Yampa Project   Leave a comment

When we departed Deer Lodge campsite, snow fell on the rafts, but with several layers of clothing, and on calm water, it was pleasant this first day of our six-day river trip down the Yampa River in Colorado and into Utah. Immediately the faces on the canyon’s walls began to appear, little did I know the extent of the images I would see along these rock walls as we paddled 47 miles on this river. The first rock shapes that emerged were large grayish rock with semi-symmetrical and some more distorted, yet, still human-looking faces. Their expressionistic presence could not be ignored. As we proceeded to our first day on the river and towards our second night at a site called Anderson camp, the walls surrounding us began to blend from one color to many with more distinction in the images. The faces became smaller and more crowded. The rocks were redder in color. We were in Dinosaur National Monument, which President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed as protected land. He recognized the importance of protecting the area from commercial interests after Earl Douglas found seven vertebrae, which were connected to other bones, and when assembled was recognized as one of the largest dinosaurs in North America, the Apatosaurus, which roamed North America about 100 million years ago during the middle of the Jurassic period.

The rock walls became larger and higher as we rowed and the faces became images of many things. I could not look anywhere without recognition of something known to me. I questioned whether I was anthropomorphizing everything I saw instead of just marveling at the astonishing beauty of this place, but the images screamed at me, demanded my attention. I use the word “scream” which has a negative connotation, and demands were being put on all of my senses, but the screaming was only positive; nothing else defines it but the word “screaming.”  It was sensory overload like Las Vegas but in a good way.  I saw a giant rock fish with half its body jutting from the wall above me. Its mouth opened wide catching cool air. These canyon walls are a geologist’s dream with epochs exposed like an open book with each layer a distinct page.

I began to realize that everything that man ever created was already here in these walls. The boulder size building blocks look as if a giant baby had shaken them down the side of this playground. There were perfectly formed rectangular stones that would suggest to any bricklayer or do-it-yourself hearth designer how to construct a sturdy esthetically pleasing home.

We landed at Anderson campsite. Only a post marks these camps. There are no bathrooms, showers, and we could not leave any sign of our presence. A permit is required to travel the Yampa and a park ranger checks up on rafters’ safety and their respect for the area based on what they disturb or leave behind.

At Anderson, we walked to a cabin still standing from the early 1900s. It was built by a man named Stubbs and is a tiny structure with one stone side that held the fireplace, this allowed the surrounding stone to hold heat and warm the small area of the cabin. There was a bed, which appeared to be made of woven stripped bark. A small stove and a shelf still remained. It was hardly bigger than many sized bathrooms in the average home.  A little ways from the cabin was a corral constructed of natural twisted junipers and other trees, some formed the posts and others were crossed over each other creating a fine corral, which took more of the form of nature than of human construction.  It showed the hard work and ingenious design of a man who chose to live in a beautiful setting. I was told that he was a prospector who lived in the cabin until flooded out in 1931.

We set up camp, which requires much work both in setting up and taking down. All gear on the boat must be kept in waterproof bags, which must be packed the same way each day so that the boatman knows how to arrange them and counts on the weight being  distributed in the same way as the day before. We were taught how to squeeze the air out and roll the tops of the bags correctly and fasten them. They were then placed with great care for weight distribution and strapped in so that nothing moves or comes loose when going through the rapids. It took us about 2 hours each morning to pack the 16 foot rafts.  The amount of gear is phenomenal and the ability to secure and pack it all would make any tidy pack rat proud. We also had our own videographer, Becky McMillen from Scottsbluff, who brought her high definition professional video camera placed inside a large waterproof device which still allowed her to make camera adjustments and control the camera yet keep it dry. This devise aptly named “the beast,” was mounted on the front of one boat.

The amount of work was incredible and the temperature each night of our six days was below freezing, so survival for me meant three layers of clothing, a stocking cap on my head, a liner in my sleeping bag and a blanket over my bag inside a tent, and then I slept well.

As we continued on our trip, the canyon walls became more immense and I continued to see every idea man has ever had such as Picasso-like works of art, and long limbed figures in choreographic moves and others standing or praying. I saw herds of animals, and perfectly shaped bonsai trees growing from boulders, and trees that were half dead with twisted shapes formed by the wind. This place requires constant attention and there was no way but to be in the moment here. All else left my mind, because my senses were too busy to be elsewhere. The canyon walls showed every color in a crayon box. Huge squares looked like pieces of fudge good enough to eat, and one spot was called the chocolate factory where dark dripped over butterscotch rocks with thin-formed strips that truly look like dripping chocolate. We came upon what is called the Tiger Wall with dark and light stripes and we touched it from the boat, which is a necessary ritual for good luck before entering the rapids at Warm Springs.  Before this passage we stayed at a campground called Harding Hole where we hiked to a place that few people have seen. Some call it the Spiral Cave, the park ranger who is a friend of  the oarsmen we were with, called it Hurricane Canyon. It is a cave created from runoff combined with the wind that enters the top through an opening that started as a crack in the rock and has created a most unusual spot that can be entered on one lower end and then the hiker can follow a spiral wall that entices him or her to see where it leads. The wind and rain have created shapes along this spiral wall that look like kings and queens. At the end of the spiral is a large bluish shape blending into a lighter color creating a ghostly woman’s figure. Light eventually enters from several places at the top of this cave-like place creating a light show across the fallen rocks that stuns viewers. Becky was able to film inside. We left her alone to work her magic as we hiked to higher places. When we returned the light continued its show and Becky filmed me reading two poems in this magical spot.

Becky McMillen, sculptor Ed Lowe and I were invited on this trip as part of a proposal to bring positive attention through artistic work to the only free flowing river remaining in Colorado. The idea is to bring artists to experience the Yampa River and document its incredible beauty through art in various genres and bring positive attention that will encourage more and more people to recognize the necessity of saving our history and the beauty of our national landmarks. Our trip was the second expedition of this year. Internationally known artists are participating in this project including composers, musicians, writers and visual artists.

Since the Yampa has neither been dammed, as was once proposed, nor been commercialized or used in other destructive ways, it remains in its natural state, which means art by the Freemont Indians, who existed when the Anazazi people lived, still exists except where natural erosion has erased it. We saw their pictographs in one spot, and if one travels to other parts in Dinosaur National Monument other petroglyphs and pictographs can be seen. The towering multicolored canyons have not been reduced to small protrusions as has happened at the Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell due to being damned.

I cannot express in words the experience of rafting through adverse conditions into canyons that feel otherworldly. It was like entering castles of unknown gods each structure a new color and design, the next one bigger than the last. It was like being in an Indian Jones setting or into the Heart of Darkness when surrounded by 1500 foot walls that were black as iron and then the sun emerges around the next bend and an oarsman blasts Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and the senses surge again to new heights.

The danger of a boat flipping while moving my body to different sides of the raft to get us off of a huge rock in the rapids, helping strip one of our parties’ clothes and get him in warm gear because hypothermia threatened his wet body after being caught in an eddy for 20 minutes in cold winds that blew all that afternoon was part of our experience in surviving this ancient canyon. Survival meant more than no bathrooms or showers for six days. We put all trust in our Captains- Mho, Barb and Louie, -and they never let us down, and they shared with us their passion for the river, a trip that Mho and Barb take every year.  My hands today are still swollen and stiff as I type, but this gift of nature was most amazing, and I look forward to discovering how it has changed me.


Posted August 17, 2010 by strongjacksonpoet54 in Essays

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