The Summer the River Changed
07/10/2018 13:00 ● Published by Alesha Damerville
Image from Justin Bailie
By Tim Neville
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Until all hell broke loose, the summer of 1965 was a pretty carefree summer for George Wendt. The Rolling Stones were singing about satisfaction, and Wendt, who was in his early 20s at the time and had a good job lined up for the fall, had spent most of his time sluicing around the West’s great rivers in a boat. One of those rivers, the Yampa – like Wendt himself – would soon change forever.
If the name George Wendt sounds familiar – and not the actor from “Cheers” – it’s because you’ve probably heard of OARS, the California-based adventure travel company that has taken thousands of people on river trips all around the world. Wendt had grown up in southern California, but over the years he developed into one of the country’s original river rats, a cut-off-shorts, no-shirt wearing dirtbag drawn to the West’s loneliest spaces and the rivers that coursed through them.
“I had been a backpacker up to that point, and I thought, ‘Boy, a boat makes it much easier to go 15 miles a day,’” Wendt recalled in a 2014 interview, two years before his death. “Being on rivers was just pure joy with moments of excitement.” River rafts were hard to come by back in 1965, but Wendt actually had a stake in four, real rubber rafts – military surplus boats – that a bunch of his friends had scrounged money together to buy.
One of Wendt’s friends, Bruce Julian, had an idea to make the most of Wendt’s last work-free summer. Together with four other friends from college, they’d take one of Wendt’s rafts and two 18-foot foldable kayaks down a section of the Yampa west of Steamboat. The river had a reputation for being pretty straightforward and gorgeous as it muscled through one of President Woodrow Wilson’s greatest environmental legacies: the dualstate, 209,744-acre Dinosaur National Monument.
The plan was to spend about five days covering 51 miles from a put-in called Lilly Park to a take-out at Echo Park, where they’d drop a weather-beaten Volkswagen for a shuttle. It’d be swift going with the river swollen from spring runoff. On June 14, 1965, the group of six set out and ran about five miles before setting camp.
For the most part, the trip was fairly easy-going, minus a mishap on day two when one of the kayaks broke apart after flipping in a rapid called Teepee. All of the maps, the peanut butter and at least two paddles were gone. “Due to some kind of miracle, it wasn’t totally debilitating,” recalls one of the participants, Steve Wolfe. “We just reconfigured the passengers and gear.”
On the third day, though, things turned serious. Shortly before the final camp at Warm Springs, a storm gathered over Starvation Canyon, which drains into the Yampa at Warm Springs. There the group ran the raft through a minor set of rapids and portaged the remaining kayak. Julian had left some gear behind at the portage site and went back to grab it. “By then it was pouring, so I took refuge in this little cabin that was there,” he recalls. Soon he realized waiting was futile. “It kept raining, so I left. It’s a good thing I did.”
Within moments, a massive landslide kicked loose, obliterating the cabin. Some 33 million pounds of debris – enough to fill a coliseum – roared out of the Warm Springs and Iron Mine draws and through the Big Joe drainage. The earth dammed the Yampa, then collapsed, and the minor wave train they’d just run had become today’s Warm Springs rapids, one of the classic class III/IV rapids of the West. Soon after, a boater would die in them.
The group of rafters had all waited out the storm in nearby outhouses, oblivious to the hell unleashing around them. When it all settled down, Wendt stepped outside to find his raft unmoored and spinning in an eddy. “It was my prized possession, so I waded out and got it,” he said. “I was lucky to survive.”
In the end, the group made it to the take-out at Echo Park the next day, where Wendt ran into Al Holland, a boatman for Hatch River Expeditions. Holland had made it through the new Warm Springs rapids unscathed. One of his companions, Les Oldham, hadn’t been so lucky. He capsized and disappeared. Rescuers recovered his body 17 days later.
The others went home, but Julian and Wendt immediately took off for a trip through the Grand Canyon, a journey that would inspire Wendt to found a company that would grow into OARS a few years later. “That summer changed my life,” Wendt recalled. “That rapid was so formidable after the landslide, but nature has modified it over the years. The river, like life, keeps moving for all of us.”