Blog Posts from the 2011-12 Source to Sea trip

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Logistics are Heating Up

If you've ever tried to plan a weekend outing, you quickly realize that there's a lot of planning to do: What will we eat?  How do we get there?  What will the weather be like? Now imagine planning a four month long trip, most of it in the backcountry, involving 5 states, Mexico, people from all over the country, kayaks, packrafts, rafts, snowshoes (I hope not), solar panels, cameras, park service regulations, and bean can stoves, all while carrying your poop in a box (or PVC pipe).  The logistics are by far the most complex of any trip I've tried to plan, but the basic concept is simple: go downstream.

Zak created a map of where we'll be, and I've posted a calendar of when we'll be there.  Zak is also testing out our brand new Inuit 14.5 kayaks, courtesy of Liquidlogic (


Friday, September 30, 2011

Cataract Warm Up

I just got back from a 4 day pilot run of the new Inuit kayak in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. Peter Benedict, my old kayak coach and brother of Liquidlogic's Shane Benedict, allowed me to come along on a trip he was leading for the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. It was great to finally run some whitewater with my sister Mollie, a junior at CRMS, and to get a preview of the paddle to come.


The boat held up well in Cat's whitewater--almost as technical as any we are going to encounter on our source-to-sea trip--slicing through waves and punching holes. It glided like butter through 40 miles of reservoir, even if my aching shoulders tell a different story, and had plenty of space for gear storage. But that was on a 100 mile, 4 day trip in September. Now the trick is going to be packing it for 1700 miles and 4 months through the winter...


Thursday, October 20, 2011

In the desert now

We're camped across the river from La Barge, the first town the river has gone right through. It was pretty much dark when we floated through and I almost hit a beaver with my kayak, so we didn't stop. So far we've spent 5 days in the Wind River Mountains (snowy, cold and spectacular), 5 days packrafting (down wet rocks, endless meanders and gorgeous country,) and 2 days kayaking (faster, less effort and much more aesthetically appealing). The river environment has changed from alpine wilderness to aspen covered foothills to the cattle covered sage flats where we are now. Most nights have been below freezing but the days are warm enough when we paddle. Wildlife abounds and the other night I woke up to Zak yelling at a moose walking about 10 feet from our sleeping bags. It's fun to see people's reactions when we say we're going to Mexico. Today we're going across the first reservoir of the trip, Fontenelle. Hopefully our sore shoulders can handle the flatwater...



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Through the Uintas

The miracles of technology are such that the tendrils of 3G service reach into the depths of Swallow Canyon, where we are drinking coffee on a sandy beach. After long days paddling across the Flaming Gorge Reservoir we've slackened our pace and have been leisurely exploring side canyons. Zak's dad and friend joined us on the reservoir, where we learned about the proposed 500+ mile water pipeline from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Colorado's Front Range. This project is still very much in planning stages but has the potential to significantly reduce the flow of the Green. When we got to the Flaming Gorge Dam, we were greeted by two sheriffs who said they would rather drive us across the dam than us walk. What would have been a grueling three hour portage was an exciting 5 minute ride holding onto our boats in the back of the Dagget County sheriff's SUV, lights flashing all the way down to the river. You can blame the institutions that put a huge dam in a beautiful canyon (and we did), but all the people we've met have been exceedingly generous. We're starting down the Canyon of Lodore tomorrow, which will be the first major whitewater of the trip.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

Extreme Flatwater

It’s been a little over a month now that we’ve been out here paddling down this Greenish River. Time to take stock. Since we packrafted out of the Wind River Mountains where the Green was a near-vertical brook tumbling through fallen trees, boulder piles, and snowfields we’ve seen over 600 miles of country, two reservoirs, and a few scattered bridges near the couple of towns we passed. Upon leaving the mountains, the river flattened out promptly into a meandering mirror for the banks to look themselves over. And it’s stayed that way.


Rapids? Some wave trains here and there, a few boulders to dodge. But barely enough excitement to get the blood flowing. If you want rapids, this isn’t the source for you. There’s been so much flat paddling that we’ve taken to calling this sport “extreme flatwater.” A sport that we’re sure will soon overtake the daydreams of adrenaline sports enthusiasts everywhere looking for the newest, wildest fix.

Now it might take some time to catch on. We’re well aware of the drawbacks. It may not have all the usual selling points: no parachutes to fail, no avalanches to ride, no waterfalls to get happily pummeled under. But it is extreme. Very. Why? Because this sport provides the opportunity to experience something even more dangerous than broken bones to the well-being of otherwise seemingly sane minded individuals: time and space to think. And observe. And float. And think some more. Sometimes more profound, sometimes less.

Important questions do arise though. For instance, what are the ethics of blogging? Is it the river trip’s equivalent of a Facebook status update? An attempt to find justification for whatever it is you happen to be doing by forcing those absent to become aware of the fact that you are indeed still doing something. Perhaps. These remain open questions, unresolved.

In extreme flatwater, the best questions remain unresolved. That way they can be recycled each day of paddling through flat water, moving very slowly, with plenty of twists and turns, towards that still far off sea. Another problem: Why are we doing this? A good and difficult question, best pondered while cursing over a pile of stinking, smoking tamarisk twigs trying to get a pot of river water to boil. And the instant refried beans to follow don’t always provide a satisfactory answer. Especially not the next morning.

But as I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m going to propose a reply, a reason for paddling all these weeks and maybe also the factor that makes this sport so extreme. Love. Love of the River. Now I hesitated to use such an antiquated word. (The word ‘love’ that is. ‘River’ isn’t antiquated yet, but that’s not to say it won’t be soon.) My generation is cautious about using it. And not without good reason. For us, it reeks of naivety and unseemly emotion, the domain of Indy rock bands and their superior counterparts, country musicians. It’s for the emos. For the rest of us—those who are capable of exercising some restraint with the publicizing of our feelings—it’s clearly better to signify our appreciation of something by slapping a guilt-free, virtual thumbs-up of approval on it. We “like” it. With our Facebooks. A youtube video of a baby monkey riding backwards on a pig, for example. Liking is harmless and entertaining: nobody gets hurt.

But here I am, admitting it to the internet and all other interested parties. I don’t just like this river. I love it. Call me names if you wish, but if it’s not love, then what is it? It’s not ambition or determination alone that get feet slammed into frozen shoes every morning. It’s not pure masochism that keeps pushing sore shoulder blades through poppings and creakings: for 30 miles a day: against the wind: on flatwater. And it’s not simple pleasure that is felt when a bend in the river reveals another abstraction of a bygone era: the Beautiful. When evening’s electric emphasis discovers the gold in cottonwood leaves, suddenly. The feeling is something closer to deep gratitude with a sense of being undeservedly chosen. Wonder. And that beauty returns, in some form or another, with every day spent on the living river.

Besides, what, other than love, would drive somebody to spend four months out here floating through the winter? Insanity, boredom. Probably. But those things can lead to love too. Freud might blame it on a failed love of another type attempting to make itself sublime. But what would love’s success look like anyway, sublime or not? One thing that's extreme about extreme flatwater is the difficulty of failing. You just have to paddle. That’s all. That challenge is hard to capture on a GoPro. But there is also the extreme difficulty that arises if you spend too much time paddling. The difficulty of loving anything mortal, the river included. Such an act comes with the fear and trembling (that’s right adrenaline junkies) of admitting that another's life has taken hold of your own. Taken hold by giving unconditionally while, at the same time, needing to be cared for. Fear because the living river has become inseparable from life itself, and yet both remain finite and fragile. It comes with fits and stammers and the surveying of escape routes. There are many. But if you choose to stay with this liquid love, to see it through, then it seems there will necessarily be rising responsibly, loss, and the need to surrender among it’s many joys. And this is what extreme flatwater is all about: the rush that comes with the loss of the control that would otherwise consume so much of our lives, the riding of the waves (or in this case the slow current) of the river towards its usurpation of our ego’s power, the high that is the abdication of our sovereignty. In the name of the river. In the name of love.

Alright, enough jabber. Things are getting a little country in here. Which is easy to do out here in the country. And all this commentary is making the whole feeling doubtful. (Maybe it would be better to just decide to really really like the river instead.) I don’t know. But I can say that the last four days floating through Desolation Canyon alone (Will and I decided to tackle it solo) have brought up all these concerns. It’s been a powerful few days of moonlight in the trees and silence hanging from the canyon walls like a blanket. 80-some miles of seeing evidence of other people only in footprints and airplanes. Perhaps the lack of company has got me thinking about love. Plato, after all, claimed the movement of love is driven onward by a lack. And maybe he knew. If so, then what calls us flatists to the desert river, again and again, may very well be a lack. A lack in our too civilized hearts of rich solitude, space, sunlight, and the quiet murmur of waters. But there is no lack, it seems to me, of profit, of comfort, of progress, of green grass or fossilized gas, the reasons some people would give for wanting to sacrificing the free gifts of the free river to the free market. In fact, there is an excess of these things that our capitalists say are lacking; they’re just poorly distributed at the moment. Nevertheless, these reasons still convince people somehow. An estimated 7 to 9 billion dollar pipeline from Flaming Gorge in Utah to Colorado’s front range wants to begin to dry these canyons that have been our home for the last two weeks. And oil and gas interests want to continue to encroach on the wild boarders of Desolation Canyon. Such threats to a loved one, in the name of cheap energy and Denver lawns actually do give kick of fear and despair to us flatwater enthusiasts. The intensity of which is on par with running waterfalls. So we pray and hope and blog.

But we’re cheered by this fact: there is more paddling to do. We have Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons ahead. For the next 120 miles, there won’t even be a riffle. Just the thought of it makes my palms sweat and gets my heart pounding. Extreme flatwater. Soon to be all the rage.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dominion Over Feast and Foul: a lesson in Eco-nomics

We leave the town of Green River, Utah paddling noticeably heavier boats.

This could simply be due to the 12 days worth of supplies we just picked up that are supposed to last us through 3 canyons and across 180 miles of flat water. But there is a good chance we are also feeling the after-effects of the Green River Feast, a wild attempt to regain some of the calories we paddled and shivered away since we left the Wind Rivers. The 24 hour stop-over in civilization left us packing some heat. BTU’s in reserve courtesy of the bacon cheeseburger, fries, and Polygamy Porter we both had for lunch, the corn dog and 2 gas station Tornados (rhymes with desperados) we both had in the early evening, the double green chili cheeseburger, fries, onion rings, and shake we both had for dinner, and the chirizo, egg, potato, cheese burrito we both had for breakfast. Having eaten identical meals for so long, we seemed to have developed identical tastes even when there was a menu available. Or else our eyes were just attracted to the most calorie dense names.

Though Will is processing the grease better than I am, the low-riding boats are certainly suffering the weighty emotional trauma of what our friend Jonathan Cooley calls “McGret.” Yet neither saturated fats nor groceries seemed to tell the whole story. Something else is at play. There is a good chance we may also be feeling the burden of our new-found fame. After our 4 day solo stint in Desolation Canyon, we learned via iPhone that an article about our trip had been published online, a short video with footage we shot a few weeks earlier had been edited, and AM country stations across Colorado were announcing the expedition. After Desolation, all this was stardom. Culture shock, to say the least.

Heads spinning, we try to make some sense of our situation. The article was helpful. It mentioned that we had one of the most sought after research positions in the West. This both flattering to hear and disturbing because now we have to add the fear of competition to the list of dangers. We feel under-qualified for such a title. And confused about where exactly our “research” is being directed. Mostly we’ve been paddling. Some solace was found the the comment section below the article. There the people were confused as well. There we threads arguing about where the Colorado starts, some compliments, words of advice, and this unnerving remark: “That’s not research, that’s a vacation.” We swallowed nervous lumps in our throat. Somebody’s on to us. Quick, quick back to the river before were replaced by more scholarly candidates. We make our get away.

As we float down towards Canyonlands, we try to digest all these shocks to the system. Conversations circle around the same questions. What are we doing here? Is it research? Is it a vacation? Progress is slow.

A few days later, recovered slightly, it’s clear we’re on vacation. We sit shoeless on a beach sipping a beer as the sun sets over the canyon rim. This is exactly what we’d want to be doing on a spring break from school but extended for 4 months. But there’s a catch: reservoirs. And the eventual slogging across a dry delta in Mexico. Not the average kayaker’s idea of vacation. Could it be research then? Without a research question, data analysis, and the production peer reviewed report? It’s not even clear what we’d be researching if this were research. The river is kind of a broad topic.

Our Spot message for the next night reads, “Nothing happened today.” Finally. The most important day of the trip. It took 40 days and 40 nights but we are finally have nothing to report. “The nothing nothinged,” as Heidegger would say and we were there to (not) see it. Absurd statements, yes, but I think I may have found the subject of our researches. Possibly the reason why our position is so sought after. We here to research nothing. Now it’s clear that this vacation has turned to delirium. We’re chasing mirages caused by too much sleep caused by too much unstructured time compensated for by too much caffeine. We sit on the beach trying to make sense of the message we just sent to the internet.

We hope somebody will ask: “What do you mean nothing happened?”

“Good question,” we’ll respond, “not exactly sure. The right combination of wind (0 mph), humidity (0%), and updates about the Republican presidential bid (none).”

Being persistent, our questioner persists. “But surely something happened.”

Fair enough. Meals were cooked, events transpired, miles were covered, time was wasted. But nothing was produced. And it was produced without flaw. A nothing of value that is. Nothing that could be sold. A few memories formed, a few photos taken, a few ideas passed back and forth. Truths flickering on the surface of the water concealed in their own revelation. Joyce’s “Coloured signs,” reflecting on the river, “snotgreen [flowing below the tamarisk], bluesilver [below the sky], rust [below the towering sandstone walls, rich in iron oxide].” A language for the eyes to interpret, waiting to be brought into speech. There’s not too much of it out here. These sights go unspoken. We paddle the afternoon in silence. The last name in the rafter registration box at Mineral Bottom signed in over three weeks ago. We meet no one.

The next day, we part ways for 50 miles in Still Water Canyon. There’s still water in here, in case you were worried, and it’s still wasting our time. But there is no place I’d rater be, nothing I’d rather be doing. For that’s what I’m doing just now. In this place, and according to our research, there is little that is more important. Maybe it’d be better to say I’m spending my time wisely than wasting it. Paddling the wilderness river it seems there is little difference. I’m not here to invest capital back into my future in hopes of gaining some kind of return. I’m not here to grow my bank account or climb the career ladder. I’m here, first and foremost, to be here. Any investment is secondary. So if you view wilderness exploration through an economic lens, it is a wasting of time, a squandering of capital never to be regained. “Expenditure without reserve,” shouts Georges Bataille. The only place where divine intimacy has ever been accessible to humans. Go out and produce nothing. To the wilderness, for example.

This may sound like empty linguistic play, but I think the difficulty of answering the question “Why wilderness?” without falling back into economic metaphors (talking of its value or its worth) is linked to a deep problem in the conservation movement’s self-understanding. The economic model is always drawing discussion of wild lands back into its calculating claws. We want wilderness to be good for something. We want to quantify the ecosystem services of a place, or its recreational value, or its number of endangered species. We want to be able to tally the cost of altering it by comparing the value of the undeveloped to the developed. In dollars and cents. All of these are fine and important approaches to take but they shouldn’t be allowed to have precedent. We shouldn’t protect an untrammeled piece of land or free river only if it contains a certain number of endangered species or will draw a certain number of fee-paying tourists. We should protect it simply because it is, because it is good for nothing, for the doing of nothing. We should protect it because it has a right to exist without producing anythings for us humans.

This, I decide, is what I’m interested in researching. But in producing nothing, it comes closer to a vacation. Research produces a product: results, information, numbers. A vacation produces nothing. Economically speaking, it’s waste of time. But what is responsibility to the economy? Justice? Beauty? Play? Forgiveness? Hope? Grand words begin to circle like buzzards, sometimes almost coming close enough to make our their feathers. Can the economy understand these things? If these words still have any meaning, then need they always produce a quantifiable return or have a measurable, researchable value? And if not, then why should environmental ethics be forced to play a different game?

Will and I meet back up at the confluence of the Colorado and the Green. Looking upstream towards Moab, Grand Junction, Aspen, Vail, and my hometown of Glenwood Springs, one of the grand words returns. Hope. We’ve been reading about the Colorado River, and from what we’ve heard, it has little left to be hopeful about. Problems, conflicts abound. We’ve seen some of them and we’re about to see more. Tailings piles polluting the river, trans basin diversions to Colorado’s Front Range, dams, promises of drought and increasing populations, dying fish. The list goes on. But were not here to increase our proficiency at Apocalyptic visions, four years of living in Colorado Springs gave us enough practice at that. We’re here to live as well. Before the last judgement. Before the end of days. Sometimes reading well-intentioned environmental writers leaves us with the same message of our Harold Campings. The end is coming. All is doomed. Fear all. Trust no one. Make a survival stash. And while your at it recycle (or repent) will make a difference. Motivating perhaps, but in a rather hopeless way. Only learning about the problems, it’s easy to find reasons to not care, to think it’s too late. But the river tells a different story. It took forty days of paddling but the other night, when nothing much was happening, I though I heard the river whispering: “I’m not dead yet.”

We begin the descent in to Cataract Cayon. Big drops, big waves, the benign, low-water version of Satan’s Gut. Whoops and good fun. The best rapids of the trip. Distraction. And then, we catch a foul odor on the wind. The finger tips of Lake Powell have come up the river to meet us bringing with them their Midas’ touch that turns beaches to cracked, putrid mud flats, rapids to a stagnant pool of scuz, and an otherwise useless desert canyon in to a bustling desert sea--of productivity. Yes, it only takes one little concrete plug to do what politicians are always talking about doing: to create jobs. The reservoir provides otherwise nonexistent employment to dam operators, campground hosts, speedboat manufacturers, oil drillers to run the speedboats, fish and wildlife biologists trying to save native species downstream in the Grand Canyon, Milwaukee breweries, rangers, tazer technicians, etc. This pond also works tirelessly to collect silt and salt, erode beaches in the Grand, give exotic species a home, store and evaporate billions of gallons of water, and produce electricity with a similar amount of carbon emissions to coal (from the decomposing organic material underwater), or so read. I begin to feel a little queasy. But this is progress, industry, profit, what’s supposed to make sense in a calculable, rational format. Silt banks sluff into the water. My stomach flips. Not knowing what’s wrong, I recall a line from the ever-rosy Bob Dylan offering a diagnosis. “Hope’s what you need, man, and you need it bad.”

That word made more sense before we hit lake. When there was less calculation involved, more nothing. Back on the living river, we moved too fast. 25 miles a day, urged on by our Grand launch date. Half a mile a day would have been better. because in those useless canyons we met with a fickle and mysterious companion: the future, towards which hope is always directed. We passed alluring side canyons, ancient ruins, inviting campsites, Turk’s Heads, Candlestick Towers, Cleopatra’s Chairs, Mazes, that we had to leave unexplored and unresearched. Reasons to return. Reasons to keep vacationing, keep paddling and to recycle even. Reasons to live.

Still we are well aware that years wouldn’t be enough time to exhaust the secrets of these wild canyons. These canyons are alive. They hold their secrets in reserve like the face of a friend about to speak. If we are going to understand their “value” we need more rigorous research methods than the scientific method alone will allow. Methods that grant for the canyon the space to exist on its own: incalculable and incapable of being understood with statistics. If we’re going to have an environmental ethics, we need to have a way of knowing (or greeting) our wild places that lets them be enjoyed as they are, not simply studied. Let alone flooded. If you want to get to know your sister, you don’t research her. You don’t seek out hourly brain scans of her neural activity. You talk to her. You waste time with her. You certainly don’t demand she become economically beneficial to you, that she work for you. Is the river any different? If you want to get to know the river, you float on it, camp next to it, waste time with it. Best done, you leave no trace.

But unfortunately, our research on the river was cut short. It disappeared into lake. We made the transition at dusk. An attempt to scout a campsite leaves me knee deep in rank-smelling quicksilt. We paddle on into the dark between growing silt banks. The dead silence of the place swallows the few words we speak. Water rises to meet the cliffs. Flashlight beams offer little in the way of campsites.

We paddle on into the night. We’re 30 miles from Hite where we know there’s solid ground. 170 miles from the Blockage: the dam. 12 hours from dawn.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Lake of Liberty

It holds nine trillion gallons, our river guidebook says. This means nothing to me. 180 miles long, 1800 miles of shoreline, it mentions. I’m starting to get an idea of the enormity of the thing. Six or seven days, we figure. If the weather holds. But it’s not until my back and shoulders and hands ache from paddling into the wind all day that I begin to comprehend what Lake Powell actually is. Liberated from the twin tyrannies of current and friction that constrain the movements of the river runner or hiker, the lake explorer is free to experience the desert in a craft as large and comfortable as the pocketbook allows. Direction of travel is unrestricted and motors are almost necessary. We arrive in 14 foot kayaks, traveling in the general direction of the sea. Darkness falls as we leave Cataract Canyon, groping our way by starlight between the narrow canyon walls. We are still riding the high from the biggest rapids all trip; we sober up as the current slackens and walls of silt grow higher on both sides. There’s nowhere to camp in the steep, soggy mess so we press on, down to Dark Canyon where I camped three years ago, a little stream running into the Colorado. That confluence is maybe sixty feet underwater now, result of several big winters in the mountains, canyon now an arm of the reservoir. We search in vain for a break in the stinking muck, finally sinking up to our knees in the ooze as we haul gear high up a slick bank to level ground. “Where’s the firepan?” I ask Zak, the method required on heavily traveled rivers to dispose of ashes. He breaks sticks, throwing them on the silt. “Somebody already left a trace,” he says bitterly, words lingering in the unnatural stillness of the canyon. We place an entire dead bush on the fire, illuminating our world for a half minute. I want to hate Lake Powell. Hate the way it stifles the rapids of Cataract, the way it buries Glen Canyon under houseboats and sediment, the way it accepts the warm, muddy waters of the Colorado, Dirty Devil, Escalante, and San Juan and returns only cold, clear water at the whim of far away cities. But as I paddle down in the morning, views of the Henry Mountains between sheer walls, I begin to think that even if river has been replaced with reservoir, a beautiful canyon is still a beautiful canyon. Zak disagrees. “If you don’t have anything negative to say about it,” he opines, “don’t say anything at all.” We pass under a bridge, the only one for over 150 miles, upstream and what used to be down, and are mildly surprised to find Zak’s family waiting for us at the boat ramp. They’ve come to run the reservoir with us, parents in a motorized cataraft, sister in a long kayak like ours. When we paddle close to the raft, we receive handfuls of Oreos. This is dangerous. “You know,” I start, belly full, sunshine pouring down, polished Wingate cliffs stretching in every direction, “people come out here and do this for fun. I can kind of see how it would be nice.” Zak glares and we launch into a debate on the ethics of enjoying this place. Do we enjoy ourselves, accept this fate, do nothing? Assume change is impossible, be depressed, do nothing? Should we feel guilt? Do canyons have a right to exist? We rope Zak’s sister, Molly, into the discussion. She is 16 and paddles faster than we do. “It’s confusing,” she summarizes. “Maybe we should take some responsibility, try to change this. I don’t know.” We are alone on the water and all having a pretty good time, forgetting for a moment the canyon floor hundreds of feet below. I prop a disintegrating copy of John Wesley Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons on my boat, Powell on Powell, and try to imagine what floating down Glen Canyon would have been like. It sounds nice. I pretend I’m down there, winding around the golden cottonwoods, joining the handful of people who ran the river before ’63. I want to feel Ed Abbey’s rage at the dam, but it’s difficult to empathize with a place destroyed over twenty five years before I was born. I feel like I’ve lost something I never had. We round the corner and a small city comes into view, resolving itself into hundreds of houseboats vacant for the winter. The marina is miles fro the old riverbed and mostly deserted this time of year. We pull up our boats, build a fire, and make camp near a sign proclaiming all three acts illegal. The Podmores head back to Colorado. Just after nightfall, bold foxes lick our bowls and steal a bar or chocolate from my kayak. In the morning, Zak and I walk up to the gas station, the first building we’ve been inside of for ten days, and purchase two gallons of water, imported from California, twelve cans of 3.2% beer from the Front Range, and infant sized microwaveable burritos, origin unknown. We paddle in Lake Powell the way it was meant to be paddled, shirt off in the hot November afternoon, beer half consumed, water jugs untouched. We do not paddle more efficiently. Zak consults the map and announces that we’re behind schedule. “The good traveler has no schedule,” I suggest, quoting Lao-Tzu. I’m the slower half of the expedition, barely unzipping my drysuit by the time Zak has started a fire. He sounds annoyed. “Yeah, well we do.” We both know that our Grand Canyon launch date has been set for almost two years, a coveted permit Zak obtained by virtue of being the only person to apply for November 29th. Our boats move a little faster, not much, spurred by the thought of the hundred miles of flatwater between us and the dam. Another map check and we determine that we’re about halfway between the source and the sea, about 850 miles out of the 1700, give or take some miles. This news doesn’t really matter to us; it’s a abstract number among actual canyons and confluences. Fifty days of wear on our bodies and gear are more concrete. I feel hard lumps on my heels where they press into the floor of the boat. When I stand I wobble sometimes, and have to scramble up the nearest slope to reassure myself that my legs work. Each of my three pairs of socks smells like fish in different stages of decomposition; two pairs are unwashed since the Wind River Mountains. We feel like two of the luckiest people alive, even if we are on the reservoir. I stop paddling; the silence buzzes in my ears. There hasn’t been another boat since the marina. I yawn loudly and the echo returns four or five times, from every direction, so I do it again. “If drowned canyons could talk,” the sandstone repeats, melodramatically, “what would they say?” I wait for a moment, but the walls offer nothing original, and we labor on. The solitude lasts for a day, then houseboats and powerboats buzz by almost constantly. The canyon opens up and at the southwest end of Powell the flooding is more extensive. Reservoir arms stretch out of sight, buttes float in the center, inhabited by houseboaters in folding chairs. It’s even harder to imagine the river now. I linger to take pictures as Zak paddles mercilessly ahead. We pull into the Wahweap Marina, dwarfed by giant boats. Kayaks do not feel welcome here. We walk past swarms of Japanese tourists into the entrance of the Lake Powell Resort, where I almost stagger as I’m hit with a wave of thick, perfumed air. The lady at the desk pretends not to notice us walking around the lobby in half-zipped drysuits but reluctantly reveals information when pressed. “Camping?” she says, not quite masking her disgust, but she knows of a park a few miles away that’s “pretty much free, payment’s on the honor system.” We step back out to the marina and I’m struck by the vivid dystopian vision: an artificial sea in a barren wasteland, populated by aquatic robots, no human pilots in sight, triple smokestacks of a coal plant as a backdrop, all the more frightening because the experience is packaged as a vacation and people are pretending to enjoy themselves. Maybe I’ve been on the river too long. The dam presents its brutal concrete face, bristling with antennae, making no attempt to hide its functionality. We paddle up until our boats touch the line of jostling barriers, littered with stern warnings: VESSELS KEEP OUT. KEEP OUT SECURITY ZONE etc. etc. We are silent. I imagine snipers in the concrete bunker, beads trained on our temples, under strict orders from the Department of Homeland Security to pick off the captains of boats filled with ammonium nitrate that venture too close, thus ensuring America’s continued prosperity. Children throw rocks into the water, laughing and splashing on shore. They have not come from The Source and are carefree. There is nothing to say, only an heavy oppression coming in from the highway, airplanes, powerboats, electric wires, concrete, our ability to move crushed by the unmovable bureaucratic machine four decades ago. The space and light and liberty were all a sham, because we’re here at the locked gates trying to leave under our own power, the way we arrived, and are unable. We bob gently in our small plastic craft on the edge of this continental sea, profoundly powerless, witness to the injustice of it all, and paddle back through the wakes of tour boats. Forced by the canyon walls and legality, we must rely on internal combustion, load our kayaks on a friend’s car, drive forty five minutes around to Lee’s Ferry and get towed fifteen miles upriver in a motor boat to the base of Glen Canyon Dam. To escape Powell we submit to the forces of its creation. But back on the open water we will have the freedom to imbibe in the pleasures of civilized life, and when they become stifling after a hours or a day, we can leave, get in our boats and float on down that body of water sometimes known as the Rio Colorado. We are inextricably bound to this civilization, using and consuming its products, but almost alienated enough to examine it from the outside and question its foundation. Like the marina foxes, we exist on the periphery, subsisting on excess. I make no apology for this. In exchange for our meals we can offer society only an opportunity to live vicariously in this elemental world of water and rock - and the dangerous notion that life out here is as valid as life in there.

And so we go to lose ourselves for twenty five days in the Grand Canyon.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Grand

The Grand Canyon.  Far more able people than myself have boated, hiked, written, photographed, filmed, painted, and researched the shit out of the place.  There’s not much I can say about it that the annual tens of thousands who float it or the millions who visit the rim or the billions who have seen pictures of it don’t know already.  But when you’re really there, standing in six inches of snow watching the last light linger on the Coconino Plateau, it’s easy to fall under the spell of the cliche.  The Grand evokes superlatives ending in -est, feelings of inadequacy, monotony, sensitization, desensitization, desire to record and convey and live and relive the experience we vow will be repeated, one of these days. People

Suddenly surrounded by eleven other people, Zak and I are forced to communicate in ways other than abstract philosophy, puns, and grunting.  Everyone seems to understand.  It must be strange to suddenly be on the river, away from the ubiquitous hum of cities, but the transition to River Time takes only a few days.  You couldn’t ask for a much better group, willing to drop everything else to go sit in December shade. Food There are drybags, dryboxes, ammo cans, coolers, and crevices stuffed with bacon, eggs, flour, vegetables, coffee, beer, wine, Crisco, spices, a stovetop oven, a dutch oven, and so on.  The first few days I claim starvation, emaciation, and coming from The Source as reasons why I am entitled to extra portions of this feast, but the girls hold fast to their ration plan and soon my metabolism slows or the girls relent, I’m not sure which.  I stop paddling and start floating, forget about the thirty mile days and paddling into the night and the wind and the schedule and we aren’t going from source to sea anymore, we’re just on one of the most popular rafting trips in the world.


We watch Zak and Forest’s raft suspiciously; something is not right.  They both sit in the stern, reading, oars untouched.  The rapid approaches; will they react to the roar and oncoming waves?  The raft makes it through just fine.  The river is benevolent.  They call this Taoist rafting.

Later I climb aboard the raft to sample this emancipation from intentional direction.  Out of principle as well as laziness the oar blades don’t touch the water for at least an hour.  The boat follows the current, misses eddies, performs admirably.  The Tao, they claim, beaming.

The test comes when we drift too close to a sharp limestone wall.  All eyes are fixed on the impending collision of rubber, water, and rock.  Cracks form in our new-found faith; surely we’ll miss it but- a foot kicks out, we scrape and bounce off, new scratches are carved.  The river doesn’t give a damn about our theories. Wildlife With thirteen people around you don’t see much wildlife.  The most frequent sightings are mice, prudent enough to live next to the best kitchen spots on every beach.  For every four or five mice we feed one commits suicide in our dish buckets, perhaps depressed by this lifestyle.  Ravens are also constant visitors, waiting patiently on the cliff until we forget about them, swooping down to peck apart a bag of M&Ms.  The most welcome scavengers are ringtail cats.  A few times they rustle around in the dark, waving long fuzzy tails.  They could get away with anything out of sheer cuteness.


I float calmly in the surging eddy below Lava Falls, the biggest rapid on the entire river.  The yellow boat appears briefly on the horizon and then disappears for too long.  I wait until I see the bottom of the raft, then whistle three times as loud as I can, not the anyone could hear me over the noise of the rapid.  Girls and snacks float by and I sprint out to pick them up.  While on my way to help the half drowned rafters I pause to snatch a loaf of soggy bread from the river.  I don’t know why I bothered to grab that old bread.  An oar is broken and chocolate lost, but everyone is fine.  I knew we should have eaten that chocolate earlier. Dirt Two days before we exit the canyon there’s a blowout somewhere upstream and the water turns to chocolate milk, one last display of sediment transport before the reservoir.  We float through the too-familiar silt banks as the gradient mellows, last rapids buried.  As in Cataract, camps are scarce to nonexistent and we float into the dark.  I spot a white shape across the river and we tie up to a floating dock alongside Hualapai Indian jetboats.  The dock is barely big enough for all of us, but it’s the only flat place for miles and we make it work, leaving at dawn.  Hopefully the owners will understand.  The canyon opens up and we glide by collapsing banks left from high water in Lake Mead.  Iit’s kind of nice to see the sky.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vegas Side Hike

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas. Where half a million people will walk down the Strip in one night to kiss 2011 good-bye. Las Vegas, that oasis of sin in the desert (a biome where sin is otherwise hard to come by), where the lights are so persistent they don’t even flicker. This city that, when seen from space, appears to astronaut eyes as the brightest dot. “The third biggest party city in the world,” we’re told, “not the US, but the world.” Las Vegas, Nevada. A state 50th in the nation for education, we hear, but first for poverty and crime. Where the lights never stop shining, where the fountains never stop flowing. For now.

These are some the rumors that come drifting down to Will and I beneath the Hoover Dam and the Mead Reservoir. We sit for several days at the end of December soaking in hot springs in the Colorado River’s Black Canyon and listen to the people we meet tell us these tales of the city 25 miles to the northwest. We listen, sit, and then hike back to our crowded campsite and complain. We complain about the crowds--maybe 40 boaters and hikers we’ve seen over the course of two days in the canyon. We complain about the noise—the constant drone of sightseeing helicopters flying overhead and boats navigating the river that we wake to each morning. And we complain about the lights—the glow of Vegas that blots the now-familiar stars in half of the night sky.

Three months of paddling through sparsely populated country and wilderness canyons has spoiled us. When the big reservoirs—Flaming Gorge, Powell, and Mead—proved, against expectations, to be more or less deserted, we forgot to brace ourselves for the return to crowds, noise, and lights, that trinity of everyday dullness civilization learns to ignore. And we were on the periphery of civilization still. The people hiking down to the hot springs reminded us how much more there was out there. At the heart of the glow, towards the source of the helicopters, there was, it was said, the city.

When we ran out of fresh complaints, we surveyed the situation. Half the flow of the river we rode through the Grand Canyon had disappeared into Mead storage for years to come, the first major decrease in the water since Wyoming. We speculated that the desert city, in its many forms, had something to do with this abrupt change. The river seemed stunned to find itself cool and clear again after finally picking up a healthy sediment load from side canyons in the Grand. Despite these changes, I failed to conjure up the anger towards Mead I had felt towards Powell. Mead’s history seemed more benign. Built in the 1930’s, the Hoover Dam felt like a more understandable mistake that should have taught important lessons before the Glen Canyon Dam began to fill Powell, and should make us consider alternatives to Powell today. Plus, it was warm on Mead. And calm. And we didn’t feel stirred. We began to call it Lake Meadiocre.

Perhaps part of the difference was in our moods. 25 days floating the Grand with good friends while eating good food was too much fun to get caught up in dam-angst. And Christmas with our families on the top of Mead was equally relaxing. We waited for the rage to return, but found only the expected: another desert sea, another barrier wall behind the dam, another car-assisted portage thanks to Will’s mom. The Black Canyon below with its hot creeks and slot canyons is easily as unique and spectacular as any upstream section of river, but the joys of running a wild canyon did not return. We had left the wilderness, that much was clear. The water was more a resource than a river here. And we only came up with banal complaints in response. That night, the Vegas rumors got under our skin. We need something to wake us up, we decide. We need action. We need to be traumatized. And having seen no more than 20 people in one place for over three months, the promise of 500,000 people in the street sounded like a fail-proof ticket to that trauma.

Strange as it may sound, the quest for a traumatic experience may have been one of the reasons I agreed to come along on this trip in the first place. When Will first suggested it over a year ago, I quickly replied that there was no way I wanted to paddle across all those reservoirs. But some time passed, and the more I thought about it, the more appealing I found the idea of seeing where the creek I grew up next to in Glenwood Springs, Colorado ended up. The trip represented the fulfillment of many Huck Finn influenced day dreams. Looking back, however, it’s clear there were other factors at play. My initial rejection of the expedition for fear paddling the less enjoyable sections of river was a common one. It’s no mystery why people tend to make their raft trips as long as roadless sections of canyon ranging from 18 miles in Westwater to 280 miles in the Grand. These sections are the less spoiled places to raft: more attractive, pleasant, and—thanks to the permitting system—relatively uncrowded. So what is it that would make fellow source-to-seers and other extended expedition paddlers think going past the end of the remote scenic canyons is a good idea? One answer, is to see the river in its entirety, to see where it goes beyond the usual take-outs. Another, it seems, is the desire to be a little uncomfortable, to move past the known and ideally to be shaken up—to be changed. In other words, it’s a desire for trauma. Being a sucker for theory, I find this strange desire worth dwelling on for a moment. Used in the psychological sense, it carries with it a whole lot of theoretical baggage. Good fodder for speculation. Usually to be traumatized means to live out the structure of a story told by a gloomy fellow about a century ago whose name makes many people scoff or cringe. Freud. Freud, or his interpreters, told the story of trauma along these lines. The subject experiences an event so intense or out of the ordinary that it exceeds his or her ability to be able to make any sense of it. The attempt to assign meaning to the memory blazes a pathway through the wilderness of the psyche, it makes a new area accessible, but it does not guarantee its navigability until a meaning can be assigned to the event. Trauma is how we grow or change psychologically. In the worst cases, the trauma is so overwhelming that it takes over. Trying to understand the senseless event becomes an obsession, consumes life, becomes sickness. In the best cases, trauma shakes up life in such a way that pathways are created towards more possibilities, towards growth and the expansion of life. Both overflow the realm of the meaningful, but they move in different directions. The first is call neurosis and enough has been said on that subject to give any sane person a complex. I’m not sure what the second is referred to today, but there’s a good chance it’s what was once called a “spiritual experience.”

For strict Freudians, the story would need to have a standard setting—childhood—and the company of other people. The outcome in the typical stories told by analysts is fairly bleak, mostly because the problems tend to get the press. But the traumas that move us towards life are just as real as the ones that lead to analysis, and they can be sought out. I believe it is possible to be traumatized in the positive sense by a wild place. One memory in particular comes to mind. It was towards the end of an 18 day raft trip on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories of Canada where I first met Will. One day, well after midnight while the sun was in the midst of its 4 hour setting process, I walked away from the fire where the rest of the group sat to get some water from the river. As I leaned off the back of the raft to dip my pot in the river, I was struck, suddenly, by the vastness of the land around us. I’d thought about it abstractly before, but now it shook me deeply. It seemed as if we were carrying not only a shelter of food and warmth down the river with us but that we had an equally protective shelter of language, of meaning as well. Out beyond the end of the water pot was a world that was incapable of being greeted without first passing through our meaningful bubble. Out there were grizzlies, wolves, and hundreds of miles of unbroken forest. A wild world. Around the fire in the evening and on the rafts during the day, we carried with us a barrier against this looming, dense, inchoate space. The barrier made passing through this wilderness safe and understandable. But that night, walking away from the group, I felt the membrane between myself and the woods stretch, thin out for a moment, almost give way. Just the possibility of losing the coherence behind the barrier was traumatizing. I hurried back to the fire.

Since then, I’ve tried to be aware of the thickness of the language-wall each time I travel away from asphalt. Just few seconds of feeling it tremble is enough to make any trip worthwhile. A law of sorts has emerged: the breadth of the barrier is registered in the pulse of awe. As the first thins, the other races.

On this trip the barrier was relatively thin from the source to Powell, and at some moments--to recent to be interpreted--there was trauma. On the Grand, the large group made the wall thick again, and I was having too good of a time to worry about such matters. But when it was back to just Will and I after Christmas and we moved into a section of river that neither of us knew much about, it became clear that trying to be shaken by the canyons was hopeless among the motors and crowds. So we decide to head for a different kind of trauma, where language, people, structures, time have all the power they lack in solitary canyon floats. On New Year’s Eve, we stash our boats on the river bank and head for the heartless heart of it. Vegas.

We hike up a side canyon and climb up to the rim on old ropes left behind by boy scouts. Five hours of wrong turns and trudging up sand washes later, we find the river again, this time in the form of two gigantic steel electric lines headed from the Hoover Dam towards town. We walk on a road between them for over a mile past small mesquite, scattered bushes, and an old dump. Eventually we hit pavement, and the pavement leads us to more Colorado River, where the sand suddenly gives way to lawns and palm trees in suburbia. We’d entered Boulder City, Nevada. Seven miles and a few thousand feet above the historic river channel, we found the river in the form of hydro-powered lights and well watered lawns. A new sea.

A bus carries us away from the sandy shore and down into the glowing basin. Our eyes widen upon a scene that flashes by in discontinuous snippets. A bit of conversation, people getting on and off, signs speeding past, cars, music--all rarities for the last three months now in excess. We meet locals on the ride who show us the way downtown, careful to point out the places they’ve been mugged. We wander, eat pizza, drift towards the casinos and midnight in a subdued haze, too tired and confused after a full day of hiking to to absorb much of the scene. At the first major casinos, the crowd thickens. We wade through families pushing strollers into clouds of cologne, shampoo, and general cleanliness, becoming more and more self conscious of our stained down coats. Midnight arrives without much warning. Streams of fireworks go off from the roof of each casino. I watch as a hundred cell phones are lifted above the crowd, each screen reflecting the streams of color in the sky. A burst of lights and noise and the people quickly file out.

It becomes increasingly apparent that even among half a million people we stand out. We lean on a fence watching people move out and endure reminders of this fact. Our greasy clothing, unwashed hair, and untrimmed beards draw remarks: “Are you twins?” “Are you from Camping World?” and the more direct call to “Shave!” The first bus back to Boulder City at 5 AM seems unimaginably far off. Later, we stand below a tower of faceless windows accompanied by a grand announcement in neon: “The Mirage,” it reads. Below it cascading waterfalls fill pools out of which bronzed dolphins are leaping. For now, this is a sea for the Colorado, but when the dams have silted in and the pumps hang in dry air, this sign will prove prophetic--a mirage indeed.

On our way to the bus stop, we walk past a sign advertising “The Grand Canyon Experience.” A collection of styrofoam cups, fliers for dancers, McDonald’s bags and other trash has blown into a mound outside the door. The first fellow beard we’ve seen in Vegas hides a snoring face leaned against the curb outside. In the building, the walls have been made to look like rock and a video of helicopter shots of the Grand plays. We stare through the window for a moment, exhausted.

The night passes like a jumbled but not particularly memorable dream. On the bus back to the trail and our canyon, it remains unclear whether or not we’ve found the trauma we were seeking. It’s unclear if we’ve sustained serious psychological damage or if we’ve opened up pathways for new growth. But it does seem as if, while we’re riding the disappearing river towards Mexico, that the helicopters will offer less valid reasons to complain.



The Lower River

We polish off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the side of the dirt road, then hike down a canyon towards the river, exhausted from walking around all night in Las Vegas.  I pause to lie down and fall asleep for an indeterminate amount of time. I wake up as an ATV screams down the canyon, roars past, doubles back.  The driver yells:

“Is he OK?” gesturing to Zak crumpled in the sand.

“Yeah, we were just hiking and he fell asleep,” I explain unconvincingly.  Four or five other ATVs and a truck pull up. They unsuccessfully try to find a way around the gate to the wilderness area.

“How was the ride down?” I ask.

“Bo-ring!” and he climbs a rock with his machine.

Noise.  After months in some of the most remote places in the Lower 48 I am more sensitive to noise than I have been in my entire life.  The constant stream of air traffic around Las Vegas provides the first realization that the lower river will not be like the upper.  For weeks we paddle alongside roads, railroads, mansions, shacks, powerboats, jet skis, backhoes, RVs, helicopters, airplanes, and everywhere people, people, people.  The cold that protected our solitude up north has driven tens of thousands of people south to the desert, and seeking solace from the arid wasteland that gave them solace from the winter, they congregate along the river.  These snowbirds have formed seasonal RV communities along every stretch of river and reservoir that has a decent enough road down to it.  In places, unbroken lines of houses are reminiscent of canyon walls; we decide that watching the houses go by is almost more entertaining.  It turns out we didn’t have to hike up to Vegas to get a taste of Nevada sin; casinos crowd the river in Laughlin as water taxis ply the shallow, clear stream.  We stash our boats in the bushes and stuff ourselves an all-you-can-eat buffet, then paddle down in the dark to an island surrounded by suburban homes.  As much as the thrum of civilization grates my sensitized senses, the smell of burgers wafting over the river is enough to bring any calorie fiend to his knees.  There’s no point in pretending we’re in the wilderness anymore.

The noise is always there in the background, sometimes the foreground, the sound of the machines civilization has created to make the task of living as efficient as possible.  As I deride the lifestyles of these people who think that taking the muffler off their four-wheeler and screaming around the river beach on a quiet evening is a good idea, a note of hypocrisy slips in.  I’m paddling a machine designed to be efficient, surrounded by specialized, factory produced equipment, eating processed food.  I am not innocent, or even much of a positive example. I just don’t want to take out.  At least, I justify, we aren’t direct contributors to the noise.

One morning we strap the kayaks together, packrafts on top, get in our sleeping bags, drink beer, read, and don’t take a single paddle stroke.  We make it twenty miles before it gets dark, but camping is restricted in the protected Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, so we have to go another fifteen.  We count at least two thousand geese silhouetted against the dusky red mountains. The stars come out and the road stops and for the first time since the Grand Canyon, maybe longer than that, I hear the sound of nothing. No one is camped here, the canal construction has faded, the airplanes are elsewhere, the wind has stopped and the river slides slowly through the reeds.  I lay wide-eyed for a long time, listening to the nothing between beaver splashes.  Orion arcs across the sky and Jupiter sets before I fall asleep.  I wake occasionally when our ungainly raft bumps reeds or the shore, and finally we find a beach to sleep on.  Silence, for now, is a more precious commodity than water.

In the morning we find that what little water we had left has spilled, so breakfast is jerky and Budweiser.  It seems odd that we could run out of water next to a river, but we’re scared of Colorado River water.  We’ve been skeptical about the water quality ever since the chemical plant in Wyoming, but we finally stopped drinking it below the Hoover Dam, downstream of Vegas.  Our fears are confirmed when our friend Helen tells us about the pharmaceutical waste going in Lake Mead from the city.  So we get all our water from spigots in parks, preferring not to think about where that water comes from.  I hope LA and Phoenix have better filtration systems than we do.  And as straws come in, slowly reducing the Colorado to a trickle, we imagine the contamination concentrates, and we avoid touching the water.  Paranoid?  Maybe.  It’s disconcerting that this river that has provided water for drinking, cleaning, and transportation now does only the latter, and the dams make even moving a chore now.

As we pass the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project, the Gila Irrigation District, Palo Verde Diversion, and All American Canal, the river dwindles in size until twenty miles up from Yuma it’s barely twenty feet across and a few feet deep. The water leaves the river quietly, herded away through fenced-in concrete canals. It’s often hard to tell if there is more or less water when we put in below each dam, but by the time we portage the second-to last dam, Laguna, it’s clear that calling this a river is a stretch.  The cumulative thirst of the Southwest has drained all but the small amount mandated by treaty to flow into Mexico.  Unexpected rapids are formed by riprap.  Cane chokes the straightened, leveed banks.  And finally, at Morelos Dam on the US-Mexican border, the river ends.  Scrutinized by Border Patrol, we float next to the dam, watching the entire flow hang a right and disappear under a grate into the Mexican canal system.  Only seepage leaks out from the base of the dam, providing just enough moisture for a thick stand of tamarisk to obscure the old riverbed.  Upstream, I would shout, “This is the Colorado River!” where it seemed absurd that I could spit across what was formerly one of the mightiest rivers in the world.  Now, we’re silent.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Paddler's Perspective on the Colorado River Delta

In lieu of a final post about the Delta, here is a short video.  After an environmental organization got wind of our trip, they arranged for us to talk with some officials from the US Department of Interior just after we got back to the States.  We talked from Morelos Dam on the US-Mexico border.