In Celebration of the River08/09/2023 01:17PM ● By Casey Hopkins
From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023
Three Yampa veterans share what the river means to them and why we need to keep the Yampa wild.
With a degree in Fisheries Management from Ohio State University, Kent Vertrees has spent decades whitewater rafting, fly-fishing and snowmobile guiding, as well as advocating for recreational and environmental water management. As a long-time board member of Friends of the Yampa, Kent exudes an unwavering and electrifying passion for the preservation and safeguarding of our untamed river.
Steamboat Magazine: What are some of your earlier memories on the Yampa?
My very first time in Cross Mountain Canyon was just an eye-opener for me. I didn’t know that part of the river existed. I had come from a boating and guiding background on the Arkansas River at the Royal Gorge where we have big whitewater. I was also guiding in West Virginia, on the Upper Gauley which is a classic class-V boating stretch. I was just enthralled that the Yampa has this big whitewater stretch only an hour and forty-five minutes away. It has all the qualities you want in a whitewater stretch and it’s our home river.
SM: Why do you think we have so many hardcore Yampa users in this part of the state?
From a recreational side, we just have to get it while we can, because we know that eventually, it’s going to dry up. Here in the West, with all our rivers being snowmelt driven, if you want to go out on wild rivers, you have to just live in the moment and get after it.
SM: How do we keep the Yampa wild?
Those who love floating rivers need to become involved. It’s an easy way to find a community of like minded people. Join Friends of the Yampa, join American Rivers, join American Whitewater as well as others. These groups are doing great work on the river. If you love getting out there, focus your passion on preserving and protecting these wild places because they may not be here forever.
A true adventurer at heart, Eugene Buchanan, the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Paddler Magazine, has fearlessly ventured across the globe, immersing himself in the thrilling waters and mesmerizing landscapes of over 30 countries spread across six continents, leaving an indelible mark on every river he’s conquered and every corner of the world he’s explored.
Steamboat Magazine: How long have you been paddling?
About 40 years. I started raft guiding in college, on the Arkansas and in Alaska, and after graduating, I moved up to Alaska to manage rafting operations. I bought my first kayak from a fellow guide after we did a trip on Lodore and he sold me his gear at the takeout. Then I ran the Grand, met my wife and moved to Telluride. I became the editor of Paddler Magazine and moved it to Steamboat in 1992.
SM: How does paddling on the Yampa compare with paddling elsewhere?
The best thing about the town run of the Yampa is that it’s so accessible – you can paddle the river or some of its harder tributaries like Fish Creek on your lunch break. Having Cross Mountain downstream is awesome, as it’s such an easily accessible multi-day trip like Yampa Canyon and Lodore. It’s a great backyard river to have and come home to.
SM: What kind of role does the river play in helping shape the character of Steamboat and Northwest Colorado?
I’d been into rivers for eight years before moving to Steamboat, raft guiding, teaching kayaking and going on expeditions around the world. But rivers don’t really sink into your soul until you live by one – until you have one running through your hometown just a block away from your house, whose pulse matches your own. I think and hope that most people living here feel the same way about it. We might take it for granted, but it’s such a big part of our community and surrounding region, primarily supporting agriculture but also important fish, wildland and riparian habitat, municipalities, recreation and more. It’s the true lifeblood of the valley and needs to be protected and appreciated as such.
While guiding wilderness canoe trips in Northern Ontario in 2011, Alice Tesar picked up a fly rod for the first time and was immediately taken with the sport. After moving to Steamboat, Alice began honing her skills as a fly fishing guide for Steamboat Flyfisher while simultaneously forming an unbreakable bond with the Yampa.
Steamboat Magazine: What was your first experience with the Yampa and what was it that made you fall in love with the river?
During our first summer in Steamboat in 2015, my partner and I spent almost every night in the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area. We would get off work and fish there through dusk. Chuck Lewis alone is an example of the variety of fishable water in the Yampa. There’s deep holes, there’s ripples, there’s cutbanks, there’s downed trees – the many organizations that take care of the Yampa maintain the wildness of it too.
SM: What makes the Yampa so special?
Its many stakeholders. I’ve learned to love the Yampa as an angler, but today I’ve enjoyed it as a tuber. I’ve got a whitewater canoe for the spring. I’ve learned to love it from a variety of lenses, and I think that that’s true for everybody. Having the river run through town, you can see that it’s loved and cared for by many. It’s not well known nationally, but it’s certainly sacred in this town.
SM: Why does it need to be maintained and protected?
The West’s best kept secret is the Yampa. It’s not very well known, but it has many seasons and it’s the last free-flowing river in the Western U.S. That means that most of its natural cycles are still intact, which provides for a really rich relationship. Steamboat is a ski town and a ranching community. The river and the water cycle are important in supporting both those endeavors.