The Little Snake is a meandering flatwater stream wending across the Wyoming-Colorado line in country most people describe as empty, though it forms an essential corridor for migrating mammals and birds, and is full of subtle beauty if you know where to look.
For more than 150 miles, from its headwaters in the Park Range to it’s confluence with the much-celebrated Yampa above Dinosaur National Monument, the Little Snake runs through the occasional ranch and vast tracts administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It has no rapids or signature canyons. There are no million-dollar views—though seemingly every vista is worth at least a hundred grand.
It’s that kind of place. Steady, not flashy. Pretty, not perfect. And without any fanfare at all, the Little Snake quietly does the work that keeps the rest of the Colorado River system functioning as nature intended, moving millions of tons of sediment downstream in seasonal pulses, recharging downstream beaches and bottomland and critical fish habitat. It’s the last un-dammed major tributary between the Rockies and the Gulf of Mexico, for now. The State of Wyoming has a plan to dam its headwaters, currently on hold thanks to permitting holdups and the fracking bust.
The dam project is how Rica Fulton first learned about this unassuming gem of a river. A lifelong river runner, she’d never heard of the Little Snake before moving to Laramie to study geography and water resources at the University of Wyoming. “I read that the state of Wyoming was trying to build a dam on a tributary of the Little Snake, and it was exorbitantly expensive, you know, $80 million. That made me think, What even is the Little Snake?” Fulton said.
That question led to a new short film, sponsored by American Rivers and produced by Cody Perry of Rig To Flip, that follows Fulton and her dog Harper on a journey down a river few know anything about. There, on a river lacking all the attributes that draw crowds of outdoor enthusiasts, she discovers “an abundance of adventure, revelation and the spirit of wilderness.” We caught up with Fulton on the phone last week to talk about the issues and science around the most important river we’d never heard of—and perhaps to pry loose some river beta.
AJ: Let’s start with a confession. I lived less than a mile from the Yampa River for three years and ran Cross Canyon dozens of times, taking out just above the confluence with the Little Snake, but I’d never heard of it. Why do you suppose the Little Snake is so far under the river-running radar?
Rica Fulton: I had never really heard of it either. It’s kind of hidden in that it doesn’t parallel any major roads or highways, so it’s not terribly visible unless you’re on little back roads. I heard about it when I was going to graduate school in Laramie, and came to be fascinated with it, both from a recreational standpoint and a policy standpoint—the sediment and discharge and ecosystem benefits of the Little Snake River.
I did a couple of scouting trips driving out there for potential access sites, and looking at gauges and flows. And it was fun because you don’t just look at a river map or Google it on American Whitewater. Those things just weren’t really out there. So that was really fun to still be able to have that experience of discovery.
Did you ask other river runners about it? I mean, was there any knowledge in the community about actually running this river?
Cody actually was the only other person that knew anything about it. Everyone else I asked had never heard of it, even seasoned river runners.
So you studied the maps and scouted the access roads and finally got on the river. What was that first trip like?
It was in the end of April, so it was still pretty cold. A couple girlfriends and I packed up my car and we drove over the pass and it started snowing on the way. And we got there in the evening and met Cody and a few of his friends. It was pouring rain all night and really cold, but in the morning we woke up and the sun was out. We just kind of pushed through these willows and found a spot to launch our boats. The water was still pretty low and it was just a day trip, but all of a sudden you go around the bend and you’re in this little canyon and think, ‘This is beautiful, and no one’s here.’
There were lots of really good camping spots, and the geology is amazing. And then all of a sudden you pop out and you have a few miles on the Yampa and it just feels like this huge river. It’s really just a cool experience to go into that larger river and see that mix line. It’s really beautiful. Everything about the lighting down there is really pretty, and it’s a wide-open landscape. We saw a huge herd of elk run across the river. That was really special.
I guess there’s not a standard run on the Little Snake, is there? You can put in wherever you want and take out wherever you like.
As long as it’s on BLM land. We found two other good access points down this two-track road. One was an old gravel mine, and further up there was just this random gate that leads to a good flat spot at the side of the river.
That’s so funny, because on a lot of the marquee rivers you’re playing permit lotteries and rushing to make room at the boat ramp for the next party. As river-runners, we instinctively compare rivers one to another. Is the Little Snake like any other Western river you’ve run?
It has the slow-moving characteristics of the lower San Juan in a way. That’s the only thing that is kind of comparable to, but the scenery is unlike anything else that I’ve really done in the West, given that it’s not Red Rock, it’s not the big canyons or big mountains. The landscape—I just hadn’t ever boated anything similar to that.
You say in the film that the Little Snake has none of the attributes of a great rafting river. So how did it win your heart?
I find the solitude really important and the scenery is beautiful. Even though it doesn’t have any whitewater, I still loved it just as much. Just the fact that you can see birds and coyotes and even those ranching operations—I just loved how raw it felt, like this is just a simple working river and you’re just out there enjoying it. There’s not that, you know, cool factor of the busy boat ramp and trying to race to get the good campsite. It’s just simple.
It’s interesting that while it’s kind of the farthest thing from designated wilderness, it still has a lot of the qualities that we seek when we go into wilderness.
It’s wilderness in the sense of the word. You know, many wilderness areas are designated because they’re really pretty—there’s lakes and mountains and beautiful scenery. The Little Snake escaped that that designation just because it doesn’t have those things. But there’s no one out there except for herds of mule deer and elk. And it’s a really popular and important migration corridor just given that there’s no development.
In the film, you talk about a flood that came out of one of the tribs 50 years ago, and sediment from that event is still feeding the river system now.
Yeah, it’s really fascinating. A study came out in 2013 that really kind of put all these pieces together. The major flood happened in 1962, but there was also a pretty large one in 1966 and they think 1956 on Sand Creek, which is an ephemeral tributary. So when we passed it, it was totally dry.
The geology in Sand Creek is this really fine sand, and it just inundated the whole river. The scientists were able to see this huge input of fine sand that went all the way down to Jensen on the Green River. So hundreds of miles.
And because of how flat the Little Snake is, there are areas that are sand reservoirs if you will. Every year when spring runoff occurs, it will pick up that fine sand, which travels higher up in the water column than coarser material does, and it’s able to travel really far distances at a quicker speed. So they’re still finding that signature way downstream, even though that flood was almost 60 years ago.
It gives you a kind of an appreciation of river time, doesn’t it?
Yeah, and when you walk through a dry riverbed you don’t ever think of it being an important part of the river system, but even a dry riverbed, when the right conditions come around, can actually impact hundreds of miles. And that just shows what happens upstream effects everything downstream.
And because of the dams on the other major tributaries in the Colorado River system, the Little Snake takes on even more importance. As one of the scientists you spoke with in the film put it, this is the last natural piece of the puzzle—that puzzle being the entire Colorado River system from Wyoming to the Gulf of Mexico: The Little Snake into the Yampa, into the Green into the Colorado, and the downstream tributaries as well. The Little Snake is the last one without a major dam.
That’s right. The Green is dammed at Flaming Gorge and at Fontenelle, trapping all that fine sediment. And, you know, the Dolores is dammed, the San Juan is dammed. So it’s the last really functioning full river system that exists in the Colorado Basin.
That sediment is a hugely important part of the ecosystem, isn’t it? It makes me think of a person who only has one good kidney. They do okay, but there’s no margin for error.
That’s a great metaphor. It would be silly of us to tamper with this river system because of how much it does for fish, for recreation and creating beaches, and making sure the system is still functioning. It would be a terrible decision to ruin that.
The film makes that case pretty strongly, and really showcases your love for this underappreciated river. What do you hope people will take away from it?
I hope that they can start thinking of rivers as something more than just where they get their water or where they go rafting, and to just critically think about the places that they visit and what those different systems mean for the greater ecosystem. And to just appreciate the places you visit for what they are, and why they are that way, rather than just looking for big rapids and deep canyons. Maybe branching out and just exploring places that they usually don’t.
Have you been spreading the word then, kind of evangelizing this hidden gem within your river-running community?
We’ve taken a few friends and some folks have gone out on their own, but we’ve decided not to give people the exact access points on the map, especially the ones higher up. Everyone needs to have this experience for themselves. They need to look at Google Maps, they to drive around out there figure that out on their own, because that was just so special.
Is that partly to keep it pristine, or is it because discovery is such a big part of what this river has to offer?
More of the second. I’m not interested in being any kind of gatekeeper. It’s accessible enough to discover on your own, and that will just make the whole experience more fun because you earned it.
It’s funny, I’ve been eyeing a multi-day trip on a river in NorCal, but haven’t committed because there’s no beta, and I might end up sleeping in a briar patch in a swarm of mosquitoes. But you just inspired me. I’m going to do it.
Yeah, I love that. The worst that happens is you just have an okay time.
You speak with a rancher in the film, Patrick O’Toole, and he talks about finding a balance between conservation and use. And his balance would involve storage—dams and reservoirs that ensure year-round water, but also block the sediment flow. Is there a balance to be found on these rivers, or is it more of an all-or-nothing game?
I definitely empathize with him because the future is scary and it’s going to be drier. And of course reservoirs are an obvious way to store water. But if you look at the large storage reservoirs in West, they’re already 50 percent full and dropping. They’ve destroyed ecosystems and polluted water and they’re not a good long-term solution.
So building a dam in the Little Snake headwaters just doesn’t make sense. I understand why he’d want it because he’s directly downstream. He wouldn’t have to deal with shortages anymore. That’s just a human being wanting to make sure that they’re self-sufficient, and he’s looking out for his family. He’s a really nice, smart guy. But maybe it’s time to think about other crops that don’t use as much water—you know, think about other ways that you can live on that land and adapt with the changing climate.
So tell me about the proposed West Fork Dam project, which would block a major tributary of the Little Snake and stop much of the sediment flow—remove the kidney, so to speak. Folks that want to take a deep dive can read your essay, but it boils down to an $80 million dam that benefits about 60 people in the Little Snake Valley.
Obviously $80 million is a huge amount of money—I think would have been more than half of the entire state water fund for that one project. It was introduced in the Wyoming state legislature as part of an omnibus water bill, and it got a lot of scrutiny over who actually needs this additional water. It amounted to less than 100 people for basically what somebody described to me as one week of late-fall hay. That’s literally what it would be used for. Wyoming doesn’t have any state income tax, so all of those funds come from oil and gas royalties, which have declined recently.
So the funding didn’t pass the legislature and the project is on indefinite hold. I guess we have the fracking bust to thank for that, at least in part. But these ideas have more lives than a cat, and one day the state will be flush with oil money again. Looking ahead, what’s the alternative?
Well instead of a dam, that money could go to more thoughtful projects that would benefit a lot more people. For example, it could go to water conservation in the eastern part of the state that overlaps the Ogallala Aquifer, which is, of course, rapidly depleting.
You’re a scientist and policy person as well, but as a river-runner you’ll always be seen as a dilettante. You’re out there for fun, while guys like Pat O’Toole are trying to make a living in that country. So how do you have that conversation?
I definitely have not figured out a good way to be like, ‘Hey, you should stop growing this crop and plant a new crop,” because he’s not going to listen to me. People are always going to be a little hesitant to listen to folks who aren’t from where they’re from, or who don’t have their experience, which is completely valid. But I think just finding common ground and consensus and talking about problems without making assumptions, without giving unsolicited prescriptions is really important—and just showing them that you care about their livelihood. A lot of farmers out there are really concerned about high and dry, and their fields drying up, so it starts by just saying ‘Hey, I’m with you. I don’t want that to happen either.’ But it’s going to take a lot longer than a conversation; it needs to be relationship.
That takes us back to river time, which isn’t measured in years or even decades. I mean here we are talking about a flood that happened 60 years ago and is still nurturing this river and the life that depends on it, including us people.
Exactly. And these rivers are resilient, as we can see with the Little Snake. But we’ve got to give them a fighting chance.