Vernal, Utah — ``Open the gates!'' the boatman cried, standing in a 15-foot rubber raft at the Gates of Lodore. Ahead of us loomed cliffs 2,000 feet high, and we couldn't see around the bend in the now quiet Green River. ``This isn't so scary,'' said a blustering tourist.
``Just wait,'' said Tim Gaylor, for nine years a boatman with Holiday River Expeditions and trip leader of the four-day, 44-mile trip through Lodore Canyon in Colorado and Utah. ``Tomorrow the waters will go crazy.''
Controlled by Flaming Gorge Dam up-river, Lodore Canyon is one of the nation's 10 big drops, so we knew we were in for a wild white-water slalom course.
The first day we explore the river world, actually part of Dinosaur National Park. The sage at the canyon entrance has given way to pinon, juniper, and cedar. A buck in full antlers was feeding on the opposite shore, and six big-horn sheep grazed up ahead. The calmness of the river settled us, and we realized that for the next four days we'd have nothing to do but absorb its moods. The boatmen would be our caterers, our naturalists, our camp guides, our navigators, even our entertainers.
We camped on a beach when the sun was still high, and the sliver of sky between vertical rock walls was a brilliant blue. The rock here is a deep red - rich in iron oxide and striped with black magnesium. ``It's some of the oldest rock known to man,'' explained boatman Barry Peterson, a geology student. His voice is soft with appreciation and he looks up at the walls in awe. ``One-and-a-half billion years old, Precambrian, the first geologic age. Very few places on earth is it exposed, and we are in it.''
In the quietness that descended with darkness, tomorrow's first rapids rumbled. Disaster Falls was around the bend from our camp. We couldn't see it, but its thunderous message was clear.
After breakfast the boatmen gathered to discuss the day's strategy. Mr. Gaylor jumped in the river to bathe. ``Might as well,'' he said. ``We'll get wet anyway.''
A hundred yards out, the river thundered so loudly that we had to yell to be heard. After a brief landing to scout the rapids, we were in it - Disaster Falls, dropping 10 feet per mile, more than the Grand Canyon, more than Cataract Canyon. The boatman pulled on the oars to guide the craft around boulders bigger than our boat, through foam that looked solid, over crests aiming right at us, down the other side to face a churning hole, then pitching up again like a bucking bronco. Magnificent scenery flipped past in a frenzy, as we hung on tight.
In the calm between rapids we passed Pot Creek and heard its story. ``John Wesley Powell ran Disaster Falls for the first time in his 1869 expedition to chart the whole Colorado River system. One of his boats crashed on that rapid, and the men and supplies floated to shore. That creek mouth was where they found their pots.''
There was no time to contemplate the gravity of that story, because Hell's Half Mile was next. With a drop of 30 feet and boulders making waves the size of haystacks, this was one of the most difficult rapids in the rivers of the American West. Among boatmen its reputation is legendary. We beached just above it to hike the portage trail and gape at what lies ahead. In a close huddle the boatmen determined a plan. Thunder from the crashing water prevented us from hearing. Better that way. Then back in the boats, and the current sucked us into a ride so wild it was part roller coaster, part Maytag experience. There's no stopping in this sport - no way to luff a sail, sideslip a slope, or brake a race car. It's all or nothing.
Downriver we beached again, and in the exuberance of the profession, the boatmen hugged each other in congratulation.
On our third morning, after a breakfast of blueberry and apple pancakes, the ride was mostly calm, and we noticed things we had missed before - the descending seven-note scale of canyon wrens, marmots waddling along the shoreline, evidence of bank beavers, and the melancholy creaking of oars in oarlocks. When the boatman stopped to drift, we heard the hum of insects. Violet green swallows darted in a wild display of energy. ``They live in those mud nests in rows on the canyon rock. They're called swallowminiums,'' he added as a joke.
We learned to appreciate the slow water, too, for the remoteness it offered and the time for camaraderie. Sometimes there'd be a water fight - adults acting like children, our other lives a world away. The boats pulled into a beach for a volleyball game, and later, for a canyon hike at Jones Hole Creek to a waterfall where petroglyphs scratched on the rock and pictographs painted with iron oxide tell of a native culture dating from AD 800-1200.
Our last dinner topped all others - French onion soup, bacon-wrapped filet mignon, scalloped potatoes, and strawberry shortcake. On the beach, rafters lingered longer in the moonlight, exchanged addresses, and vowed they'd come again. On that last day, the boatman had stood up to find the smooth water that would lead us into the wildest ride, but teased us by heading right for a cave. By now he knew we'd welcome white water, as if we'd known it for years.
Lodore Canyon is run early-May through mid-September by Holiday River Expeditions. Complete packages including hotel rooms the nights before and after, and either ground or air transportation from Salt Lake City, are available from High Desert Adventures, PO Box 8514, Salt Lake City, UT 84108; telephone 800-345-RAFT.
For a free copy of the 1987 Western River Guides Outfitters Directory that lists outfitters operating on some 200 rivers from Alaska to Texas, write to Western River Guides Association Inc., 7600 East Arapahoe Rd., Suite 114, Dept. CSM, Englewood, CO 80112; or call (303) 771-0389.