River Time

Our river friend, and Holiday River Expeditions blogger,  Peta Owens-Liston takes her  family of four beyond the Gates of Lodore on a trip where the whole family became balanced together.

BY PETA OWENS-LISTON       PHOTOGRAPHS BY TROY BOMAN

A four-day retreat from electronics and digital distractions would surely open up time for us all to reconnect with one another. Such was the lofty goal as my family of four drove the two-and-a-half hours east of Park City to Vernal, Utah, where we would compress our belongings into waterproof duffel bags and clamber into white-water rafts to begin our first family river trip—a four-day descent on the Green River through a section known as the Gates of Lodore with a veteran river-running company, Holiday River Expeditions. There would be no nagging to hurry up or pick up or “put your shoes on now!” Maybe my voice—the voice of “mom”—would become less like the adult “voices” in the Peanuts cartoons (“mwa-mwaa mwa-mwaa mwaaaa”) and more like that of an actual human being to my 7- and 9-year-old boys.

The group of strangers that pushed off with us into the current—a dermatologist, a yoga instructor, a paralegal, grandparents and grandchildren—were here for the same reasons we were: to disconnect from the gerbil-wheel of busy lives and spend time with each other. The six kids in the group put it more simply: they were there to “get wet, have water fights, and ride the rapids.

As we slipped past the jutted rock-fortress walls of the Gates of Lodore within our first hour on the river, I knew we were in for something much more profound: a humbling and exhilarating experience. John Wesley Powell, who made an historic descent on this river in a rigid wooden boat in 1869, named this stretch after the poem “The Cataract of Ladore,” written by the 19th-century poet Robert Southey. The description of an English river in this poem captured the Green River’s caprice as well in a cascade of participles:

“… And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping

And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing. . .

And this way the water comes down at Lodore.”

Disaster Falls, our first rapid (so named by Powell after he lost a boat here), announced its rumbling presence in echoes off of the canyon walls as we approached. I wrapped one arm around my younger son and clung to a secure handle with the other, as we all whooped and hollered—with the fright of Halloween and the joy of Christmas morning all wrapped up together. TBurd, our bearded, sun-bronzed guide, assured us he was on good terms with the river god. The outfitter’s strict adherence to safety rules (life jackets on at all times, repeated reviews of the proper safety measures in the event that anyone might get tossed into the water) put me more at ease.

Above another rapid, Hells Half Mile, we all walked along a worn path to a lookout point to view the froth and rocks, listening as the guides scouted their line through the rapid below. ‘Plan A, go right of Lucifer (a large boulder); plan B, left of it; plan C, square right over it,” determined the trip leader, Kerry Jones, who has navigated his way through this Class IV rapid hundreds of times in his 28 years on the river.

Between rapids, the river’s tranquility was quietly punctuated by sapphire dragonflies darting and skimming the water’s surface and by palm-size butterflies alighting on gear. With an ample supply of cold drinks and numerous opportunities to take a dip in the cool, clear water, we welcomed the hot July sun. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep paused in their riverside grazing to watch us humans float by. The epic landscape of steep, ruddy cliffs seemed to reveal half the age of the world in its weathered layers. Geologic monoliths that once witnessed the lives of dinosaurs and later entombed their bones loomed overhead. The discoveries of nine different types of dinosaurs in the early 1900s prompted this area to be designated Dinosaur National Monument.

Whenever anyone asked about the time of day, there was always just one response: “It’s river time.” After the first day, I understood why. Time loses its shape on the river, becoming fluid like the water itself. Seconds were measured by waves lapping the shoreline; minutes, by the sunset’s light show on the canyon walls. Hours were spent racing into the river, swimming behind a raft, hiking to waterfalls (even standing beneath one), deciphering Fremont Indian pictographs, ringing a horseshoe, catching a Frisbee, counting stars, or drinking cold beers and making s’mores around a camp-fire, watching with admiration as the crew turned out meals I’d expect to find only on restaurant menus: fajitas and fish tacos, grilled polenta and portobello mushrooms, raspberry-topped cheesecake.

But mostly, river time was about leading a different kind of life. As my younger son and I shared an inflatable kayak on a quiet stretch of water, we spotted an osprey, guessed the heights of cliffs, and giggled through bumpy ripples. “Dad, look at me,” my son kept shouting as he maneuvered the paddles and learned to steer on his own. You don’t learn this stuff in a video game … or get splashed, either.

On the final morning of our trip, my husband and I joined some of the guests for morning stretches on the beach (compliments of the yoga instructor). Standing in Tree Pose, I focused on the sheer strength of the red canyon wall rising across the river. I breathed in deeply, wobbling, but steadier than I was the first day on the river. As I exhaled, I noticed my sons joining us; they had grins on their faces, but each took hold of the pose. It was the moment I’d been waiting for: the whole family balanced together.

Peta Owens-Liston writes destination pieces, profiles, and health/news stories for magazines including Sunset, Via, and Time.

Things to Bring

Your rafting company will supply a packing list, but here are a few handy things to consider adding: Children’s Benadryl (for bug bites)…Moisturizing lotion…Kleenex…Light travel towel…Big ziplock bags for organizing your duffel bag…A journal…Battery-operated blow-up mattresses…Long-sleeve, lightweight white shirts and knee-length skirt/shorts (dries fast, provides sun coverage, and deflects sun)…Fanny pack… Extra hat with lanyard…Sunglasses retainer cord

About Vernal

With most river trips on the Yampa and Green Rivers leaving near sunrise, you’ll want to spend a night in Vernal beforehand. But the town is also a natural springboard into Dinosaur National Monument, so spend at least an extra day on dry land if you can.

  • 111 Grab a late breakfast at Betty’s Cafe (416 W Main St; 435.781.2728), and then walk down Main Street to the Utah Field House of Natural History Museum and tread carefully in its Dinosaur Garden (496 E Main St; stateparks.utah.gov/parks/field-house; 435-789-3799).
  • Nearby, the Quarry Steakhouse is a popular place for pub grub and a cold microbrew on tap (25 S Vernal Ave; 435.789.2337).
  • About 20 miles east of Vernal, look for the Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument (4545 E Hwy 40; nps.gov/dino; 435.781.7700), where more than 2,000 bones are exposed in a 200-foot-long wall. (While the quarry is closed for renovation until fall 2011, the Fossil Discovery Hiking- Trail is open and allows visitors to see dinosaur fossils embedded in the cliff face.)
  • Vernal’s Main Street is lined with motel options; we found the Best Western Antlers to be clean and reasonable (423 W Main St; bestwesternutah.com/hotels/best-western-antlers; 435.789.1202).