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Oil, Dams and Whitewater (Part One)

Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

These days there isn’t a vacant hotel room to be found in Vernal, Utah. Or Craig, Colorado. Or Pinedale, Wyoming, for that matter. The rooms are all booked up with oil workers, pipe-layers, explosive technicians and tax accountants versed in the intricacies of the depreciation allowance.

The No Vacancy signs out here in the Interior West have been flashing for a year and half at upscale Best Westerns and dusty Mom and Pop trailer parks. From the Pinedale Anticline to the San Rafael Swell, the Green River basin is taking the brunt of the new oil boom, brought to you by the Iraq war, Alan Greenspan and the Bush Interior Department, where the latest spasm of fossil fuel looting was orchestrated by the convicted felon Stephen J. Griles. No need to shed a tear for Mr. Griles, as he marks down his five months in Club Fed. Upon his release, the oil lobbyist turned Assistant Secretary of Interior will be lavishly rewarded for his sacrifice. While environmentalists rot in jail for a decade for the supposed crime of burning down a heinous horse-slaughtering factory, Mr. Griles, who illegally gave away billions of dollars worth of public resources to his cronies in Big Oil and Big Coal, will spend a few months in a cushy federal facility waiting for the right moment to cash in his stock options. Just another object lesson in the ways of the True West.

The current bonanza will last two or three years, then fizzle out into another 20-year long bust. It’s the oldest and dumbest cycle in the post-conquest West. With each iteration the booms become less frenzied, the depressions more entrenched. Vernal, its city limits demarcated by a pink brontosaurus, will survive, thanks to the National Monument. But Craig and Pinedale may well decay into post-modern ghost towns. Few will shed tears for their passing. But as a preventative measure, the last ones out alive should consider torching the remains. Pinedale delenda est.

We come here not to drill the Green, but to float the river as it carves through Dinosaur National Monument. The burning question isn’t whether there will be places to sleep, but whether there will be enough water to carry our three rafts, loaded with a week’s worth of gear, water, food, shitter and beer, through 60 miles of rock-studded canyons. You see, the ever considerate hydro-barons at the Bureau of Reclamation have squeezed closed the gates on their misbegotten plug in Flaming Gorge, thirty miles upstream from our put-in, permitting only an ice cold dribble of water to escape into the ancient channel of the Green River.

We’re on a pilgrimage, of sorts. The river’s twisting course through heart of Dinosaur should be designated a National Battlefield site, after the first great victory of environmentalists over the forces of industrial pillage. This is our Little Big Horn, where David Brower and his cohorts, Wallace Stegner, Howard Zahniser and Ulysses Grant, III, routed the hydro-imperialists, saving one of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes in the world from inundation by two ill-conceived dams-one at Split Mountain and the other in Whirlpool Canyon near the glorious sandstone amphitheaters of Echo Park. But as with the Sioux’s great victory over Custer, the battle of Dinosaur proved to have its own pyrrhic consequences. The fatal price of saving Dinosaur from being flooded was the nearly uncontested construction of equally monstrous dams at Flaming Gorge, Fontenelle and, most infamously, in Glen Canyon.

But these stories of triumph and tragedy must come later. Now there is unloading and raft-rigging to do, the hours of grunting, groaning and eruptions of profanity that are the opening act of any true river expedition.

* * *

We assemble in Brown’s Park, a secluded hole in the mountains that was once the redoubt of the suave black cattle rustler Isom Dart, hunted down by the grim mercenary Tom Horn, who, if truth be told, looked nothing like Steve McQueen.

There are seven of us, led by the two Weisheits-John and Susette. Both are acclaimed river guides. Both are militant defenders of the rivers of the Colorado Plateau-rivers anywhere, for that matter. Both are gifted naturalists and fine campfire cooks. But only Susette is a master of the delicate art of deep tissue massage. It’s a crucial distinction-especially at our age.

Up from Moab come Judy Powers, a former river guide and a gifted actor specializing in musical comedies, and Jennifer Speers, owner of a critter-friendly ranch at the confluence of the Colorado and the Dolores Rivers and a raconteur of deliciously rude jokes.

Down from Salt Lake City, the sprawling Mormon metropolis wedged between the Wasatch and the Great Salt Lake that is rapidly outstripping Los Angeles as the Smog Inversion capital of the country, arrive documentary film-maker Chris Simon, a vital (and grossly unheralded) contributor to Les Blank’s best films, and Craig Miller, a folklorist and geographer who is putting the finishing touches on a fascinating social history of Highway 12, which runs through the ranch lands of central Utah from Panguitch to Torrey-an old road of a disappearing culture.

I’m the outsider in the group, a mossy-toed lowlander from Oregon who begins huffing and puffing while merely hauling modest-sized water canteens in the thinnish air of Dinosaur’s mile-high altitude. But we share much in common. Namely we are all supplicants to the mesmerizing power of the Green River, the canyon-cutting umbilicus of the Interior West.

At last, the truck is emptied, the gear lashed onto the inflatable rafts powered by wooden oars on the only river in the Colorado basin devoted to non-motorized boats. The sun slips behind the peaks of the Uintas, the evening sky a surreal collage of purple and orange thanks the big fires up in Idaho. The night winds whistle through the canyon, as Chris and Craig prepare a fabulous dinner of garlic bread and homegrown eggplant with pasta on the propane stove in the bed of Judy’s red truck. Susette has miraculously conjured up a round of Mojitos. Judy belts out a Broadway show tune, the first of many. The coyotes chime in. Up in the hills a bull elk broadcasts the news that he is ready for sex. His come-and-get-it call reminds me of the darkly erotic growl of the great soul singer Clarence Carter. The temperature drops and the Milky Way spreads across the abbreviated sky. I slide into a supreme sleep and dream of a one-armed geologist in a small wooden boat dissolving into the jaws of a cleaved mountain.

* * *

I awake well before dawn. Only the bats are active, cruising through their final circuits of the night.

The air is cold, frosty. It occurs to me that I haven’t prepared very well for this trip. I packed for a week on a desert river. But we aren’t in the desert. These are mountains, big ones, with autumn bearing down.

I wiggle out of my sleeping bag, put on my headlamp and go for a walk to get the blood flowing and the body temperature up.

A cobbly trail switchbacks up a cliff above our campsite to an outcrop with a view into the Gates of Lodore. I scuffle past sagebrush and juniper, stunted barrel cacti and rabbitbrush top-heavy with fat yellow blooms. After an hour or so the sun peers over the distant Rockies in the east and the western walls of Lodore alite in dazzling crimson.

As I snap a photo of the canyon’s glowing ramparts, a desert bighorn bounds in front of me and disappears below, dancing down the terraced face of the cliff toward a marsh by the river. Instinctively, I follow the young ram. I have notoriously bad instincts. Suicidely bad. I take two steps and fall, hurtling down the rocky slope until, finally, I arrest my descent by clutching the only stable thing around. My salvation, such as it is, happens to be that most unforgiving of plants on the Colorado Plateau, the blackbrush. Its spikey branches dig aggressively into my hands, but I hold on and, eventually, scramble back up the cliff, lucky not to have bitten it right at the gate-so to speak.

My left leg is chewed up from my ankle to my hip. I vow to conceal this ungainly mishap from the group, not wanting to alarm them with the fact that they are about to embark on a challenging week down a dangerous river with someone who has the common sense and directional acumen of Lindsay Lohan after a night of tooting and toking in a West Hollywood hot spot.

Even from these heights, I can smell coffee percolating and bacon sizzling back at the campsite. Chris and Craig at it again. Amen. I hobble down the trail, presenting my relatively unscathed side to the group.

"Oooh, nasty cut."

Damn. It’s Judy, who emerges from the feathery curtain of tamarisk behind me.

"Would you like some tree oil for that?"

Tree oil? As in sap?

"Uhhh "

She waves the bottle at me. Was she expecting this? Had Weisheit already informed everyone I was a terminal klutz prone to self-mutilation?

"Don’t worry. Natural antibiotic. Seal it right up."

No, not like sap, apparently. More like varnish. Shellac.

"Well "

Judy takes this as informed consent. She smears the concoction over the most ragged part of the wound. Now it is sealed. Now it is shiny. Now it is preserved as a warning for all: Stand back; don’t follow.

We finish breakfast, visit the last latrine on the river until Echo Park, strap the final bags onto the rafts. And then we wait. We wait for Park Rangers to come down the forty mile road from Maybell, Colorado to inspect our permits and bureaucratically release us from our concrete mooring.

The rangers don’t come. Instead, a group of two canoeists and a kayaker pull up at the put-in site. One of the paddlers is a former ornithologist at Grand Canyon National Park, who conducted an acclaimed study documenting the tenuous status of passerines in the canyon country. He knows Weisheit. Most people around here do. After all, John is the Colorado Riverkeeper. They are a friendly and intelligent group of accomplished river runners who express concern about whether we will be able to navigate our rafts safely down the diminished river. They are good company and, incredibly, they are the only other people will encounter in the next three days.

Another hour goes by and still the rangers don’t come. Distilling the consensus of the group, Susette sez: "Fuck it, time to go!" We untie the rafts and push off. It is 11:30 in the morning. Finally, we are on the river. Legally or not.

To be continued.

Click here to read Part Two: Through the Gates of Lodore.

Click here to read Part Three: At Disaster Falls

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. This essay will appear in Born Under a Bad Sky, to be published in December. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.