The sublime Yampa: Quiet canoe miles on a wild river

Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 9:00 PM
The Yampa River is the last undammed river on the Colorado Plateau. It flows across northwestern Colorado, and river runners can hike into Mantle Cave when the river crosses into Dinosaur National Monument. In June, members of a San Juan Mountains Association canoe trip created an Egyptian frieze.
On a June canoe trip with the San Juan Mountains Association, paddlers on the Yampa saw more eagles than people.
Naturalist MK Gunn of the San Juan Mountains Association led the group in explorations for a variety of flora, fauna and birds in addition to playing music as the stars came out.
River trips create river time where participants “go with the flow,” getting up at sunrise and heading to their tents at full dark. Two canoes become a river kitchen with food laid out on one canoe and dish washing on the other.
A British couple joined the river trip sponsored by the San Juan Mountains Association, and they enjoyed the camping, the cuisine and hearing stories about the American West, including tales of outlaws, bank robbers and female cattle rustlers.
Dedicated river rats all, we pose for a group photo where the lush grasses of the upper Yampa give way to more rugged canyons and sagebrush. Pam Fitz led the tour for Centennial Canoe Outfitters, the largest canoe outfitter in Colorado.
A quiet Yampa River flows west of Craig through the Little Yampa Canyon, where a delightful stretch of flat water for canoeing begins at South Beach and takes out at Duffy Mountain.
The Yampa River is born from snowmelt and creeks in the Flat Tops Mountains, which straddle both the White River and Routt national forests. The Flat Tops have spectacular lakes for fishing and memorable summer lightning storms.
The author’s tent is photographed on an island where the group camped for the first night. On one river meander, we paddled 14 miles but only made 4 miles in distance, but it didn’t matter. We weren’t in a hurry. We enjoyed the silence, solitude and darkness at night.

Imagine being on a Colorado river in the heart of the summer and seeing no one else on the water for 32 miles, three days and two nights.

I couldn’t believe it, but there we were in June on a Centennial Canoe Outfitters trip for the San Juan Mountains Association on the Yampa River paddling west of Craig. We saw more eagles, both bald eagles and American eagles, than people.

The Yampa River is the last free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau. Only the Yampa in the northwest corner of Colorado flows unimpeded as it drains the ancestral Rockies and creeks coming off the Flat Tops Mountains. I’d rafted it before, through Dinosaur National Monument, and I’d had my shares of thrills and chills going through Class IV Warm Springs Rapid. The canyons of the Yampa tower above the water level. River lore compels rafters to kiss the Tiger Wall, with dark desert varnish stripes, as good luck before entering Warm Springs. I’d done that, but I’d never been on quieter sections of the river.

We canoed through the Little Yampa Canyon, designated by the Bureau of Land Management as a Special Recreation Management Area. We saw only a few dirt roads, one ranch hand and a family camped by the river over Father’s Day weekend. But no other paddlers. No one else to share the islands and shorelines. We put in at South Beach, close to the Craig Power Plant and the Trappers Coal Mine, and took out at Duffy Mountain. Parking cost us $7 a day. On the river, where else could we spend our money?

HHHNaturalist MK Gunn helped us identify a plethora of plants, including tumbling mustard, princess plume, prickly pear cacti, yarrow, woolly mullein, black medic, yellow sweet cover, scarlet gilia, milkweed, lupine and invasives like leafy spurge and hounds tongue.

I liked the wide open stretches of rolling grasslands with no fences. When afternoon winds came up, we “barged” our canoes, tying two together for better balance and safety. We camped the first night on a lush island under a gallery of narrow-leaf cottonwoods that mosquitoes obligingly shared with us. The food was good, the beer was cold and skeeters became only a minor distraction.

Because we camped on BLM land, there were cowpies, of course, which Assistant River Guide Nolan McDonald said made great extra pillows or lumbar support under his sleeping pad. On one section, we paddled a 14-mile meander to go only 4 miles, but floating in a canoe, who cares? We weren’t in a hurry. River time is like that. Up at dawn, bedded by dark. At 3,880 cubic feet per second, the river itself moved a comfortable 5 to 6 mph. Blue posts marked public land and red posts marked private ground, but we didn’t see many posts. Instead, Head Guide Pam Fitz had excellent maps.

“We like multi-day canoe trips. We meet new people and watch good paddlers that you can model. It’s nice to be spoiled by camp cooks. We bought a new canoe so we can learn more,” said Lou Burkett of Dolores. “Chris and I like the SJMA trips because we learn new history though we’ve lived in Colorado 40 years.”

Karl and Gemma Rundle came from Great Britain and laughed, “This is a very relaxed river.”

Serious birders on our trip found yellow-headed and redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, doves, spotted sandpipers, spotted towhees, robins, cliff and bank swallows, cowbirds, ravens, merganzers, flickers, kingbirds and ferruginous and redtail hawks plus seven bald eagles. Birds thrive because the land does. The Yampa is really only runnable in June because the natural hydrograph of the river is still intact. The Yampa’s spring flow of snowmelt quickly drops off after preserving critical wildlife habitat.

HHHFor a variety of ecological, historical and geological reasons, no other river is like the Yampa. In Patrick Tierney and John Fielder’s book, Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing and Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green, this unique Colorado riparian habitat has found its biographer and photographer. They’ve written and photographed a love song to flowing water. It’s also a cautionary tale. Ongoing threats to this natural ecosystem exist.

Tierney explains: “From its source at over 11,500 feet high in the Flat Tops Wilderness of northwestern Colorado to its confluence with the Green River in the 2,500-foot-deep slickrock canyons of Dinosaur National Monument, the Yampa retains a wilder nature along its banks and a more natural flow pattern than any other large river in the southwestern United States.”

He adds, “Enduring characteristics make the Yampa a benchmark by which other rivers can be compared and well illustrate the threats facing rivers throughout the West in a period of climate change and rapid population growth.”

Colorado’s Yampa River is a superb synthesis of science, passion and joy. It chronicles the journey of Fielder and Tierney from the river’s headwaters to its confluence. Because of Fielder’s years of experience as a fine-quality book publisher, this volume sets a new standard for river writing, river photography and river publishing in the American West. I reviewed the book online for Colorado Book Review, a part of the Center for Colorado Studies at the Denver Public Library. So with delight, I was finally able to canoe one of its best stretches.

HHHOur second campsite was totally different. In a lower, drier, canyon environment, we camped on a sagebrush bench that was hot in the afternoon but cooled as the sun slowly set. Some folks hiked, others swam. I made seat repairs to my old 16-foot Discovery Scout, well used already when I bought it 20 years ago.

We all watched the stars parade across the heavens and awoke to the smell of coffee, pancakes on the griddle and frying bacon. A light mist rose above the river, and we talked of the mountain lion den hidden on the Yampa’s other bank.

“To canoe a river is to become part of nature. You get to see wild America. People on the river become different. Especially for us in the West, it’s so important to be on rivers,” Lou Burkett tells me in the morning.

Janet Glasser of Lafayette concurs. “It’s so good to get away from the business of the world, to learn to go with the flow and to increase confidence in what you can do,” she says.

We packed up with one last look for forgotten gear or micro-trash. Slowly, we left our grassy beach. We paddled upstream a few strokes and then made the graceful downstream arc that is the proper way to turn a canoe in moving water. Carefully, quietly, bow into the current. Always balanced. We had practiced our paddle strokes before, and we were ready for the rhythm of the day. We said nothing. Instead, we just listened.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at