Tom Ross: The Yampa River tribe |

Tom Ross: The Yampa River tribe

Tom Ross
A tribe of semi-nomadic river runners taking part in the Yampa River Awareness Project gathered on a heavily cobbled sand bar along the river in Dinosaur National Monument on June 10 to listen as Prof. Pat Tierney, of San Francisco State University, talk about migration patterns of the endangered Pikeminnow.
Tom Ross

— When 27 of us piled into a small fleet of yellow rafts at Deer Lodge Park on June 7 and set off down the Yampa River to seek adventure and enlightenment in the canyons and rapids of Dinosaur National Monument, we were a loosely organized collection of scientists, photographers, note scribblers, experienced river rats and water policy wonks. Some of us were longtime acquaintances, but many of us were strangers.

By the time we emerged from the string of rapids that boil in Utah’s Split Mountain, we had bonded into a smoothly functioning band of river nomads. We were a tribe.

During the air-conditioned ride back to Steamboat Springs, as I contemplated the way we had quickly transformed ourselves into a cohesive group whose members depended upon one another’s skills and good humor to complete our journey, I realized that I had never been on a multi-day river trip when I didn’t come away with a sense that this is how we were meant to live.

My first extended float on a wild Western river took place nearly two decades ago when I joined a psychiatrist from New Jersey and 13 of his patients on a float down Desolation Canyon on the Green River. I was there simply to document the float, but took part in the morning encounter groups, which made me an honorary member of the Jersey tribe. I’ll let you judge whether I was one of the patients.

Between that trip and last week’s, I had a similar experience on a 19-day Grand Canyon float in 2007. I also took a trip down Lodore Canyon on the Green with local Boat People in August 2012. In all cases, I experienced some version of this tribal thing.

This most recent trip was hosted by the local organization Friends of the Yampa and the national conservation organization American Rivers as part of the Yampa River Awareness Project. We also enjoyed the hospitality of world-class river outfitter O.A.R.S., as well as the company of its founder, George Wendt. George has great stories to tell, and he was our tribal elder, for sure.

On the latest trip, we quickly slipped into the routine sharing of chores, honored our leaders and our shaman, and paid heed to our most-skilled rowers. We could pack and move our homes and kitchen to a new spot every day without squabbling or hesitation.

We had become a tribe, a little like the diverse bands of Fremont people who flourished on the Colorado Plateau from 600 to about 1,400 AD, and left their pictographs in Yampa Canyon. Like the Fremont, we took time out to explore and make art. Unlike the Fremont, we did not have detailed knowledge of the changing night sky. But we did have a cool laser pointer to help us recognize some of the major constellations.

I won’t soon forget coming awake in my sleeping bag on the third night and watching the Big Dipper descend while the arc of its handle closely mimicked the lines of a bulging sandstone cliff that loomed above the river.

There’s much more to share about our trip down Yampa Canyon, and I promise to tell you about snakes, scorpions, tarantula hawks, gnarly rapids, tremendous rockfalls and the Fremont people in an in-depth article in the July 28 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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