For much of the year, the White River is a typical western river, meandering shallow and weak through canyons, shrublands and high desert. But like Cinderella at the ball, the White flares into muscular magnificence during spring runoff, when it swells mightily with snow melting from the Uintah Basin drainage.
Our family discovered the river’s untamed character over Memorial Day on a guided canoe trip with Centennial Canoe Outfitters. From the put-in near Bonanza, UT (just west of Rangely, CO), we paddled 35 miles downstream, through remote and rugged landscape right out of a JohnFord western.
Our group included 18 voyagers—3 guides, our family of 4, two Russian couples, a guy travelling solo, a couple from Basalt and a mom with her two little girls and their grandmother. My husband Rick and 13-year-old daughter Olivia paddled in one canoe, myself and 17-year-old German-exchange-student daughter Mirjam in another. It was supposed to be an easy family trip, but the river, bulging with water muscle like a bodybuilder on steroids, had a different fate in store for us.
We started out with canoes lashed-together in pairs for stability because the river was so high and running so fast. By the lunch stop all of us but the canoes with the 2 little girls (each in a separate canoe pairing) had our “canoe legs,” and were confident enough to unlash and go as single canoes (each with two paddlers). The White usually doesn’t have much in the way of rapids but this year, it did. At the first significant one, the canoes still lashed together got into trouble. Not able to bob and move independently, the first double-boat got cross-wise in a rapid, took on water in one canoe, which dragged the other down so it filled too, and they were soon swamped. One of the little girls was thrown into the very-cold water and snagged partly under a log. Her grandmother lunged and grabbed her and eventually they made it to the bank, where we all helped pull them out, get them in warm clothes and warm them up. The poor child was very frightened, crying, teeth chattering—a traumatic experience that could have been a tragedy but luckily ended all right.
Somehow we all maneuvered the canoes to the bank, untied all the gear (totally soaked and streaming) and dried it off. Eventually we re-loaded the canoes and after probably an hour and a half, set off again. That was just the first adventure of the day. Next the guide’s canoe swamped and dumped. The rescue, dry off, reload process was repeated. The second double canoe was now downstream from the rest of us so we paddled across the river and the guide got out and climbed a bluff to scout ahead. Her canoe partner, however, lost his
grip on the overhanging branch that was keeping him at the bank, and downstream he went, over another small rapid backwards! The guide returned to find herself without a canoe! So we moved gear around and she climbed into a canoe with one of the adults and one of the small girls.
And so it went, a long, chilly, wet weekend on the river. But exhilarating! How boring to have done an easy paddle as the current carried us downstream. The weather for the 3 days was mixed sunny and overcast, with bouts of rain, and the camping was a little chilly. But the guides fixed terrific meals for us, set out as a buffet atop the canoes, flipped over for use as counterspace. Emboldened now by experience, we faced the river and the rapids with fortitude and at the end of the journey, our party of two canoes (Rick and Olivia, me and Mirjam) was the only one in our group not to swamp or overturn.
The terrain was wild and remote, though in reality the desert above us is dotted with oil and gas wells, roads and other evidence of resource extraction. We saw and heard a variety of birds, including yellow warblers, song sparrows, lazuli buntings, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks and great blue herons. I had hoped to see desert bighorn sheep but saw only their domestic cousins.
We even had a UFO sighting! Around 4 am Sunday night, beneath a hailstorm of stars, Rick and I saw two extremely bright, huge stars, very close to each other, moving across the sky, seemingly close enough to touch. From one of the stars a wide, vapor-trail shape protruded in a straight line then angled off at about 30 degrees. I almost hid behind a bush so the aliens wouldn’t see me when they landed! What was it? We figured out next morning it was the space shuttle just having undocked from the International Space Station! Or that’s the official story. I think it was really aliens…