Why Conservation Matters: Rafting the Green River’s Gates of Lodore

By Michael Lanza

The momentarily sedate current of the Green River pulls our flotilla of five rafts and two kayaks toward what looks like a geological impossibility: a gigantic cleft at least a thousand feet deep, where the river appears to have chopped a path right through the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah. Sheer, cracked cliffs of burgundy-brown rock frame the gap. Box elder, juniper, and a few cottonwoods grow on broad sand bars backed by tiered walls that seem to reach infinitely upward and backward, eclipsing broad swaths of blue sky. A great blue heron stalks fish by the riverbank. We notice movement on river left and glance over to see two bighorn sheep dash up a rocky canyon wall so steep that none of us can imagine even walking up it.

These are the Gates of Lodore, portal to a canyon as famous today for its scenery and wilderness character as it was infamous for the catastrophes suffered by its first explorers, who set out in wooden boats a century and a half ago to map the West’s greatest river system.

Much has certainly changed since John Wesley Powell’s historic journey through the Canyon of Lodore. But thanks to conservation struggles in the past—decades before the teenagers among us were born—much about the canyons incised deeply into the ancient layers of rock here in Dinosaur National Monument remains the same as Powell saw.

Rafting through Whirlpool Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument.
Whirlpool Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument.

And yet, we live in a time when the lessons of history seem in danger of drowning in muddy political waters where facts are described as “alternative” and truths are reshaped to suit the agendas of the powerful. The story of how these canyons narrowly avoided concrete walls that would have transformed rivers into reservoirs feels like an intensely relevant one to impart to another generation.

Our party of 30—friends and family ranging in age from 12 to their sixties, including seven kids and five guides with Holiday River Expeditions—has launched on one of the West’s classic, multi-day, wilderness river trips: floating the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument, on the Utah-Colorado border. Covering 44 river miles in four days, we’ll run a handful of class III and IV rapids, three of which Powell gave ominous names: Disaster Falls, Triplet Falls, and Hells Half Mile. We’ll also dayhike to see prehistoric pictographs, stand beneath icy waterfalls, and spot more bighorn sheep than any of us has ever seen on one trip.

As we float toward Upper and Lower Disaster Falls that first afternoon in Lodore, I suspect some of us are thinking about Powell’s account of his party’s encounter with these rapids—where they lost a boat.

On June 9, 1869, Powell wrote: “I see the boat strike a rock, careen and fill with water. The men lose their oars; she strikes another rock with great force, is broken in two, and the men are thrown into the river.” Three days later, he wrote: “As Ashley and his party were wrecked here, and as we have lost one of our boats, we adopt the name Disaster Falls for the scene of so much peril and loss.”

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Joe Lovelace kayaking Upper Disaster Falls, Lodore Canyon.
Joe Lovelace kayaking Upper Disaster Falls, Lodore Canyon.

But we see a different Green River today than Powell did, its flow now harnessed by the Flaming Gorge Dam, almost 50 river miles upstream from the Gates of Lodore. While the difficulty of the rapids varies with seasonal fluctuations in water level, the Green River no longer courses through the canyon of mystery that Powell explored. And our guides have scores of descents of this river between them.

One by one, each boat drops into the growling throat of the class III rapid, squeezing safely through a tight pinch between two boulders and avoiding an intimidating “hole” where recirculating water could flip a fully loaded raft. I watch my 15-year-old son, Nate, his expression serious and focused as he paddles his kayak flawlessly through the trip’s first big rapid. In another raft, my 13-year-old daughter, Alex, and two of her best friends scream more with delight than fear through their 30 seconds of thrill in Disaster Falls. Powell’s team never knew how much fun this could be.

By early evening, we stop to camp on a sprawling, sandy beach at Pot Creek. Across the river, a sheer cliff the color of dried blood rises hundreds of feet. One of the parents in our group, Amy Steckel, tells me, “This is probably the nicest campsite I’ve ever seen.”

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Hells Half Mile

We stand on ledges above a chaotic train wreck of boulders and thunderous whitewater, the rapid that Powell named Hells Half Mile. We’ve arrived to scout it in time to watch a private party of rafts run it—conveniently serving as our guinea pigs. As they drop in one at a time, one raft gets pinned atop a boulder near the bottom of the rapids. After at least 20 minutes of failed attempts to rock the boat free, someone from one of the group’s other rafts throws a rope out from the far riverbank and they pull the raft free.

It’s early on our second afternoon, another sunny and hot July day. Wind blows up the canyon, although not as strongly as yesterday afternoon. We’ve already run the rapids called Harp Falls—so low we didn’t have to scout it—and Triplet Falls, where we spent close to an hour scouting. As the name implies, it consists of three sections of rapids, the last of them the trickiest, a slot not much wider than a raft, where the current could pin a boat against a rock the size of a school bus. But every boat ran it without a hiccup.

Our guides point at different spots in the melee of churning liquid, strategizing how to navigate through Hells Half Mile. Lead guide Dave Snee, an experienced river rat in his thirties, whose long hair and hipster mien belies the seriousness he brings to his job, stands with three guides in their twenties, Larkin Jameson, Erika Bash, and Trevor Fredrickson. Nearby, our fifth raft oarsman, Larry Huie, who introduces himself as “Sherpa,” doesn’t look the age he confesses to: 66. Sherpa began his river guiding career here in 1976—about a quarter-century before these kids in our party were born.

They concur on taking the rafts down the gullet of Hell, a narrow tongue of green water flanked by white foam and big, scary-looking rocks. We’ll have to avoid a couple of large, recirculating holes about halfway down, and below them, skirt right of a massive boulder mid-river. To most of us, it looks daunting. Nate and other group’s other kayaker, Joe Lovelace, a Middlebury College student, decide they will swing right of the first two holes, punch down the middle, and then Joe will peel right into the final hole “just to see what it’s like,” while Nate will take a slightly tamer line to the left.

Dave and Trevor run their rafts first, as the rest of us watch from the ledges. They make it look almost easy. Then we all return to our boats to follow. Nate and Joe nail the line they intended. Joe tells me afterward that Nate “went exactly where we planned to go.”

Marco Garofalo meets a bighorn sheep in Lodore Canyon.
Marco Garofalo meets a bighorn sheep in Lodore Canyon.

Later, drifting lazily in calmer water, we let the boats spin us through panoramas of soaring, multi-colored cliffs. While Disaster and Hells—as well as Harp and Triplet in higher water—do occasionally even flip or pin rafts that have a guide at the helm, much of this trip is a slow, gentle float, staring up at rock layers older than the dinosaurs whose abundant fossils spurred the creation of this national monument. (We saw the roughly 1,500 fossils at the monument’s Quarry Exhibit Hall the day before launching on the Green—a must-see stop in Dinosaur. See link at bottom of story.)

Though certainly not nearly as deep, vast, or geologically significant, Lodore Canyon has something of a Grand Canyon quality to it, with long stretches of easy water between rapids, and the walls rising higher as we float down canyon. And we’re seeing much more wildlife than I’ve ever seen in the Grand Canyon.

We float past a couple of mule deer with two fawns in tow, and a while later, two bighorn sheep rams, with their thick, curved horns, grazing at the riverbank—among the five bighorn we spot today alone. “I’ve never seen so many bighorn sheep in one day,” my wife, Penny, says. Her 23-year-old niece, Natalie Beach, says, “I’ve never seen a bighorn sheep!”

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The Dam That Almost Drowned Echo Park

Our boats glide slowly past the base of Steamship Rock, a sheer, golden wall, streaked with black water stains, rising for hundreds of feet straight up out of the water. Across the canyon, about a half-mile away, more water-streaked cliffs and buttes stand like a city of petrified skyscrapers. Between these walls, the Yampa River slides lazily into the Green, the confluence so still that the tan waters display a mirror-sharp reflection of the canyon walls.

On our third morning, we’ve entered Echo Park, a breathtaking spot where the Green exits Lodore Canyon and enters Whirlpool Canyon—a junction of rivers that came perilously close to disappearing.

When in a place named Echo Park, there is one thing you must do.

Sitting in Larkin’s raft, my 18-year-old nephew, Marco Garofalo, who flew out from Massachusetts for this trip, 13-year-old Ava Steckel, whose family has joined us from Boise, and I take turns yelling into the still, warm air. Each time, after a delay of several seconds, our words bounce back to us as crisply as we spoke them.

Echo Park in Whirlpool Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument.
Echo Park in Whirlpool Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument.

Echo Park came perilously close to being submerged under a reservoir—and the decision to do that would have been made by people 2,000 miles away, most of whom had never seen it. It isn’t a reservoir because of a conservation battle now recognized as one of the great victories in the movement’s history—and a victory for all Americans.

In the 1950s, the proposed Colorado River Storage Project would have erected two dams in Dinosaur National Monument: a wall 500 feet tall at Echo Park, a short distance downstream from this confluence, which would have backed up both the Green and Yampa rivers for miles, beyond the monument’s boundaries; and a second dam at Split Mountain, where our trip will end tomorrow. The project would have completely inundated these magnificent canyons—submerging the rapids in these canyons, the rich habitat for bighorn sheep and other wildlife, and invaluable archeological sites of human history. Led by the Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower, a coalition of conservation groups fought the proposal, rallying enough public opposition to persuade Congress to remove the dams in Dinosaur from the project.

Had their efforts failed—or if no one had even attempted to fight those dams—my family and our friends would not be floating down this remarkable canyon today. These canyons are the compelling evidence of the wisdom in protecting pristine rivers, mountains, and other areas in nature forever, rather than destroying them for short-term economic gain.

That victory may be decades old, but the work of conservation seems never done. Today, in fact, it once again looms as important as ever.

‘Any Fool Can Destroy Trees’

Some members of Congress, state legislators, and county elected officials in the West are lately rolling out proposals to “take back” federal public lands into state ownership. This is mostly a partisan con job: These elected officials are consistently Republicans with financial support from mining, oil and gas, and other extractive industries. They make the historically incorrect and deceitful claim that the states once owned or controlled federal lands within their borders.

They also hustle the false promise that state governments can manage these lands better than the federal government does now. It’s a brazen lie. Most state budgets would plunge into the red just trying to pay for the first major wildfire. The result of any state takeover of federal lands—as many advocates for it have acknowledged—would be states selling off those lands to private interests, who would maximize their profits by cutting off public access and exploiting the lands for natural resources.

This is a political shell game with the highest consequences: At stake is public access to lands that we, as citizens, have always owned. The federal government controls 640 million acres of public land that we all use for rafting, kayaking, hiking, backpacking, climbing, fishing, hunting, skiing, camping, horseback riding. Those lands support an outdoor industry that pumps $646 billion into the U.S. economy—more than the auto industry.

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The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 191 million acres of public lands, was created expressly to protect our forests from rapacious exploitation by the logging and mining industries in the late-19th century. Supporters of today’s movement for state takeover of federal lands in the West are just the latest in a long line of shameless charlatans.

In an 1897 article in the Atlantic Monthly, John Muir wrote: “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides… God has cared for these trees, saved them… but he cannot save them from fools—only Uncle Sam can do that.”

Guide/Outfitter Holiday River Expeditions, BikeRaft.com. See the monument’s website (below) for a complete list of outfitters.

Contact Dinosaur National Monument, nps.gov/dino.

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1 thought on “Why Conservation Matters: Rafting the Green River’s Gates of Lodore”

  1. Michael, a great and timely article. I’m actually scheduled for a Sierra Club rafting trip in August to the Green River and Dinosaur National Monument.

    You make a great case for conservation of our precious and beautiful lands in the West. We all need to spread the word about these issues and fight to protect our public lands from becoming privatized and destroyed. Can I share this article on Facebook?