I arrived at Deer Lodge Campground at 1 AM. My headlights illuminated raft trailers scattered around the parking lot, the rafts on top waiting patiently to be rigged. The moon cast gentle beams across the tops of cottonwood trees, the edge of an eroding riverbank, and the slow, calm flow of the Yampa River.
I laid out my still-wet kayaking gear across the top of my truck before crawling into the bed and hoping that sleep would come amongst my excitement for the next morning. Too few hours later, I awoke to sun pouring into my topper windows and the gentle murmurs of others at the campground. I rolled over to see Ana, my dear college friend who had invited me on the trip, already up and moving. We hadn’t seen each other since winter the year before and as much as I wanted to keep sleeping, I wiggled around in a circle to open the back of my topper and greet her.
Ana had invited me on her cousin’s Yampa Canyon permit only two weeks before the launch date. Aside from Ana and her cousin, I knew no one. I’d been a wild card on many river trips before and knew that it was always a gentle dance to figure out where you fit into a group. It had been four years since I’d been down Yampa Canyon. On top of a new group of people, I wondered how the passage of time would fit its way into my journey downstream. What memories and feelings would arise after so much time away?
Based on the spreadsheet, our trip was a mishmash of adults between the ages of 25 and 68 from all over the western US. They were professors, lawyers, policymakers, mathematicians, and filmmakers, to name a few. Ana and I were in our mid-twenties and had both spent a few post-college years as baristas between seasonal jobs before she started at an environmental non-profit and I pursued a career as a freelance photographer. Despite how much we’d grown since college, neither of us felt like ‘real adults’ in comparison to the rest of our crew. But we both had river experience, and what kind of boater and person you are matters more on the river than your occupation.
As we chatted in the days leading up to our launch, we wondered exactly what to bring. Would this crew wear glitter and paint their nails with us? Should we bring more beers than the typical estimate? Would they want music on the river or at camp?
With six rafts, a cat, three kayaks, one OC1, one ducky, and one packraft, we pushed off into the mighty Yampa flowing at 5,000 CFS. I’d forgotten certain details of the river, rapids, beaches and so on, but as we arrived at Ponderosa camp our first night, feelings and memories came flooding back to me.
I’d spent a few years living in Steamboat Springs and paddled the Yampa many times. The Class III town stretch was a staple of spring and early summer in the Yampa Valley. Miles of Class II riffles and flatwater stretched from Hayden to Little Yampa Canyon and offered mellow floats far from the bustle of downtown Steamboat. Cross Mountain Gorge, just above Deer Lodge was one of my first big Class IV runs in a raft and then in a kayak. The Gorge’s desert walls, warm water, and steep, committing rapids were proving grounds for Routt County boaters. Each stretch of the Yampa held memories, sensations, and pieces of a place I’d once called home.
In a day and age where wild rivers and wild places are not as common as they once were, Yampa Canyon and Echo Park are two particularly special spots. In the 60s, as the Bureau of Reclamation sought dam sites to aid the Western US’s growth and demand for power and water, they seriously considered a spot just downstream from Echo Park at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. The Sierra Club’s David Brower fought hard against the dam in Echo Park and the Bureau eventually set their sights on Glen Canyon instead, which continues to be a controversial decision as climate change impacts Lake Powell.
Whether or not this was the “right” choice is another conversation. No matter the politics, my first time down Gates of Lodore in 2017 captivated me to the point that I became a guide on the Green and Yampa.
My first commercial Yampa Canyon trip was in 2018. When we put on, the river flowed at a bony 1200 CFS and dropped quickly throughout our trip. The other guides showed me how to rig my raft, make coffee on the blaster, cook staple multi-day meals—and slip away from the guests to watch the sun disappear over the canyon walls. We battled raging upstream winds, skunks, and low flows as one often does on desert rivers. My first run through Warm Springs, the notorious rapid created in 1965 after a rock fall into the canyon, was a blur. I bounced off rocks and tried to keep my raft straight in the remaining holes at that flow.
I fell deeply in love on that trip. The Weber sandstone, desert varnish, and juniper trees captured my attention easily. Being the only person accountable for pushing downstream on my gear boat provided me a purpose in a new way, different from paddle guiding or kayaking. The lapping of eddies against my raft tubes as I slept on my boat lulled me to sleep each night and I wanted to never have to leave.
I guided two Yampas that summer and three the next. While I loved rowing boats, the toll of the guide life set in. Accommodating guests made me feel disconnected from all the things I loved most about running rivers. The magic I’d once felt gave way to burnout. I started to resent the heat that I once relished. The canyon walls made me feel trapped and the murmur of crickets that once lulled me to sleep, kept me awake late into the night.
Now, four years later, what would it be like? I felt lucky to have been invited to run Yampa Canyon again, a notoriously difficult section to get a permit for. But I also felt apprehensive. I had social worries like whether my occasionally chaotic personality would fit in with these ‘real adults.’ I had logistical worries. Which raft would my dry bags go on? Had I brought enough snacks and if not, would people share? I had safety worries. How experienced were the boat captains and the other paddlers? Would we be equipped to handle any carnage as a group? And I worried about leaving the outside world for six days. Would something bad happen? Would I miss an important work email?
But in this group of people, my apprehension floated away. I connected most easily with Jim and Nick. Nick was the other kayaker on our trip and Jim’s raft adopted us whenever we weren’t kayaking. Although both were my parents’ age, spending time with them felt as easy as spending time with any other friend.
Jim would poke fun at us and call us “kayaker trash” before happily letting us stow our lap bags on his boat and sharing his cold beverages. Nick was a regular purveyor of chaos, convincing me to cliff jump at camp, scramble over questionable rocks on hikes and sit around the fire a little longer at night. They embraced each wave on the river, each adventure at camp and every moment in between with the kind of pure and genuine joy teenagers express on their first river trip.
I baked Dutch oven pineapple upside-down cake the same golden brown as sections of the canyon walls and danced to Katie Lee in the kitchen with my cooking group. Everyone smeared glitter on our sun-kissed cheeks before big rapids. We played cribbage in the dirt next to the firepan. When Ana and I were too tired or sore to kayak, we climbed on rafts and drank cold beers that hadn’t been rolling around in our sandy boats all day.
We laid in the sun at camp with other women on the trip and laughed as others bumbled around fighting the afternoon heat. We poured whiskey out for our friends taken by the river. Ana and I asked Jim, who has a daughter our age, for dating advice. We burned incense and finished our tequila to cope with the mosquitos at Island Park. Individually, these things may have been unremarkable for a group of friends on a river trip, but for us it was the spark that created what I knew would be lifelong friendships.
It felt less like coincidence and more like serendipity that we camped at many campsites I’d been at on that first Yampa trip (Ponderosa, Harding Hole 2, Laddie Park 1). Snippets of that trip came back to me not only at these sites but throughout the canyon.
The corner above Mantle Ranch where the wind had howled upstream and pushed me into an eddy and a rock wall while I fought my oars; the bend in the river where I had rowed through a downpour; the kitchen spot under the tree at Laddie 1 where another guide, one I would eventually fall in love with, and I had cooked dinner together for the first time. These sweet memories swirled through my head like echoes. We moved through the canyon, and I wanted to close my eyes and live in every moment I’d ever had on that river like a dream. The past ran its hands through my silty hair and cracked skin, tugging my thoughts to pieces of my life I’d left behind.
The joy of the present, however, pulled me back. Over the six days between those canyon walls, I felt connected to both the people around me and the magnificent landscape we existed in together. The desert is not a hospitable landscape, but together we embraced it. Together, we woke with the sun as it peeked over the canyon walls before giving way to the heat of the day. We cared for each other, making sure everyone had enough water, food and cold drinks.
While everyone brings their own things to the put-in, by the time you’re moving downstream life is communal. We shared meals, morning cups of coffee, games, little corners of camp to set up our tents and Paco pads, sunrises, sunsets, discomforts, and triumphs. The Yampa’s beaches delighted our childlike spirits as we ran down under the sun and then let the warm sand cradle us at night.
The Yampa has been a formative river for me. It taught me to be uncomfortable with grace, something I’ve carried with me into the mountains in the winter, into working as a photographer, and into teaching kids how to kayak. It taught me to trust myself—maybe I pulled on my oars where another guide would push, but I had to trust that I’d made the right choice in that moment. In some ways, guiding hardened me. I grew a tough outer shell rather than letting the ebbs and flows of guiding teach me to be vulnerable.
Returning to the river, I saw bits and pieces of this shell scattered across the beaches and canyon walls where it had served me and I felt grateful to have since shed it in favor of softening into others. This trip gave me a chance to return to a place and time in my life I’d moved on from and see it with new eyes.
In the four years since I’d last run the Yampa, I’d left guiding, moved states, graduated college, started a job, left that job to work for myself, and fallen in and out of love with kayaking over and over. I was in many ways a different person than when I last paddled the Yampa and at the same time, the river showed me all the parts of myself that would always be there no matter where I lived, what job I worked, or who I was with.
I will always feel the pull of desert rivers—the warm water, towering geology, and cactus blooms that remind you just how much beauty can grow in the harshest of environments. Why run a river you’ve already run before? To run a river for a job is one thing but to run it for yourself is another. A new line through a rapid just means you’ve found a new perspective on something you thought you’d already figured out. They say you never step in the same river twice, but you can catch an eddy and look back upstream from time to time.