Hahn’s Peak, Northwest Colorado.
To stand on the shoulder of this mountain and gaze north is to behold the headwater catchment of the Little Snake River, the largest tributary of the famed Yampa. The river’s origins straddle the stateline region of Wyoming and Colorado where mountains from the south, quietly slip under the open skies and wide basins of the north. Out of this obscure geography three creeks merge together and form the primary waters of the Little Snake River. From here the river heads west gathering tributaries for 50 miles while it meanders back and forth between Colorado and Wyoming, as if stitching the states together. As the Little Snake passes the town of Baggs it starts a slow bend toward the south on a 100 mile course to join forces with the Yampa, just before entering the twisting canyons and whitewater of Dinosaur National Monument. With the exception of a small population who live near its waters, this is a river unknown. A quiet corner of the modern world, its own secluded province and one the state of Wyoming is rushing to invest millions by constructing America’s newest dam.
The Little Snake is a classic western river. It can rage in spring floods of melting snow and shrink to a ghastly brook by the late summer. Despite its variability the river moves mountains of sediment that, until you’ve stood at the confluence of the Yampa and witnessed, is hard to describe in scale. It’s like watching the Earth take shape. Clay flats and arroyos, mustangs, sheep, pronghorn, cattle and coyotes constitute the basin’s primary constituents. You can drive and see the whole length of this river from Three Forks to Lily Park — or you can see it for real and travel by raft.
There’s no obvious reason why any rafter would look to float the Little Snake. It lacks the typical attributes of river trips like rapids, rockart, sidehikes or established camps. It’s flat-water, moving at wagon speeds in long meandering arcs through the muted colors of the Browns Park Formation. Over the years I’ve explored 90 miles on the Little Snake above its confluence with the Yampa. Reaching the water through various points of access like half vanished BLM routes and behind the barbwire gates of Moffat county roads. There, the unmistakable gear explosion of a multi-day river trip hits the ground like confetti. Knowing beyond any doubt we’re the first group of misfits to shove off from places we call, “The Pink Gate”, “No-Mo-Fo Flats” and so on. Once on water it’s common to round a bend and startle a group of great American pelicans or a lone coyote. I’ve come to note that there can be a complete lack of a riparian zone on the banks for miles. It comes and goes in a thin lens of clumped willows or clusters of cottonwoods and a few stands of woody invasives. Traveling downstream the low bluffs on the landscape can hang endlessly, as if your moored at sea. Time slows in this graceful current. There is room to stretch your arms out in the solitude. The sun burns down on you with the spirit of wilderness. Launching from nearly anywhere on the Little Snake you can travel downriver through the great American Southwest for nearly 500 miles. Dam free.
Opening The Large Country
Like all landscapes in America, the Little Snake Basin has a long history of human occupation. On a hot summer day in 1960 a miner operating a dragline noticed what appeared to be broken logs emerging from beneath the surface. These logs turned out to be the bones of a mammoth. The dragline was operating near Muddy Creek, a tributary on the Wyoming side of the Little Snake. The following year archaeologists examining the site revealed that many artifacts, tools were associated with the remains of the old beast. This was the scene of a kill and butchery, a great hunt for these very early Americans. A large jasper biface was found lodged in one of the mammoth’s vertebrae. Portions of skeleton had been scattered around as the group of traveling hunters harvested what they could, when they could. This was an epoch in America history where humans were hardly on top of the food chain. Radio carbon dating from four samples of tusk collagen put the average age of the animal at an astounding 13,400 years old.
These have always been isolated fertile hunting grounds known by many Native Americans across time. The Ute, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shoshone and others traveled to, or lodged seasonally in the Little Snake Valley. After the acquisition of the horse in the 1600’s, tribes became extraordinarily mobile. Game, wood, forage and water were resources in abundance along the valley’s bottomlands. With the exception of the far Pacific Northwest, these traditional hunting grounds held more kinds of mammals, in greater numbers than any other place in North America.
Historic accounts from the valley begin with the arrival of the fur trappers who wandered western watersheds to harvest pelts, notably beaver. At the time the skins were in high demand by fashionistas in eastern American cities and Europe. Still, the Little Snake Valley was mostly a pit stop, a stepping stone for white trappers and miners headed anywhere but there. Visits were periodic at best. One account from the spring of 1839 describes a small party of trappers decsending into the valley and encountered a large camp of Shoshone with some five hundred lodges on the river bottom. The men were very surprised to find a lone white man living amongst the band. Other notable mountain men, such as Jim Bridger, passed through at one time or another but not without conflict. In August of 1841, some 50 trappers were surrounded, attacked and nearly wiped out by a force of approximately four hundred Sioux warriors. The trappers had been camped in the upper reaches of the Little Snake at the confluence of a small tributary known today, as Battle Creek. The very tributary Wyoming water developers say a 280 foot tall dam is necessary to fill the needs of an irrigation deficit.
The Modern Dawn
Battle Creek arcs out of the Encampment River Wilderness like a lightning bolt for the Little Snake River. Its course has served as a pathway to thousands of immigrants following the Overland Trail in the 19th century headed for new lives in Oregon or the California gold fields. Herds of stock animals, horses and cattle came along with, the Little Snake Valley serving as an important stopover for feed and water. One of the first cattle men to settle along the Little Snake valley was George Baggs.
As a man in the ranching business, George certainly found what he was looking for in this valley. Large pasture meadows, miles of range full of nutritious bluestem and ample winter forage. By 1873 he was the first to patent a homestead in what was then Routt County. George’s brand was the Double Eleven placed on each side of the animals shoulders, that in conjunction with cropping the ears away was an aggressive deterrent against cattle rustlers. Everyone knew which cows were Baggs and which weren't. If George’s branding practices were considered brutal by today’s standards he was ahead of his time in other ways. Back then cattle operations in this region would drive their animals to feedlots or rail yards to then sell their stock to a middle man. At times this caused difficulty for people in Denver to get readily available high quality beef. George must have sensed a market opportunity. When buyers from Denver came knocking at his ranch he selected only his choicest specimens for sale. Once his meats hit the Denver dinner tables it didn’t take long for word to spread and he quickly established a monopoly in the market for several years thus, establishing his legacy.
In addition to a testing life on the range, George had a wildcat of a wife, Maggie Baggs. She was not the contemporary, domesticated type. Maggie spent as much time as she could in the saddle riding herd, and her husband’s cowboys. She was known to have a commanding vocabulary of blue language and wouldn’t hesitat to dress down any man who crossed her path. Maggie’s interests with her husband’s employee’s had an effect on the business model resulting in a fair amount of turnover, if not tension. Once during an outfit roundup a range hand, and sometimes lover, gestured at a rounded nob north of the Baggs winter range and declared it, “Maggie’s Nipple”. The boys must have had a good laugh because word eventually got around and when Maggie found out she publicly berated the man with a horse whip. No one dared cross this woman. Even today’s maps avoid any reference of the landmark as Maggie’s, which label the feature simply as, The Nipple.
From a raft, the majority of the Little Snake valley appears a most desolate section of landscape. It can be hard to imagine carving a profit from ranching these burnt naked lands, but not at all surprising. Since the arrival of livestock in the valley, ranching was here to stay. Which was not the case for George Baggs. George eventually had had enough with his marriage to Maggie and decided it was time to move on. After ten years of life alongside the Little Snake, Baggs secretly sold his Double Eleven outfit to William Swan, son of Wyoming’s largest cattle baron family. Of course, Maggie found out and not to be any man’s fool, hauled him straight into territorial court and won one third of the sale amount ($116.30). Cash in hand, she quickly stole off for California with another of George’s employees in tow and vanished into history. For George, after leaving the Double Eleven he would never see the Little Snake River again. Upon selling out, he departed to establish another outfit in New Mexico and later settled somewhere further off in Texas. However, his name remains as the largest community along this secluded and storied country. A quick drive through Baggs today might give a shallow if not misleading impression. That of an ambigious oil and gas hamlet as opposed to a 150 year old relic of the American frontier. It takes less than a minute to drive through town past a food-mart, a gas station, a school zone and post office before this small outpost is in the rear view. A few green fields and cottonwoods behind neighborhood homes and a sea of high plains desert. Nothing more.
The Imagined West
In the Colorado River Basin, eventually you tick off all the standard permitted sections to go boating on. All the pretty canyons and campsites and whitewater become cherished and then familiar, but at first it’s all about that fresh discovery. The canyon walls and skyline passionately unfold around each bend with something new to feast the eyes while the river parades down through it all. To me, that kind of experience is the core element of the rafting: discovery. After a few trips down the rivers of Dinosaur or the rapids of Westwater you start to wonder what’s beyond these boat ramps that begin and end the common sections? Where does the river come from and where does it go? Once a person decides to investigate that, a whole new palette of adventure becomes available to indulge and nourish. How wonderful that today you can still find that frontier experience by boating the Little Snake River?
A keen eye will notice that the channel characteristics of the lower corridor look scoured. Like your floating behind the wake of a large flood. All the beaches have the elegant sculpting of water, wind and time. The river is much wider, swallow and warmer than others of comparable values. You can dip your hand beneath the bright beige colored water and reach for the bottom of well-sorted, clean sand. The consistency and texture from your childhood playground, the same sand on every camp in Yampa Canyon. There’s no channel narrowing or vegetation encroachment or temperature control compared to dammed rivers like the Gunnison or Dolores. There’s something enjoyably unique found in floating the Little Snake that there is a rare view into landscapes of the past. Native river characteristics can be found here in abundance, like nowhere else in the Colorado River Basin. In a very real sense this river is like seeing a ghost. Yet, it could’ve been so different.
Over the last 100 years, large irrigation projects have been proposed on this river. Water developers from Wyoming and Colorado vied to tap the resource with huge schemes, both cooperative and competitive. Various plans dreamed up massive irrigation districts with numerous dams and reservoirs that were proposed, studied, advocated for. Even an idea to deliver additional water via tunnel from the Elk River was proposed to bolster this imagined agricultural mecca. As early as 1908, a club in Denver calling themselves the New Women, organized to establish a colony of farms along the Little Snake declaring, “we expect to encounter hardships in getting started, yet we all believe that on account of the fast diminishing supply of good irrigated lands our farms will make us all rich”. I don’t know what happened to the New Women but it’s obvious today traveling through this open large country that the green valley of dreams, was never fully realized.
It took a century of persistence at every level to build the first reservoir in the Little Snake basin, the High Savory Dam completed in 2005. This river stands alone in Colorado River Basin for its duration of being unregulated by man. In all, the project did little to impact the function or appearance of the river, as will be the case with the West Fork Dam on Battle Creek if the project is ever built. In fact, every dam in the greater Yampa Basin is similar in purpose- to provide a variety of benefits but above all water for irrigation. These dams aren’t capable of controlling a rivers flow, the vast majority of the water concentrates freely. When all the waters from all the tributaries are combined in the main stem Yampa it becomes a large, formidable, highly tuned river. It’s the best thing we have left today in understanding the natural processes that are critical to sustaining habitat diversity, native riparian forests, large warm water fishes and dynamic channel migration in the upper Colorado Basin. The Yampa is a world class resource. We ought never forget that when considering new dams on a complex integrated system like this, no matter how small. Any great civilization on this Earth has always had a river at the center, and the health of that river was the determining factor of societal prosperity, or ultimate decline.
The Long View
The mountains of the Elk Head and Sierra Madre range do not cover a particularly large area. For what they lack in high alpine terrain they make up for in a compact labyrinth of wrinkled topography. There are so many steep mountains and remote glades that hide enough snow to produce this admirable river. I’ll travel ridgeline’s of the Little Snake in winter, tracking the snowpack and becoming intimate with it. Following the evolution of snow from storm to storm, the temperature fluctuations, dry periods, wind events, avalanche cycles and many exceptional powder days with friends. It’s a practice that eventually leads to warmer days when the redwings return and the creeks awaken signaling that rafting season is not far off. Year after year I’ve built on that ritual and feel sustained by its pulse just as any rancher does, or wildlife or the great cycle of water itself. Rivers can teach a lot about the connection of things. But this winter as I found myself staring off a high ridge toward a new dam in Battle Creek I wondered about how much we’ve all really learned about the connection of things out here… That and the name of perhaps the most famous boater of all time.
Any self respecting rafter revers John Westly Powell as an icon of western river exploration and as a visionary in both science and social reform. Among his contemporaries he was virtually alone in his thinking about land, water and society as an integrated whole. During a time when the American future seemed boundless with western expansion he stressed that the land has limits, that they should not be an open stage for a growing nation to build upon as they wished. However much he tried to influence this in policy and people, ultimately no one had the patience or courage to change. Settlers wanted to build a home and get on making money the way that was familiar to them. If there are consequences, so be it. That same kind of indifference to hardship and caution is the posture exemplified by the West Fork project on Battle Creek. Press release after press release reveals a mentality of, “just build it”, no matter the cost or impacts or economics — and they very well may. If that’s the case I see both risk and opportunity at our doorstep, neither will be available if we don’t know what’s to lose on the Little Snake and beyond.
Most don’t know where the Little Snake comes from, the extent of its catchment or the critical role it plays within the Yampa River system. Nor that the largest surviving population of Colorado River cutthroat trout live in the upper reaches of the river’s North Fork. That the Little Snake contributes approximately 80 percent of the Yampa’s sediment load, while providing 20 percent of the overall flow; that’s a sandy river. Most don’t know the wealth of public lands along the Little Snake and that the Colorado portion is one of the most accessible and least travelled rivers in the West. That the Little Snake and the whole Yampa basin function in the way they always have. All of that is worth understanding and preserving. If there is any watershed in the West worth managing as a bioregion, political boundaries aside, then the greater Yampa Basin is it.
Not long from now we’ll load up the truck with a boat and a few friends to head out for another trip down the Little Snake. We’ll find a beach somewhere to camp and cook dinner under the brilliant open sky and talk about our lives by the fire. We’ll speculate about the First Americans who hunted this secluded valley, the geologic process around us, the vibrant days of Maggie Baggs on the range and all the lessons this watershed and her people have to offer. We’ll travel a river where every bend will unfold with curiosity, wonder and something new. I’ll take notes to remind me of a few details and imagine future gatherings with those I cherish. All this landscape a symbol of our shared story, and struggle and identity. One that’s still wild, still determined, still figuring it all out.
Bud Werner Memorial Library & Research Staff
Little Snake River History Museum
Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection
Rica Fulton for fresh cartography
Jason Peasley for sharing a passion for this river
Whitney Chandler for editing and encouragement
Jonathan Bowler for the long talks of home lands
All the Little Snakers who’ve explored this river
Hip-hop music for keeping the fire.
Little Snake River Museum
Town of Baggs
U.P. Mammoth Site
Green River Channel Monitoring Field Data Collection Yampa and Little Snake Rivers. USFWS FLO Engineering
Rivers of North America. Edited by Arthur C. Benke & Colbert E. Cushing
Where the Old West Stayed Young. by John Rolf Burroughs
Further reading on the West Fork Project:
$73 million in public benefits said to justify dam By: Angus M. Thuermer
$80M publicly funded dam would serve only 100 By: Angus M. Thuermer Senate restores $10 million for West Fork Dam. By: Angus M. Thuermer
West Fork Dam kept alive with 4.7 million By: Angus M. Thuermer