The Big “W”

By Maureen Dempsey

It is the middle of May and the weather is finally warming up enough for a trip down the Green River through the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Named after a Shoshone work, “Sisk-a-dee-agie” means “river of the prairie hen”. Home to some 300 species of wildlife, the riparian habitat is a major migration route and nesting area for a wide variety of waterfowl and other birds.

This trip is a combination birding and boating trip: a slow, leisurely paddle on flat water. We hoped to spot bald eagles, great blue herons and trumpeter swans along the way. Maybe we would see some moose or a beaver, or perhaps a porcupine.

We meet the group at the Slate Creek Campground on Friday evening, planning on going down the river on Saturday morning. We’ll have a choice of paddling eight or thirteen miles, depending upon the weather and the river conditions.

Our group is made up of men and women from Riverton, Casper, Green River, and my husband and me, from Pinedale. A few more folks from Rock Springs and Green River will be meeting us on Saturday morning. We have an assortment of boats: our river canoe, a larger tripping canoe and several sit-on-top kayaks. The group seems to have newbie and more experienced paddlers.

The plan is to meet at nine and do a shuttle. River shuttles are usually the most tedious part of floating a river, as it generally takes longer than you expect, but this one is mostly on paved or improved dirt roads, so I am optimistic. We are waiting on the folks from Rock Springs so we can do the shuttle.

It is now working on nine-thirty and the group shows up with a wooden kayak and a flimsy kayak you can purchase on the cheap. The kind that works great on small bays or calm rivers. One of the guys looks like a serious birder, talks about his new binoculars. The other guy is loud, somewhat obnoxious, but apparently knows this stretch of the Green. We all scatter to our vehicles and begin the shuttle drive.

My husband and I ride with three other people, visiting and chatting about some of the history of the area. Everyone is pleasant and happy to be finally running a river after a long, snowy winter.

The Green was flowing at 2500 cubic feet per second (cfs), about three times as high as normal, compared to recent years. Because of the heavy snowpack in the mountains north of the refuge, the Bureau of Reclamation was letting water out of the Fontenelle Reservoir upstream in anticipation of the runoff soon to come.

Higher flows mean a faster current, and obstacles that were once in the river may be covered or nonexistent. You never can really tell about a river until you float it first thing in the season. We haven’t been on this section of the Green yet this year, but a few of the other people say they were on it the previous season when the water levels were lower.

Driving back to the put-in at the campground, we’re treated to pairs of bald eagles hanging out high up in the cottonwood trees, red-tailed hawks soaring above, and a prairie falcon swooping down on its prey. It is an impressive sight.

Gathering with our boats at the put-in, the loud guy proceeds to scare all the newbies with stories of a diversion dam and some big holes further down the river. You can tell by the look on the new boaters that they are getting wary about this trip. My husband chimes in, “The river is too high, there won’t be any diversion dams.”

Silently, I nod at him, and we are then told to “stay together” and stop when people stop to birdwatch. Fine with this, we all get in our lifejackets and boats and take off. There is a truck at take-out eight miles downriver, and one or two at thirteen miles downriver. This gives people the option of floating all or part of this stretch of the Green River.

We soon discover our canoe is faster than the other boats, so we eddy out and wait while people catch up. Three golden eagles circle above the boats, whit-throated swifts zip around, and someone spots a cormorant. The one we see is all black with an orange throat patch, swimming and surface-diving for fish.

Birds flit in and out of the willows growing along the river, and someone spots some more bald eagles; the cottonwood trees are full of them perching together. Not surprisingly, we spot pairs of ospreys sitting by their massive stick nests built on the dead branches of some large cottonwood trees. They are easy to spot because of their white breasts and the noise they make. Their call is a loud piping whistle, getting faster and faster and then louder and louder, and then quieting down. I have always thought of ospreys as the outlaws of the river, with their dark eye stripes; a silly take on such a beautiful bird.

People travel in pairs or switch up and paddle faster or slower to visit with the other boaters. There are some serious birders in the group; our skills are about average. We usually birdwatch while doing other activities, so we don’t keep life lists or very good lists at all. Enjoying seeing them and studying up a bit each time seems like enough.

Breaking for lunch is suggested, and we all beach our boats where an outhouse is available, sitting down on the rocks to eat and enjoy the warmth. Toward the end of the half-hour or so, the wind picks up, as it inevitably does on western rivers.

Putting on another layer and my lifejacket, I climb into the canoe and we push off, heading down river. Because the river is running so high we have made fast progress even with all the stopping and looking at birds. The river is wide and straightforward, with no obstacles so far. Rounding a bend, we can see the first take-out, the one by the Hay Farm Boat Ramp. Everyone lands their boats and the wife of the other canoeist decides she has had enough, her knees are spent. A kayaker agrees to ditch her boat and paddle the canoe so her husband can go another seven miles downstream.

There is an ominous-looking cloud gathering force, and the wind is picking up. There are high winds predicted for the afternoon, but generally, they come and go and you can wait them out. Another kayaker, whose truck is parked at the take-out decides he has also had enough. This is his first river trip, but I suspect he doesn’t want anyone else to drive his brand-new truck. I tell my husband, “I don’t like how those clouds look. Let’s get out here, too.”

Being a diehard, he thinks twice about it, but then agrees, albeit somewhat reluctantly. “Ok, we certainly have our share of stories of being on rivers and the wind,” he laughs at some memory, puts his arm around my shoulder. “We’re good babe, let’s load up.” The plan is to go back to the campground and get our vehicle and come back to the take-out and pick up our canoe. Because it is so lightweight, sixteen pounds, he ties it to a sign. About a half hour later we are back at camp, headed back down the road to pick up our canoe.

As we return to the spot, the wind has now really picked up. It is blowing at least forty miles an hour. It is all we can do to get the canoe on top of our Subaru and strap it down before it blows off. I am holding on to it with all my weight while my husband tries to get the wildly flapping straps securely around the boat. Finally, we jump back in the car and drive back to the campground. The wind is blowing so hard now that it is all he can do to drive down the road with the canoe on top acting like a lean, hard sail, and not run off the road.

Back at the campground, we are greeting by the sight of our tent collapsing around itself, yet still standing. The huge cottonwood trees are groaning and the wind is getting fiercer. The woman who decided not to canoe to the final take-out point rushes over, a bit shook up, worrying about the boaters who continued on downstream.

Thinking the gale will blow over, we attempt to get the canoe off the top of the car but it flies off instead, knocking off our side mirror and bowling my husband into a tree. Yikes! The three of us sit in the tent for a while, but the wind keeps getting stronger. We decide to try and load up, and back the car up to the tent, throwing things in the back in a wild way. Now for the tent. It is flapping around we stand on the downed part while my husband crawls inside and takes the poles out of their sleeves. It is now a big, orange mess but we jam it into the car.

After taking down our tent, we find rocks to put on some of the smaller tents still standing and think it might be a good idea to head to the take-out and see if the group needs help. We meet up with the guy from Green River, and share snacks. A Fish and Wildlife uniform walks over and tells us there are some kayakers that just got out and that our group is having trouble getting to the take-out. We head down a dirt road to see if we can spot them. We see the canoe has already landed, and one of the kayaks.

I wonder aloud if everyone is ok. One of the women drags her kayak to shore and tells me she is fine, no one is hurt. One of the guys, however, has lost his boat and stalks off, muttering, “Never again. I should have taken out when you guys did.”

Patting the woman’s shoulder, I tell her to get in the truck and we’ll load up the boats. She is shivering and thanks me. We help with all the boats and the guy that lost his kayak heads back to Rock Springs, seriously upset as his $1500 binoculars were in the boat. Apparently, he was having trouble paddling his kayak in the wind and tied it to the back of the canoe so he could help those folks get to the take-out. When he looked back, his boat was gone.

The Fish and Wildlife guy tells us the wind has been blowing at a steady 50 miles per hour, but there have been gusts up to 70 mph. We don’t doubt it, feeling everyone was lucky to have made it back unharmed.

Again, we head back to the campground and make a decision to head home to Pinedale as this wind storm doesn’t appear to be blowing over. Ominously, the temperature has dropped considerably. We are marveling that just this morning it was 70 degrees.

Putting on polar fleece jackets we walk over to the only woman in camp and tell her everyone is ok, they are headed back and that we will stay until the group gets back. “Do you want to sit in our car while we wait?” I ask her. She tells me no, as her tent is still standing, but as we look toward it, it falls down on itself, the poles bending. There isn’t much we can do, as her husband has their truck.

We keep her company and commiserate about river trips where the river gods have taken their share of gear, and occasionally, a boat. It’s true that every river has a certain character, but that character changes depending upon the season, the weather, the day.

Maybe that is why we run rivers…to be humbled and surprised.

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