by Paul W. Rea
White Water, Black Rock
The Colorado is an outlaw. It belongs only to the ancient,
eternal earth. As no other, it is savage and unpredictable of
mood, peculiarly American in character. It has for its
background the haunting sweep of illimitable horizons, the
immensities of unbroken wilderness.
—Frank Waters, The Colorado
[p.257]As the sky clears, snowmelt from the Rockies swells the Rio Colorado, “the River Red.” Sun and sky, earth and river come together on a vibrant June day. Beneath the old bridge, barn swallows skim the river’s speckled surface. Scissor tails fanned as they hover, these lovely birds daub their faces into the mud, then fly straight for the bridge. There they shake their heads to ease the daubs onto a cup-like nest. Their satiny black bodies and rusty throats gleaming, males and females [p.258] take turns molding the mud with their bodies, using their beaks to smooth the cusp.
This will be a four-day, eighty-five-mile solo from Fruita, Colorado, to Sandy Beach near Moab, Utah. It was from this very spot, fully a decade ago, that my friend Jeff and I launched our first float trip. But this time the Grey Coyote will row it alone. The main challenges will be the landings, which are tough for one paddler, plus the Westwater Canyon stretch where I’ll meet friends to run the rapids. Since the Colorado River skirts one of the largest wilderness areas in the Southwest, from here on I’ll rarely see even a rudimentary road.
Once the river leaves the Interstate, the riverscape comes to life. A gust silvers the Russian olives, then carries the sweetness from their pale yellow flowers. Introduced as a windbreak, Russian olives have spread along the river corridor. A spotted sandpiper bobs among the reeds, uttering high-pitched cries as she feigns a broken wing to draw predators away from her nest. Soon she takes flight, wings beating stiff, shallow strokes just above the water. After alighting, this sandpiper dashes along a sandbar, legs a blur.
Black-billed magpies scold and sail between the fragrant trees, buoyed by long, wedge-shaped tails. Large white patches flash from their wings, while their iridescent tails stream behind with hints of emerald, indigo, and burgundy. Though spectacular, magpies are a much-maligned bird in the popular imagination. As recently as the 1930s Westerners attempted to exterminate these birds, often because they were falsely accused of destroying crops and even of pecking out the eyes of calves. When ranchers saw a magpie on a cow, they seldom understood that it was probably eating flies or maggots from wounds left by the branding iron. Thus magpies fell victim to ignorance—and to the human tendency to [p.259] find scapegoats.
These utilitarian views contrast with those of Southwest Indians. One Pueblo story recounts how two sisters once competed for the first rays of the rising sun. The older one asked a magpie to head east and eclipse the younger sister from the sunshine. But the magpie stopped for breakfast at a carcass, which soiled its plumage. When this happened, the older sister became incensed and decreed that magpies would be dappled and eat dead meat. While this story illustrates how Indians often saw animals as emblems that revealed the ways of the natural world, it also suggests that they, like other peoples, sometimes cursed species that defied humans.
On the far bank, behind the olives and cottonwoods, rise the red-rock bluffs of Colorado National Monument. Far above, set against billowing white cumuli, rocky peach-hued fins glow in the afternoon light. These smooth outcrops provide a glimpse of Rattlesnake Canyon, a magical place that the BLM tries to protect from over-visitation.
The slickrock outcroppings of Entrada sandstone tend to round, cup, and bowl. Though gritty winds abrade these surfaces, most of this sensational sculpturing results from “solution,” whereby water containing carbonic acid dissolves the minerals that cement the sand grains, or from “chemical sapping,” whereby dissolved salts crystallize on the surface and pry away grains of sand. Physics and chemistry aside, the smooth shapes and pastel color of Entrada sandstone place it among the loveliest rocks anywhere.
A huge chunk of bank crashes into the river, raising a geyser of spray. A beaver stops to stare, motionless, as the Canyon Wren glides by. As two other beavers swim ahead, one slaps the river hard and dives. The other, hearing the distress call, arches its rump but doesn’t slap.
[p.260]My raft drifts up to a fellow standing knee deep where Salt Wash enters the Colorado. Dressed in baggy field clothes, Pablo bends to net aquatic insects where the turbid waters of the creek meet the silty flow of the river. A grad student in zoology, he explains that sand and gravel not only help the river cut its channel but also weigh down caddis fly grubs so they don’t get swept away. Peak flows, he points out, stir the gravel and keep the bottom accessible to insect larvae and small invertebrates. Without this regular flushing, sediments build and harden, rendering the river bed impenetrable, or they may clog backwaters where fish need to spawn.
Just below Salt Wash, Horsethief Canyon ends and Ruby Canyon begins distinctly. As I pull against the stiff breeze, my eyes glimpse the tunnel where, years ago, a fast freight almost totaled Jeff and me. Here the grayish, greenish, and purplish Morrison formation, the West’s great boneyard for dinosaur fossils, yields abruptly to the uplifted red sandstones of Ruby Canyon. Curved and bent layers suggest faulting on both sides of the canyon. The Colorado follows the fault line, exposing different rocks on the north and south canyon walls.
On the westward stretches, riffles sparkle where gusts whip them into spray. As my arms fatigue, I land where dunes afford some protection from the now relentless wind. The sand is far too hot for bare feet. Bowed over by the breeze, waxy-yellow bee flowers trace sandy crescents on the dunes.
Dusk falls slowly. Cottonwood leaves patter like rain; then, hanging limp like apples, these giant hearts click no more. Doves coo and gnat-like midges whine. The slightest puff blows a cloud of gauzy-winged ephemera backward, only to let them drift forward when it wanes. A moth buzzes by. Waxy leaves now glint in the moonlight, and, infinitely far beyond, the sky sparkles like a moonlit beach. Quartz [p.261] grains twinkle as my toes wriggle into the warm sand. My whole being participates in the universe, near and far.
As I arrange my nest for the night, a tiny whisk broom reminds me of Barbara, who used to sweep out our tent on our river trips together. As sand runs through my fingers, I wonder if true communion with people is like the grains that evade my grasp. Now, bereft of dependents, I can take more chances with life and run a river alone.
As another desert day breaks, the sky turns baby blue. Since the river has risen during the night, the silver, blue, and yellow Canyon Wren basks in an eddy, awash in the brilliant sunshine. Sun and wind have begun their diamond dance on the river, and I do a yoga sun salute from the bank. I resonate with a world that plucks the heartstrings of my being.
After a snowy egret splashes down, one of its yellow feet stirs the shallows for prey. Minnows fret the surface of the backwater. Since most of us associate egrets with subtropical wetlands, it’s surprising to see them here in a near-desert. But egrets have expanded their range and small populations frequent rivers throughout the Southwest. From a clump of willows this egret rises slowly just three feet above the water, a snowy shape set against the deeply shaded canyon walls. Once decimated to embellish women’s hats, snowy egrets have enjoyed federal protection since 1918. As a result, they’ve made a remarkable comeback.
Aware that the wind will rise soon enough, I drift past Mee Canyon, a wonderful hike offering striped spires along the way to a giant overhang carved by a spring. Black Rocks, a memorable landmark on this stretch, appears just downstream. Along a distinct fault line the ancient Precambrian schist and gneiss surface here, buffed and fluted well above today’s waterline. By narrowing the river and increasing its [p.262] speed, these hard metamorphic rocks are subjected to accelerated carving and polishing. Currents boil up from an irregular bottom. At high water these hydraulics can become treacherous, for whirlpools can suck down careless boaters much as they do in Westwater’s rapids.
Across the river the California Zephyr streaks by, a silver flash along the rusty mudstone and shale of the Chinle formation. Seated on a mossy rock, nude, I wave to the train’s passengers. Not surprisingly, the best response comes from the club car. Many years ago, riding this train home from the Summer of Love, I first beheld the red rock country in this very canyon.
The sun throbs hot and dry in Moore Canyon, a great hike from the river. Along its drainage the single-leafed ash trees dangle their light-green fruit. Wings quivering, a black-and-yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly lands on pink milkweed. With blue dots, yellow eyespots, and orange and black bands, the green caterpillars of this large butterfly are also striking. In part because their larvae feed on willow, alder, and poplar trees that are widely distributed, these large butterflies are more abundant than, say, the sleeker zebra swallowtail, whose caterpillars eat only the foliage of the pawpaw tree.
The sun scorches the smooth bedrock beneath my sandals; only the slight breeze makes it possible to hike under the noonday sun. I find shade on a bench of rust-red Chinle shale. Amazed by the reds, purples, browns, greens, grays, pinks, whites, and even blues, the Navajos called the Chinle “the land of the sleeping rainbow.” Where water percolating through the porous sandstone reaches this shale, it sometimes hollows out pockets suited to the human body—sinuous, grainy places to rub the earth. From one of these I observe the wind that streams over the bench, shortcutting to the inside of [p.263] this twist in the canyon. Air and water flow quite differently: one seeks lower pressures along the shortest route, the other, so much heavier, pushes toward lower terrain where, due to its momentum, it rides the outside of a curve. Yet both rise and fall, crest and trough, with the rhythms of the earth.
Krok, krok. Two ravens spiral from hundreds of feet above, feathering the updrafts. As one approaches a nest, squawking and croaking echo from the clifftop. Streaks of white guano mark this nest. Ravens repair their nests year after year, and when they finally abandon them, hawks and owls often move in. Similar stripes of whitewash mark another nest on the opposite wall, for ravens build more than one nest in their territory so they can alternate between roosting sites. Smart birds.
Like magpies, ravens have long endured discrimination. Hebrew legend reveals that when Noah released a dove and a raven, the dove came back with an olive branch, a sign of peace, but the raven flew the coop. Doves are really pigeons, birds that flock toward human habitats, but ravens keep their distance. Since they won’t nest around people, perhaps their worst sin is that of disdain. We humans don’t accept snubs from the fowls of the air.
Since ravens are as intelligent as a smart dog, they may also challenge human delusions of superiority. Rather than running mainly on instinct, ravens think through new situations. They drop clams to break their shells and even invent games in which an airborne bird will release a stick while others try to grab it before it hits the ground. Many zoologists credit ravens with insight, the ability to image a solution rather than to simply learn from experience—and the sort of intelligence we’ve always reserved for ourselves. But these ravens also embody the primal. Strange tapping sounds, gut-[p.264]tural croaks, and black plumage blend with white stains, fallen sticks, red rocks, and blue sky, Dark omens against a blazing sun.
On the river bank other boaters lounge under a canopy. Three other boats will also face Westwater Canyon’s rapids. That’s reassuring.
Violet-green swallows with satin backs skim the river, their beaks leaving tiny wakes, then shoot straight up into the wind. Since these birds do not typically nest in colonies, they must defend the area around their nest holes from other cavity-nesting species. However, sometimes violet-greens help Western bluebirds rear their nestlings and then, once the bluebirds have fledged, breed in the same nest. Nature is infinitely more complex than the view of incessant competition among species.
Where the river bends right, the Utah state line is indicated by “Utaline” lettered behind the railroad. Out here, far from civilization, such boundaries seem absurdly illusory. A gauging station here tells state engineers how much water has been wasted or delivered, depending on one’s provincial viewpoint. Many Coloradans, for instance, think that any water that has flowed out of their state has been foolishly squandered.
Utaline sits just four miles upriver from Westwater Ranger Station where tomorrow I’ll make my connection with friends. This is a good place to practice a landing, one where I pull in close, drop my oars, spin, spring over mounded baggage, grab the rope, and jump for the bank—all in one motion. But I fumble the rope and run into a tamarisk bush. Not the confidence builder I needed.
While I slouch on the wet sand, swigging from a wet canteen, a great, thick-winged bird soars far above the canyon [p.265] wall. Mottled with white on its underwings and tail, its wingspan nearly seven feet, this is definitely a young bald eagle. These astounding birds are not thriving along the Colorado, however, despite some special assistance. When the prairie dog population in the nearby Cisco Desert crashed, Utah wildlife officials, ELM rangers, and river outfitters set out bald eagles’ favorite food: fish. This was a stopgap measure, for the real problems are the loss of large cottonwoods for nesting and the disappearance of live fish and rodents. Diminished river flows, water pollution, fewer trees, the extermination of prairie dogs, and heavy fishing all cause eagles difficulties.
Nationally, though, the bald eagle has reversed its decline toward extinction. Ornithologists credit the bald eagle’s comeback mainly to the banning of DDT which causes raptors to lay eggs with shells so thin they break before they hatch. Other causes of death, including electrocutions on power lines, accidental poisonings by predator-control agents, shootings by gun nuts or by ranchers, and poaching by traffickers in body parts have abated, though they still take their toll.
As the sun enlivens the cliffs across the way, each swirl, each ripple made by bird or bug or fish shows up as a sky-blue ring on the river’s orange surface. A great blue heron labors along the far shore, the downbeats of its great wings dipping into the fluid light. When another raft plows the surface, the river makes room, accepting the dimples left by the oars, and then erases the wake as if the boat had never been. The man and woman wave a knowing hello and goodbye. They’re trolling, attentive to signs from the river’s brown depths.
When I sink into anxiety about the rapids I face in the morning, nature provides perspective. Well camouflaged in [p.266] the dappled light, a tiger beetle sprints on hot sand to seize a cricket. After its jagged jaws puncture the carapace of its prey, its other mouth parts suck the cricket’s juices. As I lean in for a look, this tiger beetle’s defense proves as impressive as its offense. Once its huge, bulging eyes detect my slightest movements, it takes flight, zigzagging over the water. But the ferocious predator itself becomes prey. A black phoebe darts from a rock to intercept it in midair, then shoots back like a crow carrying off a mouse. The cricket and the tiger beetle both existed just moments ago, no less alive than I am now.
Are insects really mindless robots? Can their complex behavior be reduced to mere instinct? True, their brains are much smaller than ours, but does that mean we can deny them all the consciousness that we reserve for ourselves? Famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould asks an even more troubling question: Is human consciousness a mere accident? Let evolution play out again, he contends, and “the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.”
However limited the consciousness of animals may be, at least it’s not disconnected from the world. As we evolved language, we may have lost touch with other species as we began to talk only among our own kind. When literate civilization developed with the speed of the written word, the silent gap between us and other living beings probably widened. And when we evolved the heightened awareness that led to a sense of self, we apparently did so at the cost of participation with nature. For us, the paradox is that coming to consciousness and developing language may have ruptured a previous wholeness with nature and divided the Self from the Other, from the outside environment. Estranged from nature, we live in boxes, fearful of what we can’t control. [p.267] Tomorrow, for instance, the river takes charge, and that scares me.
As I wash my pans, Westwater’s rapids roar in my mind’s ear. Last winter I yearned to be challenged, even overwhelmed, by nature. But now, as I face the actual challenge, I’m less interested in relinquishing control. River runners say Westwater is nothing to worry about, yet with names like Funnel Falls, Skull Rapid, and the Room of Doom, I do wonder. Rock climbing, car racing, and sky diving have never attracted me. I’m not addicted to adrenaline rushes, but I do crave the opportunity to immerse myself in the river’s Great Flow. If you want this full relationship with a river, then you need to float long stretches, which often means that you have to face rapids.
As usual, the river offers good nightlife. At dusk nighthawks join the early bats. Though both may hunt the same prey at the same time, few conflicts occur. Nighthawks freewheel, changing gears to shoot forward with quicker, erratic wing strokes. These aviary acrobats usually fly silently when making their steepest banks and turns, though they can make unsettling sounds. Most typical are their high-pitched cries made to each other in flight. Another is a high-speed snap apparently made with their beaks. Still another, more startling sound is a loud graaate plus a whuff made when one bold bird jets just above my head, and then, dragging a feather, zooms upward with a sudden deep whirrr. As the “booming” nighthawks quiet down, tiny pipistrelle bats flutter erratically.
It’s not the night boomers, however, that make sleep difficult; it’s the rumbles, squeaks, and hisses of trains. This is one of those fitful nights when you wake, wondering if you’re getting any rest, only to realize that you must have slept because you’ve had a bad dream. As a result, I oversleep. [p.268] Fretful that I’ll miss my friends, I gulp down instant coffee as I pack up. Double-bagged binocs and camera disappear into dry sacks. Netting battens down everything.
I’m afloat by eight. My rendezvous point, the Westwater put in, lies an hour downstream. I row hard, relishing the bounce from oars made of New Zealand pine. Muscles warm as rhythmic breaths loosen my tightened chest. Behind the shiny railroad tracks, splendid sandstone panels slide by, unappreciated. It’s not the intrusion of industrialism that separates me from the rocks; it’s the hurry-worry monkey chattering in my ear. Right now I’m too goal-oriented and worried to live in the present.
A hearty boatwoman hails me from the dock. Betty, a seasoned raft guide, will captain the lead boat. Chris and Will, mellow medics and bon vivants, arrive back from running their shuttle with Leif, a passionate paddler who teaches English. Betty and Leif describe the Westwater rapids as “sporty.” The rest of us wonder what that means.
Speckled by an armada of driftwood, the Colorado runs high and tan. Its currents finger new channels through the tamarisk, course through willows, find old channels, and pick up the pulverized twigs and bark it deposited in years past. Scum spirals like nebulae in an eddy. While spring runoffs no longer create enough backwaters for many native fish to spawn, they do bring food to fish, nutrients to plants, and, we hope, carry boats over boulders.
After fidgeting enough to prepare an expedition down the Amazon, the gang gets ready to go. The first five miles are quiet, almost too much so. On the left is Wild Horse Cabin, once home for outlaws, rivermen, and prospectors whose broken sluice boxes languish just downstream. Widening out as the canyon opens, the Colorado ponds behind the Uncom-
[p.269]pahgre Uplift, through which it has incised Westwater Canyon. At Little Dolores beach, Leif picks a blue thistle for good luck before we push off for Outlaw Cave. There, under a blackened ceiling, sit a potbelly stove and two rusty beds. Antique bottles litter the floor. Legend holds that two brothers robbed a bank in Vernal, Utah, and later hid out here for eighteen months around 1913. Back then only a few intrepid souls would have ventured this far, for the rapids had already splintered several boats.
In fact, Westwater was long known as Hades Canyon. Cut into precambrian rocks nearly two billion years old, Westwater is a three-mile gash in a massive bench of sandstone. As the molten sun glares off granite-veined, fluted black schist, it resembles the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon. The biggest rapids occur where the river exposes still harder lava intrusions into this already resistant rock. Where it dives into this defile, the river narrows from three hundred to less than one hundred feet across.
The time has come. As jagged walls close in, we cinch our life preservers, further constricting our already tight chests. With Betty in the lead, we enter the narrowing gorge. Marble Canyon Rapid gives us a good ride with just enough spray to speckle our sunglasses. Chris and Leif click paddles in the air, blithely assuming that my oars alone can power us out of the current. But the flow is surprisingly swift and it requires all my strength to propel us across the sheer line, where we finally eddy out. As soon as we enter the eddy, Betty immediately pulls back into the current, on her way to Funnel Falls. There’s no time to scout or scheme: we’ll have to follow our leader.
The channel enters the dark gorge. Where an angry volcanic intrusion scars the sheer cliff, the river enters the [p.270] Underworld: the Rio Colorado becomes the River Styx. Accustomed to rapids that are spaced, I assume that there’ll be time between them to bail. But Betty’s boat barrels right into standing curler waves that toss boaters like Raggedy Ann dolls. The skewed “V” of the tongue licks hungrily into the wild water on the right, so I stay mid- stream. The guttural roar reverberates between the walls as we all strain to read the water. The river seems just to end—only froth is visible beyond the drop.
Shit. Funnel Falls is really a spillover dam. Worse, the accelerating current now makes it impossible to reach the tongue. The smooth flow bulges up in whales’ backs over rock ridges, then plunges into the trough. The roar drowns all other sounds. The best I can do is to avert the highest humps, the deepest drops, and the biggest holes below. The water is a glassy, deceptively smooth mass that plunges six feet. At the bottom a huge wave curls back. “Straighten out!” Leif screams. My hands freeze at the oars.
We enter the spillway at a 45 degree angle, not straight on so that our bow could blast through. The curved wall of water slams the side, slapping me to the rubber floor. River pours over the tube. The boat slows and one side rises. Chris grips the rope. No time to high side. I grab for the oars.
At last the hole spits us out. The spare oar has broken loose, but there’s no way to reach it. Worse, we’re full of water, dead weight in the rampant current. The river sweeps us along, encumbered by several hundred pounds of ballast, toward the worst rapid on the run: Skull. While Leif and Chris bail madly, I heave my body into the oars. Arms whirling like a windmill, Betty waves us in. Hard strokes haul us across the current.
In no hurry to see Skull Rapid, I pick my way over black [p.271] rocks too hot to touch. Sheer walls constrict the entire river into something resembling a narrow flume below a floodgate. At the bottom a deep hole churns into angry turbulence. To the right lurks the Room of Doom where an eddy swirls within a sheer-walled cavity. Beyond the millrace looms a jagged wall—the Rock of Shock—where the current piles up. Skull derives its name from a sheep that, trapped in the Room, left its bleached skull there as a warning.
My belly tightens and even Betty looks pale. Though the roar limits communication, her face says: “If you almost went over in Funnel, you’ll flip here for sure.” This is no place for mistakes. Boaters who’ve ended up in the Room of Doom have clung to rocks for hours, even days, until someone could reach them with ropes. It does look possible to cheat Skull to the left, here the drop is less drastic and the waves are less daunting. This plan should keep us away from both the Room and the wall. But getting set up for this shot poses a problem. It’s tough to work against the current to get positioned. And it’ll be tricky to shoot straight out from the bank, cut across the current to the precise spot, I spin, and then slice left down the chute. We’re threading a course between Scylla and Charybdis—between a wicked jetty and a whirlpool that devours sailors.
I lean as hard as I can into my new, untested, nine-foot oars. Feet wedged under the thwart, faces furrowed, Leif and Chris peddle us into the swift current. This is the spot. Now…down the chute. Barking commands, I heave power strokes away from the maelstrom. The paddlers dig in with equal fury. We skirt the turbulence but graze the jetty, which spins our bow downstream. I bury my left oar, registering the strain in my shoulder socket. Leif and Chris swivel back to face the bow as we skirt the mound of river along the [p.272] Rock of Shock.
We whoop to celebrate before we look back to see how the larger boat will fare. To our surprise, hot-dogging kayakers come shooting right into the seething madness, helmets nearly submerged in the spray. One kayak flips. I cringe as the current sucks it upside-down right toward the Rock. At the last minute the kayaker rights himself, grinning, oblivious to his close call. Moments later Betty’s boat enters the flume, gaining momentum to power through the turbulence. Legs fly up as her raft hits a big wave, then fists thrust skyward as she emerges tight side up. When she nears, the two crews pitch buckets of river at each other, releasing tensions.
Sock It To Me, Bowling Alley, and other rapids extend the rollicking ride, but the fury is over. Spectacular red cliffs embellish the last five miles to Rose Ranch, where the others end their run. As we say our goodbyes, I thank them for a rip-roaring ride. Though the unrelenting wind tempts me to stop here until it does relent, the allure of a rarely-boated stretch pulls me onward, alone but not lonely.
Where the canyon widens again, the river broadens as its current slows to where it’s no help against the wind. One channel heads south, another veers west around an island that promises some shelter, though not enough. Once more the wind forces me off the river, leaving me with almost thirty miles to cover on the last day.
Bleached grasses droop down the cutbank, their roots hanging like dusty wires. I scramble up a beaver slide, rope in hand. Because it’s not grazed, this island looks pristine. Tall native grasses wave in thick clumps that bend beneath my sandals. Its leaves swept closed, a squawbush flexes in the wind. Green caterpillars have stripped some of its leaves, exposing the dark-red berries. These early fruits are old [p.273] friends. On many a hot day their tang has stimulated saliva to slake thirst.
When the wind abates, the late-day light shimmers on the river, allowing the eye to trace the flow of gusts as they roughen its surface. Dust in the air mutes the colors, graying and purpling the red rocks in the distance. Southwest of here the volcanic La Sal peaks rise like pyramids; even on their northern slopes the snow is almost gone. While the daylight lingers, cliff swallows swoop in their characteristic long arcs, each ending in a bank and climb.
The dreamy twilight turns golden, then grainy like an old sepia photograph. Soon the waxy moon spotlights the river’s boils and swirls. Nearly invisible, a great blue heron stalks in the waning twilight. When I make the slightest move, the heron flows into flight, its wings making the slightest rustle. It trails raucous “graks,” alarm calls well known to river runners.
Young herons must invest more time fishing than older, experienced ones. I’ll never know whether this was a young bird, possibly working overtime because the afternoon winds made it difficult to fly or to see prey, or an old one, its eyesight still keen, that’s learned to stalk by moonlight.
Another day dawns with brilliant sunshine. Tan and green spiders from the grasses, their webs sparkling with beads of dew, have commandeered the Canyon Wren. Given the keen sensitivity of spiders to the slightest vibration, these stowaways freeze as soon as I touch the rope. Too often our lives become spider webs of precautions, attempts to register every threat through its subtle vibrations.
As I flick the spiders out, one by one, they bounce on the river’s surface and scoot for the nearest cattail. Spiders rank among the most efficient land predators anywhere, but on this island they neither compete with, nor get eaten by, lizards, [p.274] which hunt both bugs and spiders. Islands without lizards often harbor a hundred times more spiders than those with them.
For the next twelve miles, the broad brown river meanders through open ranch country. Buttes of Morrison shales and cliffs of red Kayenta and Wingate sandstone rise beyond the verdant banks where two-rut roads wander down to the river’s edge. The chugging of pumps heralds ranches.
Two turkey vultures, an unusual sight in these parts, roost in a dead cottonwood while another gorges on a fish. These are large black birds, smaller only than condors and eagles. When they feast on larger animals, these scavengers plunge their nearly featherless heads deep into the carcass. As their bare heads get exposed to the sun, heat and dryness inhibit the growth of bacteria or parasites picked up during feeding.
Vultures circle, often in flocks, riding the thermals for hours until one bird locates a carcass. Though vultures possess an acute sense of smell, they can’t sniff out carrion from great heights. If they don’t find food, they may practice “piracy,” or kleptoparisitism, whereby they force a nesting great blue heron to regurgitate food to feed their own young. In part because they’re trusting of humans, who often dread them as symbols of death, and in part because they’re ugly, turkey vultures once declined to a point where they appeared on the Audubon Society’s Blue List.
Before long Cisco Wash enters on the right. Bisected by Interstate 70, the Cisco Desert looks like barren hills of clay. Despite limited forage, these hundred thousand or so acres are favored by white-tailed prairie dogs. But decades of overgrazing by sheep plus several dry years have diminished the already minimal forage plants. One result was a dramatic die-off of prairie dogs, those ground-dwelling squirrels that sit [p.275] up and wag their tails, wrestle like puppies, and kiss with their lips parted. Cuteness is not the issue, however, for these rodents provide essential food for other wild critters.
Like magpies and ravens, prairie dogs have suffered the consequences of human ignorance. Somewhere along the dusty trail, ranchers declared war on them and enlisted government exterminators. The resulting onslaught—enlisting 132,000 killers in 1920 alone—has included bombing, gassing, drowning, target shooting, germ warfare, poisoned food, and even a huge vacuum device that sucks the dogs from their burrows, still alive. Our tax dollars at work.
Rancher folklore holds that these rodents compete with livestock for forage, but research suggests that prairie dogs actually improve range by aerating and fertilizing the soil to promote more mixed plant communities. One Forest Service study, for instance, concludes that both “wildlife and domestic livestock preferentially feed on these prairie dog colonies.” Yet the killing continues, led not only by ranchers but by “sportsmen” who blow the dogs to pieces with telescopic rifles. South of here in Naturita, Colorado, each year hundreds of hunters converge for a slaughter that seems to vent anger and indulge a need for power. In the West especially this mentality may be a holdover from the pioneer attitude that anything wild should be subdued. For similar reasons many ranchers kill other “varmints”—including weasels, badgers, skunks, foxes, and jackrabbits.
Prairie dogs are the primary prey of endangered black-footed ferrets, a weasel-like mammal now proliferating in captivity. Reflecting current theory in population biology, Jean Akens and Dave May observe in Canyon Legacy that when vegetarians decline, so do carnivores: “One naturally thinks of predators as ‘controlling’ the populations of prey [p.276] species.” In fact, simplistically, the opposite is nearer the truth: “the availability of prey species controls the number of predators.” This assumes, of course, that people are not also killing off the predators.
By the early 1980s biologists feared that black-footed ferrets had become extinct—victims of overgrazing, drought, plague, canine distemper, and the extermination of prairie dogs. But eighteen survivors were captured alive and bred in captivity. Under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these ferrets multiplied like people. Their reintroduction poses problems, however, for few large prairie dog towns remain and many of these experience recurrent epidemics. If the Bureau of Land Management cooperates by reducing domestic sheep, the Cisco Desert could become a prime habitat for the ferrets’ comeback in the wild.
With oars tucked behind my knees, the current spins the Canyon Wren like an air mattress bobbing on the Gulf Stream. After days on the river, I grow close to it, adopting its muddy and ruddy hues. The oars stir the total fluidity; unguided by thought, I make contact with water and earth and air. Whereas confronting the dark trench of rapids calls for concentration on every rock, wave, and eddy, drifting occasions a different engagement, an intimacy that allows me to row by feel.
Discovering how much I can rely on myself, how I can row a river alone, frees me when I reenter society. When I know that I can handle the unforeseen, I feel more free to take risks. Most of all, greater intimacy with nature seems to enlarge the possibilities for intimacy with people.
Colder, freer of flotsam yet loaded with silt, the Dolores River enters on the left. Nearby Dewey Spring attracted early settlers whose log cabins still stand beneath ancient cottonwoods. Dewey Bridge, though bypassed by a contemporary [p.277] cement structure, still spans the river. For decades this picturesque one-lane suspension bridge was the only crossing between Fruita, Colorado, and Moab, Utah—a distance of one hundred and ten river miles.
This final stretch is the most scenic. As it streams toward the heart of the Colorado Plateau, the river winds through Professor Valley. Here it presents a world of strong colors: brown river, white beaches, green banks, and rich red outcroppings such as Fisher Towers and Castle Rock, all set beneath a deep blue sky. For some reason, the usual winds don’t blow. It’s hot but the rapids toward the end deliver welcome spray. Remarkably, given the development in nearby Moab, the Colorado is secluded today.
Lured downstream, I reluctantly stroke into the shallows at Sandy Beach takeout above the boundary to Arches National Park. As I unstrap the frame, other boaters exude a hearty spirit as they tear down their rigs. One crusty river runner, her sun-streaked hair swinging under a cap, celebrates with stories. She tells of a commercial trip that flipped in Funnel Falls and spent the night in the gorge until a search and rescue team could reach the hapless boaters.
Come to think of it, we were lucky. If we’d flipped in the half-mile inner gorge, we probably couldn’t have pulled out of that seven-mile-an-hour millrace before we’d have had to abandon the raft above Skull. Even if we’d been able to extract an overturned boat from the channel, the three of us probably couldn’t have righted it in deep water. Neither the BLM brochure nor the river guidebook mentions these possibilities.
As I swig beer in the shade, a couple of seasoned boaters from Moab comment on dams. Since 1884, when the first major dam was completed in California, thirty-seven thou-[p.278]sand dams have been built west of the Mississippi. Over a century, Western water experts Donald Worster and Marc Reisner both note, the West has lived a paradox. It considers itself a place of freedom and democracy but has become a hydraulic society dependent on government water projects for the privileged few. Christian traditionalist C. S. Lewis observed that “what we call man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument.”
Sinking water tables, half-filled reservoirs, and rivers reduced to trickles all suggest that the West faces severe water shortages not just for its burgeoning human population but for its flora and fauna as well. Climate changes could further intensify shortages. Worst of all, the West’s water laws allow far-away entities like Las Vegas to claim any water that is not demonstrably serving a “beneficial” function. Beneficial, of course, has traditionally been defined strictly in economic terms with no regard for recreation, let alone for other species. If we’re to maintain the already minimum flows not just for river running but for sport fish, game animals, vanishing species, and native plants, this definition will need substantial revision.
The romantic in me wants to rhapsodize as the Colorado rolls and roils, now a dozen times more muddy than the Mississippi, carrying the continent to the Pacific. But the realist knows that it drops its load in Lake Powell, where polluted sediments settle on industrial junk. Barely a trickle crosses the Mexican border, where the once-mighty river hasn’t reached the sea since the early 1960s.
Despite such depletion, even degradation, the Colorado Plateau remains an enormously enchanting region, a truly magical place that takes hold of the soul.
The Swerve in the Moonlight
[p.279]My tires whir like June bugs as I bike Zion’s curvy red road. While cool air streams by my face, a breeze animates tall foliage aglow with stored sunshine. Pink maples and yellow box elders linger, weathering the frosts, their fluorescence soft against the dusky walls. The deer are already browsing as I coast by, bugs in my nose. As the canyon walls tighten, the domed rims lean in. Far above, the sunset gilds the Great White Throne.
Soon I enter the Temple of Sinawava where, like waterspouts after a shower, cool air pours from clifftops. Small fish, probably dace or minnows, silver the shallows. Below the Narrows, bubbles accompany crickets that chirp a twilight melody. Bats swoop and flutter amid gnats that bob in the dusk. As a beaver gnaws its trunk, a golden-hearted cottonwood glows its last for the day.
High up on the rim, a still-invisible moon blanches slickrock that gleams like snow. As the moonbeams creep downward, silvered ponderosa pines far up the cliffs become frosted blue spruces. The light becomes palpable, the rock only a chimera.
The Paiutes called Zion 100 Goon, “the quiver,” a place to “go out the way you came in.” They didn’t stay after dark but tonight, though the Great White Throne now stands in shadow, the spirits seem supremely benign.
On the way out I sail through the liquid moonlight. With the traffic gone for the night, my senses open wide in amazement. A sandstone symphony plays music for my eyes, melodies I hear with my heart.
[p.280]Antlers burst from the darkness. I lunge for the handlebars, grip the brakes hard, and veer. Hooves click and clunk on pavement as the buck bounds past, oblivious of me. With a timely swerve, man and beast share the way.
As the poet Rumi observes, “There are many ways to kiss the ground.”