by Paul W. Rea
Blissed and Blasted on the San Juan
To start a trip at Mexican Hat, Utah, is to start off into
empty space from the end of the world. The space that
surrounds Mexican Hat is filled only with what the natives
describe as “a lot of rocks, a lot of sand, more rocks, more
sand, and wind enough to blow it away.”
—Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water
[p.233]My head swirls like the eddy at my feet as Barbara trots down the ramp, looks all about, and gives the heave-ho. Once we’re underway, ripples fret on our bow.
“We’ve gotta be forgetting something,” Barbara mutters, scanning the launching area one last time. I secretly hope we are leaving something behind—like the old tapes that melt on the dash.
[p.234]The tires of a big RV growl across the Mexican Hat bridge. While the San Juan Inn glides by and the German tourists wave auf Wiedersehen, we enter fifty-six miles of river wilderness. Moments later the canyon walls begin to expose thirty million years of the earth’s history. At Mendenhall Loop the San Juan has nearly gnawed through the wall to shorten its channel. As the river wriggles into its seven famous Goosenecks, it reveals one of the world’s great entrenched meanders. When the entire central massif of the continent rose to current levels, the ancestral river had already established its meandering course a mile above where it now flows. Over geologic time the San Juan found itself, in the words of geologists Don Baars and Gene Stevenson, “trapped in its own channel with nothing to do but cut downward.” Pebble by pebble, grain by grain, this gorge has widened and deepened.
The canyon walls rise in steps to over a thousand feet, their rims capped by a hard layer of Cedar Mesa sandstone that breaks into sawteeth. The cliffs glare in the sun, picking up grays from the clouds much as the rose-bottomed clouds reflect reds from the rocks. Clusters of fossil coral, brachiopods, and even green algae from Pennsylvanian times outcrop from the undulating layers. Upstream, oil oozes from similar bioherms where trapped organic matter, aided by intense heat and pressure, permeates the porous sedimentary rock.
Few plants grow here, and fewer bugs in turn feed fewer birds and reptiles. This naked landscape does, however, allow bird songs to carry great distances, fur beyond eyeshot. Ledge by ledge, the trill of a canyon wren descends the scale. Then eloquent silence falls, broken only as the river gurgles under a snag. Twelve hundred feet above us, where the Muley Point Overlook marks civilization’s last stand, a swath of sky rides [p.235] between the rim rocks. We’re no longer on the earth but in it, snaking through its twisted innards.
Mechanized thunder explodes the peace. Two huge B-52s streak just above rim level; the tourists up there at the overlook must be deafened by the noise. With such sleek lines, these engines of mass destruction are seductive, but their terrible beauty also conjures images of nuclear war and saturation bombings. The airplanes quickly disappear behind the rim, thundering into the convoluted canyons. The river’s flow resumes, the rocks breathe again, but my heart keeps racing.
Just downstream a flotilla of Outward Bound sportyaks has beached near the Honaker Trail. Ed Abbey called these rent-a-tubs “the Tupperware Navy.” It takes over two miles to climb the twelve hundred feet to the rim along a trail constructed long ago to reach mining claims. Prospecting began here in 1892, when tales of fabulously rich deposits of gold flakes lured twelve hundred prospectors. Like prospectors, pioneers often assumed that wealth awaited them in the West if only they could endure the hardships of finding it. But the gold never panned out here. American dreamers departed with little to show for their travails.
If we hike up the Honaker Trail, we’ll catch the late afternoon light on one of the most famous landscapes in the West: the plateaus, buttes, and spires of Monument Valley. Fractured by the earth’s folding and sculpted by wind, rain, ice, and the river’s erosion, these uplifted layers weather into a grand spectacle of size, space, and time. After serving as a backdrop in hundreds of ads and movies, this Navajo land has become a national icon.
Capped by remnants of shale and conglomerate, the mesas, buttes, and pinnacles exhibit deep orange cliffs of de [p.236] Chelly sandstone rising from pedestals of soft, sloping shale. About two hundred and seventy million years ago, this was an area of wide floodplains and slow streams that provided habitat for large, awkward, lizard-like ancestors of the dinosaurs. Beyond its amazing geologic grandeur, Monument Valley is also important because, with its overgrazing by sheep, it reminds us that Indians are not the environmental saints they are sometimes imagined to be. When human populations exceed the carrying capacity of the land, both the people and the earth suffer.
The Honaker Trail is no stroll in the park. Already blistered by the glare, we wad wet towels under our hats. Because this cliff takes such a blast of sun, there’s little greenery. This spring in particular the plants seem stressed; the prince’s plumes can muster only a stunted golden spike. Only a fishhook cactus, its pink-purple flower looking like silk organza, looks even half-way healthy. The relentless sun bores into our shoulder blades, depleting our canteens. Though not steep, this trail is rough and mid-afternoon isn’t the time to climb it.
Back on the beach two pubescent boys are fashioning a River Goddess. Covered with sand, their hands caress the torso of their voluptuous sculpture, but they freeze as we traipse by.
“It’s art, you know,” one squeaks cleverly. Right.
“She’s got a bikini on,” pipes the other. I just nod knowingly, recalling my boyhood forays into old National Geographics stored in the attic. Reluctantly we relaunch our boat to look for a suitable campsite, spending an hour in flatwater shadows until we finally slip into a cove where the sandpiper and heron prints are fresh. The cleanliness of campsites today tells a success [p.237] story. Once trash, fire rings, and human waste defiled these banks. By the 1960s, when dams began to limit the ability of rivers to flush themselves each spring, problems with garbage and sewage became acute enough to call for stricter regulations.
About that time, too, a new ecological consciousness became popular, encapsulated in the wilderness ethic of “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” Today BLM regulations are strict yet river runners largely observe them. In a short time, then, we’ve educated ourselves and changed our behavior. Low-impact camping is only a small step, but it raises a more general question: How could I minimize my impact on the earth itself?
Unfortunately we Americans have been less effective against industrial and corporate threats, such as the 1972 oil spill that fouled the San Juan. Though few signs of that spill remain today, we can’t count on comebacks because the stresses we’re putting on ecosystems are so severe. Most Western rivers no longer carry enough water to absorb any additional pollution.
This backwater makes a great place to play, to venture into the river and then, after sweeping an arc, to stroke swiftly toward shore. The current is always stronger than it looks, though, and my friend John almost got in trouble doing this. He had to pull himself back against the current, rock by rock, while the San Juan nearly swept him away. So I resist the temptation to swim out to midstream, where I’d probably get swept downriver.
As we unload, we find that our river bag of clothes has soaked up water. The contents of my wallet now cover a smooth rock: my credit cards seem more plastic than ever out here and the paper money, scattered by a gust, soon becomes [p.238] litter. My watch has stopped, but what’s its use here? Time becomes inner and outer flow, ticked by our hearts and the river’s lapping. We sip wine and savor the tans and blues bouncing on the river’s ripples.
Our earlier highway hassles now drift downstream. Since I had run this shuttle before, years ago, I drove the lead vehicle. We zigzagged up the switchbacks out of the Valley of the Gods, up the old Moqui Dugway to the top of Cedar Mesa, passed Grand Gulch, and finally headed back down toward the San Juan. But there was no sign for Clay Hills takeout, so I drove on, ending up, ignominiously, at Lake Powell. As we retraced our way, we finally located the BLM sign for Clay Hills riddled with bullet holes, face down in the red dust.
Despite getting lost and covered with dust, we immediately responded to the splendid landscape. Along the river lush grasses flamed chartreuse in the back lighting. In the distance Navajo Mountain arose as a blue mound to the southwest, Bears Ears and Abajo Peak as gray bumps to the northeast. As the sun slipped behind the rounded hills, it cast a peachy glow on the rosy clouds. Somehow I’d forgotten the clarity of the air, the sense of space, the quality of the light, and the magic of a riverscape where time bubbles by.
Tonight, at our beach where the liquid light of the earthy river massages our toes, those highway hassles are gone. Daylight becomes waxy and golden as it lingers on the uppermost rocks. The sky turns a Wedgewood blue, then a slate gray. Dusk descends. Suddenly, as though spotlit, the canyon wall radiates gold and silver. The light becomes grainy, like dawn seen through sleepy eyes.
A full moon beams a silver wash on ghostly rocks. High on the canyon wall, a giant shadow of King Kong looms in [p.239] the darkness of a film noir. It takes minutes of rapt staring to perceive that this giant shadow is really a rincon, a cavity in the canyon wall. It’s true that wilderness can seem sinister, like a place where the repressed uglies in our ids could run amok. But the lighter side is that with no one around, we can become kids again, naked in the sand. Wilderness isn’t just about preserving the howl of the coyote; it’s about discovering the wilds within, both the howls and the giggles that society can squelch.
A breeze billows my thin cotton shirt, whisking away the gnats. The river’s soft moist breath is deliciously sensuous, a feast for pores parched by the desert wind and sun. Freed from self-consciousness, excited by the moon, finally barefoot in the sand, I let my fingers dance on my bare thighs. Ah, the sweet carnal life, au naturel. My heart sings. How wonderful, chants my physical being, to feel released from the needs of the ego. It’s scary to ponder how, in our culture, we’ve become so good at sensual repression. And as we’ve come to ignore our physical beings, it’s become easier to distance ourselves from the physical world. When the moon finally bulges over the rim, I bellow with joy from way down deep.
In the morning we face the sporty stretch. From Honaker Trail to Slickhorn Gulch the San Juan drops over eight feet each mile, a steeper gradient than the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Since the carrying capacity of a river increases as the sixth power of its speed, a stream running at two miles per hour can carry particles sixty-four times as large as one flowing at one mile per hour. As a result the San Juan is notorious for its sand waves, whitecaps that surface suddenly when the current slows and the sediment exceeds the carrying point. The San Juan hauls a heavier load of sand, silt, and clay than any other river in the U.S.
[p.240]Today the river is running at about fifteen hundred cubic feet per second, low for spring runoff but good for rafting these rapids. Lower flows make rapids more “technical”–more exposed rocks require more skill. Higher water means greater speed and bigger waves but usually requires less skill because the current carries the boat right over most hazards.
Side canyons soon begin to empty in, dropping debris that often creates white water. But Ross Rapid, which roars just ahead, varies from this pattern. It’s been formed by avalanches from overhanging cliffs, not by rocks from side canyons. Ross gives us an invigorating ride on its three-foot waves. Six spectacular miles below Ross, our boat glides into a crescent-shaped slip. We hope to hike up Johns Canyon but find that its floor hangs too high to reach without ropes. Just below Johns, the “old yeller” layer we’ve been tracking slips below river level for the last time.
According to river lore, Government Rapid was named after the government party that capsized here in 1921, but in fact the Miser/Trimble party, led by superb boattman Bert Roper, didn’t encounter any problems. According to river historian Jim Aton, the mishap story may be the creation of Norman Nevills, who led trips along this stretch and liked to entertain his customers. We scan the cliffs for the landmarks—first the cowboy hat rock, then the bird rock—and pull over to scout Government Rapid.
We scramble up the cutbank, grasping for roots, then saunter across rocks and gravel. A broom snakeweed bush, white petals drooping from its long broomstraws, thrives on this hot alluvial fan. Silver spots gleaming, a cinnamon-orange fritilary butterfly lures me in for a closeup, but then flits away. Above the roar Barbara shouts, “Stop chasing butterflies!” Evidently she feels them in her stomach.
[p.241]Government is tricky because the river races around a sharp bend. To run it we’ll have to stay initially toward the outside to miss some snags, and then cut back inside to miss two impressive boulders near the wall. The key is to set up just far enough from the jagged wall so that centrifugal force doesn’t throw us into it. Our boat clears the snags but the current sweeps us toward that wall.
“Pull, pull, pull!” Barbara bellows as my feet whiten against the frame. Spine braced against the seat, I heave all-out strokes. No time for breaths. Instinctively I spin us perpendicular to the wall, in prime position to oppose the centrifugal force.
But I’ve pulled one stroke too many. Just ahead a rock juts out, so I push one stroke back toward the center. Then I bury my right oar, swinging the stem to the right. We clear the rock and slide nicely down the chute. Eyes still riveted on the froth ahead, Barbara flashes the “perfect” sign.
When brown water sloshes around our ankles, however, Barbara turns around, puzzled. Did a big wave slip over the tube? The raft rows like a tanker. Despite vigorous efforts to bail, we can’t keep up with the leak. Groaning into strokes, I imagine various causes for a puncture until a broken string points to the culprit: me. I had tied an ammo box to the frame with twine. When we dropped down that chute, the box broke loose and gashed the floor.
Should we camp here or lumber on to Slickhorn Gulch, three miles downstream, for a better site? Finally we round the bend above and see the break in the canyon wall. Our field glasses reveal boats pulled up near Slickhorn, so we’ll have to camp upstream. The big problem, however, is gray mud that adobes the rocks and trees. Sometime last year a flash flood surged through and crested eight feet above where [p.242] they are now. The river drains large areas of Mancos shale and Morrison limestone, both of which weather into clay.
Aground in muddy water, I fun my oars like a fisherman stranded at ebb tide. Barbara hops out, rope in hand, but nearly goes splat in the muck. After making a few salty comments, she prospects for flat campsites. I sink over my knees when I disembark; the gray muck belches when I finally break its suction. As I slosh toward the boat, I smear everything-cooler, frame, seat, oar grips.
After dragging our rig up the mudbank, we tear it down. It’ll need a big patch, one that will require most of the rubber in our repair kit. After she props up the stern, Barbara crawls under the raft to push up while I press the patch down. As we wait for the patch to dry we sit down to drink a beer, almost dazed by the heat. Now we have to deal with the slick mudflat that lies between the boat and our campsite. We start with lighter loads, but our feet fly out from under us anyway. Charlie Chaplin couldn’t have topped this. Finally we kick steps into the slippery places and drag our large waterproof bags. Running rivers isn’t all moonlight in the canyons.
As their kayaks, canoes, and rafts float by, boaters scan the banks for a camp. Everybody wants to stop at Slickhorn, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the flying frisbees or bonfire parties.
Though these activities are too far away to bother us here, they do raise issues. Western writer Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind, points to the tendency in accessible backcountry areas for people who just want to recreate outdoors to drive out people who seek a wilderness experience. “The change parallels the evolving nature of river running everywhere from a solitary, risky, expeditionary activity to a form of mass recreation.” All of us could ask ourselves, “Is this something I could do in a city park?”
[p.243]The banks of the San Juan are not, like those of the Green or the Dolores, lined with tamarisk, willows, or scrub oak. There’s no thin green line, yet the river corridor does support small trees. Netleaf hackberries with characteristic galls on their leaves droop over a drainage. Under the lip, its trunk twisted by deluges, a bright green box elder also hangs on. In the Southwest, where the sugar maple does not grow, both Indians and white settlers tapped box elders for their sugary syrup.
Just six feet away, his pale yellow head cocked to look me over, a colorful collared lizard does pushups. Such movements, it’s surmised, either keep these lizards cool or signal that “this is my territory.” This flashy fellow is the bird of paradise among reptiles. Behind his jet-black collar, he becomes an almost phosphorescent green with yellow speckles on his back. His forelegs sport yellow gloves with black stripes on their backs, while his rear legs shade toward turquoise.
The smell of gasoline reminds me that oil oozes from these banks. When he became the first to run the San Juan from Durango, Colorado, to its mouth in 1882, E. L. Goodridge discovered these oil seeps and filed the first claim for oil. Decades later geologist Herbert E. Gregory noted, “A sand bar is used by flies as a breeding place, and hundreds of larvae live in the oily substance.” This place is getting to me.
Though I wish it were otherwise, I catch myself seeing my mood reflected in the smudged stars. It’s some consolation to recall Robert Frost’s “Desert Places,” a meditation on the voids between the heavenly bodies: “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars—on stars where no human race is./I have it so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places.” The silence of infinite space reflects the void within, the silence I hear tonight.
[p.244]In the morning we enter a cove at Slickhorn Gulch, named after a breed of longhorns that once grazed this canyon. On days when it’s not overrun by river runners, lower Slickhorn is one of the gems of the Southwest. But on hot summer afternoons its plunge pools can begin to resemble a spa: bank-to-bank bodies, thumping headphones, and suntan oil floating on the roiled surface. There are six unnamed pools in lower Slickhorn Gulch, and this is surprising. We humans like to create and manipulate symbols—an ability we hold to be unique among our species—to affirm our humanity and dominion. We accentuate features we find compelling and, by doing so, create a sense of belonging in a place. The Pueblo Indian cultures of New Mexico weave a complex association by naming individual rocks, trees, or other features of their landscape, so that even someone who hasn’t lived on the land senses the bond-a feeling of relatedness.
But naming has its risks. Too often we invent inappropriate terms such as “killer whale” for orcas or, for such a majestic mountain range as the Grand Tetons, “the Big Breasts,” substituting human interest for the ability to see things squarely on their own terms. Personification can be comforting, but when we project ourselves too much onto nature, we foster the idea that the world was made for our pleasure. Naming also feeds the impulse to pin down nature like a bug on a board, giving the illusion of understanding where there is none. But today compromise seems best to me: I don’t feel compelled to name every pool in sight, but I won’t resist when places whisper their names.
Remarkably, to my delight, Slickhorn is deserted. Our hike begins on a historical note as we pass the rusting wreckage of an oil drilling rig left from the 1950s. To the right loom the switchbacks that descend from the canyon rim, far above [p.245] the river. Years after the gold rush he helped to create, and immediately after his first well turned out to be a gusher, E. L. Goodridge constructed this road in 1909 to bring in oil drilling equipment. Using pack animals, he hauled machinery all the way from Gallup, New Mexico, and eased it down this track only to see his equipment break loose and smash to smithereens. His loss, nature’s gain. Given the dark deeds that lust for black gold has encouraged in the twentieth century, it’s tempting to dance on its grave. Then it strikes me that we’ve just tied up a rubber boat with nylon rope-and that rubber and rope no longer come from plants.
As the air shimmers, Slickhorn’s pools serve delicious sensory treats. Yellow columbines and maidenhair ferns work their magic on Barbara. She toes the water and dives in, yelping half in pleasure, half in pain. I recline on the damp, cool sandstone near a drip to savor its spray. Deeper under the overhang, a red-spotted toad sits on a mossy knoll, throat pulsing. The toad is mostly buff but with an important addition: waxy orange spots behind the eyes that offer protection. When a predator chomps down, these spots squirt secretions that inflame its mouth, throat, and stomach.
These pools teem with life. At the edge a brown-speckled spider waits for the water striders that, so far, stay out of danger as they skate over a hair. Deeper down a dragon fly nymph first scratches its head with its feelers, then engulfs a large hunk of algae. Moments later a puff of sand reveals the formidable claws of this mud-colored dragon as it grabs a tadpole. The struggle is short. Another polliwog wriggles its way toward the surface, twisting its head as it gulps in air.
Two kinds of shrimp inhabit the pools, one true, one misnamed. Freshwater shrimp rest on a twig, their tiny gills fanning the water and stirring up the ooze. In contrast to these [p.246] fairy shrimp, which are translucent and swim gracefully on their backs, tadpole shrimp (or notostracans) look like miniature horseshoe crabs. Notostracans are actually not shrimp nor, aside from having a bulbous head, do they share much in common with tadpoles. More closely related to extinct trilobites than to most saltwater shrimp, these primitive crustaceans are living connections with the earth’s prehistory. One species, in fact, has survived unchanged for two hundred million years. It’s astounding that a species adapted so perfectly to its niche that subsequent mutations apparently offered few advantages.
Nearer to the surface the backswimmer beetles jerk and stop. Their oar-like hind legs, flattened and fringed with hairs, shoot them backward. Others hang upside down at the surface, where they listen for prey and replenish their oxygen supply. Since they carry air inside their bodies, they can stay submerged for hours. However, this stored air also makes them float to the surface, tummies up, when they don’t propel themselves down regularly.
Skimming just above the pool, much like planes in holding patterns, two cinnamon-orange dragonflies patrol in straight bursts. Their acrobatics, however, far exceed anything possible in aviation. Dragonflies can catapult themselves straight skyward and carry fifteen times their own weight. When they encounter a swarm of gnats, they easily outmaneuver the most agile of birds. Though adult dragonflies possess extraordinary vision and formidable jaws, one rarely sees them seize their prey. They grab a gnat or mosquito in one of their agile darts but spend the majority of their time cruising. These two dragonflies fly in tandem, buzzing each other playfully every few moments.
While the sun broils the rocks nearby, we huddle under a [p.247] dripping ledge just fur enough from the spray to build up goose flesh. As soon as we’re chilled to the bone, we make our move for the next oasis. Once on the path, our precooled skin enables us to handle the sun. Desert heat and light animate us as we skip along the way. This is pure sensation, total kinesthesia enhanced with the ego buzz of beating the game by staying cool amid all this heat. Pants still soaked, we head up and around the plunge pool. From far above we can hear every drip. Below lies Echo Pool, as I call it. Under its overhang, just downwind from the spray, maidenhair ferns trim the seeps in the sandstone, their fun-shaped fronds offering lushness in the desert.
Slickhorn also hosts other plants that aren’t common along the river: lavender penstemons, orange paintbrush with lime-green pistils, healthy buffaloberry bushes with water-bloated leaves, and sacred datura, the most showy of the Southwest’s night bloomers. Pollinated by night-flying insects such as sphinx moths, these drooping white trumpets are the Easter lilies of the desert. Several Indian tribes have used this remarkable plant to relieve pain and cure wounds. Given its concentration of narcotic alkaloids, datura often energized ceremonies intended to induce visions. Like peyote cactus, though, these beauties are both hallucinogenic and poisonous. Even the datura beetle, the sole insect to feed on this plant, can be poisoned by its leaves and stems. Paiute shamans prized these plants but understood that they could both “make one sleep and see ghosts.”
On our way down the limestone ledges of Slickhorn, we take one last private dip. Greenish bands of light radiate from Barbara as she strokes the water, breasts bobbing. When she tries to evade me, we cavort like dolphins, nipping each other like amorous otters, liquid and weightless as the universe [p.248] enters us. Minutes after we’ve whirled the pool, while its warm ripples are still lapping, we feel a resonance to our love making. Naming this pool would be like learning lyrics to a Beethoven symphony and then wondering why you couldn’t hear the harmonies.
Later we encounter the gang from Outward Bound. Water ouzels bolt from their nest beneath the cliff, unnoticed by these athletes. While one guy clings to the precipice, using the pool below as a safety net, others cheer him on: “All right, Dave!” “O.K!” “Way to go, Dave.” This cadre of twelve will hike upcanyon, scale a wall, repel a cliff, and then march down Grand Gulch.
Back at our campsite chukars—the colorful quail from Asia—are putting on a real show. Their loud clucking comes from the cliff behind us, but we see nothing but rocks. Finally something raises its head and paces on the ledge between clucks, strutting into full view. The clucks louden into feline squawks. Two chukars, black stripes on their wings and black necklaces showing boldly, call from boulder to boulder. Then, wings whirring, they streak right above our heads. Like ring-necked pheasants, chukars are introduced game birds. So far, the effects on native ground birds seem minimal.
Head down, dejected, Dave from the Outward Bound group trudges toward the beached sportyaks. Berating himself as a quitter, he’s decided to leave the group. “What’s wrong with quitting when you’re ahead?” Barbara asks. Dave has conquered his fears of heights, so he doesn’t need to keep proving himself From our point of view he’s shown the courage to break away from the group pressures to use nature as an obstacle course. This may take more guts than performing physical feats.
My first attempt to start a fire fails. It’s been too long since [p.249] I’ve built one, so I have to relearn the art of using small kindling and leaving plenty of space for air. Finally the scent of cedar spices our campsite. Our small fire forges a link with the thousands of generations before us who also sat around their campfires, protected from the dark. It connects us with the Anasazi who burned juniper to the point that they eventually denuded hillsides, hastening the erosion that probably contributed to their decline. Bony flames like writhing arms plead with us to learn from the ancient ones.
As the wood crackles, our world contracts. Footprints pock the sand, then step into the unknown. Larger-than-life shadows close in as the flames die down. In the evening’s last moments our world becomes throbbing red embers and pinprick stars. Stretched out on the sand, we become children still a little afraid of the dark. Yet to snuggle up to the coals, avoiding the vastness and darkness beyond, is to miss the starry heavens that so moved the young John Keats: “I must have a thousand of those beautiful particles to fill up my heart, … I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds . . . . I melt into the air with a voluptuousness so delicate that I am content to be alone.” Keats, like many nature lovers, may not have found companions who were compatible with his contemplations.
A flashlight bobs in the dark. Barbara pants that a “something” is rustling like dry leaves. Rattlesnakes hunt at dusk while the warm sand keeps them active as mice and toads come out. Barbara plays her flashlight around once more, then checks the zipper on the tent. Scoring a point in a longstanding controversy, she touts the advantages of sleeping inside. Granted, there’s no worry about snakes in the tent, but it’s a shame to miss the moon, the stars, and the wildlife. I remind her of the baby spotted skunks, soft as kittens, that [p.250] once romped around our sleeping bags in Grand Canyon.
“Right, and you jumped when one ran up your leg.” She has the last word for the night.
After breakfast we push off for Grand Gulch. Silent and shallow, the San Juan slows and widens. Not a single bird sings. Maybe it’s Sunday and the birds are observing the Sabbath-anyway, it’s freeing not to know the day of the week. Squeaky oarlocks defile the quiet until I muffle them with lip balm. The cliffs become increasingly red, darkened with streaks of desert varnish. We glide into a small cove, tie up, and scramble up the rock benches. Two ravens croak as they glide into their nest.
Here at its mouth, fifty twisting miles from its origin, Grand Gulch looks different. Trapped behind giant monoliths, driftwood has been piled high by flash floods. The great cottonwoods of upper Grand Gulch don’t make it down here, at least not in one piece. Pulverized by raging water, their twigs end up as nestlike wreathes stuck in the brush. Early river runner Bert Loper recalled an impassible rapid at the mouth of Grand Gulch, but since Loper’s time the river has rolled the immense boulders out of its way.
As we hike on the broad, sunburst canyon floor, we guzzle water to counter the heat. Grand Gulch is rough and raw, no place to run Iowan either bodily fluids or trace elements. Sweat soon stings our eyes, and even our sunglasses feel too hot to wear. While we rest in the shade, Barbara tells me not to breathe on her. We’ve had enough of the heat so we turn back toward the pool, just above the river.
As we sit there silently, a great blue heron makes one whuff of its great wings and splashes down. We freeze, barely breathing. The heron wades patiently, head extended, dipping its beak and shaking its rubbery neck. After minutes of [p.251] staring into the pool, it lunges two steps and one wing flap forward to spear a small sucker. Then it takes three giant steps back to the sandbank, where it gulps down its catch. With no split between hunter and hunted, the fisher seems all fish.
As a sand-colored toad hops, the heron strides toward it and cocks its head. But then it also spots us and freezes. Suddenly the heron extends its neck, spreads its slate-colored wings, beats the air, and squawks in protest. Its dull yellow legs trail and bob behind like folded landing gear as its neck snakes into an S. This great bird goes “grak, grak, grak” as it tries to cross the wind but gets swept upriver, feathers ruffled, legs blown askew.
The wind reminds me that the takeout is thirteen river miles away—and that upriver gusts will probably require constant rowing. It’s usually a tough, slow go. We float by Oljeto Wash where John and Louisa Wetherill established an early trading post in Navajo land. Today two Navajos in long sleeves and dark hats walk down to the river; one carries a fishing rod, another a tackle box. This intrigues me because traditional Navajo (or Diné) usually observe their tribal taboo against eating fish. To an outsider, this prohibition might seem odd for a people who emigrated from the Great Slave Lake, a great fishery. In their six to seven centuries in the Southwest, however, the Diné have evolved a new cosmology literally embedded in the landscape. As Robert McPherson notes, many traditional Diné believe that fish come from down deep and thus, like the earth, should not be disturbed.
Miles of flatwater test our tenacity. The fact that Lake Powell has silted up while the river flow has decreased definitely exacerbates a big problem: sandbars. Since the lake has dropped several feet since the mid-1980s, the San Juan is now cutting through the silt it deposited years earlier.
[p.252]To make matters worse, this stretch is also a notorious wind tunnel. The river runs almost exactly west and funnels winds that sweep unimpeded across Lake Powell. To complicate matters further, the river is sometimes too shallow for oars—the raft becomes easier to tow than row. In recent years more than one rafting party has arrived hours late, blasted by gales, after slogging for miles through knee-deep water. I wonder if we’ll make it before dark.
To take advantage of our light boat, I attend closely to the current. Sometimes it runs along one bank for a long stretch only to sneak across a sandbar to the other side. This leaves us in a backwater, buffeted by hellacious winds. Reading the water gets tricky, for low water, sandbars, and winds all wrinkle its surface. Moreover, the normal flow signals have changed. In deeper water, or under still conditions, rounded boils typically indicate a slowing current; here they suggest that some current is still flowing. Similarly, rimes typically indicate an accelerating current; here they signal slow, windblown water.
As if all these wind-and-water dynamics were not complex enough, fatigue and discouragement mount when we struggle to row past the same rock twice. Desert air parches my mouth. When Barbara stands to call out the sandbars, she adds to the wind resistance. My hat flaps in my face, brim flat against my sunglasses. Unable to see much anyway, I concentrate on stroking and breathing, heaving and ho-ing. Faster strokes reduce the wind’s ability to slow the boat but soon, given the frailties of the flesh, they degenerate into slaps at the surface. When the river deepens, I submerge the oars like underwater sails. If there’s no current, at least they help to keep us from getting blown upstream.
Barbara’s visor blows into the river. As we reach for it, the [p.253] wind shoves us onto a sandbar. We’ll have to haul over this one. Barbara pushes while I tow our barge like Bogart pulling The African Queen. Despite all this travail, the riverbanks are alluring. The canyon walls become more rounded, varnished, and colorful. I look over my shoulder as I row, hugging the bank while watching for snags from the corner of my eye.
In the distance, so near and yet so far, the gray shale of Clay Hills takeout beckons like the Cliffs of Dover. To take my mind off the interminable rowing, I watch the lush banks which teem with Russian olives, willows, beeplant, and even bracken ferns. Beavers don’t attempt dams here, of course, but other signs of them appear everywhere: holes a foot or more in diameter, prints and claw marks in the mud, chutes where they splash into the water. In a backwater a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds clings to the swaying cattails. Even in gusts like these the males fly with their bodies cocked upward to display their flashy heads.
Although there’s a channel again, this last mile is shallow and tricky. At best, the oars jam on the bottom, slowing our movement. At worst, they pop from their locks, saved only by their safety cords. In either case, I spit the appropriate nautical epithets. I ache and don’t care how we get to the end.
Finally we wobble ashore. Everything—frame, raft, cooler, oars, ropes, baggy pants—is encrusted with mud. Our legs look like that heron’s; my hands resemble that lizard’s paws. And my case of “boater’s butt,” a combination of heat rash and sand abrasion, is now acute.
While Barbara crams everything into the van, I strap the frame to the top. We face seventy-five miles back to Mexican Hat for sustenance. My feet lounge on the dash as my scruffy head leans back. Wind and water have pushed us to our limits and soothed our minds. Muddied, sanded, parched, and [p.254] windburned, we don’t need a watch to tell us that we’re famished and exhausted. Played out, yes, but also rejuvenated.
Dammed Nearly to Extinction
Though their numbers are greatly reduced, native fish still swim in the Colorado River and its tributaries. But because of human disturbances, their existence hangs in the balance. The Colorado squawfish, the largest member of the minnow family, swims great distances from whitewater canyons to backwater nursery areas. Today, however, squawfish seldom reproduce because dams intercept the cold spring runoff that triggers their spawning. Once common enough to catch commercially for fertilizer, the squawfish now teeters above the abyss of annihilation.
Another native fish, the razorback sucker, once grew to lengths exceeding three feet. One of the largest suckers native to North America, it now appears on the threatened species list. A few razorbacks still ply the Green River, where they’ve faced the fluctuations caused by the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and razorbacks also inhabit the Yampa River where a free-flowing stream provides ideal habitat.
Indigenous chubs are also in trouble. The humpback chub, another member of the minnow family, seldom weighs more than two pounds or exceeds a foot and a half in length. Though formerly common in the lower Colorado, this rare species now lives mainly in the Little Colorado River, another free-flowing tributary. The bony tail chub, the rarest of these fish, has declined to only a few individuals with no [p.255] known reproducing populations in the wild. Its close relatives, the Virgin River chub and the woundfin minnow, inhabit only the Virgin River, one of the most jeopardized streams in the Southwest.
Throughout the Colorado River basin the main causes of such die-offs are dams and diversions. Native fish require specific natural conditions to spawn, and dams not only reduce downstream flows but also, as they release cold water from their reservoirs, eliminate the warm water that some species require. In addition, the dams lead to increased pressure for sport fishing in reservoirs. Many native fish cannot compete with the preferred exotic species.
What difference, some might ask, would it make if these fish went extinct? It’s usually difficult to muster public support, let alone reverence, for animals that are not symbols, not game species, not edible, not cute, or not seen. Yet these native species belong in the rivers where they’ve evolved, and they need our help to survive.
Another reason for preservation is self-interest. In 1980 many might have asked why we should protect the Western yew, then an obscure tree with little known utility. Today we understand that this remarkable plant is the source of taxol, one of the few treatments for ovarian cancer. Early proponent of environmental ethics Aldo Leopold remarked that “To keep every cog and wheel is the first prerequisite of good tinkering.” We need to approach the future with a gene pool that’s as large and varied as it can possibly be.
As biologists document the damage in Grand Canyon and elsewhere, perhaps the public will no longer condone costly dams. The West has long endured an almost imperial system of interlocking elites including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, water conservancy boards, [p.256] power companies, and big business. In one of the great ironies of today’s West, the same people who condemn federal management of public lands often turn around and promote federal subsidies for their water projects. But as Westerners have become more aware of how this subsidy system works, things have begun to change. With fewer federal funds available for new projects, dams are becoming much less appealing to local planners.
How can Western rivers both host native species and also offer resources for people as well? The answers are complex, but they lie with more careful operation of dams, more resourceful water conservation, recreation compatible with natural values, and populations appropriate to the carrying capacity of the land.