The Last Wild River
“Welcome to the end of the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin,” Mark Foust said as we pulled up to shore at Echo Park, and the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers.
Mark, the Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent, led us up a short trail to a boulder overlooking the convergence of the two rivers. As we looked at the cold, green flow of the dam-controlled Green River swirling into the desert brown Yampa, his words settled around us.
As we prepared to shove off earlier that morning, we cracked jokes and snuck in last conversations, but as we pulled away from shore, silence overcame the trip as the power of the place engulfed us. We had floated the final couple of miles to the confluence in silence, tradition among OARS and river lovers to pay homage to the Yampa.
I lay back on the bow and gazed up at the canyon walls. I listened to the water lap at our sides, to the swoosh of the current as our oars dipped into the water, and watched the birds zipping through the canyon. Not a word was spoken, and through the quiet, we heard the story of the Yampa—the last free-flowing river in the Colorado Basin.
As we floated, I couldn’t help but think of the story that could have been. In that moment, I heard the songs of birds and the splashy whitewater of classic rapids like Big Joe, Tee Pee and Warm Springs, drowned out and stilled, and I saw this canyon submerged to our put-in at Deerlodge, 46 miles upstream, the gnarled 100-year-old junipers and falcon nests buried in a watery tomb of a slackwater reservoir. Tears sprang into my eyes because this is the story of so many wild rivers in the American West with their flows dammed and diverted. But in that same moment, I cracked a smile of triumph because we didn’t dam this river to the same fate. Through the tireless and determined work of many, we saved this place, we won this fight—by one vote.
“One vote counts. Every vote counts,” Pat Tierney told us sitting atop a warm sandstone overlooking Echo Park, the location of a proposed and defeated dam decades before us. Pat, an author, researcher and long-time river rat (his words) has spent nearly 40 years of his life exploring, rafting and helping to protect the Yampa River. “So draw some power, some confidence, some meaning from that victory. If it wasn’t for a bunch of crazies and dedicated people, we would be 200 feet underwater right now.”
Because of its wild nature, the Yampa and its canyons in northwest Colorado provide refuge for endangered species, and offer unparalleled opportunities for adventure—and continues to be a target for water diversion as supplies diminish throughout the Colorado River Basin in a thirsty West.
“When my father and his faction won, it was the first time in American history that a group of citizens had stopped a big government project,” Ken Brower said of David Brower and the Sierra Club’s momentous fight against a pair of proposed dams on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.
The dams—a big one at Echo Park and a smaller one at Split Mountain—would have flooded the canyons of the Green and its tributary, the Yampa, inundating the heart of Dinosaur. Launching a powerful conservation campaign, the Sierra Club ultimately won the fight—ushering in a period many consider the dawn of modern environmentalism.
In our victory on the Yampa, we lost another battle downstream when the Bureau of Reclamation dammed Glen Canyon. That loss still sits heavy in the hearts of all who fight for a wild West, but to Brower and his team, it was a strategic loss. Because the Yampa flows through Dinosaur National Monument, damming it would have set a dangerous precedent and written the story of other rivers flowing free through national parks and monuments, making it easier for their flows to be dammed even though the land surrounding them was protected.
On that silent stretch of the last wild river, I couldn’t help but recall some of my last conversations with OARS. Founder George Wendt, who held a deep respect and love for the Yampa after he and a group of friends narrowly survived a trip in 1965 when a massive storm triggered the now infamous debris flow that formed Warm Springs Rapid. That experience, like so many river trips, changed his course in life.
After witnessing the power of the Yampa and the damming of Glen Canyon, George was hit with the stark realization that such wild places needed to be shared if we had any hope of saving them, which ultimately prompted him to launch OARS 48 years ago.
This is why OARS teams up with American Rivers and Friends of the Yampa every year to bring advocates and key stakeholders to the Yampa to experience a place that is almost indescribable in words. As anyone who has found themselves on a river trip knows, there is something about being on a river that changes us. It is a connection to a place unlike any other, and when we find ourselves experiencing the story of a river like the Yampa, we come out of it with a renewed sense of vigor to fight for these wild places that belong to all of us so that we, and the generations that come after us, have the same opportunity to experience a truly wild place.
The value of the Yampa is simply that it exists, it is a celebration, a beacon of hope. It flows defiantly in a dammed Colorado watershed and in the face of a threatened American West. The Yampa embodies the wildness, the perseverance and the fight that beats in the heart of every American. It reminds us what we have to save, and what we can accomplish if we listen to the story of the river and those who share our company.