We had planned on doing the Salmon, pre-permit required time, but when my brother informed me that a friend of ours had a Gates of Ladore permit (incredibly hard to come by), and a quick web search said Utah and high desert, we ditched the Salmon and joined the new trip. We were very pleased with our choice.
Since the Gates of Ladore is only a four-day trip, we wanted to get our money’s worth on our trip and started off by running Westwater Canyon. This section of the Colorado is rated Class III-IV, and nothing we saw on video concerned us too much. We were cocky enough to think that we could run it in my shredder, but when we got to the put-in and applied for the permit we saw that the water was big enough to put the frame on his Avon Pro.
Our BLM check-in ranger was intense. I think he wanted to tell us we couldn’t go, but since he couldn’t find a justification he settled for scaring us instead. Our biggest concern was that we were literally the only boat on this section of the Colorado; the water level is called the terrible teens by local boaters, and they stay away, so if we screwed up there was no one else to look to for help.
Being not all that smart, we ran it. We took two days – the trip is only 17 miles so it is possible to bomb it in a day – and spent our only night in a beautiful, lonely canyon wondering if we had bitten off more than we could chew. Luckily, when we dropped into the Marble Canyon section (yep, it’s named just like the similar section on the Grand Canyon), we were able to handle it, even though as promised the eddy lines and hydraulics were fierce and a swim would have been measured in miles. Skull Rock is the last big rapid of the section, and the prow formed by Skull Rock had a big fierce boiling wave coming off it, with the added bonus of the eddy to the right of the prow forming a room of doom that would be deadly to a swimmer and impossible to ferry out of in a raft.
We popped the diagonal coming off the left-hand boulder pile and were in the clear. The rest of the trip was two miles of beautiful desert river, as the Colorado leaves Westwater Canyon and heads to meet the Green in Canyonlands. We took out at the ghost town of Cisco, Utah, and our way out saw multiple pronghorn antelope framed by the La Sal mountains.
The Gates of Ladore is special to me because it’s one of John Wesley Powell’s first trips, and in my mind he’s an American hero who we do not hear enough about. We made the mistake of paddling three days and forty miles of flatwater before we got to it (protip: no need to run this section), but the Gates themselves were unmistakeable, marking another gorge into which the river, this time the Green, drops.
The canyon itself is amazing, with multiple geographic formations and seemingly a new geological era exposed with every bend. We saw osprey fishing, Dall sheep meandering their way down to the water to drink, and beaver and otter doing beaver and otter things. As with many Western high desert rivers, the beaches that we camped on are surreal mini-oases, with plentiful box elders, scrub oaks, and cottonwood trees, and I nearly always (barring mosquitoes) slept under the stars. We also met the Yampa after day two, and that confluence marked the beginning of a collection of petroglyphs that I urge you to do a web search for. All that we saw were easily viewable with either a short hike or from the boats.
The group of fifteen was nearly all composed of West Virginia raft guide types. We are all older and hopefully smarter, but everyone who either rowed or paddled has guided a combination of the New, Gauley, Cheat, and Upper Yough, so we had a lot of whitewater experience, and with the exception of me some amazing boaters. We also had some friends along who did not row, but a couple of them served as willing victims as I paddled my shredder. I gave them a day off and duckied one ten mile section, which was mostly Class II whitewater.
The only reminder of how dangerous our sport can be happened as we landed at Triplett beach, our camp for night two. We had seen National Park Service helicopters a few minutes before, and that’s rarely a good sign, so we suspected that something had happened when we saw the trip before us pulled up on the beach on river left. They were shook – they were mostly young and had arrived just in time to try to rescue someone who had body-pinned in the rapid immediately below. The person did not make it, as the commercial boat on which he was a passenger had dumped him when the guide buried an oar. His life jacket came off, and he was swept into a nasty boulder pile at the end of the rapid. The Park Service ran the rest of the trip for them, and the sudden presence of the power of whitewater sobered us all.
We ran that rapid and Hell’s Half Mile – Powell exaggerated when he ran it, as it was probably not quite that long – without incident the next day, and finished the trip with seventeen miles of big-canyon, continuous Class II-III whitewater, courtesy of the 10,000+ cfs the Yampa had added to the Green. After a near-mishap cleaning the groover we packed up, had dinner in Vernal, Utah, and resumed our normal lives.
I grew up on West Virginia/North Carolina whitewater – granite and sandstone gorges, cut through narrow channels, with lots of greenery and awe-inspiring fun. I will always, however, love Western desert rivers, whether in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, eastern Oregon, or California, for the geology, the flora and fauna, and the ability to escape from our relentlessly plugged in lives.