Earl and Chuck1s excellent adventure | VailDaily.com

Earl and Chuck1s excellent adventure

Cliff Thompson
Special to the DailyChuck Bolte, LeRoy Byers, Carl Gage and Earl Eaton aboard the Driftwood in a 1954 photo outside of Boulder City, Nev.

If you1ve ever sat in envy listening to stories told by people returning from expensive and exotic, off-season vacation trips, this story will likely top all of them.It1s a modern Huckleberry Finn-esque story undertaken by two grown men who decided to spend a summer floating nearly a thousand miles of the Colorado River from Aspen to Boulder City, near Las Vegas.In June1954, 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. They didn1t get their land legs again until summer1s end, when they reached the Boulder City boat dock on Lake Meade.The trip1s first fluid moments happened during the previous ski season at Aspen1s Red Onion, a popular watering hole, where the plan hatched at a table known then as 3Beer Gulch.3It was his idea, claims Eaton. 3We spent quite a bit of time talking about it that winter. It took quite a few beers to convince me to do it.3Its a wonder we1re here today, because neither of us had ever done anything like it, he adds. 3It was one of the better things I1ve ever done.And Eaton, now 78, has done plenty. Most people know him as the man who convinced Pete Seibert of Vail Mountain1s skiable potential. He was also an explorer, inventor, adventurer, ranch hand, miner and, as might be expected, a good storyteller.3There were a lot of things hatched at Beer Gulch, including Vail Mountain, Eaton says. 3There were a lot of people over there who were dreamers like Pete and me.It beginsEaton and Bolte put in at Aspen in a two-man rubber raft, spent a couple of days floating the 40 miles to Glenwood Springs, and found out floating a river named 3Roaring Fork required some attention.From there they transferred to a much larger, 30-foot Army engineer1s pontoon raft used for building temporary floating bridges. With 10 air compartments, it was relatively unsinkable. The enormous craft they named 3Driftwood was so stable it never flipped, even in the treacherous rapids of Cataract Canyon and elsewhere in the canyons of the lower Colorado.The trip 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. The resulting lake is now known to thousands of recreationalists as Lake Powell.Eaton and Bolte 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. To help fund the journey, Eaton sold his home in Aspen for $7,000.3We didn1t have much money, but we didn1t have any bills that summer, either, Eaton says.The pair slept on the boat in the still sections, but camped on shore if the water was swifter. What they had was lots of time on their hands for exploring side canyons or swimming or fishing or just daydreaming.3I remember one side canyon. You could touch both sides with your arms spread, says Eaton, noting it too was flooded by Lake Powell.3We weren1t roughing it as much as Powell did when he went through, Eaton says.John Wesley Powell and 10 men had explored the uncharted canyon of the Colorado in 1869, just 85 years before Eaton and Bolte1s trip.Their first test was a 30-foot-tall irrigation dam 50 miles west of Glenwood Springs. They had to unload the raft, portage its contents around the structure, then push it over the spillway because the raft was too large to carry. When they reached Grand Junction, some 140 miles into their trip, they spent a night in the comfort of a hotel.By then, news of their trip had made the local newspapers, Eaton said, and with it a small measure of celebrity.The first real rapids of the trip were at Westwater Canyon at the Utah/Colorado border.3At Westwater canyon, Eaton chuckles, 3we got through Oem alright. We didn1t know it then but there were a lot of people who don1t get through Oem OK. It1s a pretty good rapid.By the time they hit Moab, Eaton and Bolte were ready for another respite away from the river and the oars. Again they spent a night in a hotel. They also picked up a second outboard motor to speed passage through the many still water stretches.OWicked canyon1The trip had its share of adventures. The one that sticks in Eaton1s 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 calm stretch of the river.3We woke up and the raft was bouncing around, said Eaton. 3I 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 we1d have gone under that, we1d 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.3Cataract Canyon, says Eaton. 3That1s 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 Oem without trouble.Mostly the pair drowsed in the heat. It was mighty hot in the canyon. At Bright Angel Ranch in the Grand Canyon Eaton remembers taking a break beneath a shade tree while consuming a beer. A thermometer, he says, indicated the temperature was scorching 117 degrees.3That wasn1t as hot as a summer I spent in Louisiana, and in Houston. The humidity was tough, he says. 3It1s a dry heat in the desert. It1s not so bad.Once during a particularly sunny stretch of canyon a desert wind blast hit the raft.3It was just like opening the doors of a furnace, says Eaton. 3That wind was hot from blowing across all those hot rocks. If you jumped off the raft onto a sandbar, you made sure you had shoes on. If you didn1t that hot sand kept you moving.In the Grand Canyon the pair saw plenty of deer and wild burros. And when opportunity presented itself, they spent time pitching stones at basking rattlesnakes.A long ropeSome advice about mooring rafts with a long rope came in handy one rainy night in the canyon.3We pulled in for the night at a little sandbar by a side canyon, tied the raft with a rope way up in a tree and had a supper of freshly caught catfish, says Eaton.They decided to sleep on the raft.3About the time it got dark it started raining really hard. Between lightning flashes we could see waterfalls coming from all the little side drainages.The rain finally quit and the pair dozed off. They were awakened by a roar.3All that rain came down the side canyon and a big wall of water filled it up, said Eaton. 3The sandbar we had stopped on was gone. Good thing we tied up with a long rope or we would have washed away.At the Marble Canyon Trading Post, Eaton and Bolte shared beverages with a couple of adventurous uranium prospectors: Carl Gage, a student at Los Angeles City College and LeRoy Byers, an instructor at John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles. Both were spending the summer looking for radioactive riches. After a couple of adult beverages, the prospect of a boat ride apparently was far more attractive to the prospectors than that of spending the rest of a smoking hot summer searching for an elusive mineral. They hitched a ride to Lake Meade with Eaton and Bolte.On one stretch of particularly rough rapids, Byers went over the side of the raft. He was saved from drowning by Bolte.Those prospectors and the uranium boom later prompted Eaton to take another raft trip<on the same raft<through the canyon a couple of years later. At the height of the Cold War, the demand for fissionable and fusionable raw materials was making some lucky prospectors fabulously wealthy and caused a mining and refining boom in Moab.OHot1 stuff3We stopped the boat at one place and turned the scintillators on. They were much better than Geiger counters, Eaton says. 3They pegged right over. We thought there was something wrong with them, so we went to the other side of the river. It was really 3hot there too. I thought we were rich.They weren1t. They never were able to find a source of the decaying uranium until after they ended the trip, when they discovered they had floated through the downwind fallout plume of the last above-ground atomic bomb detonated in Nevada. It had drifted across the canyon.Eaton says prospectors throughout the area reported it stayed radioactively 3hot through most of the spring, making prospecting very difficult.It was mid-August when Eaton and Bolte hit the Boulder Boat dock on Lake Meade. It was time to head back to the Colorado High Country. They arranged for the raft to be trucked back while they got tickets for a a bus. But like any adventurers, they had to spend a little time reliving their adventure in nearby Las Vegas.3We didn1t have much money for gambling, but we had enough for a few beers, Eaton recalls.When they returned to Aspen, Eaton and Bolte set to work building the Glory Hole Hotel while working on the mountain during ski season.One more raft storySince Eaton and Bolte1s adventure, the infamous raft has since disappeared. But before it did, it made one more trip that made headlines. Three inexperienced rafters decided to take it down the Shoshone Dam spillway east of Glenwood Springs. Eaton was prospecting for uranium at the time in northwest Colorado, so he missed the trip. Good thing.The huge water and boulders below the dam flipped the raft. Two of the three men made it out alive. A third died.Eaton now lives in Eagle and has been spending time working on a new ski-bob that he has been testing on Vail Mountain, where he is granted special access to test the device. He says he1s has not seen Bolte for many years. Bolte now spends winters in Arkansas and parts of the summer in Colorado in the Hotchkiss area.Bolte and Eaton packed a movie camera with them on the raft, with the idea that one day the footage might be made into a movie with salable potential. That scenario, however, didn1t work out.The Colorado River eventually caught up with the film. Some years later, Bolte rescued it from a house fire, and when he built a new place he buried the film in a fire-proof, below-ground vault in his basement. That cinematic evidence of the trip was, quite ironically, largely destroyed when a flood caused by a broken irrigation ditch inundated the basement. Only a few snippets of the original were salvaged from the waters of a tributary of the Colorado diverted to irrigate a field. Those remnants have been transferred to videotape.Eaton and Seibert, meanwhile, remain close friends. Four years ago they were planning a 1,000 mile float trip down the Yukon River that was scrubbed when Seibert badly injured a knee.And Eaton1s final reflection on his trip 48 years ago?3It was interesting, he says. 3It sure was a good way to spend a summer.

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