The unknown is an enchanting proposition. Take-outs be damned.
“My Wyoming plates will go a long way here. We’ll just park our Jeep in the ditch on this strip of state land.”
The Laramie River drains the Northern slope of the Rawah Wilderness in Northern Colorado and the Eastern slope of the Medicine Bow Mountains in Southern Wyoming. It’s headwaters lie one drainage North of the Poudre. As it travels east it flows through the town of Laramie and out into the high plains. It’s then impounded in a set of three reservoirs that deliver water to southeastern Wyoming. Fourteen miles below the main reservoir the river dives into the Laramie Mountains and cuts a deep wilderness canyon.
Unfortunately the water released from the reservoir runs into a small catchment and is diverted through a tunnel into a tributary and around the canyon. This impoundment and the subsequent late season releases of water have created a reliable whitewater run on Bluegrass Creek. The water is re-routed first through an awesome micro-gorge in an annual streambed feeder creek and then into the main Bluegrass Creek. The unfortunate part is that this leaves little water in the Laramie River Canyon and for a good part of most years it never sees more than 30 cfs. Hardly boatable flows.
Enter 2011 with the heaviest snowpack on record in the Laramie River Basin and flood predictions from even the most amateur meteorologists. When trying to determine the flows for Bluegrass Creek the standard practice is to call up the Laramie Basin hotline and check the Wheatland Reservoir #2 outflow. The reservoirs outflow goes back into the Laramie but during the second half of the summer most of, if not the entire outflow gets diverted into Bluegrass. For paddlers it’s a great time for the creek to see more water because many of the other options in the area are dried up and though the run has 20 some odd barbwire fences and only two significant sections of whitewater it’s still a worthy destination.
Well, this spring, some bored Wyoming an Colorado paddlers hungry for anything to paddle in the early season called up the hotline and found that not only were they already releasing from Wheatland Reservoir #2, the outflow was somewhere north of 800 cfs (500 is a nice and padded flow for Bluegrass).
They drove out there only to find essentially a dry creekbed. The water had to be going somewhere so they drove up the road that goes to the put-in for Bluegrass to take a look at the Laramie. In the driving directions to the Bluegrass put-in it reads, “Take a left at this paved road and continue for a ways until you cross a dry streambed.”
When the boys got there the streambed wasn’t dry, it was pumping!
They put in and paddled a mile or so before hiking out due to a lack of shuttle, an unknown take-out and a 1pm start. Word that the Laramie was running spread through the community but it became apparent that the logistics on the other end of the canyon were going to be somewhat of an issue. Austin Woody stepped up to the task and began to explore take-out options.
A ranch at the end of the main canyon was his number one objective but, after getting in touch with the owner and asking as politely as possible, he was summarily told, “hell no.” Another ranch five or six miles downstream and below another small canyon appeared to be more receptive. They would allow us to take-out and park on their property but now the run had gone from 10-11 miles of unknown river to 17 miles of unknown river. The mission was teetering on the edge of requiring two days and so it was shelved until we could find the time to get two days off.
A weekend was chosen, the crew was gathered, a mother (Wigston) and a sister in-law (Stafford) were flown in to help the wives watch the kids, and a decision was made to camp at the put-in and go for a one day attempt. The mission was on. Woody went to make one final check on the river to make sure the water was still flowing down the Laramie and not being diverted. When he got to the bridge over Bluegrass Creek and called me I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Bluegrass is full…”
Dang! Alright. On to plan b, the crew was already formed the truck was already loaded, we were going to go boating. “I’m going to drive up to the Laramie just to make sure.”
Some pretty long and disillusioned faces could be seen as we lingered in the garage waiting for confirmation that they had turned the water off. Plans were made for a Homestake/Gilman Gorge/Dowd Chute combo on the Eagle, and though that sounded like an awesome high water run, the loss of the exploration on the horizon had significantly deflated the mood.
“Dude, the Laramie is full! Plenty of water, it’s all good!”
We met in Wheatland and followed Austin to the ranch where the owners had agreed to let us take-out. We had a caravan of two trucks, and with boats on top, only a semi-unusual sight for the small ranch town, considering it’s proximity to Bluegrass. A mile or two out of town and as we got onto more and more obscure dirt roads it became pretty apparent that a truck with fog lights and 30-inch wheels was following us. We pulled into the spot the owners had designated for us to park and jumped out of the rigs for a look around.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody is kayaking this river here!”
What the? Moments after our arrival (our tail obviously had tipped her) a woman came out ranting about not taking out on her property or paddling the river at all, her husband almost drowning the week before and how she was not, under any circumstance going to let this thing go down. Austin was having none of this and unknown to the rest of the crew had a back-up plan already hatched. Her property directly abutted a small patch of state land with about a hundred yards of riverfront where we could legally take-out.
Austin explained this, and that we were well within our rights to use the state land. She was pretty bent outta shape, especially considering her husband and her had already granted Austin permission. She kept insisting that we should not paddle the river, too dangerous and if we wanted to use the state land we’d need to speak to her nephew who has a lease to graze it.
“Uh ya, sure we’ll talk to your nephew, we were just leaving, sorry to have bothered you.”
And off we went to park in the ditch. The mission, almost thwarted for a second time was on again. The excitement was palpable. No one had a clue what lied within the canyon but visions of sliding bedrock waterfalls, big juicy holes and soaring boofs filled my head.
The visions were influenced by the make up of Bluegrass Creek. The crux of Bluegrass is a fairly unique set of slides into a waterfall, definitely uncharacteristic to the region and looks to me more like the pictures I’ve seen of Norway than the Wyoming plains mountains. Anyway, I may have built up my expectations a little high considering the mild gradient for the run, but it is so close to Bluegrass I was just expecting some of the same geology. No single mile was over 200 fpm but it was super consistent with 7 or 8 miles of the 10 mile main canyon over 100 fpm. We figured if the gradient stacked up in a shorter section with some bedrock thrown in it could easily create a mini-gorge or two and some small waterfalls.
We camped at the put-in amped to get an alpine start on a long day of exploration. When we awoke I could tell the river wasn’t as swollen as we had first thought. It was deceiving because it definitely looked to be out of its banks but what we had forgot to factor in was that its banks had encroached into the riverbed due to the controlled meager flows.
Below the road we immediately found good class III+ whitewater as we paddled through a short warm-up canyon. After this canyon there is a very easy egress point on river right where a seldom-used road comes in. During the next fairly brief section of easy water we saw multiple bald eagles. The main canyon started to form and so did the rapids. I was getting impatient for the really steep stuff I had been dreaming of but the first few rapids kept me entertained until we reached a pretty big horizon line dotted with truck size boulders.
This was definitely what we’d been waiting for. As we stepped out of our boats the rapid began to show itself. The first thing I noted was a giant sieve river right with a healthy portion of the water flowing into. The next note I took was of the clean line down the center. It looked makeable enough but since most of the water was going under a couple of rocks and into the sieve, it looked kind of shallow. The rapid helped put the canyon into perspective. We were looking at what was really a fairly large streambed. This was a big, wide boulder garden and our flow, which looked like it was flooding at the put-in, now looked like it was barely filling in the gaps.
Nick stepped up and made it onto the part that looked pretty scrapey and, low and behold, it was even more scrapey than it looked. He nearly grinded to a halt before trying to get a boof over a pretty non-threatening hole though it still fed into a very nasty sieve. He had to take some strong strokes to pull away from the hole and though he made it with relative ease it just wasn’t that sweet. With another 100 cfs or more the rapid would be sick. It is a pretty solid class V rapid which only served to further fuel our dreams of boofs and waterfalls.
We continued to paddle downstream making quick work of some great class IV rapids. The team was leap frogging along, mostly boat scouting and occasionally shore scouting when before we knew it, Austin was commenting that we were nearly out of the canyon. Wait, what? We missed it? Where was the big slidey rapid into the waterfall? Where was the ten-foot boof?
Turns out the gradient never really bunched up enough to produce major class V drops except at the very first drop. What that means though is that the gradient stays ultra consistent and that there are a ton of great class IV rapids with a few class V- and one class V rapid thrown in for fun. Truly a classic long run through a ultra-scenic canyon where we saw lots of wildlife and really enjoyed ourselves minus are gargantuan expectations.
We saw 3 bald eagles, 2 snapping turtles, a deer, a hawk, a blue heron and a bull snake swam right out in front of us. It is a long run (17 miles) but with a solid team moving quickly we finished it in around six hours. On the other hand now that we know what we would be getting into, we all agreed that it would be a great run to do an unnecessary overnighter on. We also agreed that though the whitewater is mostly class IV the run is best suited to paddlers who already enjoy long wilderness runs in the IV+ to V- range.
The difficulty level was pretty similar to Bailey, maybe a notch easier at the flows we had, but it is even more remote and has a larger more river like feel to it. We all also agreed that we would really like to see it at 1000 cfs, as the expert paddler would probably find the whitewater much more entertaining. We guessed that up to 7 or 800 cfs it would still be a class IV+ run with a few solid V’s thrown in. Higher than that it would start to move up the difficulty scale. Here’s to hoping that it runs again sometime in our lifetime… but I honestly have a hunch that in an average year there is usually a window to get on this one in the spring.
Austin’s Take-out Beta:
The take out is on the corner of the State land directly adjacent to, and east of, the Kittel Road Bridge near the Laramie River guest ranch. Drive west out of Wheatland on Palmer Canyon Road. Kittel Road is marked and is the last left before Palmer Canyon Road crosses the Laramie River. Take this and continue past the first spur that goes down to the river until you reach a 4-way intersection. At this point you have gone too far, back track about 200 yards back across the last fence line that the road crosses and that signifies the State section that is legal. A gazetteer or some type of land ownership map is necessary to ensuring your legality. There obviously aren’t many signs out there to help boaters know where they are, so you must be aware of the land ownership in the area before leaving a rig out there.