by Paul W. Rea
Big Water on the Green
Floating the rivers takes you through the land, not merely
over its surface. Entering a canyon is akin to entering the
living body of the earth, floating with its lifeblood through
the arteries of veins and rock, turning your perceptions to
the slow pulse of the land, single beats of river current
marking the steady rhythmic changes geologic.
—Stephen Trimble, The Bright Edge
[p.189]“Just the two of you goin’ down?” asks the kayaker. Funny he should inquire, for this is our first run without another boat. Once into the flow, we’ll do the full eighty-four miles. If we flip our boat, break a leg, come down sick, or get stuck on a mudbank, we can’t expect much help, though we won’t decline any offers.
With the spring runoff cresting, the Green River is roll-[p.190]ing along at a hefty eleven thousand cubic feet a second. Running a river of this size promises freedom but also entails giving up control. Big river, small boat. It’s not surprising, then, that Barbara and I appreciate the camaraderie that enlivens the launch at Sand Wash. When our heavily loaded boat sticks in the muck, other rafters grunt and heave until it breaks free. I stroke into the flow, kicking water jugs from underfoot. Gusts from downstream sparkle on the otherwise glassy surface as the river heads for one of the West’s great wildernesses—Desolation and Gray canyons.
Before long the rocks become impressive. On the left loom “The Wrinkles,” jagged bluffs that rim Nutters Hole, a colossal amphitheater extending fully two miles across. The “Gothic Cathedral,” named for the buttresses that section these cliffs, appears around the bend. These Book Cliffs will rise as the river penetrates a mountain range where, over geologic time, the Uinta Basin has risen while the river has eroded down its entrenched channel.
On the right, a clump of cottonwoods and tamarisk marks the mouth of Nine Mile Canyon, once a center for the Fremont Indian Culture. It’s ironic that a native people would bear the name of the Euro-American explorer who arrived more than five centuries after they left. That aside, the rock art is outstanding up this canyon, a place the BLM calls “the longest art gallery in the world.” Since the majority of the art depicts game animals, we might infer that this oasis served as a prime hunting ground for the Fremont people. The remarkable verdancy of Nine Mile Canyon also supported beaver, for as early as 1822 it had become a primary trapping area for the first white men to paddle the Green River.
This greenery also led early cattleman Preston Nutter, [p.191] who ranged massive herds from Colorado to Arizona, to establish his main ranch here. Later, in a move than would foreshadow Western history, Nutter began to control vast areas by holding the grazing permits to public lands. Besides all the cows, Butch Cassidy, “Gun Play” Maxwell, and other outlaws roamed Nutter’s spread. Since outlaws were usually cowboys by trade, between robberies they often resorted to rustling. Rather than see his cattle stolen, Nutter shrewdly hired outlaws as cowhands.
The grayish-tan cliffs of Summers Amphitheater, named for Jack Summer of Powell’s first expedition, resemble the semi-circular colonnade of St. Peter’s square but on a grander scale. Here in Desolation Canyon the rocks become Wasatch limestones and shales, the same strata that, tinted with pastel pigments, outcrop so splendidly at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks in southern Utah. Because the strata tilt north and the river cuts down as it runs south, we’re moving back in geologic time at the rate of about a million years a mile.
An intermittent drone announces giant motorized rafts, each towing smaller boats loaded with five people apiece.
“Man, that outfitter is really packin’ ‘em in,” Barbara remarks.
“Yeah, must be fun to listen to a motor and inhale fumes for a couple days.” When this flotilla stops, it dumps thirty visitors onto a small beach where many stand in one another’s footprints.
Around the bend is an alluring beach under a clump of box elders. This site offers logs for lounging, a weathered plywood table, and, above all, plenty of full shade. Heads cocked to look us over, brown lizards hang from the undersides of the branches. Barbara ties us to a tamarisk bush sporting its full lavender plumage. Marsh grasses waver, bil-[p.192]lowed by the afternoon gusts. Red-winged blackbirds shoot back and forth along the river’s edge before landing atop swaying willows. The females, streaked in browns, are camouflaged for sitting on a nest in the reeds, while the males flaunt their red epaulets in territorial displays. Enchanted by the flow of the river and the play of the light, we sit in rapt silence. When I sigh that we’d better unpack, Barbara looks shocked.
“We can’t camp here—it’s illegal anywhere near Rock Creek,” she protests.
“But this isn’t a creek; it’s a dry wash.”
“Don’t quibble over semantics.”
“Do we really want to search for another campsite? It’s hot, I’m tired, and we’re both already looking like broiled lobsters. “
“Look, Paul, rules are made for reasons.”
“Yeah, usually. The reason is to protect high-use areas, right? I guarantee that we won’t degrade this campsite.”
“Let’s flip a coin, then.”
“Don’t be silly.”
Paging though the Desolation River Guide, Barbara discovers that Rock Creek enters almost thirty miles downstream. This is Rock House Bottom.
We explore the huge slab that created this rock “house,” or shelter. Heat still glares from the broken rock. The petroglyphs nearby are even more interesting: squiggly lines leading to the eye of a needle; elk, bear, and bighorn rams, one with an arrow in front of his nose; and two dynamic figures facing each other as they duel or dance.
Toward twilight the Green once again delivers its charms. We linger in river chairs watching the orange-and-lavender [p.193] light tint the grayish cliffs. Like bony fingers raised in protest, aged junipers reach skyward atop the windswept cliffs. Underfoot, the sand is warm and soft. After being encased for too long, my bare feet revel in their nakedness. At dusk the Rocky Mountain toads begin to hop about, their chins blasting through the parched grass. I inch my feet forward, wanting to watch but not to squash any toads.
As darkness falls, a nighthawk cries as it hunts for insects. Large bats swoop right under the low-hanging boughs just above our heads. Smaller pipistrelle bats with fat bodies and stubby wings flutter just above the grass. The cool moist air draws pipistrelles, for they can’t afford to lose much moisture to perspiration. With fur as blond as a marmot and as soft as lamb’s wool, pipistrelles hardly fit the stereotype of vampirism. In fact, they don’t grab bugs with their teeth at all but instead catch them in a pouch located behind their wings. Maligued by stories of sucking blood or tangling in human hair, bats have been victims of speciesism—the habit of ranking one creature over another.
The next morning a loud, scolding squawk awakens us. When I stumble out for a look, the bird disappears. Probably a chat. These yellow-bellied tricksters can be secretive, I’ve found. But when I peer into a bush, I do get to see this evasive bird. She’s a chat, all right, and she’s sitting on her nest. However, her alarm call resembles a cluck, not a wolf whistle. For many river miles I’ve mistakenly thought that these birds were rebuking me with their sharp calls. You can’t take strange birds too personally.
Exposed by a drop in the water level, our raft sits stranded on a mud flat. As the river receded, a family of field mice has nested under the boat. When I lift it, they scatter, running and swimming madly along the waterline. How will these mice [p.194] ever find their way back together?
Four American avocets, their skinny bills curved upward for underwater probing, dredge the shallows for small crustaceans. The two younger birds flaunt cinnamon feathers on their necks, while the two adults are crisply black and white. These avocets are feeding on ideal backwater habitat—shallows with unobstructed views for optimal protection against predators. Should a sparrow hawk make a move, the avocets are ready: while one screams the alarm, others gang up on the intruder to drive it away. Running north and south as it does, the Green provides an essential flyway for many migratory birds.
With Barbara at the oars, I ease myself over the tube, reluctant to face the shock to my torso. Riffles lap against my chin, and my hands become invisible just below the surface. As it bobs on its way, a well-chewed, barkless piece of beaver wood becomes my companion. When Barbara leans into her strokes, we come together. Arms rubbery, I flounder aboard, reconnected to the river through ritual immersion.
Before long the river begins to run faster. Between the Sand Wash and here a Jack Creek, the Green has been dropping only a foot a mile. From here to its emergence from Gray Canyon, however, it will drop six feet a mile. According to the river guidebook, the rapids are predictably situated where side canyons dump broken rock that narrows the channel and further increases the speed of the current. The actual hazards are less predictable though, since they change with each flash flood that dumps debris. In a river this large the main hazards are boulders or cottonwood stumps; the current rolls the smaller stuff out of the way. Underwater, often disguised by chop and froth, giant boulders raise slightly elevated pillows. Behind them, often unseen, lurk the sunken [p.195] holes so dreaded by boaters like us.
As the river roughens, Barbara want me back in the rower’s seat. In this first whitewater we sharpen our eyes and reestablish our commands from spotter to rower. Though, like many couples, we share our own slang, we don’t talk river lingo every day. Then I face a real problem. I’ve made the mistake of rubbing sunblock on my brow where sweat has caused it to run into my eye: the sting is so intense that I can barely function at the helm. Steer Ridge Rapid, our first big challenge, lies somewhere ahead, though we don’t know just how far. The maps show five islands two miles above Steer, but what constitutes an established island and what’s a new sandbar.
My world soon becomes a watery blur. We’re getting swept, semi-blind, toward Steer Rapid—we’ve got to find a haven. But rapids are coming with increasing frequency and we can’t pull off in a rapid. Barbara spots a clump of trees. I pull hard but the current sweeps us by the landing. My eye is stinging worse, but Barbara can’t take over here. She scours the banks as far downstream as she can see, but spots no landings. I don’t dare drop the oars long enough to rinse my eye.
Finally Barbara located a cobbled shoal: the oars skid on the stones. She jumps out, rope in hand, and plows through the current while I writhe and grope for a canteen. As I stagger ashore, Barbara sits me down, tilts my head back, and floods my eye. Within a long minute the stinging finally begins to subside.
We’re looking for a site with both shade and a flat place to sleep. One cottonwood looks promising, but bleached twigs bristle on the ground beneath it. Another area looks grassy but proves to be a willow thicket. Sand verbena and [p.196] sweet alyssum whitens the buff-colored sand. I scramble up a bank, but here the trees are too small to offer shade, and cactus bristle from the ground. A hundred meters down-stream Barbara’s found a diseased, broken-down old cottonwood that yields some shade. This is nothing like our first site, but it’ll get us through the night.
In dying, this decrepit cottonwood becomes a tree of life. Two shiny, mustard-colored Goldsmith beetles are locked together, legs hooked to roll themselves up in leaves. As I sit cooking, giant red ants head up and down the stained, furrowed bark of a huge fallen limb, its blanched wood veined by borer beetles. Toward dusk a bizarre-looking dobsonfly flutters awkwardly from one limb to another before falling to the sand. This poor guy’s wings are broken so he drags himself pathetically along. Male dobsonflies exhibit large, crossed jaws that look fierce but serve only to hold the female during mating.
The river roars by, picking up speed. I check the knots on both ends of our mooring rope before crawling into our bag. When you’ve only got one boat, you can’t risk a breakaway.
Our third day begins with a serious tie-down of everything: the waterproof bags, the canteens and water jugs, even the tarp covering our gear in the back. Anticipation rising in our throats, we pull in to scout Steer Ridge Rapid. This is the one that capsized Major Powell’s boat, the Emma Dean. After glassing the rapid, we plan a way through the turbulence. The problem with scouting, whether from the bank or from the “pond” above a rapid, is that it gives you a distant picture that may not reflect the hydraulics, the dynamic reality of the river.
We enter the huge tongue and shoot right into the roughening waves. One breaker slaps Barbara in the face; [p.197] another pours over the side, leaving two inches of water as the river slows. Unsettled, I look back to see nothing but frothing chocolate milk—no telltale rises that signify submerged rocks or smooth places that mark a hole. A straight shot that proved easier than it looked.
But this is no place to get caught looking back. Before we can bail, or even wipe off our sunglasses, we’re daunted by another guttural roar. Around the corner looms the well-named Surprise Rapid. It’s too late to scout it, so I backpaddle to buy time for a look. Only airborne globules of froth are visible beneath the curvature. So far as we can see, no obstructions mine the main channel—only large freestanding waves, well spaced in a row. Looks good from here.
We plunge straight into this turbulence. Oddly, though, these are not typical stationary river waves—they chop and hit from all sides. A curved wall tosses our bow skyward. After Barbara punches the front tube, I see her rise above me, fists gripping the rope. As the bow plunges into the trough, we’re both engulfed by spray. In a twelve-and-a-half-foot boat, five-foot curlers give you a rollicking good ride. But soon enough the rapids subside as we float down to a spot we’re longing to explore.
Rock Creek Ranch is both idyllic and remote. Its setting is spectacular, for here Desolation Canyon is as deep though not as steep walled, as Grand Canyon at Phantom Ranch. The Tavaputs Plateau—really rounded, conifer-covered mountains—rises more than five thousand feet above the river. The tree sandstone buildings are the first signs of human settlement that we’ve seen in two days and forty-two river miles. The Seamounton brothers, who settled this ranch around the turn of the century, had to pack in everything on fifty miles of rough trails. Nothing arrived by boat because, [p.198] not surprisingly, this stretch of river was considered virtually unnavigable. What were the payoffs for all the extra effort required to ranch here? Perhaps the old forge speaks of a frontier desire, no doubt heightened by remoteness, to become as independent as possible. Perhaps, too, the Seamountons were living out the Western myth of creating a personal paradise in a place offering profound isolation.
The cut sandstone buildings are reliquaries from the past. A shed built with hand-squared timbers still houses roughhewn furniture, while all around languish old wagons, plows, harrows, and other implements. Beside a ditch once used to irrigate, mulberry trees still bear luscious fruit. Hands and lips stained purple, Barbara and I saunter through the prickly cheatgrass whose tan expanses resemble a river backwater.
An import from the Steppes of Eurasia, cheatgrass spread rapidly in the West with the advent of massive grazing in the late 1800s. Although ranchers initially welcomed this hardy invader because its young leaves made good winter feed, they soon found that, overall, it offers forage far inferior to the native grasses it replaced—and that its barbed seeds stick in the mouths, ears, and feet of livestock.
After a quarter mile we pass the old corrals and head up Rock Creek. Rainbow trout flash as songbirds feather the air. Western kingbirds are nesting in a dead cottonwood where the male is flapping his wings just above his mate. With fresh beef, fruit, and milk, plus fish, birds and game galore, this must have been a fabulous place to live.
On the river we encounter a spirited group from Salt Lake as they’re lunching on a delectable spread of croissants, cold turkey, and beer. We chew our carrots while someone tells a story about the exotic pools near the San Juan River. One guy figured that rafters must lose their sunglasses in these [p.199] pools, so he dived for sunken treasure. While he wasn’t looking, somebody tossed in the diver’s own expensive shades. When he “discovered” his own pair, he surfaced ecstatically, thrusting them high in triumph. We all howl, including the guy who got fooled.
At Chandler Canyon large cottonwoods line the clear stream, sagebrush grays the alluvial flats, junipers beard the base of the cliffs, and conifers climb the higher slopes. This area offers inscriptions by the early French trapper D. Julien and an amazing Fremont Indian hideout. A hundred yards up Chandler Canyon, just above the chimney of an early cabin, the Fremont site sits among jagged slabs that have fallen, leaving hollow space and opening in different directions. This shelter may have served as a secret observation post, since one can see both up and down canyon. The Indians might have intended these slits for shooting arrows or for escaping out the back. Once accustomed to the dim light, I stare at an oval mud-and-stone granary designed to provide food for people who took secret shelter here. My finger presses into a print left in the once-soft clay to make a hand-to-hand connection, a gesture of shared humanity.
This hideout must have offered as secure a place as any. Its only secrecy problem might have been that its location could have given it away. It’s situated at the injunction of canyons with streams, which is right where enemies would have looked for rock art. On this stretch of river, petroglyphs appear at the junctions of the Green with Rock House Wash, Jack Creek, Florence Creek, and elsewhere, which suggests that they may have served as signposts, territorial markings, or bulletin boards.
We’ve no sooner settled down at the campsite than three red rafts come heading our way. Disembarking from his [p.200] flagship, a beer-bellied guide waddles into our camp to announce that his group has come all this way in just a day and a half.
“You’re really pushin,’” Barbara comments.
“Well, gotta be—I’m doing a commercial trip on a private permit, so I gotta get these customers through.” Rather than take his entourage around our campsite, he leads them right through it. I manage to nod weakly as the poor customers trudge by.
After supper we pick our way through the lush reeds and sedges along the bank. Kayakers are playing like dolphins in the whitewater, running Chandler Falls again and again.
Across the river, tight against a salmon-colored cutbank, young cottonwoods glow a phosphorescent chartreuse. Far above, at the head of the drainage, looms an arch spotted on Major Powell’s second expedition in 1871.
Orange rays extend as spokes into a royal blue sky, evoking the wheel of the fabled winged chariot crossing the sky. This image is obviously a carryover from a long-discarded world view, but so too is the concept of a “sunset.” Why don’t we say, “What a beautiful earthturn?” It’s instructive to consider the persistence of paradigms, however outdated, that still serve some human need. It’s a comfort to believe that the earth is the hub of the universe, or that we’re God’s special creation. While the scientifically minded may smile at such notions, today many of our most progressive minds question the established scientific paradigm as well.
As we launch early the next morning, a doe and her fawn stand among the willows, moving only their jaws while we skirt the bank. A pair of Canada geese with young are feeding among the reeds. Rather than fly off as they ordinarily do, the adults hunker down to water level as their goslings become [p.201] light brown flecks of flotsam. Moments later two other Canadas ride regally through the rapid, heads held high above the froth.
After Rock Creek, McPherson Ranch isn’t much. Founded in the 1880s, it too had irrigated fields and orchards, a hewn stone smithy, a red rock chicken coop, and the rest. Around the turn of the century, Jim McPherson extended his celebrated hospitality to Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who crossed the Green here on their way from Utah to Wyoming. McPherson remarked that he got along better with the outlaws than with the lawmen who chased them.
Disappointed by this stop, we’re eager to return to the river where Three Fords Rapid soon challenges our skill. As the roar gets louder I stand to scout, then backwater for a time, wavering back and forth, reading the water. Finally we descend a steep chute. Currents suck us straight toward a large boulder. Failing to catch as we crest a wave, my oars fan in the foam and the current sweeps us toward the outside wall. Avoiding it will require all the strength I can muster. My feet brace against the frame and my tailbone jams against the seat. Power strokes timed with the troughs finally pull us off the wall.
“Big rock,” yells Barbara. Instinctively I spin our stern 45 degrees to take advantage of the swift current around the slimy boulder. We clear it, and the treacherous hole behind it, by only a few feet.
Barbara whoops, then grabs the bail bucket. After all this agitation, the river boils and bubbles for another quarter mile, spilling sideways into the eddies along its banks. All exaltation aside, the fact is that we’ve been lucky. Our scouting, such as it was, didn’t reveal these hazards at all. Running rapids involves spotting snags well before they approach, setting up [p.202] to avoid them, and rowing furiously around the ones you didn’t see.
Next comes Coal Creek Rapid, the biggest water in Gray Canyon. This time we stop to scout, eying the mammoth boulder at the top and the impressive five-foot waves. A snake churns my insides. We’d better double check our knots and carabiners and wait for other boaters. Flipping is one thing, but watching your boat drift away is another.
Much to our relief, the Salt Lake gang appears. After debating who will run Coal Creek Rapid and who will line around it, the kayakers agree to hover in the eddy until we come through, one way or another. Supported by this safety net, we follow the confident kayakers as they disappear into the turbulence, slice though the big waves, and cut across the current. Their route doesn’t seem right for us, but it’s too late to set up another way.
Slapping us from both sides, the cross chop rips an oar from my grip. Unpredictable waves pitch the boat and thrust us into the air. There’s no point in trying to punch tubes or time strokes. Feet spread wide for balance, calves braced against the back tube, I stretch to see above the spray.
“Right, right!” yells Barbara. Dead ahead lurks a thunderous hole, ringed by whirling spray, that we couldn’t see from upstream. Steering is futile. The oars become matchsticks in a maelstrom. Though cross currents push us right toward the mound of water, we somehow miss the big rock. Then our luck runs out. Like a cork spun into a whirlpool, powerful currents suck us right into the huge hole behind it. A wall of water blasts me out of my seat, onto the baggage. Everything seems to stop. Then, in slow motion, a tube rises toward the sky and Barbara springs clear, free of the rope.
Brown bubbles. Like dark beer swirling in a stein, under-[p.203]currents spin me head over heals. No point in trying to swim: I don’t know which way is up. Finally my life jacket buoys me to the roiled surface where I suck in spray and choke. I rip off my sunglasses to look for Barbara. She bobs in the turbulence not far away. The Canyon Wren drifts downstream, upside-down.
“Swim for it,” I gasp, eyes riveted on the boat, lungs finally inhaling less water than air. The river becomes a wake of boils. We swim side by side, stroke for stroke to reach the black rubber, but Barbara’s hand slips off the tube. The flip lines and throw ropes are submerged, out of our reach. I grab an oar to pull myself in, then crawl up and onto the bottom. Then I extend a shaky arm to pull Barbara aboard. We sit like bedraggled royalty on a float as we approach the kayakers, who tow us toward the bank.
“You guys aren’t equipped to do rolls,” one jives.
Though this sounds like an excuse, there’s some truth to it. A kayak can not only handle more turbulence but can maneuver much better in a rapid. Once a heavily loaded raft has entered a rapid, the same enormous forces that clear the channel of rocks oppose a rower’s efforts to alter course. The river simply takes control. Still, we might have dodged that big hole if we’d seen it in time.
With six boaters giving a heave-ho together, our raft rights easily. Everything seems to have come through except for my “waterproof’ camera pouch. Everyone groans as the river dribbles out of my Nikon. Barbara takes her initiation well, but I feel unsteady, shaken. There’s no better way to experience the power of a river than to spin around in a hole, but it doesn’t feel like a dip in a pool.
Barbara takes the helm while I recover. Though an afternoon wind wrinkles the river, she finds her strokes and stays [p.204] on course. As we glide down river from Rattlesnake Rapid, I watch three red rafts pull off the river. Good. Then, panning downstream, I glass the banks for a likely campsite. Nothing but banks walled with tamarisk and gray cliffs with plants hanging below the lime line along a seep. Unseen chats whistle sharply. This stretch teems with plants and bugs and birds, but not with campsites.
We land on a beach just above Nefertiti Rapid. This site’s not pristine, but it’s spacious and clean even though a dirt road from Green River reaches this far. As we’re unloading, however, the red armada appears around the bend, pursuing us like the Furies. The beer-bellied guide asks whether his gang of thirteen can camp here too.
“Look,” I growl, “you had the site at Rattlesnake.” He and his customers move on.
Above our camp an old cottonwood quivers with life. A Bullock’s oriole weaves her basket, scolding any robins that come too near. She builds the nest alone, attaching long fibers, tugging through the cross fibers, and lining her basket with fuzz. The flamboyant male, his head striped like a Michigan football helmet, lands and exchanges liquid notes with his mate. His job is to give a chatter call if he spots intruders, or to flash his colors for a defensive display.
In a blur of olive and yellow, the female oriole swoops to grab a wasp from a thistle poppy. As she turns it in her mouth, its legs continue to grasp the air. She drops it on the hard sand, looks it over, pecks off a leg, and seizes it again, biting off its head. Several minutes later, after more chomping and turning, she finally swallows her prey and even picks up the severed leg. After the speed of her dive, her eating ritual seems very slow. The wasp was here one moment and gone the next, as any of us could be.
[p.205]Though we savor our last night on the river, it’s time to end our odyssey. Our hands are scabby, our legs scaly, and river mud cruds our hair. My thoughts creep toward such degenerate pleasures as a shower, an air-conditioned motel room, and a huge Greek salad with extra feta cheese. Once upon a time such yearnings would have led me to suggest some revelry around a fire, but I’m not in a party mood tonight. I’ve been humbled and need to contemplate my limitations.
The next morning finds me in a different emotional place, for I know that I’ll soon experience re-entry symptoms. After a short float the deep thud, thud, thud of speakers announces civilization at Green River Beach where two sunbathers blare rockabilly from their pickup. Their poodle yaps at us as we tear down our rig. We haul our gear over blistering sand and cram everything into our van, including deposits of river silt that we’ll carry for many miles.
This hauling is hard work that more boaters might have helped to share if we had traveled in a group. Yet this exertion also speaks to one of the great pluses to solo wilderness rafting: except for moments like these, there’s little conflict between what one wants and what one needs to do. On this trip we’ve balanced a high degree of freedom with a fair amount of safety, relying on fellow travelers to help us through the rougher sledding.
But this balance doesn’t come without a price. Though we’ve traversed a great wilderness, we’ve probably met too many fellow travelers to experience a full transformation into the natural world. By day three or four of real solitude, the senses attune and consciousness alters toward river, land, and sky; on this trip, such attunement has seemed more limited. In its root sense of freshening, re-creation best occurs away [p.206] from groups. If, as Wallace Stegner observed, wilderness is “the place where the individual makes contact with the universe,” then it’s important to minimize the background noise.
The Beavers of Escalante
Who would expect to find beavers in Sand Creek, a small tributary of the Escalante River within a complex of desert canyons? This clear perennial stream grows few trees, partly because it experiences frequent flash floods, and this desert bakes in the summer. Yet beaver dams and lodges dominate this narrow canyon.
The presence of beavers affirms both the micro-climates of the Colorado Plateau and the resourcefulness of these remarkable rodents. By felling trees, as well as by building dams, they become one of the few species besides humans to create their favored habitat. Nor are they the only ones to benefit. Standing trees killed by beavers offer nesting cavities for birds as well as food for insects, and dams made by beavers create habitat for many other species. Muskrats frequently live with beavers, feeding on their leftover twigs. And just below my boots, fish about fifteen inches long are fanning their tails to stir up silt from the bottom. Mouths flaring, they work together to clean and defend their eggs. Without beavers, fish this large couldn’t survive in a stream this small.
Beavers also show foresight in solving problems. If water flows increase, beavers build small jetties above their main dam to slow the current. If this does not stem the flow, they [p.207] open floodgates in their dams. When the floodwaters from Boulder Mountain roar down this narrow defile, though, these beavers have to rebuild their dams. In more open environments beavers also demonstrate foresight when they dig long canals to divert water into their ponds.
Smart as beavers are, they sometimes appear to jeopardize their own food supply. Since some trees near beaver ponds remain untouched, beavers obviously aren’t dropping trees as fast as they could. Yet they gnaw completely around many old cottonwoods, killing but not felling them. In doing this they miss most of the inner bark and all of the tender branches. Perhaps in the past they’ve gotten away with this because their favorite food trees—cottonwoods, aspens, and willows—generate new shoots from their roots.
But why would such a smart, successful animal as the beaver exhibit seemingly counterproductive behavior? One hypothesis is that beavers carry genetic baggage, or “evolutionary drag,” that’s now becoming a liability. In the past the tendency to chew large trees was advantageous because killing old trees made way for more-nourishing saplings which, when left to grow, assured reproduction of the trees. Both mammals and trees benefitted. Today, however, this same behavior could contribute to the demise of cottonwoods. Because most Western rivers are no longer allowed their natural spring flooding, most cottonwood seedlings can no longer locate enough moisture to survive. In addition, cows eat or trample young trees.
Over time, then, genetic inheritance may become dysfunctional or even self-destructive. As our human ancestors evolved among faster, stronger competitors, they probably derived some biological advantage from their aggression. But today, given the deadly technologies in our hands, these same [p.208] aggressive tendencies threaten our survival. While we’ve long crowed about our ability to reflect on ourselves, now we can apply this unique attribute to our evolutionary inheritance—our blind spots—in ways, alas, that even beavers cannot.