By: Justin Malloy
“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” -Ernest Shackleton, 1914
Adversity has a way of strengthening the bonds between us and promoting growth within us, potentially changing the fabric of our character. After facing the toughest of adversity, we generally come out the other side changed for the better. I have found this sentiment to be true for river trips as well. Someone who is unfamiliar with camping or the outdoors will be challenged more than the seasoned camper, and therefor find more room for growth through the experience. A group of people faced with cold weather and rain, rather than sunny skies, will form bonds that otherwise may not happen. Many of our van drivers will say their favorite part of the job is seeing the changes in people between dropping the group off before the trip and picking them up after. While the most challenging river trip I’ve been on does not rival Shackleton’s adventure, it promoted growth and strengthened friendships for everyone who was on it, and we all came back a little stronger than we left.
The trip was a five-day Yampa River expedition launching on May 15, 2017. The guests consisted of two groups: six close friends of seasoned travelers from San Diego, and two longtime ski patrollers from Jackson, Wyoming who had been friends for years. Such a small group only requires two boats, so Larkin and myself were the only guides on the trip. A “two guide trip” tends to entail more work for each of us, but Larkin and I were veterans who had worked together enough to feel comfortable with the workload. We had all seen the forecast calling for cold weather that week, but were holding out hope for a bit of luck and a lot of sunshine. Luck was with us the first day, as it was fairly sunny and warm. However, whether it was the fear of a coming storm or just normal jitters that come with meeting new people, I felt a palpable anxiety from the group during the morning van ride.
After two sunny days on the river, we woke up on the morning of day three to the familiar pitter-patter of rain on our tents. By the time our boats were loaded and we were ready to push off the beach, the light rain had turned to snow. Big, puffy snowflakes fell from the sky seemingly in slow motion. For me, it was the most surreal moment I had experienced on the river, and perhaps the most beautiful. The accumulating white snow, contrasted with the red rock sandstone and green desert trees, was awe-inspiring.
The cold was some formidable adversity, for sure. Guides and guests alike offered whatever spare warm layers they had to anyone who was ill prepared. We got out tarps and umbrellas to shield ourselves from the moisture. As a guide on the oars, I was thankful for the activity to keep my blood flowing and body warm. One of the ski patrollers realized she didn’t want to be stationary, so she hopped in one of the inflatable kayaks as a way to keep her body temperature up. Others chose to get up and do jumping jacks, bust out some dance moves, or take a turn on the oars in order to stay warm. An endless stream of jokes and stories were shared to keep our spirits up and our minds off the cold.
Thankfully, as if the River Gods knew our plight, the clouds parted and the sun emerged just in time for our big rapid of the day, Warm Springs. We ended the day on the water with good runs and a short row down to our camp. We got a fire going immediately and everyone pitched in getting camp set up. Suddenly, it was no longer a “two guide trip”, but ten people all pitching in as equals. The rain had come back as a drizzle by the time we were cooking dinner, but it let up not long after and we all made ourselves cozy by the fire to share stories and birthday cake.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent for the second day in a row. After checking the time and seeing I had another 15 minutes until I needed to get out of bed, I let out a groan, rolled over, and did my best to will the rain to go away. It seemed my wish was granted, as the pitter-patter stopped, so I got up to start coffee water. However, the cessation of sound was a cruel trick, as the rain had turned to snow.
We started another fire and did our best to enjoy our pancakes. Although some of us struggled to stay positive, there was always an offering of levity or a helping hand. We all took advantage of the previous evenings’ fire to dry some of our clothes and shoes, but Larkin hadn’t noticed a hole that had melted in her rubber boot until she had climbed into a bucket of hot water in an attempt to warm her feet. Despite the soaked sock, she put a smile on and enjoyed the fleeting warmth. Once again, we loaded up and pushed off for another snowy day on the water.
The day before had taught me that we needed to break the day up in order to move our bodies, so we stopped for a quick hike at Echo Park, checked out a rock art panel, and found some comfort from the snow in Whispering Cave. A volunteer park ranger from Michigan, his third day on the job, greeted us upon our return to the boats. “Is it always like this?” he asked me. I assured him it wasn’t, in fact, always cold and snowing in the desert, and to enjoy it the best he could, as the 98 degree temperatures were surely around the corner.
At lunch we made hot chocolate and coffee, loaded up quickly and rowed as fast as we could to camp. Again, the whole group pitched in, working like a trained group of guides, and after a fire was made and a windscreen set up next to it, I got to work cutting up the remaining vegetables we had to make a quick soup. We enjoyed our dinner around the fire and made plans to have a reunion on a beach in San Diego, preferably in late July. Everyone expressed feeling some level of exhaustion or discomfort, but no one was feeling regret. In fact, we all agreed the weather had made the last couple days more of an adventure than it would have otherwise been, and took pride in our teamwork and humor throughout the cold.
The following day, our last of the trip, was grey and gloomy, but there was no more snow falling and that was a relief to us all. Larkin and I were able to practice taking “dry runs” through the remaining rapids in order to keep the splashes to a minimum. Our van driver, the legendary Herm Hoops, was there to greet us at the boat ramp, undoubtedly expecting a group of unhappy clients battling hypothermia. What he found was a tight knit group of equals who worked together to load the boats, not one person rushing to the comfort and heat of the van. On the drive back, he was astounded to hear the positivity in everyone’s voices and their plans to return for another trip.
I can assure you, I have never been as cold on a river trip as I was for those couple of days of snow. At times, my hands were non-functioning and my face numb. But still, I look back on that trip often and fondly. It was a great lesson in the power of positive thinking, teamwork, and humor. I take pride in the ability Larkin and I displayed in managing such difficult circumstances, but also in our group and their willingness to go with the flow. The bonds formed on that trip will last a lifetime.
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.