Soon it will be a month since I began my SIP Fellowship at Dinosaur National Monument, and boy has it been packed with new experiences! I caught an indiscriminate cuckoo bumble bee; gotten up close tours of the both Dinosaur bones in the Quarry Visitor Center and the process of taking a dinosaur bone out of a rock for research or display in a museum; explored the mountain biking scene around Vernal, Utah; and most significantly went on my first river trip.

This was an especially important first because so much of Dinosaur’s landscape, backcountry campsites, and ecosystems revolve around the rivers. Beginning in the 1850s when trappers, prospectors, and settlers unlocked river travel along the Green for business and recreation purposes, and continuing today as one of the most popular tourist attractions at Dinosaur, the history of the Dinosaur National Monument intertwined with whitewater travel and commercial whitewater rafting.

I didn’t really grow up on rivers, and so prior to this summer, could probably count my whitewater experiences on one hand. When I was offered the opportunity to join the river rangers on one of their regular multi-day river trips, I definitely wanted to but was super nervous. What do I wear? What do I bring for food? What would it be like to join a trip of total experts in their field as a beginner? Would I make a fool of myself? What if I was incompetent at whitewater things and didn’t know it? Even with all the assurances from my supervisor and the rangers, I was still pretty intimidated.

Steamboat Rock, below the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers in Dinosaur National Monument
Photo: Mary Buford Turnage

The purpose of the trip for the rangers was patrol the Green River corridor within the monument to monitor campsite use, safety, and state of natural resources. The purpose of the trip for me was to get acquainted with the area so to better visualize the terrain for my GIS projects. I also went to look for bighorn sheep for the monument’s population monitoring project, which I am working on the GIS component of. The trip had been going on for a day already by the time I joined.


I arrived at Echo Park, which is just after the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers on the Colorado side of the monument, to meet the boats. There were two rafts on this trip and four people: two rangers, myself, and the acting river program manager, who was there to help monitor the commercial raft companies using the Green river. With one ranger and one passenger in each raft, we headed down the river, stopping occasionally at campsites to inspect for trash and clean up if needed.

Selfie from Island Park Campsite
Photo: Mary Buford Turnage

After about eleven miles and seven hours, we arrived at Island Park, our campsite for the night. The campsite was a sandy beach on the river bank, surrounded by cottonwood trees, and with views of canyon walls and hills in every direction. We set up our tents and cooked our dinners over camp stoves as it got dark. As it turned out, the lentil soup and rice that I brought for my dinner was almost the same thing that the rangers had both brought for themselves. It was a little thing, but I felt more like I was supposed to be there.

We woke up early the next morning, packed up the boats, and were back on the river by 7:45am. We continued down the river, this time passing over four rapids (Moonshine, SOB, Schoolboy, and Inglesby). The water level is very low right now, which made the rapids less threatening than I’d pictured in my head. We floated about another twelve miles until we arrived at the Split Mountain boat ramp, on the Utah side of the monument, our exit point for the trip. We took unpacked the boats and loaded them onto the back of a truck, and drove back to the Colorado side headquarters to end the trip.

On the river!
Photo: Mary Buford Turnage

In the end, I didn’t see any bighorn sheep, so I’ll have to save that for next time. I did see a moose, lots of birds, petroglyphs, and learned to recognize several new species of trees and plants. I learned how heavy the oars are, and gained a new level of respect for the rangers that paddle the rafts over sixty miles regularly. I learned that the outdoor skills I do have, even though not from river activities, actually have prepared me to be self sufficient on these river trips. Although I was certainly still a beginner, everyone was very willing to explain things to me and teach me whatever I was curious about.

What’s Next?
Learning to use the oars on the raft. Heavier than they look!
Photo: Cyrus Brundage

It was only a two-day trip, but now I feel way more ready for any other trips that come up this summer and am looking forward to getting back on the river. After the trip during the holiday weekend, I found myself back in a raft, on rivers farther south in Colorado, challenging myself on some larger rapids with a new friend from the monument. I’m still certainly nervous about whitewater but am learning new skills and confidence at the same time that I know will serve me well in this position and hopefully afterwards as well.

Keep following along for more updates from Dinosaur! (twitter = @marybufordturnage, TikTok = @marybufordx)