Whoomp!?? WTF did that rock come from? Scrunch!! Tommy, rowing a 15 foot supply raft stuffed with 3-days worth of 7 people’s gear, missed his line at the top of Hell’s Half Mile and broached on the second boulder. High side! Screw it — the behemoth turned turtle and Tommy found himself dumped on the rock. No problemo except for some dings.
But wait! Where’s his swamper, TR? “Dad!” Oh, I neglected to mention that TR is Tommy’s 12-year old son and was trapped under the inverted raft along with a thousand pounds or so of gear. Initiation time! Well, these little incidents make trips memorable. Perhaps I should start at the beginning and put this into context. I was in the midst of planning a September canoe trip to Maine when Will called with the news that he had scored a 3-day permit to run Gates of Lodore to Split Mountain on the Green River.
This is the section controlled by Flaming Gorge Dam and flows range from 800 to 4,000 cfs (sort of like the O No Ee). The Green cuts through 3 canyons, Lodore (red sandstone), Whirlpool (just below the confluence with the Yampa), and Split Mountain (folded grey limestone and sandstone). The 3 represent antecedent canyons in which an established river channel is impeded by a geologic uplift and maintains its channel by cutting down.
Major John Wesley Powell figured this out in 1869, when his team ran it on their way to the Colorado. However, Powell wasn’t first — at least 2 parties did it earlier: General William H. Ashley in 1825 (fur trapping expedition) and William Manley and 6 companions trying to find the Pacific Ocean during the 1849 gold rush. However, Powell published an extensive account and everyone who traces any part of his expedition should read his narrative.
This trip requires a lottery-issued permit, which the NPS vigorously enforces. The NPS is responsible for extracting those sorry asses who undertake the trip without proper preparation. So, the ranger will spend 15 minutes or so talking to trip participants (i.e., profiling y’all) and will carefully inspect boats and gear. Make certain your mission is fully configured before your pre-deployment inspection.
With respect to risk management, essential gear includes life jackets (one spare required per boat), paddles and oars (one spare per boat), flotation, throw ropes, repair kit and pumps. I do not recall that helmets are mandatory, but anyone who neglects to wear a helmet while running rapids has either never had her bell rung or is just pain ignorant. Oh, you should also bring sufficient water for 3 or 4 days because the river is beaucoup muddy and you can’t depend on filtering it.
Gradient averages around 13 feet per mile, with the maximum 30 feet through Hell’s Half Mile. The rapids at usual releases are no more than hard Class 3 or easy Class 4. However, remember that you’ll be bringing gear. If you’re not comfortable carrying such a load for 3 hours down the Ocoee you won’t be comfortable with it in your boat for 3 days. This is the primary reason for bringing along at least one person who has a raft and feels comfortable oar rigging the Ocoee. Also remember the Green can run between 4,000 and 10,000 CFS, which ratchets up the difficulty a notch or two.
The NPS also has to haul out garbage, so with respect to ecology, required gear includes a groover, a fire pan, a screen straining device (to trap detritus from dishwashing), and garbage bags. Other than never having done a multi-day trip and intentionally not reading the detailed instructions that will accompany your permit, there’s no reason to not have these essentials. If for some reason you do not have them, TARFU – the ranger will not allow you to put on. There is no plan B because there are no stores anywhere near the put-in.
The trip begins at the Gates of Lodore, which Powell found to be dark and foreboding, “like a mountain drinking a river.” Powell’s team was unusually literate and they named this section after a popular poem, Robert Southey’s The Cataracts of Lodore.
“How does the water
Come down at Lodore?”
My little boy asked me.
Among crags in its flurry,
Here it comes sparkling,
And there it lies darkling;
Now smoking and frothing
Its tumult and wrath in,
Till, in this rapid race
On which it is bent,
It reaches the place
Of its steep descent.
The cataract strong
Then plunges along,
Striking and raging
As if a war raging
Its caverns and rocks among;
Rising and leaping,
Sinking and creeping,
Swelling and sweeping,
Showering and springing,
Flying and flinging,
Writhing and ringing,
Eddying and whisking.”
Well you get the point, and so did they. After 6 or 7 relatively flat miles the Green begins its steep descent into Upper and Lower Disaster Falls. Powell named this rapid after loosing his first boat, the No Name, there. “Striking amidships on another rock with great force, she is broken quite in two and the men are thrown into the river.” We had no problem with Disaster and reached our assigned camp, Kolb, at around 1800.
The river was not particularly high (~ 900 cfs). Disaster Falls was no biggie. No matter that Hell’s Half Mile, the most difficult rapid on the Green (and a bad place to go swimming), awaited us 3 miles downstream. Upon awakening the second morning, we casually packed our dry bags and perfunctorily
lashed the gear into Tommy’s raft.
Our maps showed Harp Falls immediately downstream but no one was certain when we actually ran it. We knew we had done Harp because Triplet Falls was even bigger and is at a sharp turn in the river. Triplet was a bit tricky because you start on the right and there’s a mandatory river left ferry (for oar riggers).
We convinced ourselves that Triplet was Hell’s Half Mile. Wrong: it’s just below Triplet and we realized that we were entering Hell when we encountered the horizon line. 900 cfs is a piddley flow, but the low flow put us below the rocks and we couldn’t see the route very well.
The route isn’t all that difficult. But remember, Tommy’s raft held a ton of gear. In rapid succession, following his casual encounter with a submerged rock, SNAFU accelerated to TARFU and terminated FUBAR when high-siding didn’t do the trick.
So there’s Tommy standing on a river right rock next to the raft, TR trapped under the raft, and all the hard boaters way up stream (river left) taking pictures. I kept focused and did what any professional photographer would do – capture images of the rescue. Kevin went after loose gear. Will ferried over to the rock and tried in vain the flip the raft upright. Derrick ferried to shore, retrieved a line from Will and reeled the upturned raft, with Will and TR on top, to shore. Tommy ferried over from the rock in Will’s boat but the 3 still couldn’t right the thing. Finally, Michelle (Mac) ferried over and the 3 of them got it upright. Remember, rig to flip because all that gear acts like a keel and even under optimal circumstances remedying a flipped supply raft is not trivial.
Below Hell’s Half Mile things are pretty trivial, enjoy the vistas. In about 7 miles the Yampa converges with the Green and you encounter Echo Park at the tip of a huge ox bow around Steamboat Rock. Stop at Echo Park (there’s a privy), check out Whispering Cave and the petroglyphs.
Right around the corner from Echo Park you will enter Whirlpool Canyon. Plan to stop at Jones’ Hole just over the Utah state line about 5 miles further down. It’s a popular campground, has a ranger station, and up the creek a bit are some fabulous petroglyphs and pictographs. Our assigned camp at Compromise was another mile downstream and we arrived just as the sun was setting. Rig to flip. As Will buckled under the weight of my “dry bag” he noted, “Gee it’s pretty heavy, Dad,” then dropped it and convulsed with laughter as 50 gallons of water gushed out.
We woke up early the third (and final) day so the hard boaters could Di Di to the takeout and run the 270 mile round trip shuttle. It’s another 17 miles on the river to the Split Mountain take out. The river’s pretty flat and meanders through Island Park. There’s more than one route. Tommy took the longer river left meander around Ford Island. I stayed river right. Then after about a mile when the two branches came together he sat and watched me hump the stinger through a half mile or so of mud.
The river then runs through Rainbow Park and splits through a mountain that eructated from the earth a long time ago. Split Mountain Canyon hosts Moonshine, SOB, and Schoolboy Rapids. If you’re so inclined, you can relax in the warm springs below Schoolboy. Inglesby, the last named rapid is about 3 miles further downstream. There’s a sharp left turn and then you’re at the take-out. Tommy, TR and I arrived around 1700 and were completely de-rigged and ready to load when our shuttle crew arrived 2 hours later.
If you’ve been tasked with gear transport, like I was, plan on a 3-day drive between Atlanta and Vernal, Utah. I highly recommend basing a couple of days in Vernal and exploring Dinosaur National Monument. There are vistas into the river, petroglyphs, and ruins.
Anyone who does this needs to be able to figure out shuttle on their own. There’s a 135 mile paved route to the put in and a short cut through Diamond Mountain and Crouse Canyon. The short cut is not a trivial drive and may take longer depending on your experience off-roading.
William C. Reeves (The Hawk)
From The Eddy Line, March 2008