When he takes his son rafting out west before sending him off to college back east, a father learns to let it flow.
“See those two scary-looking rocks down there on the right? Those are what we call the ‘goal posts.’ We need to go between them. Not hit them. If we hit either of those two goal posts ... ”
Kylie, our river rafting guide, lets the sentence hang before our first rapid this morning like an errant barrel on the edge of Niagara Falls. Enough said. We get it.
Don’t hit the post.
It’s a simple enough directive — for, say, a hockey player or field-goal kicker on flat, delineated terra firma. Less so, it turns out, for a half-dozen helmeted humans clutching paddles aboard a raft hurtling down a tilted stretch of white-water nicknamed “The Quarter Mile of Chaos” booby-trapped with a pair of fast-approaching, game-deciding goal post boulders.
When the whirling current swings us slightly off course and then, uh-oh, backward — squoonch! — the inevitable occurs. The side of our raft grinds into one of the dreaded craggy uprights.
So what exactly happens when you hit the post on Colorado’s capricious Cache la Poudre River? The usual chaos.
Our boat highsides, rearing up on one end. Splash! — a crew member tumbles out of our listing vessel and into the drink while the rest of us barely hang on to our suddenly vertical-ish seats. Then — whump! A raft from behind plows into our stalled vehicle, loses its own footing in the relentless current, flips over, and turns its entire crew of neoprene warriors into scattered swimmers down a frigid, not-so-lazy river.
All just like that, in a matter of seconds.
What occurs next, thankfully, is a testament to the sort of quick chaos-quelling river-guide choreography one can only hope was included somewhere in that liability waiver.
Yanking our ejected passenger out of the water and back into the boat like a 180-pound stray kitten while barking naval-officer-style paddling commands at the rest of us, Kylie manages to free our stuck vessel and steer us to the opposite bank, out of harm’s way.
Meanwhile, amidst a volley of whistles, hand signals, and various other efficient rescue ops above the blaring rapids, a hustling team of guides positioned down-river has almost as quickly recovered the upended boat and plucked its lost crew out of the current. After a rough start on the Poudre, order has been restored and the world appears to be reasonably afloat again.
Bobbing off on the sidelines by the far bank, our own drenched, wide-eyed crew members are busy catching our breath, bailing excess adrenaline, and quietly determining if we’re all having fun yet.
“So where’s everybody from?” our buoyant guide asks us.
Brief timeout and light riverside chit-chat dispensed with, we push off again, heading back onto the field. The current takes hold. We pick up speed — and turbulence. Game on.
“Forward paddle!” Kylie barks as we all dig into the river, pushing to a bumpy gallop like the brave Western expeditionary force we’re not. Never mind that little hiccup back there. Now we’re definitely having fun.
“OK, see that bridge ahead?” Kylie says, a few rapids later. “That’s called ‘Killer Bridge.’ We need to avoid the middle post on that bridge. If we hit that middle post … ”
Nothing kicks off summer quite like a splashy river adventure in the perfect place at the perfect time with the perfect company. Just ask those guys from Deliverance.
Or consult my then 17-year-old son, Jackson, who agreed to run a pair of carefully chosen Colorado rivers with me last June before heading off to college. In a couple short months, he’d be paddling off on his own to some faraway land called Connecticut. A mere 3,000 miles from his shell-shocked parents back home in California wondering how all this happened so fast. But let’s not go there just yet.
The five-day plan: Touch down in Denver and drive a big, beautiful loop through the mountains and high plains of northern Colorado via Steamboat Springs and Fort Collins.
The two highlights: a couple of rafting trips down some white-water beauties, Steamboat’s Elk River and Fort Collins’ Cache la Poudre River (more on that last name later). Both are perfectly timed, in the wake of an epic winter, for some of the biggest water either of these snowmelt-fed rivers has seen in years.
The one ulterior motive: subjecting my college-bound kid to at least one more Wild West thrill ride with his old man before he whooshes off in all those other heart-rending directions. East. Adulthood. Etc.
“How cool is this?” Jackson says during our scenic westward drive through the Colorado Rockies en route to Steamboat Springs.
Very cool. In fact, downright freezing with heavy winds and increasingly limited visibility.
Barely an hour ago, as we rolled out of Denver along Interstate 70, it was a cloudless 80-degree day. Exiting the far side of the lofty Eisenhower Tunnel at the Continental Divide, we’re suddenly in a snowstorm at 11,158 feet. Winter, it appears, isn’t quite over in Colorado mountain country. In fact, we just heard that Steamboat Springs got dumped with nearly 2 feet of fresh powder a couple of days ago on the first day of summer. That’s where we’re supposed to be going rafting tomorrow. Hmm.
“It’s all good,” Jackson says, tempering his mission-focused dad and enjoying the fine novelty of a summer blizzard like anyone raised in L.A. should. “If we don’t go running rivers, we can always just go snowboarding.”
We veer north and the fickle mountain weather pulls another abrupt turn. The snow shrinks into rain, then vanishes altogether. Soon the sky is a deep Colorado blue and our two-laner backroad cuts through a warm emerald canvas of broad hills and valleys accented with old cattle fields, an unexpected winery or two, and a very homemade-looking campaign of hand-painted roadside ads plunked in the middle of nowhere for a Westernwear company up ahead called F.M. Light & Sons (“Cowboy Hats! For the Whole Family!”).
Then the rivers begin to appear. Serious ones.
First we drive across the Upper Colorado, all glimmering navy and yet unhampered by those dams and thirsty states waiting below. Then we meet the Yampa River, running its own wild 250-mile course — including straight through downtown Steamboat Springs, tucked on the northwest edge of the state. By the time we arrive in Steamboat (aka Ski Town, USA), the fabled ranching community turned famed winter playground appears to have quickly recovered from its 20-inch dusting on June 21. Today, the only traces of snow here are on its giant, empty ski hills hulking just outside of town. Everywhere else, the grass is green, the breeze is warm, and summer has arrived in the nick of time.
“A lot of folks will tell you that summer is their favorite time to be in Steamboat,” says Laura, a friendly local checking us in at the Rabbit Ears Motel, situated right beside the rumbling Yampa River and a few short blocks from the town’s summer rodeo grounds. “Yeah, we’re ‘Ski Town, USA,’ but Steamboat is and hopefully always will be a warm, laid-back cowboy town at heart,” she adds. “You guys picked the perfect time to come visit us.”
As its name and selfie-bait neon grinning bunny sign out front suggest, the Rabbit Ears Motel — a true local landmark that opened its doors in 1952, a full decade before the neighboring ski resort was launched — isn’t aspiring to be any Ritz-Carlton Vail. Clean, cozy, quirky, and fittingly down-to-earth in a town with the same enduringly glitz-free reputation, the motel’s magnum opus is its row of “river view rooms” positioned as close to the raging Yampa as a guest could ever want without a snorkel and life jacket.
“It’s actually the perfect white noise to drown out your snoring,” Jackson says, cranking open the sliding patio door, mere steps from the river, and flooding our River Room with a pounding natural soundtrack of liquid thunder.
“Hey, do you wanna check out the town?” I ask him, sliding gracefully into type-A journalist father mode.
“I’ll catch up with you in a bit,” Jackson says, flopping onto the bed closest to the river. “I think I’m just gonna shut my eyes for a few minutes.”
“Do you know why this place is called Steamboat Springs?” I counter, artfully luring him back into the story.
“I don’t,” Jackson says, promptly falling asleep.
The origins of the name Steamboat Springs — as local legend has it and your teenage kids couldn’t care less about — can be attributed to a trio of mid-19th-century French fur trappers. Camping on the banks of the Yampa River, they heard a rhythmic chugging sound downriver that they somehow mistook for an approaching steamboat. The sound, it turned out, was coming from one of numerous active mineral hot springs in the area, loudly belching steamy water out of the earth — y’know, very much like a giant steamship scooting impossibly through the Rocky Mountains. But the name stuck.
Today, those thermal waters, discovered more than 500 years ago by Ute Indians who settled along the Yampa, are savored year-round by locals and visitors alike at popular steamy multi-pooled haunts like Old Town Hot Springs (right across from Rabbit Ears) and Strawberry Park, a secluded mineral springs retreat up in the hills above town.
Joining a flow of early summer visitors through Steamboat’s main drag along Lincoln Avenue, I notice more bougie art galleries, all-organic cafés, sushi counters, and requisite North Face and Marmot stores than during my last visit here many moons ago. All refreshing enough, but it’s good to see the town’s oldest, boldest retailer, F.M. Light & Sons (“Outfittin’ the West for over 100 Years”) still holding court in the heart of downtown — housing enough boots, cowboy hats, and every other form of Western regalia to dress half the state.
The splashiest recent face-lift in town is down by the river, along a revitalized stretch of Yampa Street dubbed Restaurant Row. The formerly barren river bank is now lined with crowded farm-to-fork bistros, upscale chophouses, a microbrewery housed in a former utilities building now serving up woodfired pizzas and arugula salads, and a Rockin’ on the River Free Summer Concert Series stage where a local band is jamming through an extended version of that old Phish crowd-pleaser, “Possum.” Locals dance on the grass. Kids and parents pedal past on bikes along a new paved river trail. Spandexed joggers breeze by with their chocolate labs as a golden sun sets over the Yampa. Welcome to the new Steamboat.
I text Jackson. He should see this. It’s already been a couple of hours since his power nap: Hey, I’m rockin’ on the river. Wanna grab a bite?
Still asleep, he texts back. How early do we need to be up tomorrow?
Cut to later the next morning (or way too early the next morning if you’re under 20): Jackson and I are being fitted into medium-sized neoprene rental duds for river trip No. 1. When he trades his in for a large, it’s official: My son has outgrown me. Gearing up in a woodsy clearing north of Steamboat on the Elk River in Routt National Forest, Jackson seals the deal: “Here you go,” he says, handing me the shorter paddle. Sure, rub it in.
Our rafting guides today — Chris, Jeff, and Alex from Bucking Rainbow Outfitters — are stoked. The Steamboat-based company runs trips down a bunch of big rivers during prime rafting season in May and June, including the Yampa and the Colorado. But the Elk River, a lively looking tributary of the Yampa, is unquestionably the place to be today.
“I’ve never seen it nearly this high by late June, and it’s definitely the longest continual rapids I’ve ever run,” Chris says. “There will not be a single break between here and our take-out 7 miles downriver. It’s Class 3 boogie water the whole way. How are you guys feeling? Are we ready to do this?!”
“Yeah!” booms a chorus of about 20 rafters converged on a secluded riverbank rumbling in the upper Colorado hills from seemingly everywhere else — Chicago, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, etc., along with a couple of stray Californians, at least one of them not yet fully awake.
“We’ll have about 2,600 cubic-feet-per-second of 40-degree river current powering us today,” Jeff bellows during a short, mandatory safety briefing. “One CFS equals approximately one chicken per second. So these rapids are 2,600 chickens. Can anyone compete against that many freezing-cold chickens per second?”
“No!” says the chorus.
“So, Rule No. 1,” Alex chimes in. “If you fall out of the boat and become a swimmer, do not try to stand up or challenge the chickens. They will win every time. Rule No. 2: Those fallen logs and branches in rushing water are called ‘strainers’ because anything that flows through them gets turned into pasta. So if you’re a swimmer, you definitely want to swim away from the strainers.”
A few more delightful rules later and the tag-team pep talk is done. “Does everyone still wanna go?” Chris quips. “Anybody nervous?” Jeff says.
A few honest hands in the crowd go up. I turn to Jackson. It’s his first time rafting, and I still haven’t fully recovered from a harrowing white-water misadventure in Costa Rica at a friend’s destination wedding years ago. “I’ll raise my hand if you do,” I whisper to my large, sleepy rafting partner, who doesn’t take the bait.
“There’s no easy start here,” Chris says, climbing into the stern while pushing our raft out into the rumbling river. “We’re gonna be flying right off the bat.”
A second later, we’re flying, all right, straight toward a bouldered ledge of water. Down goes the bow of our boat — along with Jackson seated up front — dunked into a glassy wall of shockingly cold river. When he reemerges from this baptism, Jackson is soaked, wide-mouthed, and beaming like the child he suddenly no longer is. And it’s in that tender moment, witnessing — from the relative safety of one row back — my son’s temporary reverse-metamorphosis from stubbled, deep-voiced, perma-sleep-deprived dude to giddy-faced kid, that I grasp what middle-aged parental happiness truly is: seeing the gleeful look in your 17-year-old’s eyes on a sunny northern Colorado day in June after he gets thumped with a faceful of 40-degree water on the Elk River.
Jackson shakes it off, smiling ear to ear, now fully awake as our raft fumbles through a rock garden of ceaseless rapids and straight into another tumbler that soaks the rest of us.
“Forward two! Two more! Back three! One more!” Chris directs from behind, steering us through another rough patch that could’ve gone more smoothly.
“I’ll be honest with you guys,” Chris says of our developing Elk River paddling skills. “That was pretty bad. Let’s try that again. Forward two!”
It takes several sustained miles of practice, but eventually we get there.
“OK, now you’re crushing it!” Chris tells us as we slalom through a collision course of downed logs, miscellaneous strainers, and a low-lying bridge that has us all ducking — just in case. Last week, he tells us, the river was so high that it was unrunnable for anyone but kayakers with the hardest heads.
Thick forests of pine and aspen bounce by. Hawks soar overhead. It’s a long, idyllic 7 miles of continuous rapids to our tricky take-out point hiding just around the next bend. But nearing the funky-ish finish line, who actually wants this to end?
“We gotta be on our game here, guys,” Chris coaches as we slide ambivalently toward our parking spot, a tight bank followed by miles of more rapids. “If we miss this stop, it’s a long way to Utah.”
Après-raft? That may not be an official term, but if you were to coin it after a morning of thrills (and sufficient chills) on the Elk River, it really ought to include a hearty thaw in those geothermal waters that gave Steamboat Springs its name. Soaking at Strawberry Park Hot Springs — an iconic oasis of mineral pools tucked in the hills just north of town on the edge of the Yampa Valley — has been a time-honored winter après-ski ritual for decades. So why not for early-summer river runners?
As we wind up a dirt road to the secluded springs on a 78-degree afternoon — past a lone deer crossing our path, a homemade “Drive slowly! Mom & Baby Moose” sign, and minefields of giant potholes — I figure we’ll have the whole steamy place to ourselves and the resident ungulates at this transitional time of year. Until entering the Strawberry Park lot stuffed with cars and Sweet Pea Tours buses.
“I think the secret may be out about this place,” Jackson remarks.
We head up a little footpath to the springs and enter a natural amphitheater brimming with soaking sybarites of all ages melting away in a multitiered set of stony pools tucked between rustling aspens and a babbling creek in the hills. Picturesque — and packed.
“I’ll just chill up here,” Jackson says, passing on the whole public bathing experience and settling for a deck chair away from the throng of human lobsters. “But you go ahead.”
I go ahead, wading into those 104-degree springs, accompanied by a swirling mountain breeze and looping Zen soundtrack of trickling water from all sides. Closing my eyes — still the best way to make everyone else disappear — I instantly drift into pure dumb contentment. And I’ll tell you, because I know you can keep it to yourself, Jackson doesn’t know what he’s missing.
What’s in a name? On the Cache la Poudre, Colorado’s one-and-only nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, you can bet there’s a fun little fable about how this singular thread of water tumbling 7,000 feet from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains came to be labeled with a curious French phrase. And you can also be 100 percent certain that during a gorgeous eastward drive to Fort Collins along State Highway 14 — a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway featuring a spectacular river gorge — your teenage son doesn’t need you to regale him with it.
“It was named by traveling French-Canadian fur trappers in the early 1800s who were forced to stash their gunpowder here — or cache la poudre — during a snowstorm,” I uncontrollably elucidate, as we drive through a blasted-out tunnel in the canyon.
“Cool,” Jackson autoreplies, staring out at some rafts bouncing down a lively set of rapids on a historic river now simply called “the Poo-der” by all stripes of recreationists naturally drawn to this dramatic spot. We’ll be paddling these waters tomorrow morning. “I like ‘Pooder’ better,” Jackson says before turning to me with mild concern. “So how early do we need to get up tomorrow?”
Down in Fort Collins, the river reappears as a tame waterway at the gates of the plains, Colorado State University, and an attractive college town flowing with (factoids I don’t bug my 17-year-old with just yet) more than 20 craft breweries, seven distilleries, and enough zany-named bars (Pour Brothers, Illegal Pete’s, Avuncular Bob’s Beerhouse, etc.) to satiate a community several times its moderate size.
“This place must be very fun in September,” Jackson muses as we explore Old Town FoCo’s surplus of indie shops and mandatory retro stops, including Pinball Jones, a basement hall stuffed with pinball machines. After noshing on some superb seafood on College Avenue at least 1,000 miles from any ocean, we settle into our sleek downtown digs at the recently opened Elizabeth Hotel, where every room is furnished with a turntable and selection of classic LPs. Yes, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, Ted Nugent’s State of Shock, and Sugarloaf’s Spaceship Earth.
“Which one should I put on?” I ask Jackson.
“You choose,” he says, diving for his AirPods.
Early the following morning — after a déjà vu waiver signing, melancholy father-son wetsuit fitting, and sobering safety intro hosted by a team of psyched river-guide jesters (“Everyone still wanna go?”) with local outfitter A Wanderlust Adventure — we’re back in the saddle with a paddle on the Pooder. This time, I’m joining Jackson in the very front.
“See those two scary-looking rocks down there on the right?” says our rafting guide Kylie, as we set out on our first gnarly rapid. It’s the highest this river has been in late June in years. “Those are what we call the ‘goal posts.’ ”
Well, you know what happens next.
Our next big gantlet-runner on the river is, you may recall, nicknamed Killer Bridge.
“This is the most dangerous part of the trip,” Kylie tells us as we slowly glide into sight of a small bridge crossing the river with an ominous post in the center. “We need to avoid that middle post at all costs. If we hit it, the boat can taco.”
Kylie then explains what taco-ing means. It doesn’t sound too good. We definitely do not want to taco.
Kylie — a CSU senior — turns to Jackson, a college freshman in a couple of months.
“In a year, you’ll be old enough to come back here and be a guide,” she says to him. “We get through this bridge, and you’ll have my official recommendation. Forward paddle!”
Jackson digs into the current. I follow his lead, toward Killer Bridge, coming at us faster and faster. I glance over at my son one last time, his bright eyes wide open with a trace of a smile.
We should be fine.
Photography: Images courtesy V. Richard Haro, Noah Wetzel
From our May/June 2020 issue.