by Paul W. Rea
From Slickrock to Bedrock: Tested on the Dolores
To stick your hands into the river is to feel the cords that
bind the earth together in one piece.
—Barry Lopez, River Notes
[p.101]The Dolores— “the river of sorrows”—is running high, and none of us has ever faced real whitewater. Visions of Deliverance haunt my mind.
Before we can launch, we’ve got to ready our rigs. For John and Lori it’s just a matter of packing a whitewater canoe and slipping a few extras into our raft. For Barbara and me, though, the task proves more difficult. The rowing frame for our new raft refuses to go together as it did in our back yard. As the sun pounds down, man and metal both turn more stubborn. Things aren’t going as planned, and this doesn’t [p.102] bode well, especially before a first voyage. Once the frame finally does come together, Barbara pops a bottle of cheap champagne to “pagan” the Canyon Wren, a yellow, silver, and blue boat that will carry us fur.
This raft actually floats! Life offers few better experiences than trying out a new toy. Rimes undulate the rubber floor as my muddy toes grip the shiny frame. When I spin us, amazed at the boat’s maneuverability, pebbly clouds wheel by like stars in a planetarium. I lean into strokes and frustrations dissolve into the distance.
The signs of human disturbances, however, take more time to fade away. An abandoned mine, a relic of the uranium frenzy along the Uravan Belt, still disfigures a hillside. Where an oil rig burns gas and belches sulfurous fumes, startled cows snort and charge into the brush.
At a flow of two thousand cubic feet a second, the current runs cold and clean as it races toward pristine wilderness. Soon the river enters a sandstone canyon where cliff swallows nest under overhangs, then it meanders into one of the Colorado Plateau’s many salt valleys. In eons past an uplift of salt has buckled the sandstone and shale once lying above it, making them more vulnerable to erosion. Here a wide, park-like Gypsum Valley affords spectacular views of peaks still packed with snow.
While a bird scolds us from the riverside brush, another sound grabs our attention: Yip! Yip! Whiskers twitching, a river otter galumphs along the mudbank and slips into the water. We linger, but, alas, the frisky otter doesn’t reappear.
When the Colorado Division of Wildlife released these delightful creatures in the late 1980s, it didn’t anticipate some of the driest years on record. And when engineers at McPhee Dam hoarded water, river flows dropped drastically. In a [p.103] desperate search for enough water, the otters strayed as far as the Colorado River, seventy-five miles away. Such problems with insuring habitat speak eloquently for minimum stream flows. The choice is clear: if we want the thrill of seeing otters, we’ll have to stop watering so much hay and so many golf courses.
River otters establish territories where they feed on fish and crayfish. But these superb hunters also share food with each other rather than fight over territory. Their ease of movement encourages them to visit one another, often just to romp. Like primates, they caress one another and cavort with liquid grace, often spinning as they swim. Aided by flaps that seal their noses and ears, they can stay submerged for several minutes at a time. Their sleek, elongated forms, with webbed feet and muscular tails, seem effortlessly propelled at up to six miles an hour. Otters turn everything into play.
Today, thankfully, playfulness and communication among otters, seals, dolphins, and whales gamer our respect as signs of intelligence. This is a remarkable development because we humans have long defined intelligence in terms of attributes particular to ourselves—mainly language—which we’ve evolved more fully than other animals.
It’s now late afternoon so we’ll need to camp soon, well before sundown. Barbara calls for a landing. “Now you tell me!” I mutter as I heave hard for the bank. She teeters on the tube, then springs for the steep bank, skidding on mud. When she grabs a branch, it snaps in her fist and she plunges into the current, disappearing beneath the bow. By the time she surfaces, the current has dragged the boat from the bank. To compensate, I thrust hard into the oars, nearly submerging Barbara under the tube. She grasps for a willow stem and pulls herself out, spitting water and invectives.
[p.104]“Tie us!” I yell with iron determination. She clambers up the steep, slippery incline, winding the rope around a willow. I pull hard against the current, managing to wedge the bow into dead branches that gouge flesh and drop spiders. Shivering, Barbara reels in the now bedraggled Canyon Wren. Before I can apologize, we wave in John and Lori, who land with more finesse.
Once moored we discuss landings, not feelings. Our first mistake was not to allow time for Barbara to reach the stern, a better place for the jumper and for the rower to pull the power strokes to hold the stern. Barbara wonders whether she’ll bear the brunt of practice landings while we refine our moves.
Our campsite proves to be worth the trouble, however. Trees along the river shade us, and meadows offer open campsites. Wet clothes and gear hang on a pole that runs between the trees. As the sun sinks, John and I sit mesmerized by the reflections nearby: the bright buff of the sandstone blends into the light green from the opposite bank, the oceanic blue of the sky, and the tan of the river’s swirls.
Our dining room takes shape beneath box elders. The menu includes spaghetti al dente with homemade salsa marinara washed down with robust Chianti Classico. For dessert? Gelato topped with dark chocolate and Milano cookies. Divine decadence in the wilds.
“Hey, who’s the designated rower tomorrow?” chides John. With the river to haul food, rafters eat and drink well, sometimes too well, especially since rafting doesn’t burn off calories the way backpacking does. In fact, despite the exercise of lifting, rowing, and sometimes swimming, it’s easy to return with fresh flab.
We set up our tents near a patch of blue grama grass with [p.105] curved seed heads. Nearby John sees a three-foot snake using its head to shovel sand from its hole. Once it spots intruders, the snake vibrates its tail and flattens its head like a rattler. All of us except John recoil. “Hey guy, don’t try to fool me—you’re no rattler.” In addition to burrowing, bull and gopher snakes exhibit mimicry. Since most predators hesitate before approaching a rattlesnake, bull snakes with mutations resembling rattlers enjoyed a greater chance to pass on their advantageous genes.
Yelling disturbs the quiet. Five kayakers who brandish beers, pitching the empties at each other, are followed by boatloads of yahoos looking like frat boys in hot tubs.
“Real men do kayaks,” one hairy-chested guy blusters.
“Yeah, but they like rafts at meal time,” John mutters under his breath.
When the “real men” on the river hear us chuckling, one spits his chew.
Why do some boaters, apparently oblivious to all this beauty, behave so irreverently in nature? Does the challenge of facing rapids arouse combative instincts? Maybe it’s our culture’s view of nature as a place to shed inhibitions that conditions such behavior. The biblical Fall characterizes the earth as morally and spiritually flawed, associates it with evil, and separates it from heaven. Nature is considered inanimate, literally devoid of spirit. Most Euro-Americans therefore find it hard to recognize nature’s inherent sacredness.
From the viewpoint of ecopsychology, this estrangement is a serious problem. In Nature and Madness Paul Shepard contends that mistreatment of nature results from arrested moral and psychological development. Shepard, along with Robert Bly and others, laments the fact that our culture lacks rituals for bonding with the natural world or models of [p.106] mature behavior in nature. Whereas Hopi infants are ritually introduced to the sun and exposed to revered elders who live in harmony with the outdoors, mainstream American kids are more apt to play with machines intended to tear up the landscape.
Granted, these kayakers have every right to release bottled emotions. But their constant splashing and shouting sound like echoes from the water park. Deeper wildness, on the other hand, unleashes the unconscious mind or taps primal impulses to connect the wildness inside with the wildness outside. This is unlikely to occur when approaching the river like a carnival ride.
Buoyed by the recent interest in environmental ethics, recreation specialists are asking which activities are uniquely suited to unspoiled natural areas, which degrade either the wilderness experience or the natural resource itself, and which might be better done somewhere else. Eco-ethics assumes a respect for wild nature. A floating kegger party belongs on Lake Powell, where it would not interfere with someone else’s wilderness experience.
The first bats flutter in the twilight, diving to snare insects just above our heads. “Looks like we’re drawing bugs,” John quips. Lori swings wildly at the first mosquito, then waves in more bats. A chorus of night sounds whines and whispers. The four of us sit around our campfire, listening to it pop and hiss, sniffing the aroma of the dry juniper, bonded to warmly lit faces of friends. Suddenly a beaver splashes into the river.
“Is that you, Barb?” John asks.
Toward dusk the main problem becomes finding the right path through the brush. I’m sitting on “the groover” when John and Lori stray off course, nearly walking into me. Should I flick on my flashlight, blowing my cover, or hang [p.107] tight, hoping they’ll find their way? They do, and I’m spared a beam in the face.
Soon I lie atop my bag listening to the shrill metallic cries of the nighthawks. These swept-wing predators are not hawks, of course, but members of the whippoorwill family that hunt insects. What incredible eyes they must possess to grab insects without the echolocation, or radar, that bats possess. Listening to the night sounds and watching for another shooting star, I feel intensely alive, at home in an unfathomable universe. During the night, a mystery bird utters three or four sharp whistles. Odd.
The next morning we enter the canyon wilderness. The walls rise faster than the sun, casting long shadows. Three distinct eco-zones suggest how crucial moisture is. Tall cane, privet, box elders, willows, and tamarisk beard the banks. Behind these, sage, rabbitbrush, and pea-green grasses cover the gentle slopes. Above them, dark-green pinyons and grayer-green junipers stud the rocky talus below the cliffs. Adding incandescent yellow to the scene, waxy prince’s plumes candle the desert-varnished rock.
To find shade, we slip under a gnarled cottonwood that rustles like running water. A stronger gust rattles its deep-green leaves like rain splatting on rock. Dried by the desert air and sun, downy capsules on the boughs are breaking open. Hundreds of feet up, the fresh cotton fluffs stream like snowflakes, luminous in the breeze. Violet-green swallows swoop down to the river, skimming its surface for bugs, then twitter high among the puffs. When these fliers finally rest, they perch in rows on a dead branch, turning their heads toward one another. As we push off, tassels on the cane sprinkle fine seeds on us; we’re now the bearers of new life.
After a short hike, outstanding rock art gazes down on us [p.108] from a large overhang. Squiggly lines on one panel seem to reflect the trails left by ant lions in the dust nearby. Numerous inch-high figures appear here, possibly as a population count, plus a large figure with a hooded head and eerie strings hanging from its arms. Could such an imposing pictograph have possibly served the purpose of social control, much as art in many cultures is both religious and political? Today’s Hopis, the descendants of the Anasazi, sometimes disclose that as adults they reexperience the fears they registered as children when they first saw kachina dancers. Whether a culture plans it or not, threats that “the boogie man will get you” can make people behave.
Afloat again, we drift through liquid space as cliffs flow upstream in a slow-motion revery. The canyon walls rise still higher to reveal glossy desert varnish that becomes iridescent in the dazzling light: black sometimes glares almost white. Rainstreaks stripe the blond undersides of a cliff before they fan out into paws of encrusted sand. The canyon walls swerve into alcoves eroded by ancient seeps or side drainages. These rank among the most spectacular red rock canyons in the West.
A rapid roars ahead, one that’s not on the map. This is it: our first real test. Barbara calls out a stump and a giant boulder that pile up water. Downstream, nasty sleepers probably lurk beneath the turbulence. Just when we most need visibility, curves and drops make it more difficult. We watch for intermittent spray that spurts up high enough to see. Pulling down my hat, I backwater to buy time. Breaths come guardedly as we float the last fifty yards with my oars “chicken-stroking” last-minute corrections in course. The roar grows louder as the froth surges more visibly.
Then we rock and roll The raft pitches on the smooth [p.109] pre-waves as the slap of a whitecap heralds bigger water. To blast the bow through the big waves, Barbara readies to punch the front tube with her shoulder. I watch the snag and the huge boulder. The sleepers loom in the corner of my eye. Damn! Overcompensating to miss the snag leaves us heading right for that slimy boulder. I spin the boat from its forty-five-degree-off-the-snag position, then graze the boulder. We careen on, stern first and blind.
I swivel us around. We’re riding the tongue of the rapid, its surface streaming like drawn glass. Its classic “V” leads right into the sleepers: a rock garden. Like a motorist who brakes on sheer ice, I foolishly try to backpaddle. Then I heave my torso frantically into a few strokes, hoping to cross the current.
Not enough. We’re still heading for the rocks. Instinctively I drag one oar to straighten out just in time. Sunglasses drenched, Barbara looks around and yells, “Way to go!” We’ve navigated our first rapid, though we’ve got some bailing to do. Once the froth subsides, I kick back, sandals on the cooler. As John and Lori slice between the sleepers, John grins but Lori looks pale.
We park the boats and pick our way up to a flower garden a hundred feet above the river. Prickly pears still sport their waxy pink flowers, and dwarf daisies continue to bloom from their ground-hugging mats. Parched petals from globe mallows and firecracker penstemons mottle the bare ground where stunted lavender penstemons hang askew above the hot sand. Its oils activated by the heat, big sage perfumes the breeze.
Nearby a western collared lizard nine inches long flaunts its brilliant turquoise throat and belly. Then it dashes, yellow feet a blur. Collareds need this speed to catch other lizards. Though they’re members of the iguana family, like most [p.110] other lizards they’ve adapted to heat and dryness. Unlike mammals, these reptiles don’t need to drink because they generate their own water from their food. Whereas mammals lose water to excretion, lizards eliminate not urea but uric acid, which requires less water.
A cicada case droops from a juniper trunk with only its form remaining: a blunt head, bent antennae, and gnarled legs. The insect itself has burst free, leaving the husk of its old life behind. Cicadas are still around, though, for their highpitched whine thrums a pulse. In a bush nearby a small cicada flutters its wings, trying to break through the twigs. Finally it shimmies free to saw the air as it rises; others immediately join in. In one of nature’s anomalies, male cicadas actually sing to attract other males. Generated by vibrating chambers in the males’ abdomens, this swelling chorus attracts females that lack ears but use the walls of their bodies as sounding boards. To survive in the desert, cicadas cool themselves by sucking fluids from host plants and, to counter the intense heat, they can sweat off one third of their moisture each hour. Insects continue to astound us warm-blooded critters.
Back on the river, we enter the thirty-mile-long trench the Dolores has sliced into the Uncompahgre Plateau. Sheer walls tower above both banks. In most places the top layer of Navajo sandstone hundreds of feet thick outcrops as smooth bluffs. Below lie the thinner, softer, grayer Kayenta sandstone cliffs, plus benches littered with talus. Beneath them comes Wingate sandstone that forms the sheer, jointed, desert-varnished cliffs. Below the Wingate, the river is beginning to cut into the soft Chinle formation. Downstream the Dolores rasps deeper into the Chinle until it eventually reaches intractable black gneisses and granites. From slickrock to bedrock.
After more quiet water where box canyons indent the [p.111] bluffs, Bull Canyon appears as a real break in the wall, one we hope to hike. In contrast to backpacking, which often leaves hikers tired just when they arrive at the best places, rafting offers a way to reach remote areas while still fresh enough to experience them fully.
Like many side canyons, this one begins as a backwater. The trick is first to break through the brush along the river banks, then to get beyond the mud deposited at high water. While the brush poses no problem here, Bull Canyon is accessible only after a hundred-yard wade through muck. I slip in the slime but manage to thrust my oId Konica skyward before splashdown. After we empty the gravel from our shoes, we enter a tight canyon. Blooming bushes thrive where rainwater occasionally sheets down the sheer walls.
After negotiating smooth steps in the sandstone, we inspect a brimming bowl. Schools of beady whirligig beetles zigzag erratically to generate waves that serve as echolocators. When disturbed, the whirligigs dive. Water striders jerk about, sometimes stacked three high. This pool also supports short-legged water striders—really vellids or “skeeters”—that look like miniatures of the larger variety.
A monarch butterfly sails by, cinnamon orange against the overarching blue. Monarchs are no flutter-bys, however, for each winter they fly to Mexico, where they face destruction of their forest habitat. On their long migrations they struggle over mountaintops, generally flying over rather than around obstacles. Though typically solitary, monarchs congregate by the thousands and navigate by magnetic fields that allow them to fly after dark. By late summer their flits from flower to flower will cease to be random as they feed on their southward voyage.
The monarch is often confused with its look-alike, the [p.112] viceroy butterfly. Since the monarch feeds on milkweed containing alkaloids, birds vomit soon after eating one and associate the discomfort with the black-and-orange insect. By mimicking the monarch, the viceroy benefits from the bird’s misidentification. Despite their keen eyesight, few birds have evolved the ability to distinguish these two insects by sight. However, some jays have learned how to eat monarchs by cleverly pulling off the legs and wings, which contain most of the alkaloids.
Above us, some ordinary-looking white daisies droop from a hanging garden. On closer inspection, though, these are rare kachina daisies, or fleabane. The Dolores Canyon is one of the few places where kachina daisies grow in Colorado. They’re also uncommon in Utah, where botanist Stanley Welch discovered them near Kachina Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument.
Of the many reasons why a plant becomes rare, the most common is specialization. Kachina daisies demand specific conditions, such as a particular mineral content in a seep, that do not occur in many places. Sometimes, too, a plant’s pollinator becomes uncommon or extinct, reducing its ability to reproduce. Other times genetic drift or hybridization produces new competitors.
A final reason for rarity occurs when the plant is stranded by changes in climate. Like many disappearing species on the plateau, kachina daisies are probably leftovers from the Ice Age when cooler and moister conditions prevailed. Now such relict plants can live only in scattered refuges. If global warming changes the climate faster than plants can adapt, extinctions accelerate. It is natural for some species to disappear, but the increasing rate of human-caused extinctions is alarming.
[p.113]The huge question, then, is how to slow the current epidemic of extinctions. Among many approaches, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson urges nothing less than changes in attitude: “The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life,” he suggests, “the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built.” In short, if we can rediscover our heritage, we can not only save thousands of species whose lives hang in the balance but also save ourselves. But we are homo erectus, the stiff-necked species that doesn’t stoop to sniff the earth or kiss the ground.
Since it’s late, we decide to camp here at Bull Canyon. A swarm of gnats dances just above reflections of wavering cane. John jokes about getting extra animal protein as he refills his wine cup. But soon these blood-suckers become ravenous. The females are the most voracious because they need blood before they can lay eggs. We daub on Muskol and Cutter with little effect. The gnats move in. John tries an old trick, coating his skin with cooking oil. When he starts to look like flypaper, the cure proves worse than the affliction. As soon as small flies join the gnats, Lori ducks into the tent. Her retreat compounds her woes when the tent collapses around her: the sagged nylon and its human pole make a forlorn sight. The rest of us swallow chuckles.
At dusk bats begin to skim the water. Suddenly the bugs are gone. Amazing. Bugs typically fly when their metabolisms heat up and when they won’t become dehydrated. But the temperature and humidity didn’t change in a moment, so what happened? Could these gnats and flies sense the ultrasounds that the bats navigate by? After all, houseflies possess hairs that pick up the vibrations from movements in the air, [p.114] such as those of a fly swatter; these gnats may also hear ultrasonic squeaks.
As John and Barbara finish the dishes by flashlight, a hearty fellow appears, his light blue eyes sparkling under his cap. When he asks our names and then repeats them, I invite him to pull up a log. A raft guide from Colorado, Mark is a raconteur par excellence. He’s regaled many a boater around the campfire. As his stories of river lore wane with the embers, he swigs the last of his wine and returns to his camp. Mark lives simply so he can do what he loves most: running rivers.
The throbbing roar of Bull Rapid nags John’s and Lori’s sleep. Earlier John had bushwhacked downstream for a look, but he didn’t like what he saw: a rocky bank precludes either lining or portaging their canoe around the rapid. This morning Lori is relieved when Mark offers to paddle in her place. With Mark at the helm, the little canoe deftly dodges the rocks. Barbara and I pull directly out into the current to run the gauntlet, no problem.
Clear skies prevail as gentle breezes silver the sandbar willows. Between gusts two bumblebees dart out from the bank, circle Barbara in her yellow life jacket, and then beeline back, disappointed. Heralded by their characteristic “treeeeet,” a flock of sparrow-sized sandpipers scoots along the mud flats on spindly legs. As we approach, two or three of these birds (also known as “peeps”) sound the alarm with a series of whistles. As they take flight, their tawny wings beat rapid but shallow strokes just above the river. They fly in tight formation, each banking as they land abruptly on a sandbar across the way. That mystery bird jaws again, camouflaged in the heavy brush.
A common merganser, which is really a pied duck, leads [p.115] her procession of ducklings. Her head sports the merganser’s characteristic “wings,” but her mate’s greenish-black head lacks such feathering. Mom and brood dive in unison, with the young surfacing first. Unlike other ducks, mergansers use teeth-like protrusions on their bills to grab fish during their long dives.
When. another raft glides by, Lori calls out, “Are there any rough rapids ahead?” A tall boatwoman shoots back, ‘Just below Spring Canyon—stay left but don’t get thrown into the wall.” We stop first to hike this canyon; we’ll scout the rapid later.
About a mile up the canyon a drama of life and death unfolds in a shady pool. The usual characters—toads, tadpoles, boatman beetles, water striders, and whirligig beetles are acting out their roles, but the plot takes a turn when an ant bites me and I brush it into the pool. Before the water striders, instantly sensing surface vibrations, can do much more than pick at the struggling ant, a new player enters from above: a long-legged spider drops from its conical web, seizes the ant, and returns to its lair, upside-down. I later identify this as a long-jawed orb weaver, a Common spider that clusters its legs for concealment and leaves a hole in its web for quick passage.
On our way back ants appear in much greater numbers. Like brown strings, three lines of ants descend from top to bottom of a fifteen-foot sandstone cliff. Lined-up antenna to abdomen, these amazing insects disappear into tunnels in the rock and emerge fully a foot later. We know that ants secrete their own pheromone scent trails, but how did they discover these passages? Since few ants carry cargo, what’s the purpose of this mass migration?
Each partial to a different route, the four of us head through the foliage to scout Spring Rapid. Barbara’s field [p.116] glasses locate a narrow channel between the left wall and a cluster of rocks. She steps back from the viewpoint, unsettled by the ominous rumble and turbulence.
As soon as we’ve launched, I pull hard strokes to carry us across the current. We hover for one last look, then plunge down the chute. Mindful of the warning to avoid the wall, I overcompensate to the inside and snag on a submerged boulder. Splashing does not free us. Barbara and I try heaving with our bodies. No go. I yank an oar from its lock and, thrusting it down hard, free our bow. We spin into the current out of control. Feet spread for balance, I jam the oar back into its lock. As we emerge, I notice that John has waded into the current to help, which means he is risking his bad knee. After watching our travails, John and Lori line their canoe around this one.
Later we beach at the broad mouth of Coyote Wash, one of the highlights of this trip. When tired hikers skirt our campsite, they rave about the scenery and rage about the deerflies. Cutting across a large meadow of needle grass, I hike around a classic perched meander, a place where the river cut a channel that it abandoned eons ago. Blown sand and fallen boulders now fill the river’s old course to illustrate the carrying power of the river, which is constantly clearing its present channel. As John and Barbara cook, Lori rubs Benadryl on her bites. I page through my field guides, scribbling notes and sputtering about the mystery birds that won’t sing out their genus and species.
The next morning we rise before either the sun or the deerflies can hammer us too hard. A stream we camped near has risen during the night, probably because it wasn’t losing much of its flow to evaporation. To my amazement the creek is rolling mud turds, globs of blue clay that settled out at high [p.117] water. Given its typical depth of two inches, the load this creek carries is astounding. Upstream, tongues of sand advance rapidly enough to make a photographer backpeddle.
As we wait for John and Barbara, Lori and I observe this tiny creek. “Look at that standing wave,” I remark, reading its inch-deep current as a river runner. Lori sees the sparkling rills as fish scales or a wash board. “This isn’t a river,” she chides, disposed to any subject other than rapids. Maybe I’m becoming fixated on reading rapids, much like a climber obsessed with crevices in rock walls. In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean observes how fishermen see rivers mainly in terms of fishing. Every way of relating to nature soon becomes a way of seeing.
Coyote Wash is a broad-bottomed canyon that meanders for eight miles down from the La Sal range east of Moab, Utah. After getting hit so hard by bugs yesterday, John, Lori, and Barbara wear long pants today. The dreaded deerflies move in, and before long it looks as though we’ve disturbed a hornets’ nest; hungry dark clouds stalk each of us. Lori and Barbara swat madly and break into a trot; John and I keep striding while we swing our shirts like horses’ tails. Soon we’re all swatting away with our sandals.
Damn! Deerflies gnaw John’s back and my legs. We run for shelter under an overhang. There the marauders subside, though they linger ferociously in the sun, not far away. These are strange insects. They’re smart enough to bite in the tender places but stupid enough to stay put and get swatted. Actually, the issue is one of adaptation, for deerflies probably evolved feeding on mammals that didn’t have hands for fly swatters. We slog on, gauzy and baggy, looking like beekeepers caught without smoke machines.
While the group snacks, I explore alone. The canyon runs [p.118] about a hundred feet wide, its stream braiding into rivulets. For some reason, probably because of flash floods, little grows on the broad canyon floor except for a lone hackberry tree that quivers in the rippled air. As the floor undulates its way into an incline, the sinuous slickrock rises for several hundred feet. Bright blue pinyon jays squawk in the junipers fur up sheer sandstone walls. Orange butterflies dance above a pool as a tiger swallowtail glides just overhead, its backlit yellow wings glowing like a Chinese lantern. The deerflies are long gone.
Fully comparable to the gorgeous Escalante canyons, Coyote Wash is not only one of the most scenic hikes in the Southwest but one of the most sensory. Because its walls slope gradually here, its floor receives enough sunlight to nourish soft grasses. With its flat, sandy bottom, it’s a sensational place to move like an ancient Greek athlete, without clothes, just for the sheer kinesthetic joy. Bare feet experience the textures of sand and water, bare body savors the temperatures of air, sweat, and sun.
On the way back, John hails me from a sandy bank. As we recline in the cool sand, John pokes a stick into a cone in the sand. He’s baiting an ant lion to flick the sand that makes its quarry skid into the pit. Ant lions, really the tick-like larvae of insects resembling the damselfly, are common in desert country that otherwise supports relatively few insects.
As John recalls his boyhood misbehavior toward animals, including a lurid banquet of birds and frogs, he concedes that he owes wildlife some good deeds to offset his earlier misdemeanors. Dredging my own memories, I confess to shooting frogs with my slingshot. Perhaps children, especially boys, treat animals cruelly because they lack power and find that they can exert it over animals. Boys can also be compassion-[p.119]ate, though. A boyhood friend and I used to arrive at school late because we’d been rescuing earthworms stranded on sidewalks.
Across the way a furry brown animal bounds from a puddle. We look at each other: “What is that?” This critter stops, runs again, and finally rolls in the loose sand. After it shakes, it rears up like a prairie dog. Then it scurries along a ledge and rests in the shade. By the time I’m able to locate my binocs, it’s disappeared into a blowhole in the sandstone where it turns in circles, looking out each time. After watching it for a while, we conclude that this is a desert-dwelling rock squirrel. Like their arboreal counterparts, these rodents sport salt-and-pepper coats. Rock squirrels are well adapted to a desert; if their food supply dwindles because of drought, they may begin hibernating as early as August.
Something sprinkles us with sand. As we look up, a fat lizard spins in the sky. To our amazement, two whiptail lizards are dangling in midair, tails quivering. Shameless voyeurs, we watch them mate and wonder, since many whiptails reproduce asexually, if these are both females with one in the role of the male. Suddenly the pair drops to the rocks six feet below. Just one lizard reappears, tail whipping wildly. We’ve witnessed high-wire romance with dire consequences.
After generous gulps from canteens laced with electrolytes, we stride back into the afternoon sun. Salt replacements prevent dehydration and, more importantly, make the canteen water taste potable enough to down the prescribed gallon per day. After a few hundred yards, we soak our hats, shirts, and pants to cool ourselves rapidly in the dry air. For years I’ve assumed, no doubt self-indulgently, that less clothing meant better cooling. But in brilliant sunshine like this, maximizing ventilation, evaporation, and interception of solar [p.120] radiation is the best way to go.
Less than a river mile below Coyote Wash. we marvel at a dramatic saddle in the canyon wall. A whole canyon system seems to exist back there, complete with dazzling white cliffs. Then I realize that this must be Mule Shoe Bend where the river takes two miles to travel the two hundred yards across this isthmus. In a half hour or so we’ll loop around to the other side of the saddle; over geologic time the river will eventually erode through to shorten its course. A few miles farther, we discover another great place to play.
A straight slot, easily seventy-five yards long, marks the mouth of La Sal Creek. In contrast to the Dolores, which runs cold and cloudy, this tributary flows warm and clear over gravel swept clean of silt. Its current sweeps me along, tummy up, much as the Platte River carried Loren Eiseley. After the rapids, which usually require resistance, it’s good to float with the flow. As we recline under the willows, a sharp “whoit” comes from a thicket, but no bird shows itself—only a great blue heron, head poised to peer through its own reflection, patiently fishing the shallows.
As soon as we launch, a rapid takes us by surprise. About two hundred yards down from La Sal Creek, the river dives around a bend. Distracted by beavers swimming in a placid backwater, we hadn’t noticed that the river takes a turn. Our ears are suddenly filled with the sound of rushing water. I even stand on the rowing seat, but it’s still impossible to see what lurks below. My throat convulses.
Playing the percentages, we follow the curved tongue. This is standard technique, but here the tongue heads straight for treacherous rocks. I backwater hard, butt braced on the back of the seat, buying time to read the channel. “Right, [p.121] right!” Barbara shouts. Pushing hard into a stroke, I skirt the first two rocks. A wave slaps her in the face; she wipes her eyes to locate the next hazard. We careen off one boulder, spin and carom off another like a pinball. Pools of bubbles whirl and fizz as we emerge from the turbulence. Broken sticks swirl in eddies.
The Dolores has tested us and we’ve passed our preliminaries. We’ve tasted the adrenalin rush and crave more. We eddy out just below the rapid, wondering how John and Lori will handle it. After absorbing the fury of the afternoon sun for a while, we spot them lining their canoe along the far bank. Paddling decisive strokes on the same side, they shoot right across the current and head for shore.
On the beach the four of us fan out to reconnoiter where little grows except speckle-pod locoweed. Firm sandbanks invite us to camp just above the river’s edge, where small waves lap rhythmically. To prepare for a fire, John and I gather aromatic pieces of dead juniper. Despite all the driftwood, there’s no human trash, not even a broken styrofoam cup. This is a pristine stretch of river.
We pitch camp, glad for moments of shelter from the blowing sand. Twilight lingers while John and I sip wine, mesmerized by the river’s lapping, eyes riveted to the great wall far above that incandesces in the amber light. This Entrada sandstone layer, smooth but cupped, peachy in regular daylight, now tints more toward salmon. This canyon country is, as W. L. Rusho eloquently observes, “a land where earth tones are daily enflamed by the rising sun, colors change constantly as shadows creep about, diminish, and lengthen throughout the hours.” After the cantaloupe tones fade, we sit silently in the light of the Milky Way. Enchanted by it all, we almost forget to kindle our fire.
[p.122]Illumined from inside, our tent now outglows the embers that still exude the delicious scent of juniper. When Barbara blows out the candle, I’m left with the river, where Buddhist thoughts swirl in my mind. We’re riding on a river, I muse, whose speed, size, and course lie beyond our control. We steer around life’s hazards, but submerged rocks lurk, unforseen, and the current sweeps us in new directions, some of them unwelcome, others mortal. When we say “go with the flow,” we blithely assume that the river will carry us where we want to go; we seldom anticipate that a seemingly perfect tongue through a rapid will lead to a big drop or a black hole.
As my stomach begins to roil, I slip into our tent and snuggle against Barbara. Only yards away the Dolores, the river of sorrows, laps at the sandbank.
The early sunrise flushes us from our tents. After lingering over coffee, we get on the river early. As we float lazily, silence reigns until eventually we begin to hear a five-hundred-ton drilling rig clanking. A service road gashes the river bank. Here the Bureau of Reclamation is drilling a sixteen-thousand- foot-deep well as part of its Colorado River salinity control project. The Dolores not only hauls a heavy load of silt, it also carries ten thousand tons of salt a year from Disappointment Creek alone. These desalinization projects have come about because Colorado River water is over-allocated, and its diminished flows are often too salty for agriculture.
On this last slow stretch, the brush comes alive with sharp whistles, discordant scoldings, and the sharp “whoits” that we’ve been hearing so much. Show yourselves, you teases! Then, from a perch on a dead branch, an arresting beauty with a sulphur breast, an olive-brown back, and a long, graceful tail performs not only one but all three of the calls. The three mystery birds coalesce into one: the yellow-[p.123]breasted chat. Enthralled with this large wood warbler, we nearly float right by the takeout.
Mark, the raconteur from upstream, strides up as I bemoan the gouges on the bottom of the Canyon Wren. Ready to engage his bronzed, muscular torso, he offers to help tear down our rig. “How come the river is dropping so fast?” John asks him. As a river guide, Mark’s ready to protest “messing with rivers.” He spews some salty invectives to condemn malpractices at the McPhee Dam. In the late 1980s, he contends, the dam operators choked the Dolores down to a mere trickle, which stressed the otters and killed the trout. What Mark doesn’t mention, though, is that during some summers before the dam was built the Dolores used to city up entirely.
“The Bureau of ‘Wreck-lamation’ spent half a billion dollars on that dam. Now that it’s done, farmers can’t afford the water. Has the dam helped the local economy? No. And they don’t just capture spring runoff, they rob you of peak flows. “
Mark has a point. The Dolores is diminished, her ability to support wildlife like otters compromised when the engineers spin the spigots. Rare plants, including the kachina daisy and the Dolores rushpink, still survive in this gorge and its side canyons, but many native plant communities also require both flooding and adequate stream flows. The Bureau of Land Management has (bless their souls) recommended the surrounding area for wilderness designation, but this stretch of river also needs protection under an official Wild and Scenic designation. More than ever before we need to preserve wild places. When we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves.
We jam everything in John and Lori’s Bronco. Barbara and I squeeze into the back, sandwiched between the door [p.124] and life preservers. I pray that a dumpster is not far, for the back windows don’t roll down and our garbage is reeking. Since the highway back to Slickrock gives no hint of the glories that lie in the gorge, my mind’s eye flies high above to trace a beige ribbon, richly trimmed in green, that loops through a deep redrock trough. I wish we were there.
Bats and Bugs
To humans, bats seem silent except for the whuff of their wings. To gnats and other insects, however, the “silent” darkness screams warnings. Most bats hunt by echolocation, a radar based on emitting cries and picking up the echoes. Using sounds beyond human hearing—in fact, often well into the ultrasonic spectrum—bats can determine their quarry’s speed and direction. They even factor in the well known Doppler effect, the tendency of sound from a moving source to increase or decrease in pitch. Based on frequency modulation known as FM, bats’ cries are perfectly adapted to locating small prey at short distances.
With their aerial agility and their sophisticated radar, bats would seem to experience no more difficulty tracking a bug than a chameleon would have grabbing an ant. But during the fifty million years that bats have hunted, insects have evolved some very sophisticated defenses. When bats come closer than ten feet, many insects adopt a variety of acrobatic maneuvers including erratic flight, rapid turns, powered dives, and spirals. Flying crickets, for example, react to a bat’s sonar by swerving or even diving into a free fall. Certain moths mimic the bats’ [p.125] squeaks to jam their radar. Tiger beetles fly toward the ground and land; katydids stop flying entirely. One prey species may display several different moves to keep bats from anticipating a single evasive maneuver.
Equally amazing is the timing of insects’ responses. Crickets, for instance, change their wingbeat rate in only sixty milliseconds. Other insects detect the telltale ultrasound but react only if the danger comes too close. The fact that insect evolution has selected for this variety of moves has forced bats to act more intelligently, learning from experience to anticipate the evasive movements of their prey. As we look further and further into the infinitely complex evolutionary process, we find that we humans are fur from the only species to evolve greater and greater intelligence.