A Float on the Wild Side
In the summer of ’65 a landslide forever changed one of America’s most beautiful rivers—the Yampa River. O.A.R.S. founder George Wendt witnessed it all.
The roar was so all-encompassing that George Wendt couldn’t hear the pounding on his outhouse door and the screams from two feet away. The world was melting in white noise. An inch of rain had fallen in about three minutes and now the lightning cracked across the western canyon sky in fast, strobe-like bursts. It was 55 degrees out and Wendt and some college friends were four days into a five-day rafting trip on the Yampa River of northwest Colorado. It was June 10, 1965, and the trip was one of many for Wendt in the last of a series of carefree summers before the real world set in. The group had already cleared a small set of rapids about four miles upstream of the river’s confluence with the Green and set up camp at a backcountry site near two draws choked with junipers and rock. On a sunny day this area, the Warm Springs region of the Yampa, is spectacular with booming sandstone cliffs and blue-ribbon sky. When the storm let loose, huddling in a dry outhouse seemed to be the safest place to be.
Bruce Julian, Wendt’s friend from boyhood, stood outside in the torrent, laying his fists into the outhouse door. Each time he pounded his plea would flatten under peels of thunder that had grown into the steady racket of a kettle drum. Julian sprinted to a second outhouse, which was unlocked, and found two other friends hiding in there, Noel Boykin and his girlfriend Karen Meister. When the earth began to shake under their feet, the world melted for real.
The landslide that rocked the Warm Springs and Iron Mine draws and the Big Joe drainage 50 years ago this summer would stick with the rafters for the rest of their lives. A beast of liquified earth and stove-size rocks tore out of the side canyons with such ferocity that it churned through the ancient trees as if they were toothpicks. By the time it was over, more than 33 million pounds of debris—enough to fill the floor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—would sluice into the Yampa River, dam it, then breach and transform a minor wave train into one of the most famous river rapids of the West. Soon after, a rafter would die in them.
Watch the 20-minute film: River in a Natural State which recounts the story of the formation of Warm Springs rapid as told by the people who were there.
“It was the most incredible force of nature, something I’ll never forget,” Wendt says. “I feel very fortunate to have survived.”
In many ways, luck had brought the group together. Wendt, Julian and Boykin grew up together in Pacific Palisades of Southern California. Wendt was a fairly sheltered city kid but that began to change in the ninth grade, when two Stanford graduates, John Daggett and Bill Beer, talked to his school about their harrowing 26-day swim through the Grand Canyon. Wendt’s lifelong fascination with water had begun.
By 1962, when Wendt was a history student at UCLA, he and a friend fashioned a raft out of inner tubes and plywood and floated 187 miles down the Colorado River through Utah’s doomed Glen Canyon. Soon the United States Bureau of Reclamation would turn the river into placid Lake Powell with the Glen Canyon Dam. It was one of the last free-flowing float trips anyone would ever take through the canyon.
“The whole thing was so fun and mind-boggling that you could travel 15 miles a day so easily,” Wendt said, recalling that first trip. “It was clear we needed better crafts if we were going to keep doing this.”
His fortunes changed again the following year when two friends approached him with an offer to chip in on four military surplus rafts with all the rigging that had come up for sale for $300, the equivalent of about $2,300 in today’s dollars—a steal today as it was back then. “They said, ‘Do you want in for $100?’” Wendt recalled. He did.
It would not be long before he’d get a chance to use the gear. In the summer of 1965, just as the Rolling Stones had released a song about satisfaction, Julian, who was by then a 23-year-old graduate from Cal Tech, called up his old friend Wendt, who was about to start a teaching career, with an idea: Take one of his rafts and two 18-foot foldable kayaks down the Yampa, a 250-mile long river first mentioned by explorer John Frémont in 1843.
Maps were still somewhat wanting by 1965 but the Yampa had a reputation for being pretty straightforward and gorgeous as it muscled through one of President Woodrow Wilson’s greatest environmental legacies: the dualstate, 209,744-acre Dinosaur National Monument.
Two other Cal Tech students, Doug McDowell and Steve Wolfe, wanted in, as did Boykin and Meister. They loaded up and rolled out on an adventure they would never forget.
A few days later, on June 7, 1965, the group of six set out with two foldboats and one rubber raft from a putin called Lilly Park. They accidentally left all the beer back in the car but a more serious hiccup unfolded the next day when McDowell hit a large wave in a rapid called Teepee that swamped a foldboat and pitched him overboard. The boat ghosted against rocks for more than a mile, breaking its frame and ripping its hull, but McDowell was OK. All of the maps, the peanut butter and at least two paddles were gone.
“Due to some kind of miracle, none of these mishaps was totally debilitating,” Wolfe recounted. They reconfigured the passengers and gear and day three went by in a blur.
On June 10, shortly before the final camp at Warm Springs, the sky unzipped in earnest. A storm was gathering over Starvation Canyon, which drains into the Yampa at Warm Springs, where the group portaged the remaining foldboat around a minor set of rapids. They piloted the raft through without incident.
“I went back to get my gear and by then it was pouring, so I took refuge in this little cabin that was there,” Julian recalled. George recalls going with him. They thumbed through a 1935 Sears catalogue that’d been left behind (suits for $7.95!) but soon realized waiting was futile. “Bruce said, ‘We are already soaked. Let’s go down to camp,’” Wendt remembers. The decision saved their lives.
Back at camp, Wendt huddled in the outhouse as the storm intensified. Rivulets of water soon turned into rivers, then a violent debris flow totally obliterated the cabin and everything that had been around it. Wolfe and McDowell, who’d been down by the river, ran uphill in a panic, their ponchos flying behind them like capes. Julian screamed for Wendt to open up the outhouse but Wendt couldn’t hear him.
“I had no idea what was happening,” Wendt said.
“When I did look outside I saw my raft spinning in an eddy upstream of where it’d been. It was my prized possession so I went to get it.”
Wendt waded into the river and recovered the boat as the others screamed for him to return to safety. The slide had dammed the river but it wouldn’t hold for long. When it did burst, the rapid, now choked with new debris, had grown into a vicious riot of boat-eating whitewater.
In the end, the group made it to the take-out at Echo Park the next day, where Wendt ran into Al Holland, a boatman for Hatch River Expeditions. Holland, now 68, had made it through the new Warm Springs rapids unscathed. One of his companions, Les Oldham, hadn’t been so lucky. He capsized and disappeared. Rescuers recovered his body 17 days later.
The others went home, but Julian and Wendt immediately took off for their inaugural run through the Grand Canyon, a trip that would inspire Wendt to found a company that would grow into O.A.R.S. a few years later.
“That summer changed my life,” says Wendt, now 73. “That rapid was so formidable after the debris flow but nature has modified it over the years. The river, like life, keeps moving for all of us.”
This article originally appeared in the O.A.R.S. 2015 Adventures catalog. Order your FREE copy here. Photos: Justin Bailie, Susan Bruce