Low Water in the Canyon of Lodore

Launch on June 22, 2002

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Snowpack in the Rocky Mountain west was abysmal during the winter of 2001-2002, particularly in the middle and southern states. But we had a Lodore permit. There's about a 5 % chance of being drawn in the lottery for this trip each year. I'd applied during the winter, thinking: "I'm not going to get this anyway, so I'll put down the date I really want and a Saturday to boot." I got it.
The wheels turned at the Dinosaur National Monument river office while I was off bicycling in Vietnam. Notice of having been selected came in the mail. Snow was still not falling in the west.

Given the poor chance of ever being drawn again, it wasn't a matter of putting off the trip for a year. It was either do it, or don't.

I didn't know what I'd see when we got to the river, but there was actually water in it! A little bit of water, about 850 cfs, controlled by Flaming Gorge Dam upstream.

We set up the cataraft and pitched a tent for the evening. Smoke from the fires seemed to be touching off thunderstorms, and one of them arrived about dark. Not much rain, but high winds nearly caved the tent in.

We were off reasonably early in the morning, and sandbars weren't really a problem on the half mile or so from the launch to the Gates of Lodore.

Cataraft ready at the Gates of Lodore launch
The river was straightforward enough down through Winnies Rapid, though there was a flash flood about a year ago that put a claw rock into the left side of a small rapid at mile 239. It has torn bottoms out of boats! If you enter without scouting, you'll probably decide to go right. That's a fine entry, but it gets you stuck on a bunch of rocks that are farther down. It's a quick and simple scout on the right. You'll probably decide to enter the left side, right up against the claw rock. The channel isn't very wide, but the runout is clear. This place is called Blackwater Rapid, after the color of the water immediately following the flash flood.
The Gates of Lodore

On down to Upper Disaster Falls, where the scout is from an eddy above-left. At more normal levels, you just select which slot you want to run in here. At low water, you need to enter as far left on the tongue as you can, and then pull hard left to avoid a row of large rocks. That's the very first part of Disaster Falls. The rest of it goes right around a sometimes-island, but I can't begin to tell how to do it. You just have to avoid the rocks, and there are many. It's a long rapid, and Lower Disaster follows quickly. For us, it was down to Kolb Camp for the night.

The next day was only five miles, but it included Triplet Falls and Hell's Half Mile. I started to scout a rapid that looked like Triplet but wasn't. A river ranger came down the river just then and offered to lead us through Triplet, but I wanted to scout it for myself and did. I walked down before the ranger got there, and he ran it just like I'd scouted it. Caution: Scout Triplet all the way to the end! At low water there's another tricky move you have to make at the very end of the rapid. First comes a rock garden, then a sharp left turn into a middle chute, and then the tricky rocks at the end. Scout it all! You'll probably decide to work left in the rock garden, and then pull over toward the right at a certain point.

Hell's Half Mile isn't a half mile long. The tough part at the top is less than 50 yards long, then a rock garden follows. One guidebook suggests that "Hell's Half Kilometer" would be more accurate! Powell gave the rapid its name. The river narrows into a chute, and there's a big rock named Lucifer (hole at higher water) you need to miss. Having done that, the rest of the rapid is just picking your way down among rocks, and has never been a particular problem. It was tricky at this low level, though, particularly right at the end.

Blackwater Rapid
The claw rock is just on the far side of the far tongue.
My own run in Hell's Half Mile was terrible--my worst in 20 years, anywhere. Since our last trip, I'd wondered about going around the rock to the left and had resolved then to do it. But something at the last second made me change my mind and I went right instead on that trip. This time, the left looked even better. More water appeared to go that way, and the runout was clear.

But though I pulled hard, the boat wouldn't move that way and we hit the rock. We actually ended up spinning off to the right, having tried to go left! I suspect there's something about the way the rapid sets you up that doesn't allow you to pull to the left in there, though some go that way. Going left just didn't work for me, but I wouldn't know that if I hadn't tried. Moving to the right has never been a big problem, and that's what I'll do on any future trips.

Top part, Upper Disaster Falls
It was a tough five miles to our camp at Wild Mountain, but a beautiful moonrise over the river happened later that evening and made a fine ending to the day. I like the assigned camps on Dinosaur National Monument trips. It means there's no camp-competition or camp running. Your camp is there when you arrive.
The river mellowed as it flowed down past the mouth of the Yampa (which I later learned had been putting in about 350 cfs) and around Steamboat Rock at Echo Park. Then into the head of Whirlpool Canyon, where the entrance resembles a little Gates of Lodore. It's the same red rock. Whirlpool is where a large block has been uplifted, so you see the rocks that plunged underneath the river in the lower end of Lodore. You see them in the same sequence. The rocks dip downstream in both places.
Raft in Hell's Half Mile

A treat on a Lodore trip is the fine walk up Jones Creek! We camped at Jones #2 and started up the trail rather late in the afternoon--about 6:30. This is a delightful trail, and you reach a junction after about two miles. It's less than a quarter mile up to Ely Creek Falls, where a shower awaits you. Cold to be sure, but still a shower. Felt wonderful!

You can also walk into Ely Creek Falls (and all the way down to Jones Hole) by driving to the fish hatchery that's another two miles up the creek. I've never been there, but walking in from the hatchery is on my short list of things to do. It would be eight miles round trip to the Green River, plus the distance up to the falls and back. Probably to the falls twice--coming and going! The trail past Ely Creek Falls continues eight miles to Island Park, which would be a second way to walk there.

There are several rapids on down Whirlpool Canyon. Almost all rapids on the trip are rocky at such low water and I'd raise their normal classifications by one (or often two) on a ten-scale of difficulty. Not because of giant waves or holes, but because you must pick your way among the obstacles.

Island Park was a surprise. I thought it would be a fight against sandbars and wind. But the water mostly followed just one channel with decent current, and we'd gotten an early start from Jones Hole to avoid wind. There was almost none! We got across Island Park swiftly and had a bit more trouble with sandbars in Rainbow Park.

Once into Split Mountain, the river was a bit faster and there were more rocky rapids. Moonshine was just a matter of finding deep water. SOB had no clear way to go, so we ended up maneuvering our way through on the left. Schoolboy was a delight, with a long train of good sized, evenly spaced standing waves down that left channel. It was much rougher than it usually is and the waves even reminded me of Soap Creek in the Grand, because coming down off each wave you're looking into the transparent green wall of the next. Inglesby was another rapid without a good route anywhere, so we slithered over a few of the rounded rocks on the left.

I've never run Split Mountain when the Yampa was putting out water. It would be a very different experience then. A friend told me it's straightforward.

Later in the 2002 season, there will be almost no water from the Yampa. So watch those rocks below Echo Park!

Head of Whirlpool Canyon
Ely Creek Falls
The last quarter mile before the Split Mountain takeout is particularly beautiful, as the Green River slices through Weber Sandstone to the boat ramp. The takeout itself is one of the few I know about that is beautiful! A fitting end to a fine trip, even at low water.