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Steamboat Magazine

The Case of the Steamboat Sting

10/16/2023 07:00AM ● By Tom Martin
(Photo: Horace Albright and Bus Hatch on the river. Dinosaur National Monument, 1957. Courtesy of Bill Warren.) 

Steamboat Springs, CO - After two ill-equipped park service employees drowned in the Grand Canyon in the 1940s, the National Park Service decided to promote commercial river running and keep private paddlers out of its parks, including Dinosaur National Monument. Dinosaur Superintendent Jess Lombard then gave Bus Hatch (owner and founder of Hatch Expeditions) a commercial river-running concession, but forced private paddlers to apply for a permit, denying nine out of 10 of them. Working behind the scenes with Bus to favor commercial operations over private, Jess later wrote Grand Canyon Superintendent John McLaughlin that he faced “a heck of a problem with regard to this river running,” referencing an event from earlier in 1957 on the Yampa River involving Bus and a bunch of Steamboat Springs locals, including a rancher named Forest Worm.

Forest and company had run the Yampa in 1955 and wanted to go again but could only get away for two days. They planned to rent two rafts from Hatch Expeditions and run a day trip from Deerlodge to Mantle Ranch, WY. They would make the run after high water but with still enough of a current to make it 34 miles in one day. Renting two 10-man rafts for the day, Forest, his wife Ruth, and seven other couples met at Deerlodge, with Bus maintaining they didn’t need a permit (he was the assistant ranger he said, and would take care of everything). The equipment Bus gave them was suspect – decrepit rafts with no bailing buckets, spare oars or even lifejackets. Still, the group shoved away at 6 a.m. in good spirits.

That lasted until they stopped to scout Teepee Rapid, after which the first boat raced onward. About a mile below the rapids, the boat swamped and filled with water as the oarsman fought to get it to shore. While emptying it on shore, the boaters noticed the second boat coming along upside-down with six people clinging onto its D-rings. They scrambled back to give chase, puncturing their own floor in the process. Now flooding themselves, they began throwing heavy items overboard, including their cooler of food. Finally catching the overturned raft, they pulled the swimmers onto their own flooded boat. Two crippled crafts finally made it to shore at the base of a cliff in dire straits: the flipped boat had lost its oars, the upright boat had a hole in its floor, and neither boat had a repair kit. People were hypothermic and the river was rising.

The party tied the two boats together, loaded everyone and headed downriver. While lining up for the next rapid, bad luck continued as the “good” raft slipped through the men’s hands and took off downriver. Luckily for the stranded boaters, someone had some waterproof matches and started a fire. Forest lit a tree on fire to serve as a rescue signal; the fire soon spread up the hillside. By then it was nearly dark, and the group huddled around their fire the rest of the cold night.

At Mantle Ranch, the shuttle crew grew concerned as evening approached – especially when an upside-down boat came into view. Someone drove 40 miles to the nearest phone to call the park service, which mobilized a rescue from Deerlodge the next morning in a motorized pontoon boat piloted by two rangers and a Hatch employee. When the rescue boat showed up, the rangers spotted the signal fire and angrily told the stranded boaters to put it out before loading them onto the pontoon and heading down to Mantle Ranch. Exhausted but thankful to be alive, the group then returned home to Steamboat. Later, they considered litigation against Hatch Expeditions for endangering them with false information and shoddy equipment but decided not to press charges. Meanwhile, the park service began proceedings against Bus because Forest didn’t have a permit.

(Photo: Forest and Ruth Worm. Courtesy of Bill Warren.) 

That November, at a Western River Guides Association meeting, the group was told about the ongoing prosecution of a river party that had rafted Dinosaur without a permit, noting that “If the U.S. wins, it could have a bearing on cases in the Grand Canyon, and if the U.S. loses, the least said the better.” In his report to his superintendent, Grand Canyon ranger Lynn Coffin noted Dinosaur and its river operators planned to publicize the case widely. Meanwhile, Jess continued to deny other private paddlers’ permits unless the equipment was safe and the guides were competent.

Six months later, Forest’s entire group was summoned to appear in federal court in Denver, charged with boating in the monument without a permit, and starting a fire without a permit in an unauthorized area. Maximum penalty for each person: six months in prison and a $500 fine. Forest faced an additional six months in prison, another $500 fine, and $251 to cover the rescue. In June they went to court, where they were fingerprinted and placed alongside other defendants in handcuffs and leg-irons. After hearing such cases as murder and assault, the judge read out their crime: “Floating through the Yampa Canyon without a permit.” The utterance was followed by complete silence before the entire courtroom burst out in laughter. The judge released the river-runners and the case was later thrown out of court. The group got their payback, of sorts, because one of the couples owned a dude ranch frequented by senators and congressmen. They told their guests about the incident and the biased permit system, and in 1959 Superintendent Jess Lombard was transferred without promotion to South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Monument. And that’s the story of the Steamboat Sting.

Editor’s note: The above account is modified from “Otis Marston: The Colorado River Historian” Volume 1, Book 4, by Tom Martin, available on Amazon Kindle.