watching the river
The big rock at the bottom of Warm Springs Rapid on the Yampa was fun the very first time. Greg Davis, one of the gods of my youth, was at the oars, strong and grinning through his wet beard. I was 15 and seeing canyon rivers for the first time. On that first night after Warm Springs, I sat for a long time on the beach, watching and listening and thinking about high snow, mountain rock and millennia of sandstone, all being pulled to the sea. Soon, I was spending most of my summer nights on the ground somewhere out west, reading Abbey, Stegner and Hesse.
As a rookie guide at the oars of the luggage pontoon, I was not quite sure I was up to Warm Springs. I still remember the acid taste in my mouth as we almost paused on that tongue of quiet water before dropping into the first waves. I got a lot closer look at the rock that day…my wrong decision took us right over it, sideways. It seemed big as a house, and I was pretty sure we would spend the evening fishing everyone’s gear out of the river. Somehow, we came through right side up and intact. After dinner, the boss said just enough to make sure I’d learned the lesson. Later, I sat a long time on the beach, reviewing that run a hundred times. Three decades later, I can still replay all the details.
The next time, I was strong, confident and experienced enough to spin and play in the backwash and get everyone wet. That night, the other guides and I made a sweat lodge of willows and tarps. We poured river water over rocks heated in our fire, being careful to choose mountain rock, not sandstone that would explode. The steam smelled of granite. We sat and listened to the rapids and chanted, “Hite, Utah will rise again!” Then, we ran under bright stars and dark rock into the cold river. We were free, wild, immortal. We smelled of smoke, sweat, sage and of that muddy water made from mountain snow and rock.
At Island Park, after Warm Springs, the Yampa forks and braids into a dozen channels that reunite at Split Mountain. My channel took me to medical school. Now I guide people down different, darker rivers.
Then my current came back to Warm Springs. Once again, I was a passenger. I wouldn’t ask, but I think Marshall knew I would have taken the oars if he’d offered. The rock didn’t seem so big, but the ride was still fun. We spun and played in the backwash as Kathy and our daughters laughed and yelled. We all got wet. That night at camp, I sat again by that river that had been snow only days ago and granite only centuries ago. Only decades ago, I had been a guide here.
Dr. Fred Hund