Stroke, stroke, stroke: Rowing 50 Days From Yampa Headwaters to Lake Powell

89

Talk about a journey from your doorstep. Starting just a mile from his front door, Jacob McCoola spent nearly 50 straight days last spring and summer rowing his raft from downtown Steamboat Springs, Colo., to Hite Marina on Lake Powell, a distance of nearly 600 miles. While “stroke, stroke, stroke” became a mantra, he didn’t have to listen to it echo off the canyon walls solo; different friends joined him along the way.
“I did it for the adventure and to escape the drudgery of living a life for other people,” says McCoola, who’s now pursuing his master’s degree in Portland. “All winter, I worked up to 80-hour weeks in a hot kitchen trying to save money to go back to school, while my skis, hiking boots and boats sat mostly unused in the basement. That isn’t a way to live for very long. People inherently need exploration, whether they know it or not.”
After negotiating the trip’s logistical hiccups, including lining up the necessary permits and organizing gear and provisions, McCoola drove his truck to Hite, Utah, and then hitch-hiked back to Steamboat. On May 16, friend Jason Peasley drove him and his raft to the put-in just upstream of the KOA campground, where he shoved off.
After passing through Craig he floated through Duffy and Juniper canyons before his first and only time off the water. “Cross Mountain Canyon was a bit too high, so we did a quick portage up to the Little Snake,” he says. “Other than that, my boat didn’t leave the river until we took out at Lake Powell June 27.”
Next came aligning with the required permit for the five-day float through Yampa Canyon, where he joined the Green River at Echo Park. From there, a few days on the flats outside Jensen, Utah, brought him to Desolation and Gray canyons on the Green.
“The wet spring made the first week or two rainier than expected,” he says, bemoaning the task of drying wet gear. “It tested our gear and attitudes. It also created standing water in the Uinta Basin, which is notoriously one of the worst mosquito-breeding grounds on the planet. At one point I counted 90 bites on one arm.”  
From there he emerged into a flatwater float through Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons through Canyonlands National Park before braving Class IV-V Cataract Canyon just below the confluence with the Colorado. It was here, on a river flowing 40,000 cubic feet per second, where the most harrowing moment of the journey occurred.
“It was crazy big water,” he says. “One of our rafts flipped right before Big Drop, so we had to chase it and a swimmer all the way down the canyon, which we ended up running in two days instead of four. Our friend swam seven miles of Class IV-V water. We found him at the bottom of the canyon in relatively good shape. It was pretty humbling and intense.”
Rapids safely behind them, in the flats of Lake Powell they wended through massive silt banks before finally arriving at Hite Marina and a well-deserved hot shower.
Despite his introspective solo time behind the oars, having companions along, he says, was key. “I was joined by everyone from professors, scientists and outdoor educators to children, old friends, first-time rafters, poets and musicians,” he says. “Apart from bringing resupplies, they provided a great change of perspective. You build great relationships with people on a river.”  
While he admits he fought through some adverse conditions, he “was so psyched to be out on the river that the tough moments were just a wonderful part of the experience.”
“Overall, it was one of the most amazing journeys of my life, physically, mentally and spiritually,” he says. “It was great to get to know a place so intimately. Rivers are a perfect metaphor for life and being able to live that metaphor is a privilege.”  
 Lest you think McCoola was water-logged after reaching Lake Powell, he wasn’t through; he headed straight out for another eight-day trip on the nearby San Juan, in total spending just two nights not camping along on the river.
The hardest part of it all, he says, wasn’t battling rapids, bugs or weather, but biding adieu to the friends who joined him and deflating his raft at trip’s end. “Saying goodbye to amazing friends, both new and old, at each boat ramp was tough,” he says. “And so was having to take out at the end. Sometimes you just want to keep going but there’s a dam in your way.”

Fast Facts
Dates:</b May 16 – June 27
Miles traveled: 600/50 days
Factoid: Lake Powell is named in honor of Civil War veteran and one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell, who first ran the Grand Canyon in 1869. Its dam, completed in 1963 and rising 710 feet above the river, took 17 years to fill and has a storage capacity of 27,000,000 acre-feet, making it the country’s second largest man-made reservoir.

Quick PL Q&A:

Why’d you do it?
High adventure. Personal growth. The call of the river. Escape from the drudgery of living a life for other people.  Removal from the status quo. Desert time.  Research for a book, a thesis, life.  All winter, I had been working 50-85 hour weeks in a hot kitchen gaining job experience, building character, and trying to save some money to go back to school.  My skis, hiking boots and boats sat mostly unused in the basement. That’s not a way to live for very long.  People inherently need exploration, whether they know it or not and whatever form this exploration may manifest.  This was my way of escape from the monotony of going through the motions of what society tells you life should be like.  I wanted to be challenged each day with mystery around every turn of the river, new obstacles, new campsites, new people, new views, time to read, think, write, and make music.  

How long did it take?
It depends on whether you want to count all of the planning time it took to negotiate logistical hiccups, coordinate with all of the parties involved, buy and organize and prep gear, build deck boards, dry-rig the boat multiple times in the Peasleys’ carport while getting yelled at by neighbors because it was against HOA policy, save money, daydream.  After driving my truck to “Hite”, Utah, and hitching/catching rides back to Steamboat, Jason Peasley drove me and my boat the mile or so from his house to the dirt pull out by the KOA on the Yampa on May 16th.  Apart from a short portage around Cross Mountain Canyon up onto the Little Snake, my boat didn’t leave the river until we took out at Lake Powell on June 27.  I then did another 8 day trip on the San Juan 3 days later.  All in all, it was about an 8 week journey, with only 2 nights spent not on the river between the Yampa/Green/Colorado and the San Juan.

How hard was it?
The degree of toughness is directly related to attitude.  I was so psyched to be out on the river that the tough moments were just a wonderful part of the experience.  there were definitely some adverse conditions to be encountered.  An unusually wet spring made the first week or so rainier than expected for a desert.  Its mentally challenging to try and dry out wet gear when surrounded by water on the ground and in the air (although it makes for some cool canyon wall waterfall shows!).  the rain definitely tested both gear and attitudes.  The rain also left an unusual amount of standing water through the Uinta Basin, notoriously one of the worst mosquito breeding grounds on the planet.  Having 90 bites on one arm at any one time was tough but the constant buzzing presence was the toughest.  Saying goodbye to amazing friends, both new and old, at each boat ramp was incredibly tough.  The toughest part was having to take out at the end.  Sometimes you just want to keep going but there just happens to be a dam in your way.  

Was it good to have some companions along?
It was really nice to have people meet up on the way.  Apart the convenience of a built in supply drop, these people provided beneficial changes of perspective. University professors, scientists, outdoor educators, children, old friends, water nerds, first time rafters, poets, musicians. The passion that they brought was rejuvenating and fun.  Going on a river trip with someone also allows the creation of a relationship that is much more intimate than one that can be created over the same time period in the “real world”.  You are existing, recreating, cooking, eating, hiking, talking, laughing, drinking, hugging and high giving these people for a week straight or more. The amount and caliber of interaction makes for a robust relationship no matter what you had with that person previously.  

Any parting thoughts?
Overall, it was one of the most amazing journeys of my life so far, both physically, mentally and spiritually.  I have been struggling to capture and articulate the extent to which this adventure has changed me.  I saw so many things and had the privilege to experience and know a “place” so intimately (although it is difficult to call a river a place as it is so dynamic and exists on such great geographic scale).  The longer you spend on the river, the more you integrate its essence into your paradigm- the pace, the eddies, the gravity and slope, the sound, the rocks, the twists and turns, the change in color and opacity and depth.  The flow.  It really is a perfect metaphor for life and being able to live that metaphor is a privilege that few people get to experience but everyone should.