I am sitting in a cafe on the West end of Bluff, Utah, less than a mile from the San Juan river and the tall sandstone wall which defines the Northern boundary of the Navajo Nation.
Nearly every seat is filled. Between the expected sound of steamers and coffee grinders and juice mixers I hear German, French, and English. I am surprised, for this town is comprised of but a few hundred people tucked into a small pocket of Southwestern Utah. Yet, Bluff attracts tourists from around the world in the summer months, a landing spot to study archeology and launch point for the San Juan river.
Noah is sitting across from me, both of us winding down and out of our recent seven day excursion on the Colorado river, putting in west of Moab at the terminus of the Potash mining road, taking out on the north side of the eastern reach of Lake Powell’s stagnant waters, across from Hite.
I was the fortunate guest of Wild Rivers Expeditions, a more than 50 years old commercial outfitter whose founder Kenny Ross is known for a life spent on the San Juan and Colorado rivers prior to the dams and regulations and deep, cold blue water, where warm red rivers once freely ran.
There were eleven of us on this journey: Kristen (the owner of Wild Rivers) guides Jim, Noah, Colleen, Morgan, Marcus, Kate, Paul, and guests Herm and Val Hoops.
Herm’s history with the rivers of the Southwest goes back four or five decades, his stories of rapids run, battles (and pranks pulled) with Park officials, and drinking beer with Edward Abbey started on day one and ended, literally, on the final stretch as we passed beneath the steel girder bridge before the takeout where he pulled a Halloween mask over his head and then turned ’round grinning, his belly shaking as he laughed. He then passed the mask to all who desired to pose for the camera on our flotilla comprised of five lashed boats pushed against the wind and across the lake by a single motor at Marcus’ control.
We pushed off of the boat ramp with five boats and three kayaks, nintey gallons of water, at least four hundred pounds of food, and a quantity of beer that seemed improbable, but in the end the exact amount required by those who consumed.
The upper canyon is a dreamy mix of perfectly flat yet steadily flowing red-brown, warm water. The campsites are numerous, nestled beneath massive uplifts of beige, red, and blue-black sandstone and limestone whose histories are best described by those who make a living in their study. But one does not require a degree in geology to appreciate the raw beauty of complex striations, overlapping layers of sand and organic deposition squeezed, shifted, split, and lifted by time, pressure, and patience.
We floated that first day until half past ten in the night, the hot sun long since below the canyon walls, the full moon then illuminating our way. The oars hardly touched the water for the current was sufficient to keep us moving in the desired direction and free of the walls, boulders, and trees that would otherwise provide only a harmless bump to the boats.
We found anchor at a rocky ledge, unloading the bare minimum to establish camp. I placed my paco pad and sleeping bag a few meters upstream from boat “94”, my head at the edge and eighteen inches above the water’s surface. As I was not ready to sleep, I dangled my headlamp just above the water, mesmerized by the reflection of the red LED shimmer in the soft movements of the river beneath.
The next morning I rose before the others and hiked for an hour, finding opportunity for a little bouldering en route to the bottom end of a wash and pour-over which came from the higher ridges of the Canyon Lands to the north. Stark reds contrasting bright yellows and greens. The slight chill of the night was rapidly replaced by the bold rays of the sun which forced the dew to evaporate from sleeping bags slung over rocks and oars. Soon, we were again floating downstream, then under the protection of umbrellas, sleeved shirts, and sunscreen.
Throughout the trip I read from a book I have had in my library for too long, “A Tour of the Calculus,” fulfilling one of my goals for 2010 as I desire to rekindle my love for mathematics. This, however, gave my companions a nearly bottomless supply of fuel for humor. But when I asked for help to understand some of the foundations presented in the text, and the same who made fun were unable to assist, we all realized how much we have lost since our college classes and I was for the most part (but never entirely) allowed to read in peace.
I look back and realize I do not know nor do I care when I lost track of time. Without watch or mobile phone, the concept of time was wonderfully abandoned. I could not, without counting backward, have told you the name of the day on which we found our feet again on the ramp across from Hite. It simply didn’t matter. Days of the week and hours of the clock are useful only for communication between two or more persons who need to plan for something in the future, something not immediately within their reach.
When the entire world is but a river and a set of boats and the people who guide them, the world is wonderfully simple and beautifully without the need for the management of time. While Einstein said something like, “Without time, all things would happen at once,” time passes on a river not by seconds, minutes, nor even days, but by movement past geographic markers. Remarkable cliff bands, contributing side streams and ancient dry canyons, and fine, white sand beaches make clear that all things are unfolding in slow succession, in the proper order, where distance traveled is a living, breathing function of speed and ever patient time.
Stories from Water
By camp fire I listened into the night of the stories shared between Herm and Kristen, speaking of more than fifty years of Wild Rivers through three successive owners, each a contributor to the history of the Southwest. The politics of water and waterways and the people who use them are as complicated as any such matter. Public hearings and private deals paint a history of use and abuse of what will continue to be a subject of controversy and litigation for centuries to come as fresh water in the Southwest, as with many places in the world, is in growing demand but of diminishing supply.
As our boats passed through more than twenty rapids, some in the Class 3-4 range, it occurred to me that we speak of the people who have move through these places, the ancients with the knowledge of their artifacts and the modern people by name and photos, each leaving their mark in one or more ways. But what of the water itself?
Water has for a substantial part of the history of the planet made the journey from cloud to snow capped peak to melt water, from mountain stream to the Colorado and back again to the ocean (as it once flowed) only to be taken from the surface by a warm wind and lifted to the clouds once more.
Does the water molecule recall each journey and look forward to the next? Does the water enjoy giving foundation to the river wave as much as we enjoy riding over the top?
Gooey, Stinky, & Happy
In certain places, there was this wonderful, gooey, stinky, brown-red muck that rested in long, warm swathes adjacent to the sand beaches and dunes. To stand in the mud with bare feet offered an incredible sensation. Warm, wet, and welcoming.
But the odor was to me too close to that of the sheep fold on my grand parents’ farm in Iowa and so at first, I avoided the whole thing. However, once off the boat, the more I struggled the more I sank, up to my thighs at one point. There was no turning back, for my pant legs were coated and I was only sinking further. When I let go of concern (and my pants as well), I followed Noah’s lead and ran along the sandy crust, diving chest down and head first onto the mud, sliding as far as momentum would carry me.
I had to remember to keep my mouth closed, despite the desire to grin, for fear that I would swallow the goo. I made the mistake of turning on my side which resulted in the packing of my right ear with mud, both ends of five cotton swabs later required to remove it all. I am not yet convinced I am clean, subtle gurgling sounds give fear that some ancient microbial life has found refuge in my brain, eating my memories for breakfast and my dreams for dinner at night.
Into the Dolls House
At our third camp, at the bottom of the fifth rapid we stayed for two nights. A strong wind pummeled our camp as the sun set, followed by scattered rain showers which continued into the morning. Noah and I left camp early just as Herm and Val rose to make breakfast. We hiked the back route to the Dolls House in the Maze District of Canyon Lands, a place notorious for its wild, twisting, challenging rock. Surprise Valley, roughly three quarters distance from the river bottom to the Dolls House was indeed a surprise, a welcomed wash of green after a steep climb up loose scree.
As Noah and I lost the trail above Spanish Bottom, having come in from the southwest, we climbed instead straight up a cut high to our left. Not entirely comfortable, the scramble was by no means simple and involved a few slightly exposed climbing maneuvers. At the top, we were pleased to find the way not only possible, but welcoming onto a high slung saddle. En route to join the Dolls House trail, we found two ancient graineries with sand mortar tucked slabs of sandstone yet in tact.
Marcus, Paul, Colleen, Kate, and Jim came later, trying at first to follow our tracks but in seeing our forward and then back again confusion, they continued high above Spanish Bottom, cutting across deep red soil to find the end of the switchback trail. Marcus later laughed, saying we appeared to have been lost, and then disappeared, having moved from soil to rock.
To describe each of the narrow slots and caves in which we walked, slid, and climbed would be too much for this single entry, but one stands out in my mind. The Dolls House trail cuts across the very top of a long, narrow grassy valley, moving into a long slot created by a split in a massive formation. Near the top, to both sides are splits which welcome only those whose girth is lean.
I removed my hat, glasses, and pack, then turned my feet opposite each other, sliding in a few inches at a time. I found myself stuck within the first few feet, the rock pressing hard against my ribs. But when I blew out all the air in my lungs, my chest relaxed and I was able to continue. When I breathed in again, I was immediately jammed. And then it occurred to me–I stood on my toes, breathed in deep, and lifted my feet from the ground, and did not fall! I waved my arms and legs, and Noah laughed hard. Only when I laughed too did the air escape and I sank back down to the sandy bottom again.
Lake Powell is advertised on countless post cards, posters, and travel brochures as a paradise in the midst of an otherwise harsh desert of the Southwest. Scarcely clad golden men and well endowed women lounge on houseboats or dive from red sandstone cliffs into turquoise blue water. High powered personal water craft and skiers are drawn to this place every summer for long weekends of recreation.
The western waters certainly provide an incredible contrast, a man-made wonderment in what would otherwise be a deep river gorge, as it was when Colonel Powell traveled its length and before him, natives of this land who for millennia traveled along the deep canyon in order to raise crops along tributary deltas, storing grain in high, protected storage facilities.
What is not advertised is that when richly laden warm water meets cooler stagnant flows, the silt drops to the lake floor. Not an insignificant amount, between 60,000 and 100,000 acre feet per year are deposited in Lake Powell, currently on the eastern reaches near Hite.
While calculations give a wide range of estimations for how long it will take silt to fill the entire space behind the dam, from three hundred to as many as one thousand years, the current situation is one of immediate concern and public conversation. The Sierra Club demands that Glen Canyon Dam be removed to restore natural, seasonal water flow, saving more than 1,000,000 acre feet of water from evaporation each year, while others warn of economic disaster for local economies if the lake top recreation were removed. In the end, the Colorado River Compact remains the primary reason the dam exists, to ensure that ample water reaches downstream customers per the 1922 contract.
As I am neither a geologist nor an economist, any data I present here would simply be a regurgitation of my own research. Instead, I will share the impact Lake Powell had on me.
In the eastern reaches of Lake Powell, where it is difficult to discern where river ends and lake begins, massive piles of silt cling to bleached sandstone walls, some thirty to forty feet above the current water line. From the last rapid (currently #23) to Hite there are virtually no places to camp, let alone walk, for the water meets silt which meets canyon wall.
It appeared to me as I might imagine a flooded city, a bathtub stain high above the flash waterway on decimated buildings whose foundations are encased in mud and debris. The lower canyon invokes this sense of sadness as I see human engineering giving rise to something entirely contrary to the postcard and advertisements. It just feels wrong, as one might feel when looking up to see a car wedged in the lower branches of a tree or a building on its side, far from its foundation.
Only when the water level rises again will the deposition of the last high water be covered, temporarily making all things appear beautiful again. But beneath the surface, the silt will continue to fill the space between the canyon walls.
I look to a future not of thirty or another fifty years, but hundreds of years and wonder who will be here to manage the dam. Who will maintain the silt level by allowing discharge through the turbine bypass tubes? Who will check the concrete for cracks or open the gates when the fierce Colorado winters give way to saturated Utah springs?
If humans do not remove the dam, the cavitation and wave harmonics of massive seasonal floods will cause large portions of concrete to break free, pulling sandstone and rebar from the canyon walls. As the water moves to flow freely again, what silt was laid down will be carried downstream by the slow cutting of a meandering channel and by the rapid flash floods which will tumble concrete blocks until they disassemble into their basic elements of sand, aggregate, and cement.
The dam will be torn down, with or without congressional approval, by the natural process of reverse engineering that created the Colorado river way. The tools will not be diamond tipped blades nor dynamite, but the machinery of time, gravity, and tiny particles of sand.
For now, boatmen and their passengers will continue to enjoy what portions of the river they may run, telling stories of those times before the dam while looking to a future when the entire river will again be free.