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Steamboat Magazine

Pure River Magic

08/09/2023 01:42PM ● By Erin Campbell

(Rafters float through the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument during RiverWonderGrass in August 2022. Photography courtesy of Molly McCormick)

From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023

Photography courtesy of Molly McCormick

After an intense experience on the White Nile in Uganda, Africa, anxiety about rivers had gotten the best of me. Having grown up kayaking, canoeing and rafting the rivers of western North Carolina, I once had a passion for whitewater. However, in my 20s, I found myself swimming in a class-six rapid on the White Nile after my boat flipped, stuck in an underwater current, spinning in breathless circles. In that very moment, I was sure my time had come. By the grace of the river, I survived, but I had been shaken to the core. When I got home, I sold my kayak and opted for paddleboarding on flat water instead.

Rafters float through the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument during RiverWonderGrass in August 2022.

Ten years later, I received an invitation to join a RiverWonderGrass trip with Adrift Dinosaur based out of Jensen, Utah. The women-only trip (dubbed RiverWonderWomen) would be four days on the Green River and three nights of camping, starting at the Gates of Lodore in Colorado and ending at Split Mountain Campground in Utah. It sounded absolutely amazing, but was not the flat water I had grown accustomed to after my scare on the White Nile.

Excitement about the opportunity was there, but so was the river anxiety. With encouragement from my husband and the desire to safely get back on a river, I decided to go. Not only did I conquer my fear, but I also discovered one of the more incredible experiences I have had in life.

The Kitchen Dwellers play tunes from cliff during RiverWonderGrass in August 2022.

RiverWonderGrass owners Scotty and Britt Stoughton, who live in Steamboat, have thoughtfully crafted an experience that is unique, memorable and for many, life-changing. Along with their team, they cover every angle from river safety to organic, fresh meals to environmental stewardship to simple yet stunning campground lighting that exudes river magic.

It was an intimate whitewater journey through beautifully ancient desert canyons, complete with hikes to stunning river vistas, yoga, breathwork under the stars, sandy beaches and blissful dancing to bluegrass tunes on the riverbanks. As an extension of the WinterWonderGrass festival, RiverWonderGrass brings musicians on the trip. Lindsay Lou and Mimi Naja of Fruition played tunes on the raft, in the soft sand and on scenic rocks with river backdrops. These experiences were icing on the cake, but the actual experience on the whitewater of the Green was second-to-none. The guides were highly professional and skilled, but best of all, they were experts in keeping guests safe and confident along the way – even guests like me who had deep-rooted anxiety about whitewater.

A starry night sky, illuminated above the Yampa River.

Entering the largest class III and IV rapids was not easy. With flashbacks of the Nile still with me, I put my trust in Annie, one of the most experienced guides operating with Adrift. Having scouted the rapids in advance, all the guides knew exactly how to successfully run them. I felt the river anxiety, but I also felt the excitement as we safely paddled through Hell’s Half Mile. Once through, I realized I had left my anxiety in those rapids to wash away on the Green River.

Running rapids on the lower Yampa River.

Call me a river wonder woman: now I have been on the past two women-only trips. They are intimate experiences where deep connections are made and an unwavering tone of acceptance is established. I have made new friends from all over the country – from California to Florida, Oregon to Massachusetts, Colorado to Utah. People from different walks of life and all levels of experience find a place on the river.

The Kitchen Dwellers put on a sunset riverside performance during RiverWonderGrass in August 2022.

With the help of Adrift’s top-notch guides, the confidence that I rediscovered during the past two RiverWonderWomen trips has opened the door to new river adventures with friends and family. Reconnecting to a passion of my past has been life-changing. For many in Steamboat Springs and beyond, river trips are one of the best parts of life. These journeys ignite the soul in a magical way that only rivers can. 

String lights create camping ambiance on the river bank.