A Reversal of Roles, A gift of a few days with my son on the Yampa River

In 2011 I wrote a blog entitled Giving the Perfect Christmas Gift. Now 13 years later, I received the perfect Christmas gift from my son, Ben. Ben is 25 and works for the Larval Fish Laboratory at Colorado State University as a Wildlife Biologist. For Christmas Ben invited me to come to Colorado to see and experience the work and life he lives.  Ben has been a wildlife biologist since he saw his first creature and later declared he wanted to protect the animals in an elementary school program about what I want to be when I grow up.

It is late May, Ben picked me up from Hayden/Steamboat airport and we started our adventure at Echo Park in the Dinosaur National Park. Ben had spent more than 200 nights setting nets and sampling fish in the Yampa River during his first couple years with the Larval Laboratory. He showed me the campsite that he spent those nights, Whispering Cave where he would escape the heat to eat lunch, the petroglyphs in the surrounding rocks, and the amazing views of the confluence of the Green River and the Yampa River around Steamboat Rock as we hiked along the river.  It is a magical place with stunning beauty, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sites, learning about the work he did and hearing the stories of places he had explored, the experiences he lived and the things he found in Echo Park.

Ben meticulously planned our trip, shopped for provisions, rigged and packed the raft making sure we had everything covered. The Yampa river is one of the few free flowing rivers in the U.S. and is fed from the snow melt at the headwaters of the Flat Top mountains.  In late May, the river was full flowing, and we could easily make the 33 mile journey in a couple days. We traveled 15 miles the first day down the Yampa River along farmland and into the canyons. As Ben navigated the river, he called out river mile markers and explained the work that he did at each spot. This is Ben’s second season on this long-term research effort doing targeted removal of invasive species and tagging and recording of native species. Ben will spend over 100 days on the river in the coming months. Our first day was cold, damp and windy. Stopping for a shore lunch was a welcome opportunity to add a couple layers, build a quick fire and warm up with Ben’s fabulous grilled Reuben sandwiches. It is a dream job for Ben but make no mistake this is not easy work. Weathering the early morning cold, long days, mountain winds, scorching sun, and ever-changing water and weather conditions would challenge anyone that does not have a passion for this work. I feel like a wimp working in an airconditioned office where a little traffic or rain seem to be my only hazards. I have a better appreciation for those in ranching, farming, construction or any work that is completed day in and day out in all environmental conditions.

As we completed our first day, we pulled up to a beautiful spot to set up camp and get a fire going. Ben cooked up “shakshouka,” a fabulous fresh warm vegetable stew, as the clouds gave way to a clear night sky.  We had time for a quick hike up the mountain to see the sunset before heading to bed for the cold night. I buried deep in my sleeping bag and awoke to find my water bottle frozen, but a toasted bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese and a bright sun made for a great start for the day. The warm sun was a welcome change as we snaked through the canyons talking about the details of the work Ben did with fish, career plans, and all things of life and creatures. We made a couple stops for lunch and exploring the narrow canyons seeing wildlife, more petroglyphs, and remains of many rodent, deer, and elk. Bald eagles, golden eagles, ducks and birds of many colors flourished amidst the river and canyon walls. What a difference to have calm winds, clear skies and warm sunshine.  We made another shore stop for Ben’s grilled Reuben sandwiches sharing our lunch with an angry killdeer chirping and dancing about showing her feathers. She was rightly concerned with our presence as we found she had 4 eggs just a few feet from our lunch site.

We finished our journey as the canyons gave way to farmland and took out at the same spot  where his team finishes their work day. It was no surprise when on the dirt road out from the river Ben stopped the truck and quickly jumped out to grab a snake. He has been doing this as long as I can remember. We returned to the cabins where Ben and his work partners live during the season. You can sure see how the team builds deep friendships and become family as they work long days together, share the shopping, cooking, eating, cleaning and living together for months at a time. It is a special place and a unique time in life to work hard, gain valuable experience and build life-long relationships. I encouraged all of our children to pursue what they love, and it is certainly rewarding to see Ben thrive in following his passions for wildlife and conservation.

For so many years, Julie and I have been the ones to plan the details, set the agenda, make the provisions and lead the way. On this trip, the roles have reversed. Ben made all the plans and all the preparations. He insisted on buying groceries, lunch at his favorite dive, and taking care of every detail. He was an outstanding host, and I could not be prouder of the man and servant leader that he has become. There are two things that make for a perfect gift. First, it must meet the need of the recipient. Ben’s gift to me of an outdoor experience, sharing his life, and creating memories is priceless. Second, a perfect gift must express the personality of the giver. Nothing could express Ben’s personality more and genuinely communicate how much he desired me to experience his world more than to join him for the only 4 days he had off in 24 days of scheduled work on the river. Thank you, Ben, for courageously pursuing your dreams and sharing them with me. I love you.

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