Boating the Armpit of America
By Marc Musgrove
It all started in a weak moment on the second day of the Tamur. Half-starved with supplies running low, and having done the walk-in in half the requisite 4 days, I decided to there was no reason not to propose to Emma.
When we explained to our respective families that the timing of the wedding needed to fit around high tides at Milford Haven and would actually need to take place in West Wales and not Bromley, there was some consternation. However, we brought them round to the idea, and even managed to sneak around Andy Middleton's no riff-raff boater policy at the new and improved Tyr-y-Felin for our wedding reception.
Even I managed to see sense and avoid getting up at 3 in the morning on my wedding day to sneak in the (very) early tide, but we still managed to sneak in a little boating in feisty swell after getting hitched. That wasn't obviously for lack of enthusiasm for the morning tide, more the fact that T-y-F's bar doesn't seem to have set opening hours.
For some reason this year we'd decided that Colorado was the place to head to for the honeymoon. That was in spite of the fact that there was clearly not going to be any water and half the state was on fire. Anyway, we'd bought the tickets so we had to go.
After a leisurely night getting used to kipping in a Jeep we'd managed to acquire in Denver at late notice (tip - book it on the Internet!), we pulled in to sample an all-American breakfast at a rough looking truck stop. A plate of pancakes and sausage later, we headed off only to realise that all my kit had been pinched out of the back of the car.
Emma makes space for the boats.
Having spent a year being extremely anal about not letting Peruvians anywhere near my kit, I suppose I'd let my guard down. Now I was left mumbling excuses to a traffic cop who couldn't quite work out how the thief had got in without breaking a window. Obviously how that happened is best left undiscussed, but the chances of getting anything from the insurance were now looking rather thin.
He'd just lifted my bag, but that meant that all I had for the remainder of the trip were the clothes I was wearing and some boating kit that was stuffed in the paddle bag. Even more annoyingly, he got the video camera and my helmet. Luckily we knew Frank and Dave, a couple of Denver boaters we'd met in Ecuador, so we were soon fixed up with a very natty rafting helmet and we were on our way.
They invited us to join them on a trip they'd to get permits for in Idaho on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Although it's a classic trip 10-day trip, the discussion in the boozer about having to get in on a side creek because the main access road is almost invariably snowed over started alarm bells ringing. With a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, and no shoes to my name, embarking on a winter trip hardly seemed an attractive prospect.
We decided instead to head up North to the Yampa river, which was apparently the only drainage with much water to talk about. This runs through the ski-resort of Steamboat Springs, which is a great place to hang out for a few days. Not least because the local council has decided to pay a boater to build a new playspot slap bang in the middle of town. This bloke has done such a good job, we had trouble leaving.
This is a profession that he's managed to perfect and now cruises around the ski-towns of Northern Colorado getting the mayor to pay for a JCB and some large rocks. He's done a few, and he seems to have finally got it cracked at Steamboat, which is a beautifully retentive river wide hole with perfect eddy service. It has only just been finished this year, so luckily the locals haven't had much of a chance to get it nailed.
Steamboat Springs also boasts hot springs (obviously) and a nice place to camp out, plus a number of options to check out like Fish Creek and the Elk in the vicinity. To find the hole, just ask the proprietor of the engagingly title 'Backdoor Sports' in town. This surprisingly, also doubles as a kayak shop.
A couple of hours to West is a great run on the Yampa, the Cross Mountain gorge section. From the mountains of Steamboat you head down into the desert and eventually end up turning off onto a sand road in the middle of nowhere. We'd heard you could do a three hour walk along the Canyon Rim to get in there so we thought we'd manage a two man trip somehow. However, after a couple of hours of driving on sand we hadn't managed to find the put in, so were contemplating a night in the desert.
Marc in the desert.
We decided to head to the take out and managed miraculously to blag a lift off the shuttle driver of that week's only trip down the run. Having heard that the walk along the canyon rim in the blazing sun was a 'once in a lifetime experience' we were pretty pleased with our luck.
Emma on the Yampa.
From the chilly Alpine stream in Steamboat, the Yampa at Cross Mountain is wide, brown, and possibly the warmest river I've ever paddled. It's also got a fair bit more volume. It's reminiscent of the first day of the Karnali, and was pretty enjoyable at 2,500 cfs. After some initial discussion about the prudence of running this kind of volume as a two-man trip, it actually turned out to be a cracker. Obviously if you don't have a car at the end, and don't want to sweat up the side of the gorge, this isn't the place to be losing your boat. We were quite happy we'd opted to bring the larger Liquidlogic Session+'s with us once we got into the longest section.
Ending the Yampa.
Having heard the reports of drought in the south of the state and bush fires creeping up on Denver, we decided to head up North to catch the Jackson Hole rodeo on the Snake. Jackson is in Wyoming, but only just, and to get there involves a schlep across what I can only describe as some of the most desolate country I've seen. I thought the altiplano in Peru was pretty dire, but Wyoming takes the biscuit. After the initial desert section, you drive for 8 hours North with pretty much no hills. There are some real cowboys chasing steers though to keep you occasionally entertained.
We passed through the town of Rock Springs on the way up, which has literally been plonked in the middle of the desert. There really appears to be little reason why it's there - and even the locals informed us that this was the arse end of the US.
Jackson is just on the edge of the Grand Teton National Park and has the big volume Snake River flowing nearby. They held this year's rodeo on the Kings Wave after much discussion about whether the Lunch Counter feature downstream would be running. The organisation wasn't quite the usual US competition standard with people milling around not sure where they were even supposed to be. The wave itself is an awesome feature at high-ish brown water flows, and has a nice shoulder on the river right.
They run the obligatory down river race (on a section of the Hoback river) on the Saturday, which in US rodeo terms counts for quite a bit of the overall placing. The Sunday was supposed to be a 4 man head to head down a section of 4/5 on the Greys River, but with it absolutely pissing down and a large log pretty much across most of the big drop, the legal beagles decided this would put the organisers in a litigious position. We ran it all the same, and as long as you stuck left at the crux you were fine, but I suppose they're just being sensible.
We decided to check out a couple of other things in the area, and headed up to Granite Creek, which fortunately has a hot spring at the end. The end is 10 miles up a dirt track, which means you can actually sneak in after dark without a problem. For smelly kayakers like us, that's quite a relief.
Granite Creek itself is only grade 3, but involves hauling the boats up into the Gros Ventre Wilderness Area. This is basically a US initiative where they ban any roads, development and any motorised vehicles (mountain bikes and snowmobiles included) to give the wildlife a fighting chance. It does appear you can hire a Llama though - http://www.hpllamas.com/. We headed up for a while, but being in prime grizzly territory soon convinced us to make a left down to the river.
Jackson itself is the gateway to the Grand Teton National Park and is next to the ski resort areas. Jackson Hole itself is named after a trapper who used to live in the area in the late 1800s - and 'hole' was a word used in the day for a high mountain valley. On the edge of the park is a quick run on Gros Ventre river that's worth checking out - pretty continuous all the way down from the outflow of the lake. And handily just down from the take out are the Indian Warm Springs, where the local beginners learn to roll.
Seeing as we were right there, we decided to spend a day checking out Yellowstone - in the end we spent three. It's basically a park plonked on top of a 'caldera', or massive underground magma lake so the whole park is filled with geysers, mud volcanoes and sulphur vents. There's also the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which you can look down into - looks like an awesome run, but you'd have to run the two big buggers at the top to get anywhere near it. Oh and they've banned boating in the park.
However, you can do sections of it just outside the park so we run the sections north of Gardiner, Montana. There's also the Gallatin River you can check out up there - http://www.yellowstoneraft.com prob have more info. There are also a couple of creeks west of the park that could be worth looking at (in the Idaho book).
Ten days into our two week holiday I finally decided to check my voicemail and found out that amazingly, my stolen bag had been handed in to my company's security office in Denver by the police. I have no idea how this turned up a week and half later, but everything was in it, including the video camera. The bloke who had found it was a sea kayaker, so we arranged to meet up at Union Lake near Denver for its safe return. People living in inland states in the US do still happily buy sea kayaks even though they are extremely unlikely to ever take them out in saltwater.
We headed back south via Green River, Wyoming, to check out the new wave. This was an early job from the wave designer and isn't quite up to the standard of the one in Steamboat. I'd probably give it a miss personally, but if you do want to, ask for directions to the park with the WW2 tank in it.
Reunited with the video camera we headed back to Colorado and the Gore Canyon to get some footage. When we got there the current actually seemed to be flowing upstream at the put in, so we suspected this might be a touch on the low side. Luckily the Eagle in Vail did seem to still be flowing, so we blasted down that on the way back to Denver.
Old Faithful Geyser.
One thing deeply disturbs me about the whole trip, and that's why the hire car company has yet to acknowledge that we ever had a jeep off them. Fingers crossed
Thanks to sponsors Liquidlogic and System X for the Bomber Gear, Werner and Playboater kit.