A Float through Time: Rocks, Dinosaurs, and Humans

The Yampa River is the only major tributary in the Colorado River system that runs wild and free, straight to the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. For three months a year (May-July), the Yampa River flows free with fresh, surging run-off from miles above—waters originating from the melting snows and glaciers of the world-famous Colorado Rockies.

Yampa River- from the water.

A billion years of earth’s history are captured in these canyon walls, along with the remnants of various life forms that existed long before humans.

This pathway through time showcases some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world, ones that have been folded, lifted and split by eons of geological forces. Flowing through Dinosaur National Monument adds an intriguing archaeological element and side hikes along the river reveal ancient fossils, prehistoric Fremont ruins, and petroglyphs carved into sandstone cliff walls.

Petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls.

With miles of uninhabited desert and high canyon walls, Dinosaur National Monument is one of the darkest remaining places in the United States, enabling visitors to see the Milky Way with the naked eye before falling asleep under a blanket of stars. Due to restrictions from the Park Service to protect both the river and its archeological history, only two guided and two private boat launches are permitted per day. After rafting the Yampa nine years ago, my wife fell in love with the place and has applied for private permits for the past six years.

A look down into the canyon.

Luck wasn’t on her side for those lotteries, but maybe fate had another plan for us.

Serenity along the Yampa.

On a Thursday afternoon in May, twenty strangers plus the trip leader met at an old boathouse in Vernal, UT. Through face masks, there were stilted conversations about where we were from and questions about our upcoming trip.

Camp-side planning sessions.

For many, it was the first time interacting with people outside their small, self-appointed groups in over a year. Once the pre-trip meeting was over, we all rushed to the local brewery and liquor store to stock up before five days on a river.

On the first day, we split ourselves between five oar rafts, one paddle raft, and three inflatable kayaks mostly based on family groups. It wasn’t until we were seated in a circle during dinner the first night that we learned the 20 guests, six guides, and one geologist represented Utah, Texas, California, New York, Washington, Oregon, Indiana, and Idaho. Some had spent their lives (or retirements) collecting river trips around the world and others were embarking on their very first camping trip.

Feeling small against the canyon walls.

As we floated and paddled 71 river miles through cathedrals of sandstone and limestone, past stands of ponderosas and junipers and small herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and through the proposed site of the Echo Park Dam, those strangers slowly shifted into friends. Take away work and home stressors, distractors like TV and cell phone service, and all the other trappings of everyday life that make constant demands on our psyche, replace them with billion-year-old sedimentary rocks, class III and IV whitewater, and the gentle chorus of lapping water and chirping crickets, and something magical starts to happen.

A herd of Big Horn Sheep gathering along the river.

After being stuck in a little bubble of fear, uncertainty, and doubt related to a global pandemic, national politics, and public and personal struggles for equality, it was shocking to talk to people I didn’t already know. Each person, ranging in age from 16 to 78 years young, brought their own life experiences and perspectives.

Something about being away from the daily news cycle, social media, and all the constraints and stresses of modern life that allows people to start talking to each other like humans again.

Although from the outside our group of 27 looked relatively homogenous, we still covered the spectrum of political views, religious affiliations (or lack thereof), and economic circumstances. There were single travelers, couples, families (immediate and extended), and groups of friends.

A bluebird day on the water.

Sitting around a campfire and in various configurations on the boats, we discussed the future of water in the west, heard stories from someone who realized college wasn’t for him and spent a month kayaking and climbing mountains in Nepal, learned about everything that goes into a flight being cleared to take off and land from an air traffic controller and listened in as an environmental conservationist discussed logging with a retired forester. There was no shouting and no one went to bed angry at another person on the trip.

It was refreshing to experience people disagreeing in respectful ways and asking thoughtful questions to gain another person’s perspective.

After 5 days on the river, we all ended back where we first met. In stark contrast, instead of faces covered, greeting with polite hand waves, and social distancing, we were all smiles, hugging, and exchanging contact information. I feel fortunate enough to gain that human connection again after such a long year and a half; and lucky to take away some amazing memories and gain lifelong friends.

The team!

ESSENTIAL Gear List:

Dragonfly™ 3P – Still my favorite tent series; the extra room was luxurious and a welcomed treat since we were not carrying packs.

Riff™ 15 Men’s – Tried and true; the Thermo Gills were used every night making it easy to vent and also stay warm at dawn.

Tensor™ Insulated – As always, a staff favorite for being extremely comfortable, quiet, and stable.

Fillo™ – Nice little upgrade for myself after using a Fillo™ Elite for many years.


The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it.

Jason Lewandowski is NEMO’s new Business Systems Manager, enjoys backpacking with his wife, Sam, and their dog Moose, and being behind the lens when surrounded by beautiful landscapes.