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