Rafting the Green River in Utah: Even for a preteen, nature is the ultimate video game

VERNAL, Utah — Whitewater river guide Bret Wojciak has long been a fan of the West’s dramatic, cathedral-like canyons and the wild rivers that flow through many of them.

In the last five years or so, he has found another reason to cherish these deep gorges: They force people to disconnect from their computers, tablets and cellphones, at least for a few days.

The results can be remarkable, Wojciak told me on a recent Don Hatch River Expeditions rafting and kayaking trip down the Green River on the Colorado-Utah border.

For three days, my family and a dozen other fortunate souls paddled rafts through Dinosaur National Monument in the 1,500-foot-deep, rainbow-striped Gates of Lodore canyon, bounced over moderate Class III rapids, hiked up trails to see native petroglyphs and dined on delicious campfire meals. Always a bit of an outlier, I tagged along in a hard-shell kayak and had the freedom to run rapids and surf waves on my own.


But all of us escaped our electronic devices.

“Those electronic things just aren’t necessary when you are on the river, and besides they aren’t available,” said Wojciak, a medical student in Oregon when he’s not guiding a trip.

“We tell people to leave their electronic gear behind. So instead of staring at their cellphones, they shift gears, slow down some and look at the water, the wildlife, the flowers and the beautiful canyon walls, Better yet, they talk to each other without being distracted by a text or a call or someone tweeting them something.

“Besides, in the middle of a big rapid, you really do need to pay attention.”



I saw it myself with Anders, my then-12-year-old son. He enjoys the outdoors, but like many boys his age he would rather play computer games than do anything else. On our trip, he connected with a couple of other kids and spent part of his free time — when we weren’t busting through rapids — building forts with sticks and mud on the beach or climbing on the big rocks near our campsites and exploring.

He even spent time hanging out and talking with Maddie, his big sister.

Judging by the hoots and hollers, my kids and the rest of the group especially liked running rapids with such names as Hell’s Half Mile and Triplet Falls. We did all of them with no serious mishaps, though I did flip my kayak in front of a group of other rafters. It took me three rolls to get upright, much to my chagrin.

On our second morning, from the beach above Disaster Falls, we watched as a guide for another outfitter hit a frothy hole in the river. His raft tipped sideways, bucked and shot the guide and two passengers into the drink. The water downstream turned calm, so other rafters quickly rescued the swimmers and recovered their guideless raft.

A guide with Don Hatch River Expeditions prepares a salmon dinner for his group as it takes a three-day ride on the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border.
A guide with Don Hatch River Expeditions prepares a salmon dinner for his group as it takes a three-day ride on the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border.
(Madeline J. Clark )

History shimmers

At night, after the guides prepared dinners of salmon and baked chicken, we sat around the campfire and shared stories.


Wojciak told us that the rafting company’s namesake was Don “Bus” Hatch, who first ran the Green River in 1929.

His family thought he was crazy, or so says local legend. But he returned to the river time after time and started what is the oldest commercial rafting outfit in the country.

But Hatch wasn’t the first person to run the Green.

Although Native Americans were no doubt paddling stretches of this stream for centuries, John Wesley Powell was the first Western explorer to run the Green’s rapids.

Sixty years before Hatch, this one-armed Civil War veteran led a group of nine men in four boats into the canyon. Calamity struck when he lost a supply-filled vessel called the No Name in a rapid, which he dubbed Disaster Falls.

Powell’s trip took three months and included the first descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. (The Green joins the Colorado downstream from Dinosaur National Monument in southeastern Utah.)  Powell wrote in in his journal that the canyons had “wonderful features — carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments.”

On the third morning, we enjoyed some of those features in a hike up a side canyon called Echo Park, just past the point where the Green and Yampa rivers join at a monolith called Steamboat Rock. After a short trek we found ancient petroglyphs on a wall that archaeologists say were left by members of the Fremont Culture who lived here until about 1,000 years ago and were later replaced by the Utes.

Rafters stretch their legs near Steamboat Rock before hiking up a side canyon to see Native American petroglyphs and caves.
Rafters stretch their legs near Steamboat Rock before hiking up a side canyon to see Native American petroglyphs and caves.
(Madeline J. Clark )

Another wall, deeper in the canyon by Pool Creek, featured carvings of birds and other creatures — and the outlines of what looked like the soles of modern tennis shoes.

We also hiked into a slot canyon carved out of sandstone cliffs. In the shaded chamber called Whispering Cave, it was easy to imagine the long-gone members of the Fremont group or Utes hanging out there on a hot summer day.

Later that day, after lunch on a broad beach, we floated past more multihued cliffs. All too soon we were at the takeout where we gathered our gear, said goodbye to the guides and were shuttled back to Vernal.

As we began the long drive home in our car, Anders flipped open his computer and dived into yet another computer game.

Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument
(Los Angeles Times )

If you go

Don Hatch River Expeditions, 221 N. 400 East, Vernal, Utah; (800) 342-8243, The cost for a three-day trip starts at $749 for adults and $699 for children. The company also offers four- and five-day adventures, which feature more hikes into side canyons. Trips start in late May and continue into September. For more information on rafting the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument, go to

TO LEARN MOREFor details on things to see and do in Vernal, Utah, the staging point for Green River trips, call (435) 789-1352 or go to the Vernal Chamber of Commerce website at Vernal has an excellent museum featuring dinosaur bones found in the area.

For eats, the Quarry Steakhouse & Brew Pub (29 S. Vernal Ave.; [435] 789-2337) is popular.


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