…
One of my good river friends, Mark Stuber, came down from Montana to join us on the trip and rowed the wood dory he built by hand and named for his grandmother, Florence. The last time “Montana Mark” and I rowed together was on the Snake River in the Teton National Park in Wyoming – I rowed the “Obsession” and he rowed his Florence – that was almost a year ago. On that trip we played follow-the-leader for two days in our wood boats at the very base of the Teton Mountains and explored parts of the Snake where the Tetons rose straight up from the banks of the river and soared a mile to the sky. We set up camp along the banks of the river and rowed our boats with enthusiasm in one of the most breathtaking stretches of river either of us had ever seen. Mark is one of the best oarsmen in the northwest, and as with most rowers of wood boats, he can read the rapids, see “the line”, and avoid obstacles better than most any oarsman on the river. He maneuvered his boat with a fluid style and distinctive flair that was so much fun to watch I sometimes forgot that I needed to row my own boat instead of watching Mark row the Florence.
Also along on this trip was my friend and professional tent maker, David Ellis from Durango, my son-in-law Josh Weaver, and my Uncle Tim from Grand Junction, who was the photographer for the trip. Special guests were my friend Bill and my pastor Darrell Jones and his three sons-in-law – Royce, Andrew, and Josh. It was nice to have a pastor on the trip as we approached treacherous rapids – it felt like our prayers would have a more direct connection than normal. Quite a crew on this trip!
We ate well on the river, as usual, and prepared each meal in cook teams using a variety of cooking methods – Coleman two-burners, charcoal in the Phantom fire pan, Dutch Ovens, Jet Boils…. we each had our own “style” of cooking which made things interesting and fun in the kitchen. While cooking the evening meal wasn’t a competition, sometimes it seemed like it. The result was some fancy outdoor cooking and a lot of “overeating”.
We actually had a lot of fun planning and preparing our elaborate meals – and in the course of just the first couple of days on the river we had pork loin schnitzel, asparagus in bacon, buffalo burgers, diced sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables, sweet corn, tossed salads, bacon bomb appetizers and dutch oven cobbler and apple crisp with CoolWhip.
On the fourth day, we split up. A few of us left the boats and hiked the National Park trails through patches of snow and towering pine trees to explore the Colorado River, where it’s so narrow you can jump across it.
The cold, clear water that ran under my feet and the wood bridge where I stood was headed for the Grand Canyon but had miles and miles to go. On the long journey southwest it would continue to swell and expand as snow melt, spring rain and tributaries fed the river and shaped its personality.The Colorado pauses behind Glen Canyon Dam just for a bit and then comes roaring out the other side near the bottom of the concrete wall with all the power and passion of a natural force that’s been controlled and pent-up too long.The river comes into its own as it rips through the canyon and it’s hard to believe it’s the same river I could walk across in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While casting flies in such a serene setting, the river seems incapable of inflicting pain and punishment in the raging torrent down river. Those little riffles that swirled around my ankles high in the Rockies could be the very same water that holds someone else’s ankles in an undertow a thousand miles away next week. The river doesn’t care or discriminate. It keeps moving – without apologies or explanations, it moves on – and so must we.
I went to the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountain National Park out of curiosity. What I found, in a quiet pool above the chaos, surrounded by tall pines and snowy river banks, was closure to an event that shook my core two years ago on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. GH
Photography: Tim Hatten
If you go there, I highly recommend camping in a canvas tent or under the stars. If “indoor” camping is your thing with plumbing and running water check out The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park or Snow Mountain Lodge. Both have lots of activities and are great for families. If rafting is your thing, I suggest Mad Adventures – quite simply the best outfitters and guides on the rivers!!