A River Trip to Remember: From Aspen to Las Vegas
In mid-June 1954 , Eagle County native Earl Eaton and friend Chuck Bolte, both then in their early 30s, hopped on a raft on the Roaring Fork River in Aspen, and didn’t get their land legs again until summer’s-end when they reached the Boulder City boat dock on Lake Meade, just outside of Las Vegas.
The trip’s first fluid moments happened during the previous ski season at Aspen’s Red Onion, a popular watering hole, where the plan hatched at a table known than as “Beer Gulch.”
“It was his idea,” claimed Eaton. “We spent quite a bit of time talking about it that winter. It took quite a few beers to convince me to do it.”
“Its a wonder we’re here today because neither of us had ever done anything like it,” he said, adding “It was one of the better things I’ve ever done.”
He’s done plenty. Most people know Eaton, 78, as the man who convinced Pete Seibert of Vail Mountain’s skiable potential. He was also an explorer, inventor, adventurer, ranch hand, miner and, as might be expected, a good story-teller.
“There were a lot of things hatched at Beer Gulch including Vail Mountain,” Eaton Said. “There were a lot of people over there who were dreamers like Pete and me.”
Eaton and Bolte put in at Aspen in a two-man rubber raft and spent a couple of days floating the 40 miles to Glenwood Springs, finding out that floating a river named “Roaring Fork” required some attention. From there they transferred to a much larger 30 foot-long Army Engineer surplus pontoon raft used to construct temporary floating bridges. That raft had 10 air compartments so it was relatively unsinkable. This enormous craft that they named “Driftwood,” was stable enough that it never flipped, even in the treacherous rapids of Cataract Canyon and elsewhere in the canyons of the lower Colorado.
It’s a trip that now cannot be repeated in quite the same way. They passed through scenic Glen Canyon 10 years before it was flooded by Glen Canyon Dam. It’s now known to thousands of recreationalists as Lake Powell.
They provisioned the raft with food, gas, water, beer and even an outboard motor for the sections of still water that link the rapids of the Colorado. Eaton sold his home in Aspen for $7,000 and what was left after bills went into the trip.
The trip had its share of adventures. The one that sticks in Eaton’s memory the most 48 years after the fact, is a brush with death.
It began when they decided to sleep on the raft one night while it was slowly being carried through a still water stretch of the river.
“We woke up and the raft was bouncing around,” said Eaton. “I got a flashlight out because it was real dark, and all of a sudden there was this overhang. The river went right under it. If we’d have gone under that, we’d still be there.”
That rapid, which he remembers as Bullfrog Rapid, is now several hundred feet beneath the waters of Lake Powell. But they hit plenty of rapids.
“Cataract Canyon,” said Eaton. “That’s a pretty wicked canyon with big rapids, but it was fun. The worst time was at Lava Falls . There were two or three pretty good ones. We never had any trouble. We went through `em without trouble.”
And Eaton’s final reflection on his trip 48 years ago?
“It was interesting,” he said. “It sure was a good way to spend a summer.”
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