by Paul W. Rea
Chaos on the Colorado
Chaos is the law of nature. Order is the dream of man.
[p.1]Ignorant about what’s out there, Jeff and I crave wilderness. As we pull into the Bureau of Land Management lot in Grand Junction, Colorado, Jeff quips about “the Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”
“You a native, son?” drawls a rancher from his mud-splattered pickup.
“Nope, outstate agitator from Nebraska,” Jeff retorts.
“How much land do you Sahara Clubbers need, anyway, just to look at?” It may take a while to feel at home out here.
We roll up the window, lock, and head inside. I ask the river ranger, a fish biologist turned paper shuffler, about this stretch of the Colorado River—especially about Rattlesnake
Canyon just west of Colorado National Monument.
[p.2] “Never gotten out there, but those arches are becoming better known.” He hands us a crude map that shows an “unmaintained trail” climbing from the river to the arches. We decide we’d better see them before they’re overrun by folks like us.
We’ll float only fifteen miles, from Fruita bridge to the railroad cut. Since there’s no road to this takeout point, we’ll pack our gear from the river, following the cut to 1-70, and then hitchhike back. This stretch of river is scenic, roadless, and, so far as we can see, without hazards.
Eager to launch our eleven-foot raft, we wedge in packs, sleeping bags, cooler, tent, and life jackets. As we each hoist an end, however, the boat buckles and flattens the snake weed. When Jeff pushes off, his shoe sticks in the mud. It’s hard to break away.
Soon we’re on the river. The swallows swoop, skim the flotsam on its surface, and swerve up to their nests beneath the bridge. &, the parent birds bolt from their mud-daubed abodes, the peeping stops. Little rust-and-white faces fill the holes. Soon these fledglings will take their first plunge, fly or die.
We rock in the riffles, spinning with the swirls as cumulus clouds wheel over Grand Valley. This is a classic Southwest riverscape: the light brown water dances with sky blues and willow greens, then snakes between red rocks that flare into the cobalt sky.
Beside her small outboard, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist peers into a pail. She putters about the green sunfish, a species introduced from the Midwest, that eat the fry of native species. &, voracious predators, large Colorado squawfish once reigned throughout the river basin. But the once-prolific squawfish faced threats from all directions. Locals [p.3] trashed them as supposed competitors with newcomer trout, often mounted huge squawfish as trophies, and, after pitchforking them out of the shallows, sold them by the wagonloads for fertilizer. When squawfish fed on the channel catfish which were introduced into the local rivers, they often choked on the spines.
Though squawfish have survived three million years, adapting to drastic changes in climate, a century of human presence has nearly exterminated them. Introduced species, extermination program, dams that interrupt flood flows, and pollution are pressing other indigenous fish toward extinction as well. In fact, river animals are disappearing much faster than terrestrial species.
“Americans may have to decide whether they want sport fish or native species in their streams,” the biologist mutters as we let go, unable to resist the current any longer. Eventually evolution may replace the species lost in the present spasm of extinctions. But on any time scale, extinction is forever. Humans swim behind these now-obscure fish, hooked to a common biological destiny.
Civilization recedes as Grand Valley opens into a desert where rocks without names loom larger than language. Red sandstone bluffs tower to the left where windshields glint in Colorado National Monument; drab Bookcliffs, their spines casting shadows, mark the right horizon. As they stretch for two hundred miles, the Bookcliffs expose Mancos shale rich in fossils.
Pulling on a life jacket, I roll into the great flow. As the river overwhelms my mind, sensations flood nerves abused by urban stresses. With pulverized driftwood bobbing beside my face, I float ahead of the boat. As I stroke against the current, the Colorado exerts its power. Spitting back its spray perpetu-[p.4] ates the illusion of resistance, though it also splatters my sunglasses.
Then a huge uprooted cottonwood looms ahead. Splashing frantic strokes, I avert the snag where the current races underneath the trunk, right through clogged branches which are notorious for netting boats and bodies. Though I’ve seen strainers before, with so few trees around I had assumed that the channel was clear. During runoff time a river this size rolls boulders like pebbles in a ditch; apparently it can also drag a tree. I paddle back to the raft, angry at my self.
“Why the hell didn’t you callout that snag?” I sputter.
“I was busy looking for Rattlesnake,” he retorts. “Why’d you get ahead of the raft?”
While I’d experienced the river, Jeff had scanned the bank for a side canyon, but few of any size appeared. Using a compass along with our map, we try to locate this bend in Horsethief Canyon, an easy place to get lost. When rustlers drove stolen horses along the river and corralled them in side drainages, lawmen seldom found the right box canyon. So it shouldn’t surprise us not to know where we are.
Once oriented, we realize that we’ve overshot Rattlesnake Canyon. We land, deflate the raft, hide it under a bush, and hike upstream. Hauling our food and gear, we empty a canteen in the first mile. Sweat stings my eyes, sunglasses skid down my nose. A venerable cottonwood, its shade dappling ground littered with dried catkins, bleached branches, and rugged bark, finally offers us relief.
From a branch, a great homed owl beams its yellow eyes. While we tiptoe around the tree, the owl turns its broad head to track us. Since their eyes are fixed in their sockets, owls can swivel their heads a full 180 degrees. But it’s their ears rather than those haunting eyes that enable owls to detect the [p.5] slightest rustle. They locate prey by sound, aided by an asymmetry in their ears that allows them to hear directionally. In addition, their wing feathers eliminate turbulence in flight so owls can hunt silently. Suddenly crows dive on the owl. Though it barely blinks, the homed owl puffs its plumage and clicks its bill. The crows caw but keep their distance.
Far above the canyon rim, a bald eagle sails on the thermals. Its black wing tips finger the updrafts as its snowy head and tail show starkly against a deep-blue background. This is a rare sighting, for bald eagles remain uncommon in the Southwest. Their numbers have fallen as the result of shootings, poisoning, pollution, electrocution on power lines, and loss of river habitat. Before the eagle disappears behind a cliff, two gray-and-white redtail hawks soar up, nipping at the eagle’s tail. Without ruffling a feather, the eagle spins a full three-sixty. Jeff and I stare at each other in amazement.
This airborne ballet resembles the “cartwheel display” that bald eagles do when courting—male and female hook talons and somersault, plummeting toward the ground, often spiraling thousands of feet. Packed with rods and cones, eagles’ eyes are deservedly famed. Even from lofty heights they can spot a meal, tuck back their wings, and drop like feathered bolts from the blue. Other raptors may buzz eagles but know better than to linger when eagles dive.
A breeze silvers the Russian olive trees, then it dies, leaving only the hum of flies and the whine of cicadas. Are cicadas, the noisiest of insects, actually deaf? To find out, early French entomologist and nature writer Henri Fabre dragged the village cannon into his garden and fired a salvo. It didn’t silence the cicadas’ monotonous grinding, which proved “that cicadas are not affected by cannon fire.” And that Fabre, the renowned bug watcher, didn’t take himself too seriously.
[p.6] Stark sunlight now drenches the naked rock. It’s still too hot to cook, so we traipse down to the river and sprawl out beneath a tamarisk bush with lacy foliage and delicate lavender blooms. A muskrat glides by on the river, tail wriggling like a snake, its mouth gripping a long cattail that leaves a wide V of ripples. When its beady black eyes blink to take us in, it starts to dive but finds that if it does it will lose its morsel. Intelligence prevails over instinct.
Strange sounds haunt the dusk. From time to time a beaver or a section of riverbank goes splash. Muscles tighten. The hiss and bubble of the river are accompanied by the deep, hollow hoot of the horned owl. Plunging out of the sunset, emitting eerie shrieks, nighthawks woo mates with their acrobatics. As Jeff plays his primal flute, I wonder whether a curious coyote might bound up to check us out, as they’ve been known to do. Such sounds are unsettling after we’ve become too accustomed to quiet, enclosed bedrooms.
When magpies jeer at us from dead branches, we rise at dawn. Before long the sunlight stings our bare bodies; this will be another hot one. Perplexed by an already crumpled map, we nevertheless hope to reach the arches high up Rattlesnake Canyon before they—and we—begin to waver in the heat. As we hike along a slickrock bench parallel to the river, we reach a deep drainage. First we wedge ourselves, arms and legs splayed, into a crevice, then we skid our way down to the canyon floor.
“That chute will be fun to get back up, won’t it,” Jeff grunts.
We still don’t know if this is Rattlesnake Canyon. Its tan sandstone walls rear about fifty feet as our footfalls echo among the concave walls. Soon dark igneous rock surfaces, ancient granite and schist gnarled into gneiss. These rocks are (7) remnants from the ancestral mountains that underlie the more recent Uncompagre Uplift which helped form the Rocky Mountains. Because so many other layers usually overlay them, these Precambrian rocks outcrop in relatively few places. Another is where the Colorado slices through the Uplift in Westwater Canyon, not far downstream.
As we gulp more water from the canteen, a golden eagle swoops down just above our heads. First the “whuff, whuff” of its expansive wings, sounding like a grass whip, startles me; then its piercing eye stares me down. I consider it a blessing to see an eagle up so close, but I also feel forewarned. Greeting us here, alongside this angry black rock, this big, dark bird seems ominous. This is wild country, alluring but primordial.
The sun pounds mercilessly. We continue, placing our sandy boots carefully so as not to slip on dark surfaces already too hot to touch. Our boots kick some loose slabs of brick-red Chinle shale that grate as they slide. Resting right on top of this vastly older Precambrian bench, the Chinle formation is rich in iron and uranium. We’re standing on a Great Unconformity, a major gap in the earth’s geologic record.
At the very least, several million years of the earth’s history are gone, eroded away. No strata from the entire Paleozoic era remain. When these igneous Precambrian rocks first solidified, life had scarcely begun; when they began metamorphizing, complex marine invertebrates such as trilobites had barely evolved. Yet when the record resumes as the Chinle shale was building, fish and amphibians had long since evolved and reptiles had been around for millions of years. What happened to these missing layers? One answer is that they eroded completely away, contributing to the massive deposits of sedimentary rock and salt that lie west, in what is [p.8] now eastern Utah.
We rest again, foreheads dripping. Jeff is pale, so I forget about the arches. “Shouldn’t have tasted those plants,” he mutters, referring to his habit of sampling leaves. The dark gneiss seethes, then shimmers like a translucent veil across the bare-boned rock. While Jeff’s fingernails grope for cracks in the rock, my hands grasp for juniper branches. Neither hand nor foot grips well. I skid down the slope, heels dug in, and start a mini-avalanche. The dislodged sand and shale strike bottom, echoing softly off the walls.
Beneath these contoured cliffs, we swelter in the shade. Twigs, needles, pinyon nuts, shriveled juniper berries, and dried cottonwood leaves, their netted veins bleached by the sun, litter the narrow canyon floor. Salts crust the sand. Flies buzz around a shrinking puddle. Desperate water striders shoot this way and that as polliwogs dig themselves cones with their noses. How many more days can this life-giving puddle last? At its edge, where slimy water oozes from the sunbaked mud, ants pick at stricken tadpoles. The descending, decelerating notes of the canyon wren further energize the rippling air.
A slight draft bows cattails rooted in the cracking mud. In the sunlight their long and graceful leaves glow an almost phosphorescent green. Yet they seem no more alive than the moss-streaked rock beneath the seep or the canyon wall enlivened by reflections from the pool. Above us, weak gusts rattle the dark green cottonwood leaves as blue drops of sky trickle through holes eaten by insects. Enclosed within this box canyon, I feel breathless.
Buzz. A large bumblebee whirs as it zigzags down-canyon. Whir. A canyon wren drops down to scold. The hum of insects lingers until an ash-throated flycatcher, its pastel yel-[p.9]low breast gleaming, snaps a twig. It shoots out to hunt a bug, feathers flashing, and grabs it with a crack. All this commotion awakens Jeff.
“We’re being invaded by birds and bugs,” I inform him. He rubs his eyes. “In this dream I hiked through giant tunnels cut by ancient streams, looking for an arch. We never found it, but we sure ran ourselves out of water. These canyons are seductive, always enticing you around just one more bend.”
As Jeff completes his labyrinthine reveries, sunlight creeps ever closer, puddling our cheddar into orange dye and gum. In the shade I can feel the glare from sunbeams that strafe the sand a yard away. The walls seem to melt inward.
Jeff is too sick to hike back; we’ll spend the night here. After some difficulty climbing the chute, I reach our first camp to retrieve the barest essentials: stove, soup, water, and Jeff’s bag. At least Jeff can stay warm and regain the water he’s lost.
Crows gather under the now-leaden skies. Dozens of them swirl around a cottonwood as though a vast net with thousands of black knots had dropped down, snagging on its branches, until every twig ended in a knot. This must be their roost for the night. Odd. Has this gaggle strayed from the orchards in Grand Valley? Shadows pool beneath a blanched juniper that stands gaunt against the sky.
Rather than sleep on damp sand, we straggle toward the dark rock where at least the sand is dry. After we share the soup, I dice cattail roots, washing them down with precious water. Tonight we munch muskrat chow, forlorn and far from home.
The black rock radiates heat that this time draws me closer. To purge self-pity and to embrace this bedrock, I recall Robinson Jeffers’s celebration of “Oh, Lovely Rock,” of [p.10] “this fate going on outside our fates.” Yes, this Precambrian rock has its own fate. Today grains that have never seen life are seeing light for the first time in over a billion years. My palm rubs this ancient bedrock not just for warmth but to connect with its unfathomable past.
Yet I can’t respond fully. With so much destruction and death going on today, perhaps identifying with nature is like visiting a dying friend. Some people fear growing too close, while others seek to connect with the friend before he or she changes utterly. Tonight I’m in the former, fearful place, though I long for a deeper connection.
During the night I wriggle first into the warm sand, then against Jeff’s bag. I wake at daylight, cold. A dawn breeze sighs through the cottonwood, then rattles its leaves as it expires.
Jeff’s breath smells rancid, but he looks less pale. Once he feels strong enough, we set off for our real campsite. Rather than climbing the chute, which requires strength he may not possess, we follow this drainage to the Colorado and slip along its bank. But soon an unforeseen problem arises. Cliffs dictate that we won’t skirt the river’s edge. We’ll have to wade around a point, with me in the lead so Jeff won’t get swept off his feet. It looks easy enough.
The river, however, doesn’t care about us, and wading becomes a blind man’s bluff. The current draws me into chest-deep water. I bounce on tiptoes, overstuffed daypack in one hand and camera in another, looking over my shoulder for Jeff, wondering if I’ll get swept away. We stagger out like drunken hippos. Jeff remarks on going from hot to cold: “Either can do you in if you aren’t careful.” At camp, still chilled, Jeff rubs himself dry in a sleeping bag.
A homed toad snaps up the ants we’ve attracted. This [p.11] fellow is lucky, for all this heat will aid his digestion and he’ll bask on a rock after we’re gone. Tomorrow, buried six inches beneath the sand, he’ll sleep off this feast. As we watch, we wait for energy that never comes; then we shoulder our packs.
We’re relieved to find that downstream a mile our raft is undisturbed; soon it’s pitching with the rimes again. The tan-and-grayish cliffs expose Morrison formation from the Jurassic age, roughly 150 million years ago. The Morrison, a layer rich in fossils, contains petrified trees that grew a hundred and fifty feet tall, just above the reach of Apatosaurus, the herbivore that grew seventy feet long. Morrison sandstones and shales have yielded some of the earth’s finest fossilized bones both at Dinosaur National Monument and also near Price, Utah. Because it also contains concentrated uranium oxide, the Morrison formation has received a lot of attention.
It would be difficult to miss the railroad, but we hug the bank just to be sure. Ahead the yellow and gray bluffs of Horsethief Canyon give way to the red sandstones of Ruby Canyon. On this site government engineers once hatched plans for a dam. Years later, citing the need to preserve habitat for endangered species and to designate this spectacular stretch of river as Wild and Scenic, the Bureau of Land Management wisely recommended against the dam.
While the river licks the mud, we spot a black roadbed rippling in the sun, then the glint of shiny rails. The acrid smell of creosote-coated crossties pierces our nostrils. Here a clear Salt Creek slips into the Colorado, churning the clouds of silt. We land and flatten the raft, its valves hissing in protest. As we head down the tracks, leaving the raft for a return haul, we encounter another obstacle: a single-track tunnel. There really isn’t any good way around it: cliffs drop down to the river.
[p.12] Once into the dark tube, danger strikes. We hear a roar, then see the blinding beam of a locomotive hurtling toward us. Instinctively we tear off our packs and dash for daylight, eating the grit of railroad slag as we slide on cinders, gasping expletives. The fast freight thunders and screeches by. Panting, shaken, we stare at each other in disbelief. Jeff looks pale again.
“There’s not going to be another of those suckers right on the tail of that one, so we’d better head through,” Jeff gulps.
“OK, if you feel up to it.” This tunnel, as it turns out, runs for nearly a hundred yards. We each ponder where we’d be if the train had caught us just a hundred feet farther in.
In searing sunlight the track knifes straight along Salt Wash, a strip of greenery. As we hit the greasy ties with long strides, my boot nearly tromps on a large snake stretching from rail to rail. Despite the momentum added by a heavy pack, I backpedal in midair, land on all fours, hands gouged again by the slag. Rattles quiver. As it wriggles up the cutbank like water flowing uphill, this reptile stirs fear in the dungeons of my mind. I’ve always liked snakes, but now I want to strike this symbol of hostility. Captain Ahab’s hatred of a whale suddenly makes perverse sense. We humans resent that we’re overpowered, that nature remains indifferent or even harbors malice. All this exposure to primordial rocks, to danger and even loss of control, has activated my instinctual, reptilian brain.
Soon traffic rumbles overhead on the 1-70 bridge. Remarkably, Jeff feels better. He pulls on his running shoes, climbs the embankment, and plays a hobbling jogger with the turned ankle. When the second car stops, Jeff waves in triumph while I return for the raft. Near the location of the snake I tread lightly, stick in hand, but the rattler has slithered away. My focus on the serpent has allowed me to ignore an [p.13] obvious question: is the raft really worth the risk?
Faced again with the black hole, I stop to listen for a roar or a whistle. Nothing. I race through, numbed to the memory it awakens. Raft and oars crammed into my backpack, I slouch forward like a sherpa and then begin the return trek. At the tunnel the only sounds this time are the clanking of rails expanding in the heat and the cluck of redwing blackbirds swinging on cattails. Trucks whine in the distance. As the tar and creosote fry my feet, my tepid canteen tastes of aluminum. When I trudge in, bowed under my load, I see my car sitting with its doors open. Grizzled as an old juniper, Jeff hoists an iced drink. He looks rejuvenated.
These bedrock experiences were hardly what I’d expected from a float trip and hike to the rainbows in stone. Wilderness is supposed to leave you refreshed and relaxed, but I feel battered. When I reached out to the canyon country, it slapped me down. For too long I’ve lived apart from nature, reading about it, forgetful of its raw power. People who live outdoors, close to it every day, don’t entertain such romantic longings.
Racing to Angel Arch
An air-conditioned jeep would allow us to see Angel Arch; why not succumb to temptation? We pooled our money and found that we had enough to rent a jeep for two hours. So off we went like tourists intent on “getting there” for a look and getting back quickly.
Soon we were barreling back down Salt Wash, slapped by [p.14] willow branches. At Peekaboo Spring we struck a broad puddle, splattering the windshield. A polliwog wriggled on the wiper. After each willow thicket I sped up until I spotted where oversized tires had rutted the brush; then I braked hard. The challenge was to cover the winding, open stretches as fast as possible, kicking up rooster tails of sand. Like a kid with a new toy.
Oblivious to parked jeeps, we first overran Angel Arch, then spun into an arc that sent sand flying until we found the main tracks again. At this backcountry lot, many treads had stamped out sand castles with crumbled ramparts. Backpackers glared as our jeep’s fan droned on. I scrambled straight up to a picture point, but the light was lousy. My shot wouldn’t be a postcard, so I bounded back down toward the jeep, eyes on my next landing. Irked by the rush, my companion hesitated to climb back in.
“Would you drive a little slower now?”
I looked at my watch. “Yeah, but we gotta make time so that rental guy doesn’t charge us for three hours.”
I drove slower going back and even stopped at Paul Bunyan’s Potty, a giant hole in a sandstone overhang. This time I took longer to compose my shot of an arch. This also annoyed my friend.
“Are we here for this country or just for its freakish forms?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled.
Despite the twenty-odd miles of gorgeous red rock canyons, I was nagged by emptiness. My tunnel focus on a destination had cost me more than I’d reckoned: I came away with lousy photos and a credit card slip. I had to face the fact that this was no way to see the natural world, and that speed was a problem.
[p.15]Scott Slovic, a critic interested in responses to nature, even became disenchanted with jogging in nature. “Running was a form insulation,” he came to realize, “a self-imposed dream state, the rapid motion . . . and hyperventilation combining to blind me to my surroundings.”
If jogs can be too insulating and too fast, then what about jeeps, or even bikes? Jeeping has become so popular around Moab, Utah, that the desert has become something of a drive-up park. By the 1990s some of the jeep routes were closed—starting with Salt Wash, where maniacal desert rats like me had damaged stream bottoms. Even mountain bikers often move too fast to feel a part of the environs. Riders whir right by a creamy sand verbena or, seduced by aggressive treads and downhill thrills, whizz right over a pincushion cactus in bloom.
Restrictions on wheeled vehicles help preserve the park, but they also protect us from our insatiable high-speed addictions. We’ve got to slow down.