It’s not everyday you get the experience of rafting through a powerful, Class IV rapid, on the peak of a free-flowing river’s annual runoff, in an epic water year. Although I’m not suggesting it’s a replacement for the real thing, a new film from Steamboat Springs-based Rig to Flip has made it possible to vicariously experience the power and awesomeness of one of the West’s most notable rapids through its recent release of a 20-minute film called “Warm Springs.” If you’re like me, the footage from their 2011 Yampa and Warm Springs run, when the river topped out at twice its average peak flow, is guaranteed to give you an adrenaline rush. That combined with historical footage of Yampa River rafting dating back as early as the 1950s and interviews with renowned river runners such as George Wendt, founder of commercial outdoor outfitter O.A.R.S., make this film a must-see.
To kick off CFWE’s series looking at the many and varied values of Colorado water, we aim the spotlight on this recent project of Rig to Flip, a small group of river enthusiasts and videographers who aim to inspire engagement by telling stories, stories that remind people of their connection to place. In this case, the Yampa River’s long history of river running and the dramatic birth of one of the West’s most notable rapids set the stage for a powerful film that will remind anyone who’s been down the Yampa why they love it so much, and will expose anyone who hasn’t seen or even heard of the Yampa to its rare and powerful charm.
“We want this video to remind us about history, about where we come from and why the Yampa offers an experience few others rivers in this region do,” says film director and co-founder of Rig to Flip Cody Perry.
Unlike most things, Warm Springs rapid was literally created overnight. Wendt, who would found O.A.R.S. four years later, lived through the storm and witnessed the debris flow that hurtled down a side canyon and into the Yampa creating Warm Springs rapid in 1965. Prior to that time, the river through that section was smooth sailing for boaters. When the landslide came down, Wendt narrowly escaped with his life. The next day, one of the first guides to tackle Warm Springs flipped, and then failed to resurface. His body was found 17 days later.
“The river has such a deep story,” says Cody. “The people who witnessed this debris flow that created Warm Springs saw a rapid be born.” Due to the Yampa’s wildly fluctuating streamflows, Warm Springs has changed over the years. “Warm Springs is a rapid that was once formidable, but over time has been made less so. It has to do with the river operating on its own hydrograph,” says Cody. “That’s the specialness of the Yampa.”
Cody personally experienced Warm Springs for the first time in 2011, when the Yampa hit 27,000 cubic feet per second at high water, twice its average peak. “I was hooked at that point.” I met him a few years later, in June 2014, at the Yampa’s Deerlodge Park put-in just inside the eastern boundary of Dinosaur National Monument. The river, which had recently peaked at 17,000 cfs, was just beginning to drop off. Cody was serving (and still does) as secretary of Friends of the Yampa, a river advocacy group formed in 1981 that hosts an annual awareness-building river trip, the reason we were there. Cody was in the process of phasing out his professional outdoor education work at Colorado Mountain College in order to pursue Rig to Flip full-time with fellow river enthusiast and videographer Ben Saheb. During the course of our trip, the two invariably could be seen aiming their cameras at the rest of the group as they captured footage while perched, often precariously, on the rigging or tubes of their own raft.
Some of that footage appears in the recently released film, which is the result of nine months of work to widely share the story of a place where, says Cody, the potential exists for issues to become contentious, especially at a time when the state is using Colorado’s Water Plan to identify future water needs and sources, and transbasin diversions are part of the discussion.
Explains Cody, “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Here’s this amazing river. There are reasons for us culturally to maintain it, on many levels.’”
“Warm Springs” was produced by Rig to Flip with support from Friends of the Yampa, American Whitewater, American Rivers and O.A.R.S. Watch the full film for yourself, and share your comments or personal experiences with the Yampa River on the Your Water Colorado blog.
To read more about issues facing the Yampa, check out past CFWE coverage in the January 2010 issue of Headwaters magazine, “No Longer a Valley Too Far.“