Nightmare On the River

(This is the true story of an epic adventure on the Colorado River, which I originally wrote for The Estes Park News in a column I used to write called ‘Tales from the Trail.’

I interviewed Skip about 12-years ago, and I lost touch with her, so I don’t know if she is still around or not. I hope so, her enthusiasm for life was truly an inspiration to myself.


verde river


Skip, who was in her seventies, was browsing through a magazine for retirees when she came across an advertisement that roused her adventurous spirit. It read: “Enjoy a leisurely 41 mile rafting trip down the Verde River in Arizona. View wild flowers and wild life as you relax and enjoy the gentle movement and occasional light rapids of this beautiful river”.


Skip thought it sounded like a wonderful experience. Excitedly, she called her best friend Jenna, who was in her sixties, to see if she would like to join her on the trip. A few weeks later, in April 1997, Skip and Jenna found themselves leaving the lush Estes Valley for the Arizona desert. A short flight landed them in Phoenix and they were transported to Prescott, anticipation coursing through their veins.


Once the group of adventurers, who averaged 60 – 65 years in age, had gathered by the river, the two guides informed them that the river was too low to use the rafts. They were given the option of using a rubber ducky each, which is a one person raft, or canceling the trip. A vote was taken and it was unanimous to go ahead with the trip. Skip and Jenna had some reservations, but the rest of the group, and the work crew of six much younger people, were eager. Each person was then issued rain gear, waterproof bags for clothing, and strong boxes to store cameras and jewelry in.


Skip had been told by the organizers that the weather in April would be beautiful, and it was. The sun shone as eighteen tiny rafts were launched, for what was supposed to be a leisurely six days float down the Verde River, with little work involved for the paying vacationers. It was not long though before the rafters started experiencing problems. With the river so low, many rocks were exposed, and despite some hard paddling, Skip’s raft got hung up on these rocks. Skip would struggle to free her raft, sometimes getting help, and then it would happen again. This repetitious act, coupled with the constant dodging of low hanging branches and maneuvering down rapids, sometimes backwards, grew old quickly. It did not help either when clouds formed above, and soon deposited a steady rain into the canyon, soaking everything that was not sealed tightly, leaving puddles in the bottom her mini raft. Skip and the rest of the group grew cold and wet even with rain gear shielding them from the downpour.


When finally it was time to stop for the night, Skip and Jenna were dismayed to learn there were no tents or sleeping pads waiting for them. The only shelter offered were some tarps, of which they had to crawl under. Sleeping bags were provided but the group had to sleep directly on the hard, cold, wet ground, strangers huddling close for warmth. However, they were temporarily appeased when the crew prepared a good hot meal for each person. Skip felt slightly rejuvenated afterwards, but that too was short-lived. As the sun sank behind the rocky cliffs along the river, chills ran through the weary rafters. They gathered fire wood in the hopes of warding off the cold night air, but most of the wood was wet, and burned with difficulty, dispersing smoke that brought tears to Skip’s eyes and filled her lungs. It was a long, cold, night.


Skip woke in the morning chilled to the bone and stiff. Her back ached and no amount of stretching eased the pain. A heavy drizzle was falling, and everything was muddy and soaking wet. The clouds hung heavy with no hint of leaving any time soon. After breakfast Skip climbed reluctantly into her rubber ducky, and pushed off, waving and smiling to Jenna, trying to keep their spirits up. Before leaving that morning there had been talk of quitting the trip, but the group had learned there was no way out of this trip, as there was no way out of the canyon, and no way to escape the river.

The same pattern was repeated each day — rain and cold, wet, muddy camps, with no dry wood to have a good fire. The risk of someone getting hypothermia increased daily, with no way to get dry and warm, and the icy cold river, of which Skip was beginning to despise, stealing what little body warmth they had every time they took to water. There were no wild flowers to view, or animals grazing along the misty shores. The crew continued to cook the meals and were very helpful, but the guides were of no help at all and were extremely rude. One guide was drunk for the first few days, until he ran out of alcohol. He had bossed Skip and the others around, treating them like children, offering no assistance or comfort. When Skip had complained about how badly her back hurt one guide had retorted with, “Well, my back hurts too.” Skip was not the only one feeling ill, several other members in the group were suffering from physical problems or ailments. Often at the end of the day the group would have to climb up steep banks to make a camp. After several days of this torture one lady started to cry, complaining she was too tired to make it up the steep slope. She asked the guide for help, but the guide told her if she couldn’t make it, then she should just strip and change into dry clothes right there. Defiantly, she did just that, stripping in front of everyone, too tired to care any more, tears of misery and pain leaving streaks on her grubby cheeks.


Six days later, when this worn, tattered and very ill group finally reached their destination, Skip thought the nightmare was over. However, her back felt like it was tearing as the group was transported by van over rough muddy roads and dumped unceremoniously at a motel. The rain continued to pound, unforgiving in its tenacity. A warm room and shower did not help everyone. Some from the group were on the verge of hypothermia, or suffered with other ailments, and had to be taken to the hospital.


Skip, Jenna, and the rest of the group, wrote a letter requesting a refund. They stressed the dangers involved in the trip and the lack of care they received. It had been poorly organized, and all classified it as a “nightmare trip.” Refunds were given quickly, and without argument. No one sued the company.


Nightmares were prevalent for Skip and many of the others for months afterwards. Some of the group took weeks to get well, and required physical therapy as part of their recovery. This trip was supposed to have been a nice leisurely drift down the river, with most of the work done by the guides, allowing the adventurers to sit back and relax. Instead it turned into a nightmare, one that Skip will never forget.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


By Roxy Whalley – A Nomad for Nature


Written for my column ‘Tales From The Trail’ that was published in the Estes Park News in 2005 and originally posted on

One response to “Nightmare On the River

  1. OH my goodness! Truly a nightmare that must have been very tough to endure. Poor Skip and others! What a real shame that it turned out as it did! Shame, shame on those guides for being so disrespectful and unsympathetic toward the older folks who depended on them. I am amazed that they all survived and not died of hypothermia. Hats off to Skip, no matter where she may be. Greatly told Roxy!!! I felt the anxiety as I read your words 🙂


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