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Down the River with NOLS

by Larry Rice

" Let's make a few things clear: I am not a master whitewater paddler (not for lack of trying); and despite my youthful appearance (so what if my beard is more gray than black) I am actually 43. I mention this because last summer I was a member of a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Rocky Mountain Whitewater River Course. For two weeks, along with a dozen other students less than half my age, I traveled by kayak and raft through remote wilderness areas of Utah's Green River country. It was a time of long days, strenuous physical activity and new ways of doing things. It was one of the best two weeks on the water I have ever spent."

The Gathering
On the outskirts of Vernal, Utah, located in the high semi-desert west of Dinosaur National Monument, is the NOLS River Base, an unassuming garage-type building noteworthy only for the brightly colored kayaks stored out back. Here, on a sun baked July morning, thirteen strangers gather in front of a blackboard cluttered with lists and maps. It is the first day of school, and despite trying to act cool, everyone is clearly excited.

One by one, we go around the circle getting acquainted. The majority of the students are from the East: New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Georgia; a few are from the West: California, Colorado, Nevada. Most are in high school or Ivy League prep schools; a few are in college. Hardly any of my teammates have prior camping or kayaking experience.

If I feel conspicuous as the elder of our student tribe, I wonder how 16-year-old Valerie feels as the solitary female. "Most classes have a 50:50 male to female ratio," explains Atila Rego-Monterio, our 28-year-old head instructor. "Obviously enrollment went a little awry here." But Valerie seems perfectly able to handle river running with a bunch of guys.

Sporting a rakish "Ming the Emperor" goatee which belies his outgoing mirthful manner, Atila asks the group why we signed up for this particular course. The replies are almost unanimous: to learn how kayak the big stuff and to master the Eskimo roll. "You'll have a chance at both," says Atila, "but the course involves much more than that. You'll learn teamwork, leadership and environmental ethics. You'll develop the knowledge, skills and experience needed to pull off your own wilderness river expedition."

I scan the faces of the green recruits. What do they think of all this? Chris, the 22 year old, long haired bundle of energy from Lake Tahoe, Nevada provides a clue. "That's rad man," he says "But one question: How many kick-butt rapids do we get to shred on this trip?"

After some basic classes, we check personal gear, our issued NOLS equipment and food, and then pile into a cramped van for the drive to a nearby state park. A couple of shaded, dusty campsites will be our homes for the night. The main reason we are here, however, is the park's small lake. Here we'll be able to practice basic kayaking strokes and skills to prepare us for the river.

But that's tomorrow. First we have an appointment back at Vernal's indoor community swimming pool to practice kayak wet exits and entries and some of the elements of a kayak roll. "Students grasp the roll quicker in a controlled environment like a swimming pool," says Atila, "It seems to decrease the anxiety factor."

Assisting Atila in the pool is the rest of our instruction staff: four deeply tanned guys attired in faded shorts, tee shirts and river sandals. Under their skilled tutoring, everyone manages to roll at least once by the session's end. And then there's Chris, our resident rock climber, rollerblader, and certifiable wild and crazy dude. He swears this is his first time in a kayak, yet in five minutes he has his on side paddle roll in 20 minutes he has his off side roll, and by the time we quit for the night he is doing hand rolls.

The instructors can't help but comment. "That's disgusting."

The next day commences at sunrise with a breakfast of stove warmed bagels and cream cheese. The temperature is a pleasant 60 degrees; by noon it will soar to 110 degrees in the sun.

After an intense morning on the lake to learn basic kayak strokes and maneuvering, we clamber aboard a school bus for the rough, four hour ride to the Green River. The anticipation is palpable when we arrive at the remote launch site. A few miles downstream is the entrance to Desolation Canyon, one of Utah's premier river running areas. From here on, for 85 miles, there will be no turning back.

A Bureau of Land Management ranger, stationed at the launch site during the summer, informs us that the Green is running at 1,500 cubic feet per second, well under its annual high water level of 12,000 cfs. But for our purposes the low level is preferable, according to Kevin Gage, 25, a patient, accommodating instructor. "Speaking from personal experience, you learn whitewater a lot faster when the consequences of swimming aren't as great."

Rapids and Classes
We are up with the sun and the shrill, bickering calls of western kingbird. The kitchen team- three students doing a single day's cooking for everyone- is soon hard at work concocting something called "Mexican Delight" which eventually develops into a mouth-watering feast of huevos rancheros and tortillas, washed down by cowboy coffee and Tang.

While working on my second helping, I take a peek at the expedition menu packet. I'm stunned. The cuisine is gourmet. Future breakfasts include sumptuous dishes like "Raft McMuffin," "Hashbrowns for Real," and "Pound Those Cakes Down." For dinner, there is a different entree every night: "Tuna in Toga," "Veggies Dancing Over Pebbles," "Border Burrito Bars," "River Run Pie," "Arabian Super Light CousCous," to name more than a few. There are brownies, carrot cakes and gingerbread to bake in the Dutch oven, and cold mix cheesecakes and cobblers. Clearly, no one is going hungry on this expedition; a more likely scenario is that we might even put on a few pounds.

We learn quickly that one of NOLS' best kept secrets is the chow served on their whitewater river courses. Unlike the usual backpacker's fare of rice, pasta, beans and granola, on a raft supported kayak trip it's possible to take plenty of fresh and frozen food since the two big oar rigs are each equipped with a pair of refrigerator sized ice filled coolers. "We don't like to brag about eating so well," Atila says, grinning. "The other instructors might be a bit envious if the word got out."

Considering how much packing, rigging and loading there is to do, I find it short of miraculous that we're ready to shove off by nine. Our flotilla consists of two oar rafts: an 18 foot self-bailer and a conventional 16 footer; a 14 foot paddle raft; and a variety of kayak designs. "Everyone will have an opportunity to try everything," announces Atila, as we check out the fleet.

The kayakers, of which I am one today, break into two pods. I'm with Atila and teammates Jacob, Ben and Jim. Aaron Gladman, 22, a recent college graduate with a degree in architecture, is the other pod leader. After completing a six week NOLS Instructor Course, Aaron discovered that he enjoys teaching whitewater much more than being a desk bound architect, even if it means seasonal work and minimum wage.

The Utah sun is fierce, the water warm. The uniform of the day (every day) is shorts, neoprene booties, helmets, and close-fitting life jackets. Some lather their bare backs with sun cream; I prefer to wear a nylon paddling jacket to protect my hide. To cool off, the river is an inviting alternative: I flip my boat and roll whenever the heat becomes too much.

Right from the start, Jacob, a recent high school graduate, and I push each other in friendly competition. We spot each other on rolls and offer suggestions and encouragement on other kayak skills we've been learning. Atila smiles as he paddles past us. "You two are like a couple of otters," he says. "Thanks," Jacob replies, just before flipping underwater.

The current is slow, the river flat in this upper stretch. Frequent fast-paced games of kayak polo make the time pass quickly. In this rough-and-tumble contest with frequent collisions, pods square off to score points by dunking a beach ball into one of the rafts. The game is outrageous and great fun, with the side benefit of building endurance and boat handling skills.

There is also time to hone skills off the water. NOLS, after all, is a school (students may register for three hours of credit from he University of Utah) and classes are held regularly. We have two meetings each day held in the most beautiful, non-traditional classrooms imaginable. There are "formal" lectures covering such topics as minimum-impact camping, expedition behavior, and river hydraulics, as well as interactive classes like river rescue techniques, route finding and navigation, where you learn by doing. The instructors are enthusiastic teachers who know their stuff. I've been running rivers and wilderness camping for twenty some odd years, and every hour, every day on this course I am learning something new.

We paddle steadily the first two days, with only a few smooth rapids to spice up the flat water. "If we push hard now, we'll have more time to play in whitewater later on," advises Atila. However, suggestions from Atila and the other instructors are becoming less frequent as we gain experience and proficiency. Except for the overall direction of the course, safety consideration, and boating instruction, the reins of leadership are being assumed by the students.

Leadership at NOLS is practical, not theoretical. Rotating three-person patrol leader teams that we've nicknamed "juntas," are now the autonomous decision makers. It is the junta's responsibility, not the instructors, to decide when to have breakfast, who will be in rafts, when to have classes, when and where to camp. At the end of a long day, the junta insures that equipment is cared for, the group kitchen is run efficiently, fellow students are still laughing, and the all important "groover" (the group's ammo-can outhouse is set up in a secluded, but scenic, location.)

The junta tries to govern by democracy; failing that, by consensus; failing that, dictatorship is always an option.

Rolling Down the River
There are some 40 moderate rapids and many smaller riffles on this trip. No matter. We are ready as we ease deeper into Desolation Canyon. We are learning to row the cumbersome oar rafts with growing precision and confidence. Paddle raft crews drill on stroke combinations, and timing and communication skills needed to put the boat exactly where they need to. And the "river maggots" (kayakers) spend hours in their responsive, plastic boats practicing eddy turns, peel outs, ferries, river reading, and how to surf waves and play holes.

While working on peel-outs in a minor rapid, I joke to Aaron that I'm ready for bigger water. "Tough guy, eh?" he says. "Then try it backwards." Backwards? "No problem," I say. Wrong! My kayak flips the moment the bow crosses the eddy line. I miss my first roll, but succeed on my second attempt. Aaron is laughing. "I wanted you to flip so you could practice your combat roll," he tells me. "If you don't roll on occasion, it means you're not trying hard enough."

We stop for lunch near a cluster of vibrant green cottonwoods and box elders, and take a short hike to view some petroglyphs etched on a rock wall. We are told that this "rock art" was created by Indians of the Fremont culture about 1,000 years ago. Through squinting eyes I survey the drab, sun baked surroundings and soaring cliffs. I imagine little has changed here since the Fremont's occupation.

Back in my kayak, I spend as much time staring up at the limestone and sandstone walls as I do watching the stream ahead. Desolation is the deepest canyon in Utah, in places the river is over 5,000 feet below the canyon rim, deeper than the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Trail.

When explorer-scientist Major John Wesley Powell headed down here on his 1869 expedition, he wrote: "The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canyons enter on either side. Crags and tower shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and above them long lines of broken cliffs. Beyond the cliffs are pine forests of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks. We are minded to call this the "Canyon of Desolation "

Billy, an Atlanta, Georgia high-school senior who has never been West before, pulls beside me in his kayak. "This place is totally awesome," he says with reverence. And so it is.

Our eight days on the river allow us yet another chance to test our whitewater savvy. Immediately below camp is Wire Fence Rapid, "Deso's" most significant rapid at this water level. We scout the Class III, rock- studded run for a half hour from shore. The initial big drop is followed by 100 yards of smaller chutes and standing waves.

The oar rafts lead the way, ready to pick up any boaters in the party who might find themselves in the river. One by one kayakers peel-out of an upstream eddy and blast on through. Finally, it is my turn. I take the center route through the foaming rapid, a slick, swift tongue that plunges me into the turbuIence. I bounce through the standing waves, brace into a side curler, and spin behind a boulder where fellow maggots are waiting. "Right on bro! Sweet run!" they shout above the rapid's din. Their wet, beaming faces capture what whitewater boating is all about.

Gray Canyon to the End
After some 60 miles, Desolation's looming red walls abruptly end, suddenly giving way to a short open valley followed by lower cliffs of gray, brown, yellow and white sandstone. We are now in what Powell named Gray Canyon, shorter and smaller than Deso, a place with a character all its own. As if pre-arranged, a band of bighorn sheep is there to greet us from atop a crumbly cliff side; a coyote trots along the bank, keeping pace. As we cruise downstream these final miles, to yet more rapids and a couple more campsites, I drift off by myself for a little quiet time, reluctant to see the trip end. I've learned a lot during these two weeks with NOLS about myself, about others and about a special wild part of our country. And I learned that age really isn't that big of a deal.

If given some expert coaching, warm water, and some 40 rapids to play in, almost anyone, even we "old" dudes, can develop a combat roll.

For More Information
Since 1965, NOLS has taught wilderness skills, conservation and leadership to more than 30,000 students. Groups of eight to 17 students travel with two to five instructors. Students range in age from 14 to 75, the median being 20.

NOLS Courses are self reliant expeditions to remote wilderness areas. They vary in length from 10 days to three months. The NOLS Rocky Mountain Branch offers three whitewater expeditions: the two week course, taken by the author, for ages 16 and older; a three week course for ages 16 and over; and a 25 and over two week course. For older students (50 and older), NOLS offers a two week canoe course through the lower canyons of the Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexico border.

For information regarding enrollment, course itineraries and tuition fees, contact National Outdoor Leadership School, 288 Main Street, Lander, WY 82520-3140, (307) 332-5300.

Contributing editor Larry Rice is the author of Canoe Country Reflections and Alaska Reflections
(ICS Books, (800) 541-7323).

Published in the May 1995 issue of Canoe and Kayak Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1995 Canoe & Kayak

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