by Paul W. Rea
Dinosaur in March
I saw a distant river by moonlight, making no noise, yet
flowing, as by day, still to the sea like melted silver
reflecting the moonlight . … By it the heavens are related
to the earth, undistinguishable from a sky beneath you.
—Henry David Thoreau
[p.147]Since nobody runs the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument in March, we’ll experience it much as the early explorers did. Our friends Matt and Barb will lead in their raft; Barbara and I will follow in ours as we face our first big water.
Despite its dangers, this stretch tells a long story of river running. In 1825 General William Henry Ashley and six mountain men confronted the worst rapids on the entire Green River. In search of new grounds to trap beaver, they [p.148] set out in bull boats (buffalo hides stretched over pole frames) adapted from Plains Indians. The Canyon of Lodore impressed Ashley powerfully: “As we passed along between these massive walls, which in a great degree excluded from us the rays of heaven … I was forcibly struck with the gloom which spread over the countenances of my men.” With little choice but to continue, the Ashley party became the first to navigate the rough water we now face.
The second party encountered more problems. On his trek to California in 1849, Captain W. L. Manly did not relish wintering in Salt Lake City. Operating on the widely held misconception that the Green River flowed west to the Pacific, Manly surmised that he’d rather float than walk or ride. So he and six other Forty-Niners dug an abandoned ferryboat from a riverbank near Green River, Wyoming, and pushed off for California.
Theirs was indeed a “voyage of discovery.” Indians tried to hail the party, but Manly paddled right by them. Below Flaming Gorge the crew tried to fend off rocks with poles, but the powerful current wedged their ferryboat between boulders. To survive, the men had to carve dugout canoes. Just above what Major John Wesley Powell later named Disaster Falls, Manly found a boat with a note indicating that a previous party had given up here to hike out of the sheerwalled canyon. “Disconcerted” but undaunted, Manly and his men persisted. After laborious portages around boulder fields and one mishap in which Manly nearly drowned, they rode through the rapids of Dinosaur. Downstream, in the Uinta Basin, they encountered a band of Utes who dispelled their delusions of floating to California. Sadder but wiser, Manly abandoned the river and headed for the place he set out to avoid, Salt Lake City.
[p.149]From here in Browns Park, which the Manly party crossed in their makeshift canoes, the Green River seems to enter a mountain, seemingly an odd place for a river to cut a channel. Geologic processes explain this paradox. About twenty-five million years ago the river swung eastward, around the ancestral Uinta Mountains, to join the North Platte rather than the Colorado River. Sometime between twelve and fifteen million years ago, however, the eastern end of the Uintas sank nearly four thousand feet, opening up a potential channel. As the Rockies rose in what is now southern Wyoming, they backed the flow into what is now Browns Park, forcing the Green to grind its way through the sunken end of the Uintas. Then, while these red rocks slowly rose again, the river began to dig its half-mile-deep trench. Today dark-red cliffs finely powdered with snow impressively portal the Gates of Lodore. The Red Creek quartzite towering two thousand feet above us is about a billion and a half years old—newly risen but much older and harder than the sandstones of the Southwest.
It’s quiet on the water. There’s only the slight whoosh of oars stroking the river like a cook smoothing a sauce with a wooden spoon. Tiny whirlpools spin off the oars, leaving bubbles. Ordinarily our road-and-city consciousness—full of worries about work, money, or whatever—persists for a day or two as we enter the natural world, but in only a few hours the river leads us toward another consciousness, one that’s more focused and present.
“Ahonk, ahonk.” Male Canada geese emerge from the shade, their honks keeping time with their wingbeats. Perhaps these Canadas are heading back to Browns Hole Wildlife Refuge, a prime nesting ground for them as well as for egrets, herons, coots, killdeers, and raptors.
[p.150]Just ahead, at the mouth of Winnie’s Grotto, Major John Wesley Powell found a boat abandoned by trappers. Downstream lies what Powell, after losing one of his boats, named Disaster Falls. His crewman Jack Sumner describes their problems there: “The No Name … struck a rock and swung into the waves sideways and instantly swamped. Her crew held to her while she drifted down with the speed of the wind; [she] went perhaps 200 yards, when she struck another rock that stove her bow in.” Mindful of this mishap, Powell’s second expedition took two hard days to line and portage around Disaster Falls.
Just above the falls, broken rock fans into the channel from both banks where a massive fault enables two side canyons to enter and dump debris. One side canyon will usually produce a rapid; two spell trouble, especially when the channel slopes sharply and sheer walls also drop boulders into the channel. Barbara and I wonder if we really want to try this. We see our own images in each other’s sunglasses, two munchkins dwarfed by a mountain of sheer rock. Following Matt’s expert lead, we dodge sharp rocks through Upper Disaster Falls. Matt and Barb pull over to applaud our run through this “rock garden,” but suddenly my oar strikes a rock and bolts from its lock, almost bludgeoning my skull. The oar disappears into the turbulence. As he bounds over boulders, Matt shouts directions that are lost in the guttural roar.
This is serious. We can’t stop. We’re plunging into Lower Disaster Falls with only one oar. As I track the loose oar in the froth, I grope for the spare. Jagged rocks and nasty holes rivet my attention. A wave crashes from behind.
“Watch for that damn oar!” I sputter from the beleaguered captain’s seat. Our boat spins out of control, careening [p.151] off one rock before grazing another. We’re taking on more and more water and becoming less and less manageable.
I fumble for the spare once again, but the boat lurches too much for me to unsnap its clasp. Finally the oar comes loose and fits into the oarlock. But it doesn’t give much control in the maelstrom—its sleeve has loosened so it slips up and down in the lock. Our new equipment is failing its tests.
Froth again engulfs the lost oar. Our boat bounces off one rock, first dropping into the hole and then spinning out. I backwater hard against the current, but we skid into another boulder, bow scraping. We scramble to the high tube so the river doesn’t wrap the boat around a rock. If we’re stuck here long, we’ll never see that oar again. We heave with all our might. More grinding. We slam the tubes again as though they were blocking dummies. Finally the current sweeps us off the boulder.
Eureka! Our lost oar bobs in an eddy. Barbara tosses a line to snag the oar; it’s all beaten up but it’s back on board. Only now do I realize that my heart is racing and I’m out of breath. After navigating Lower Disaster in fine form, Matt and Barb chide us for not securing our oar. I’m relieved that they don’t know about the dysfunctional spare.
We land just above a big one: Triplett Rapids. Tomorrow we’ll get wet early—just how wet is the question. No human signs appear on the beach, only the droppings of geese. Where they exist at all, paths reveal deer prints and droppings. At this time of year, at least, this area seems untrammeled. Its pristine quality also results from Park Service restrictions on river runners. Here in Dinosaur the issue isn’t limitations on numbers, which most everyone supports; it’s preferential treatment: permits issued for commercial parties definitely outnumber those for private trips, and outfitters [p.152] in Colorado and Utah net millions of dollars a year.
Near our camp a Canada goose struts and pumps his head. When this gander hisses and lowers his head to charge, I retreat, though not fast enough. He hisses again and feints with his beak, then he strikes with his wing. My shin stings. Not only have I stumbled into a male defending a nest, but I’ve been faked out by a bird. Canadas are instinctually smart enough, however, not to continue such aggressiveness. Later on, after the goslings are launched, the gander should relax.
These geese display intelligent patterns in flight as well. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back in the foundation while another flies point. Flying in a V enables geese to create an upward air current reducing fatigue and allowing for greater flight range than if each bird flew alone. The geese in the rear honk to let the leaders know that they’re keeping up. Humans may dismiss all this as mere instinct, but it’s intelligent behavior nonetheless—and it shows a concern for the common good that’s becoming rare in the human realm.
To reduce anxiety, Barbara and I toss our rolled-up safety rope back and forth like a football. After massive cliffs swallow the tired sun, the sky turns steel gray and distant stars flicker in the twilight. Colder air settles; we huddle around the fire telling jokes that divert my mind from the unsettling experience at Disaster Falls. After everyone has burrowed, my eyes fixate on the vibrant red-and-gray coals. Like the sap that oozes from the driftwood, my confidence seeps into the sand. I gulp back my own fear. For the first time in my life, I want off a river. Soon I snuggle next to Barbara, wondering if she senses that I’m not asleep. The realization that I’ve entered the realm of wild creatures who don’t know the meaning of worry helps to quiet the chattering monkey inside.
In the morning we devour steaming eggs and sausage, [p.153] shifting from leg to leg until Matt bellows” oinkers away.” As he and I scout Triplett Rapids, he decides that we’ll enter left of the snags, let the current sweep us toward the wall, and then stroke hard to avert a giant boulder.
“Long rapids are tough because either you don’t see the hazards at the bottom or, if you’re spun off course, you’re not in position to dodge them. Even when you can follow your plan, you’ve often got to cross the channel against big waves.” Not what I need to hear.
Matt points to standing curlers which are deceptive because the water of the waves races on while their shape remains stationary. After the current drops down a fall, it often bounces off the bottom and springs up again as a whitecap. As far as I can see, it’s impossible to determine any regular sequence to these upsurges. They illustrate chaos theory in very relevant ways. These curlers turn anticipation into anxiety.
Matt and Barb shoot right through, making it look easy. We follow our plan, but, despite the strongest strokes I can muster, we almost graze the dreaded boulder. As we shoot by, part of the river gushes between this rock and the wall to create a powerful current, one we couldn’t see from above.
While we stop for lunch, Matt illustrates how to cross the current within a rapid. He chuckles knowingly when I ask him about holding back a move—much like a pilot leaves some play in the stick for a sudden crosswind. “you bet, and here’s how.” As we kneel, he sketches river, rocks, and raft on the sand and suggests that one way is to spin the raft, pulling with the current.
“It’s risky because you can’t see much over your shoulder, but if you’re goin’ to make headway across the current, you’ll have to sacrifice some visibility.” I’ve been discovering [p.154] that the greater the boat’s angle to the current, the greater the effect of my strokes. When Matt extends this principle to include strokes that enlist the power of the current, I add the “downstream ferry” to my repertoire.
About a century ago modem river running techniques evolved on this very stretch. Whereas Major Powell had tried to run rivers in ruddered, round-bottomed boats that plied the water bow-first, in the 1890s trapper and prospector Nathaniel Galloway tried smaller, flat-bottomed skiffs with blunt stems. Dispensing with the rudder and rowing alone in a cockpit, Galloway began to enter rapids stem first, but at an angle. This allows the rower both to face hazards and to apply powerful strokes against or across the current. The result is the widely used Galloway Method.
Although talking technique helps restore my confidence, Hell’s Half Mile roars just downstream where our main task is to avoid boulders. Higher flows reduce this technical problem but also increase the speed of the current. Before the dam shackled it, the Green thundered down this millrace like a tidal bore. One of Powell’s “ten who dared” describes the fate of one boat:
The stream was so swift that it caused great rolling waves in the center, of a kind I have never seen anywhere else. The boys were not skillful enough to navigate this stream, and the suction drew them to the center, where the great waves rolled them over and over, bottom side up and every way.
While it’s intellectually interesting to know that a large river rolls boulders from its channel, right now it’s not reassuring to learn that river waves, unlike those in open water, tend to suck a boat toward them, right into the madness.
Hell’s Half Mile is a blur of speed and spray. We watch [p.155] how Matt sets up, estimating that he’s poised three boat-widths from a marker rock. After Matt’s boat rides the crests and troughs, we plunge into the chute. Smack! Our bow thrusts skyward, and Barbara seems airborne right above me. Another wave comes piling in like a whale’s tail slapping a longboat. Nothing exists but waves and rocks. Barbara heaves her weight against the front tube to drive us through a rooster tail wave; she’s a natural at punching tubes. From here on the trick will be to decide early enough which way to dodge rocks and then to dig deep strokes so as not to fun air on the crests of waves. Timing is crucial: miss a stroke and the river can gobble you up. This is all river on the river’s terms.
We emerge soaked but right side up, glad that the toughest rapids are now behind us. Matt pulls off at Ripping Brook in the deepest part of the Canyon of Lodore, 3,400 feet below the highest rim. Up there, atop the older, harder Uinta Mountain quartzite, lies a bed of pink-and-tan Lodore sandstone hundreds of feet thick. An exceptional sandstone, it contains fossils of trilobites, brachiopods, and other early marine invertebrates. Though most sandstones reveal few fossils, there are grand exceptions—most notably the sandstone strata in the Morrison formation here in the Monument. In this world-class fossil quarry, paleontologists have unearthed a massive boneyard where a Jurassic-era river dropped dinosaur bodies onto a sandbar.
The four of us picnic under a giant ponderosa pine, its bleached trunk stained russet-and-amber. Though gusts sweep its upper branches, sounding like ocean surf, they scarcely ruffle a feather here at river level. Water ouzels—or American dippers—dive deep underwater in search of fish or insect larvae. By beating their wings with great strength, ouzels can hunt on river bottoms where currents are too [p.156] strong for a human to stand. And by exploiting scales that close their nostrils, plus third eyelids that seal against sediments, they can even hunt in rapids. One by one the dippers surface and bob on a rock, possibly to signal each other above the roar that would drown out an auditory call.
Douglas firs creep down the canyon wall and tuck themselves into the ledges. By sinking their roots into crevices, these lovely trees can grow from the rock. Just beneath their dense, compact crowns hang the characteristic cones with three-forked tongues, and farther down the sweeping boughs droop long, slender twigs adorned with a spiral of needles. As these trailing pennants wave frond-like in the breeze, they reveal reddish-brown, scaly bark that contrasts with their bluish-green foliage. Since this, the Rocky Mountain variety, is more resistant to drought than the coastal Douglas fir, its lighter color represents an adaptation to conserve moisture by absorbing less heat.
When upcanyon winds blow harder, we make little headway on the river. In fact, we row past a rock only to find ourselves blown back into it. “Dodging the same damn rock twice is … ,” I mutter. My mouth hangs open, mid-word.
Three bighorn sheep stare at us from the willows, a ram and two ewes. The full-curl ram snorts and rises, nostrils flaring, his horn three inches thick at the base and his yellow eyes bulging so he can see in many directions. We drift still closer, but the bighorns don’t run off. Finally all three spring up to a higher point to watch us; they can see sharply for up to five miles. Bighorns reintroduced into the Canyon of Lodore in the 1950s are now well established, though they remain a rare sight in most of the West.
Prior to the coming of Euro-Americans, a remarkable variety of wildlife inhabited this area. No less than five ungu-[p.157]lates—deer, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, and moose—suggest the original complexity of this ecosystem. But with the introduction of livestock during the nineteenth century, indigenous predators also fell victim to the white man’s deadly traps and guns. The Department of Agriculture’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) agency, for instance, trails a bloody history. According to Lynn Jacobs in The Waste of the West, “Since 1915, the federal government alone has reported killing roughly a million bobcats and lynx, primarily for stockmen.” Large packs of wolves still roamed Browns Park until the turn of the century, though professional exterminators had nearly wiped them out by 1906. Grizzlies, of course, are gone entirely. To extend Thoreau’s image, these missing species represent pages ripped from nature’s book, one we read with sorrow. To know natural history is to feel what we’ve lost.
Today we might expect that federal agencies would move predators from areas where they conflict with human interests and then release them where they could help restore damaged ecosystems. However, in many places the Fed still wages war on wildlife: in 1988 alone it poisoned, trapped, or gunned down 76,000 coyotes, 300 bears, and 200 mountain lions. Lacing carcasses with poison is still common practice even though it destroys non-targeted animals, including our national bird. In 1993, in a sly move that would have amused George Orwell, the ADC changed its name to “Animal Services.” One wonders what services the program delivers besides death.
Beneath the two-thousand-foot Tiger Cliff the headwind builds in Echo Park. Where manganese oxide streaks this smooth expanse of Weber sandstone, its black-and-blond stripes gleam in the brilliant sunshine. From an alcove under this stupendous wall, Matt’s bellows echo through an enclo-[p.158]sure of several square miles. Downstream looms Steamboat Rock, a huge trapezoidal monolith dominating the confluence of the Yampa with the Green. The flood-happy Yampa remains the last free-flowing major tributary in the Colorado River basin.
Like the obsession with predators, our fondness for dams reflects a control-and-subdue mentality. Just below here, at the head of Whirlpool Canyon, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a seven-hundred-foot dam that would have backed up both the Green and the Yampa rivers. In one of the great conservation battles of the century, David Brower of the Sierra Club led the fight to stop this project, aided by writers such as Wallace Stegner. National Geographic sponsored river trips and ran articles challenging the dam-builders’ contention that Echo Park was “inaccessible” without the dam.
Most importantly, in 1938 a proclamation had enlarged Dinosaur National Monument to include the canyons of the Yampa and the Green. This enlargement, as historian Roy Webb observes, enabled “the inviolability of the national parks” to become a central issue in the long controversy. Conservationists finally prevailed in Dinosaur, but they also made a tragic compromise: they consented to the even more destructive dam that flooded two hundred miles of Glen Canyon. As a result, one of the gems of the Southwest now lies submerged beneath Lake Powell, lost forever.
We push off for Jones Hole campground, seven miles downstream. Whirlpool Canyon offers some of the most colorful geology in the West, a gorge where many layers, each painted in pastel earth tones, are convoluted in astounding ways. The current picks up, amplified by colder, grayer water from the Yampa, but the upcanyon gusts prevail. Barbara hunches down to reduce wind resistance. Leaning bodily [p.159] into strokes, I groan. To ignore the pain, I concentrate first on how my oars enter the water, then on how deep they penetrate before they surface again. Calves against the thwart, I lean into deep, slow strokes with my whole being. This is one of the most spectacular stretches of river anywhere, but I’m laboring too hard to look at it.
While Barbara takes the oars, I lean back on wobbly elbows to gaze at the incredibly uplifted, fractured, and bent sedimentary rock. On one side of Whirlpool Canyon, the Mitten Park fault rises; on the other, the Island Park fault stands different layers on end to fashion vertical stripes. Here the familiar Navajo sandstone of the Colorado Plateau is bent and contorted yet its colors look almost as surreal as the Painted Desert.
Where mosses choke a discolored creek, Jones Hole seems unpromising at first. The human impact is apparent but tonight, amazingly enough, we have three whole campgrounds to ourselves. As our fire crackles and roars, primitive urges make me yearn to blow the flute or spin like a dervish. Instead we sit, all too civilized, and cast long shadows.
The cold and the early darkness, however, do motivate us to do something with spiritual possibilities. Soon the fire dies down to expose the stream-rounded rocks glowing red hot among the coals. Using a canvas, six oars, and rocks from the creek, together we fashion a “tipi” sweat lodge. The hot rocks hiss with steam. We undress quickly, crawl through the flap that serves as a door, and sit around the rocks, heads hanging loose. Before the pearls of sweat can melt, the heat drives us into the chill, cleansed and enlivened. Afterward, though, I feel a vague disappointment at not having had a more transcendent experience. But my spirits have been lifted, which is perhaps all I can expect given the limits of my [p.160] cultural background.
At the trail register the next morning, Barbara checks entries left by other visitors. She chuckles at what someone has scrawled: “Name: ‘E. Abbey’; Destination: ‘Glen Canyon Dam’: Nature of Visit: ‘Pyrotechnical Research; Remarks: ‘Hayduke Lives.’” Much-needed comic relief. After the magnificent palette of colors we’ve seen on the river, the cliffs along Jones Hole Creek seem drab under these leaden skies. Behind us, the canyon wall across the river remains in the shade, still blotched with snow. All seems wintry except for a few songbirds chirping in the brush. Where are the signs of spring?
Before long, though, the world greens and Jones Hole becomes a plant paradise. Easter daisies find their niche on sunny, rocky benches where their early blooms spring from a mat of leaves. Yellow nuttall violets, their leaves mottled a greenish gray, bloom on the sunny side of a rock. Nourished by freshets, watercress and monkeyflowers trim the creek. Their roots protruding from the bank, river birches send up dozens of finger-sized shoots that snare leaves, mosses, and other debris. These stems bend with the flow, for birches are pliable. Unlike the seeds of most birches, however, those of this river variety sprout on the fresh silt deposits as the spring torrents recede. Evolution selects for the germination time and place best suited to the habitat.
The sun blazes through as a brown trout streaks into a bubble-filled pool. Fresh from hibernation, a mourning cloak butterfly suns its cream-and-chocolate wings.
On the other bank it’s “Just-spring,” or “mudluscious,” as e. e. cummings called this time of year. Protected from freezing along the stream, mosses glisten a vibrant spring green. Rivulets course everywhere to flatten grasses like [p.161] windblown hair. Frog eggs bubble in raccoon prints, and box elder fruits sprout their chartreuse seed leaves. Flattened thistles are spreading, and round-leaved burdocks are pushing aside the mud. In fact, great clusters of burrs grasp my cuffs. Around my boots, thousands of black-and-orange box elder beetles crawl sluggishly on the matted leaves, ready to feast on the new growth.
The pictographs in Jones Hole are equally sensational. Here pictographs left by the Fremont Indians seem untouched by the centuries. Toward the middle of the panel, in pale yellow, stands an unusual figure that resembles a New Mexico cross sprouting feathers or horns. The headdresses or horns on several little men suggest animal antlers. Many archaeologists believe that headdresses or horns signify shamen or deities.
Further along appear three more humanoids—probably gods—with shield-like torsos that are again topped with feathered headdresses. While trapezoidal torsos and earrings characterize Fremont culture, the hair bundles evoke the Anasazi style. Both Anasazi kokopelli, or hunchback flute players, and their kolowisi, or horned serpents, appear throughout the Uinta Basin in the heart of Fremont territory. Wandering Anasazi traders may have ventured north, bringing artistic motifs.
“God, a bighorn,” Barbara whispers. I fumble for the binoculars, and soon we count nine. Two rams dominate the top of a huge boulder, while one nudges the other’s rump with his nose. Their massively based but gracefully spiraled horns indicate that they’re at least ten years old. These older males appear to guard the herd, yet they remain the farthest from danger. A ewe leads two lambs toward us, followed by the herd. The lead ewe stretches to see over a rock, sniffing [p.162] the air and snorting softly. She stares at us, slips behind the rock, then steps still closer, watching through an amber eye with a slit down the center. This ewe and her young are the point animals and the old rams are posturing, not protecting.
The ewe half bellows, half bleats. She appears above us, then stops leading the herd. She cries out again. Apparently we are crouching near the chute where the herd descends to the stream. While many bighorns don’t drink every day, pregnant or lactating ewes need water daily. We move down-canyon to watch. The ewe descends a bit but no farther. It’s time to leave the bighorns’ canyon home.
As usual, supper is hearty fare from the dutch oven, a down-home meat-and-potatoes meal that evokes traditional Western ways and does not interfere with our purpose of experiencing the river and the earth. Around his small fire Matt recounts memorable questions posed by people on his raft trips: “Do we take out where we put in?” and “What time of year do deer become elk?” After we all howl, Barb adds another classic she heard at Mesa Verde: “It’s a great park, but why’d they build it so far from the highway?” Well, at least these visitors asked questions. Too many don’t even do that.
Come sunrise, Matt is already clanking his fire-blackened oven. Today we’ll run about fourteen miles of mild whitewater and see some truly spectacular riverscapes. In the day and a half we’ve spent at Jones Hole, the river has come up a foot, which means it’ll give us a faster ride. We all bundle up to face the frigid spray. No sooner are we in the current than we’re suddenly heading into a two-hundred-foot-wide rapid I’d have liked to scout. Though we skirt the boulders, a few four-foot brown curlers do spill over the tube. Teeth chattering as she bails, Barbara complains that we’re hitting all the [p.163] biggest waves. I’m secretly glad for any whitewater that, by counteracting the sharp upcanyon wind, reduces the interminable rowing. I’ve already faced my trial by wind and water.
In Island Park, where the walls recede and the Green finds space to meander, welcome sunbeams warm the air. As we round a bend, we spot a raft that, since we’ve seen so few on this trip, we assume is Matt’s and Barb’s. After I row a quarter-mile across the river, Barbara reaches for the bow line. Then she whispers, “That’s not them!” How wonderful to enjoy so much solitude that we end up confusing any other figures with our trip mates.
To save face, Barbara subtly replaces the line as I hail two men who are pulling on yellow waders. One of these park biologists explains that they’re catching and banding rare humpback chubs and razorback suckers, for which these waters provide crucial habitat. Although they’re well designed for stability in strong currents, humpbacks disappeared from the Canyon of Lodore when Flaming Gorge Reservoir began to alter flows and lower temperatures. By contrast, the razorback suckers are bottom feeders that require warm flowing water and thus have also declined.
For thousands of years the rivers of the Colorado Basin have flowed cold and cloudy in the spring and warm and clear in the fall. Over these millennia native fish have adapted to the natural rhythms, but dams that change flow patterns and water temperatures have turned specific adaptations into fatal liabilities. Nearly a third of North America’s native fishes once swam the rivers of the arid West. Today they’re dwindling toward extinction.
It’s distressing to recall that the Green River was once a notable fishery. In Powell’s time, for instance, “white salmon” (really Colorado River squawfish) growing up to six feet and [p.164] eighty pounds were common; today squawfish are extinct in the lower Colorado Basin and endangered here in the upper. Since they often die before they reproduce, they now grow to only half their former size. Though dams continue to interfere with their spawning, Flaming Gorge Dam has begun both regulating its releases to better replicate natural flow rhythms and also drawing from the surface of the reservoir, where temperatures run closer to natural conditions.
Soon we enter Rainbow Park, where the colors impressed Major Powell. Here limestones of the Park City Formation top off the blond Weber sandstones, resulting in vivid contrasts. Ravens croak and glide in a lush amphitheater. A blue blur shoots by my head, leaving a squawk. It’s a belted kingfisher, and since shallows that offer good fishing are rare, these feisty fishermen are well known for defending their territories.
A mile downriver black-and-buff-winged peregrine falcons plummet from cliffs. One pulls out of its dive just over our heads, sounding as though we’ve just missed decapitation with a samurai sword. Whereas a hawk’s wings extend straight out from its body, a falcon’s wings sweep back for speed. Clocked at nearly two hundred miles per hour in a dive, peregrines are the fastest fliers anywhere: even swifts must stay wary. Though at full speed swifts can outmaneuver them, peregrines learn to dive by and then grab one on the upwing.
The peregrine falcon is faring well in these parts. With its inaccessible cliffs, the park provides prime falcon habitat. In fact, falcon eyries here in Dinosaur provide eggs for hatching boxes in—of all places—big cities. From nests on the tops of skyscrapers, peregrines dive toward the street to grab pigeons. Though some of their precious eggs have rolled off window-[p.165]sills, these urban raptors definitely put on a spectacular show to increase public interest in watchable wildlife.
Below Rainbow Park, the Green River enters a five-mile chute as it races though Split Mountain on a steep gradient of twenty feet per mile, the steepest in Dinosaur. (By contrast, the Mississippi meanders on a gradient of only four inches a mile.) As far back as 1776, early explorers Dominguez and Escalante marveled at how the Green emerged from a “split mountain.” Today we understand the effects of faulting that allow a river to slice a mountain in half. With tilted and twisted cliffs, many of them dotted with evergreens, this is a spectacular gorge but its whitewater demands our attention. We buck the waves but skirt the whitecaps to avoid increased seepage in our boots. As its current slows, the Green passes between the tilted sandstone that marks the exit from the gorge, then crosses the “racetrack” of raised rock that rings the south side Split Mountain. Amazing country.
I long for more of the river, but my feet scream for dry socks. In addition to my mentor, the wind and the rapids have taught me a lot; I now feel more ready to undertake big water on my own. This trip has involved risks, and I’ve made some mistakes, but the river gods have blessed us. We were fortunate to retrieve that oar in Disaster Falls, lucky to boat in the sun and not in the snow, and privileged to have a memorable stretch of river all to ourselves.
Plants of Life
[p.166]Its foot gently probing a raindrop, a black beetle with orange legs explores the creamy flowers of a tall yucca. A red ant attracted to the nectar follows the beetle inside. Inches away, smaller brown ants speckle the immature seed pods. A lizard lurks under the yucca’s leaves, awaiting the ants. So much desert life centers on yuccas and agaves.
In The Voice of the Desert, Joseph Wood Krutch describes the complete interdependence between the yucca plant and the pronuba moth. Nothing else can fertilize the yucca, nor can the moth’s larvae feed on anything besides its maturing seeds. In fact, this symbiotic relationship is so close that when new species of yuccas evolved, so did new species of pronubas.
As Krutch tells the story, the female moth rests quietly in the half-opened blossoms on her conjugal night:
While the male, who has already done his duty, flutters uselessly about, she collects from the anthers a ball of the pollen which is surrounded by a sticky gum to prevent its accidental dispersal. After she has collected under her chin a mass somewhat larger than her head, she climbs the pistil of a different flower and into it she inserts her egg tube…and injects several eggs. However, she “knows” that if she left it at that, her larva would have nothing to feed on. Accordingly, she mounts the rest of the way up the pistil, deposits the pollen ball on the stigma, and moves her head back and forth to rub the pollen well in.
During her visit the female moth consumes neither nectar nor pollen. Her purpose is simply to generate food for her [p.167] larvae. In doing this she pollinates the flowers of her food plant. How does she know to lay only a few eggs, so that her larvae will consume only some of the seeds to insure the reproduction of the moth’s food plant? Just how did such complex instinctual behavior evolve? I wish I knew.
The agaves, the larger, less-frost-resistant relatives of the yuccas, provide similar habitats for desert life. The agave beetle and the ladder-backed or agave woodpecker, for instance, inhabit this micro environment. After many years spent growing a rosette of huge, succulent leaves, the century plant (Agave Americana) shoots up a flower stalk like a giant spear of asparagus. This stalk thrusts up as fast as a foot a day, often reaching fifteen feet, then shoots out candelabra-like branches that burst into waxy golden blooms. These flowers get pollinated by nectar-loving insects, by hummingbirds, and even by long-nosed bats that migrate north when large cacti and agaves flower. After she pollinates the plant, the agave beetle lays eggs in the flower stalk where again the larvae consume most—but not all—of the growing seeds. Agave woodpeckers feed on these larvae, controlling their numbers to insure enough seeds for propagation. Although the number of species is small, desert life involves an intricate web of relationships.
Whereas yuccas bloom several times, agaves die after their initial outburst. Most of the water needed to erect the tall stalk comes from the fleshy leaves. Plants begin to die of dehydration once they begin to bolt. Like leaves on trees, the blades often turn lovely colors as they wither. After the plant dies, the stalk often serves as a nest for the woodpeckers.
Nor have humans remained apart from this complex mesh of life. Yuccas and agaves were essential to prehistoric Indians of the Southwest. In fact, roasting pits are a common [p.168] feature of archaeological sites dating back almost to the last ice age. The Anasazi made extensive use of these plants for mats, sandals, baskets, thread, and cloth. Some tribes concocted a soup from yucca fruits, while others made soap from agave leaves. The Hohokam of Arizona grew agaves for food and fiber, while the Mescalero Apaches of New Mexico traded in mescal, which is Spanish for agave. The Havasupais, Paiutes, and other Indians roast agave stalks in stone-lined pits of coals.
Though sometimes cursed by careless walkers as “Spanish daggers” or “bayonets,” yuccas and agaves are hardly hostile. Their leaves are best seen as perfectly adapted to protecting the plant, to preserving moisture, and to reflecting excess light that would otherwise cook these remarkable desert dwellers. To the observant eye, yuccas and agaves serve as hospitable centers for insect, bird, mammal, and human survival.