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At Disaster Falls (Part Three)

Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Now we enter the very marrow of Lodore. Fractured and fused cliffs of metamorphized stone soar 3,500 feet above the Green River. Up in the narrow wedge of sky, a golden eagle sails a thermal in a tightening spiral like those etched on the canyon walls by the Fremont a thousand years ago, before dissolving into fierce sunlight.

The roar of an unseen rapids booms up the canyon. Disaster Falls. Yes, we are floating in the deepest corridor of Lodore and it is impossible not to turn your mind to thoughts of Powell and his men. This strange and shadowy chasm was in many ways the real beginning of their historic expedition and Disaster Falls nearly proved its traumatic undoing.

Powell the man and his expedition have been relentlessly romanticized by western writers of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular. And the worst offenders happen to be, coincidentally, two of my favorite essayists: Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. Stegner’s Powell, as presented in Beyond the Hundreth Meridian, is a scientific messiah for the englightened stewardship of the fragile resources of the arid West. Abbey’s Powell is, typically, a figure who looks and smells a lot like Abbey’s vision of himself: a gritty desert rat, a fearless river-runner, a rural anarchist.

It wasn’t until 2001 with the publication of Donald Worster’s sprawling biography, A River Running West, that we finally got a full and unvarnished portrait of the man. Far from being an anarchist, for much of his life Powell was an office-bound Washington bureaucrat, engaged in mundane and soul-sapping struggles on Capitol Hill over budgetary line items, the editing of government reports and petty feuds with rival agency heads and members of congress, such as his fateful dust-up with the behemoth of Nevada, Senator William Stewart.

Still Powell is a decisive figure in the modern history of the Interior West. His only real rival is Gifford Pinchot, intimate advisor to Teddy Roosevelt and first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot and Powell not only helped to define the public estate and draft the regulatory prescriptions for its use, but, more critically, they also shaped the bureaucratic agencies charged with managing the federal lands and rivers of the West: Forest Service, BLM, Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Preservation of wilderness and wild rivers wasn’t on the agenda of either Powell or Pinchot, who went head-to-head against John Muir in support of the Hetch-Hetchy Dam in the heart of Yosemite. Both men were utilitarians. They were political progressives who evangelized, in the phrase of historian Samuel P. Hays, the Gospel of Efficiency. They viewed oil, timber, grasslands, gold, coal and water as public resources awaiting managed exploitation–managed by federal bureaucrats, exploited for the public good.

Even though Powell cautioned about the intrinsic limits of the Interior West for agriculture and the development of large cities, Worster makes clear, where Stegner and Abbey do not, the unsettling fact that the one-armed major envisioned a system of small-scale, upper basin dams and water diversions that would have "drained every drop" of the Colorado River system.

The really bruising battles back then were over how those public resources would be distributed: to the land barons, railroads and corporations or, following the old Jeffersonian vision, to the small farmers, homesteaders and rural communities of the West. Guess which prevailed? Both Powell and Pinchot lost their jobs in the fight, early casualities in the power plays of the Western Imperialists.

Even so, it’s not hard for me to prefer Powell, with all of his faults, to Pinchot. As a fellow son of the prairies, I empathize with the Major, understand his midwestern eccentricities and lament the way the war that took his arm at Shiloh cast such a long-range shadow over his psyche.

Pinchot is another beast entirely: an east coast Brahmin, educated at Yale, parlor guest of the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts. Where Powell scraped up his own meager resources and those of the tiny Illinois Natural History Society to finance his first expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers, Pinchot lived off of trust funds and grants from the oldest money on the continent and learned the art of tree-killing on a silvicultural sabbatical in Germany’s Black Forest directly from the old meisters, soaking up their peculiar ideas about order and genetics.

Powell recognized that the land had limits and sought to devise a system for putting the waters of the West to use without inflicting permanent damage on the productive capacity of the landscape. Pinchot rejected such dusty realism for what historian Paul Hirt aptly calls "a Conspiracy of Optimism". The forester loftily asserted that by imposing his system of scientific management on western woodlands the national forests could be transformed into eternally productive tree farms. Pinchot was wrong. Fatally wrong. But then so was Powell, only less arrogantly.

* * *

Mystique aside, the Powell expedition was not the first group of white men to venture down the Green River through the canyons of Dinosaur. Far from it. In 1825, William Ashley, the impresario of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, floated the Green from Wyoming through Flaming Gorge, Red Canyon, Brown’s Park, Lodore, Whirlpool and Split Mountain canyons, all the way to the Uintah River south of Vernal. Ashley was searching for a speedy, Indian-free route to transport beaver and otter furs to market. The master of the skin trade rapidly concluded Lodore Canyon wasn’t the easy way and instructed his brigades of mountain men to cart their bloody cargo by horse to the notorious annual rendezvous on the Green up at the Henry’s Fork in Wyoming.

Ashley made two fortunes, first as a defense contractor in the War of 1812 and later amassing enormous wealth from the beaver pelt trade, which in the grim year of 1826 alone topped 325,000 skins. He bought himself the title of General and a seat in congress from St. Louis. Little known today, Ashley was an almost mythical figure, who ventured down more than 50 crushing rapids on the Green River in a bull-boat, a floating saucer made of stretched bison hides.

Then there is the strange case of Denis Julien, the Kilroy of the Green River, who carved his initials on rock walls from Lodore to Cataract Canyon. (Later we will examine one of Julien’s faint inscriptions in a shady cove in Whirlpool Canyon, near the planned site of the Echo Park dam. Beneath the fur-trapper’s initials, river otters have come to defecate, as if to render a final judgment on the merits of his enterprise.)

Julien was a Frenchman from New Orleans, and later St. Louis, who trapped along the Green in the 1830s. If one of his carvings is to be believed, Julien traversed the tumultuous river in a poleboat similar to those used on the lazy lower stretches of the Missouri.

Twenty-five years after Ashley first navigated the Green, William Manly and a group of bullwhackers from Missouri, desperate to stake their claim in the California Gold Rush, set off down the Green in a ludicrously unstable ferry boat. After a series of close calls, they encountered Disaster Falls, where the miners came across a mangled boat with a note attached advising, "Walk to California." They portaged. Portaged again and again and again. And finally abandoned their brittle boat for an arduous overland route across the mountains.

Despite extensive research at the US Archives, Powell, it appears, knew none of this history. Oddly, he had never even heard of Ashley, despite the fur trader’s fame as the leader of the Mountain Men and blazer of what would later become the Oregon Trail. In fact, when Powell discovered an inscription by Ashley near Flaming Gorge he misread the date as 1855, not 1825. Ashley’s hair-raising journal entries might have prepared the Major for the challenges to come inside Lodore.

For starters, Powell might have opted for a better design for his boats. The geologist drew up the plans himself and the boats were crafted from sturdy oak by the Chicago boat-builder Thomas Bagley. They were big, heavy, rode deeply in the water and resembled the ferry-tenders plying the Chicago River and Lake Michigan-scarcely a trim suited for descending a river that falls 9,000 feet in a mere 730 miles. In Powell’s design, the oarsman rowed the boat facing upstream, his back to the rapids-a technique now known by many river-runners as "Powelling", as in "Powelling right into that fucking rock."

Powell himself, of course, was not a boatman. For most of the journey, the Major found himself strapped into a chair on the deck of the Emma Dean, like Odysseus tied to the mast during the frightening passage through the Straits of Messina.

At the big rapids, Powell and his top scout, Jack Sumner, would scan the obstacles and decide whether or not to risk a descent. By the time the group entered Lodore, Powell had devised a tedious method of lining the boats down rock-strewn passages and over cataracts. It was time-consuming and difficult and the men generally preferred the excitement of running the rapids.

A few hundred yards upstream from Disaster Falls, Powell pulled over and scrambled up on a ledge to get a better view of the falls. He instructed the young William Dunn to flag the other three boats over to the river bank. From his perch Powell watched as the Maid of the Canyon and Kitty Clyde’s Sister tied up near the Emma Dean, but the No-Name hurtled right by the other boats and got sucked into the tongue of the rapids. The No-Name survived the first big drop, but the second falls, of a reported 15 to 20 feet, punched the two Howland boys and Frank Goodman from the boat and into the roiling whitewater. Swept into the lower run of rapids, the No-Name smashed into a sharp boulder, shattering its oak planks and breaking the boat in half.

Miraculously, the Howlands and Goodman survived, thanks largely to the quick actions of Sumner. But the No-Name and its cargo were lost, including clothing, rifles, maps, journals from the first month of the trip, field instruments and, most critically, three months worth of food. The morale of the expedition sank as well, and never fully recovered.

The Howlands may have missed Powell’s signal because they were drunk. The Major had banned alcohol from the voyage. But on an island downstream from Disaster Falls some of the wreckage of the No-Name washed up. Among the debris were Powell’s precious barometers and a 10-gallon keg of whiskey, which had been secretly cached in the bow of the boat. The Major was so ecstatic at having recovered his instruments of atmospheric measurement that he uncharacteristically overlooked the contraband and encouraged all the men to have a round of drinks.

* * *

The rapids we face this afternoon don’t much resemble the ferocious falls that sundered the No-Name and nearly destroyed the Powell expedition on that June day in 1869. According to Weisheit, nearly omniscient in these matters, the Green was likely running at 24,000 cubic feet per second when Howland "Powelled" his boat into Disaster Falls. Today, the river spurts along at a mere 650 cubic feet per second, thanks to the water wardens at Flaming Gorge dam.

Yet, this miserly flow presents its own challenges and unique dangers. The river has been turned into something resembling a pinball machine, a machine with teeth of stone. Under natural flows, most of these rocks would be safely submerged under several feet of rushing water. Now they are all hazards, each one waiting to trap a foot, rip a raft, smash a skull.

We scout the run for about an hour, charting and discussing every possible route. At Disaster Falls proper, the river is squeezed between two large rocks, pours over a four-foot ledge and into a snarling standing wave. Below the falls, the rapids continue for another quarter of a mile through a glistening maze of prong-like rocks.

Weisheit turns to me and asks, "What do you think?"

I play it cool, shrug my shoulders, kick a stone, quote Peter Tosh: "Bad, mon. Plenty bad."

"Let’s do this thing," Susette exhorts, over the thunder of Disaster Falls. I love Susette. Susette gets my vote as the best river guide on the Green and Colorado Rivers. She’s ridden long-distance motorcycle races and is a champion barrel racer of horses. She is a gifted desert gardener and a genuine Reiki master. She is lovely, smart and strong. But … Susette also thinks Niagara Falls is a Class Five rapid! The exalted Class Six designation, according to Susette, is reserved only for rapids that are always fatal. Emphasis on the always. And, of course, the fatal.

"Now, go get ‘em, boys" she says, kicking our raft into the maw of the current with the Vibram sole of her Chaco sandal. As the river asserts its claim on us, my last image is of Susette’s toenails, shimmering with purple polish.

With an unnerving directness of intent, we approach the two boulders that guard the falls, boulders the size of Wooly Mammoths. Weisheit thrusts the bow of the raft into the mossy rock on river right, the boat rotates and we slide backwards over the cataract, just like Howlands and Co.

Water pours into the raft as the stern dips into the curling wave, then we pop up, slam into a hidden rock. The raft swings in the swirling water and rights itself. We rattle and scrape through Lower Disaster, a dicey run of swift water punctuated by thorny rocks. Finally we reach an eddy and turn to watch Susette delicately pivot her raft between the twin rocks and down the falls. It’s a gorgeous run. Susette evades every hazard with the easy precision and grace of a gifted slalom skier.

I only have two questions: How did she do that? And where the hell is Judy’s raft?

* * *

The circulating waters of the eddy hold our raft in place as we scan the river for the yellow nose of Judy’s boat. Four bighorns look down on us from a ridiculously narrow ledge of rotten rock, casual and free from fear. With still no sign of our missing cohorts, we tie our raft to a rock, grab two rescue bags and stumble up the stony shore.

Susette, as usual, is ahead of us. She points to a small tangle of driftwood. "I saw a snake slip into that pile. Couldn’t tell if it was a rattler."

Weisheit hops over the den of sticks. I give it a wide berth. I’m wearing sandals and have an aversion to rattlesnakes that is either Jungian or Freudian–I’m much too jittery to undergo analysis for a definitive answer. Only images of dentists with drills strike me with more psychic terror.

Driftwood piles are becoming rarer and rarer along the Green River, especially in this part of Dinosaur. The big piles are all more than fifty years old and loom far up on the banks. Flaming Gorge Dam not only traps water behind its bland concrete arc, but also all of the woody and organic debris that play such a crucial role in recharging the rich ecology of riparian areas: providing nutrients for the river, nesting and feeding habitat for fish in floodtime, and shelter for bugs, mice, scorpions and, yes, snakes.

We wade across a stagnant pool, the surface of which is etched by the trails of waterstriders, and onto a sandbar, desolate except for the stalking prints of a great blue heron.

On the far side of the river, the yellow raft is wedged between two rocks. Judy strains at the oars, while Craig, hip-deep in the river, pushes at the stern of the boat. Prudently, Jennifer adheres to the Apocalypse Now! Rule of River Safety: Stay in the boat. Whatever happens stay in the fucking boat.

Craig has long legs, but still he must be careful. Foot entrapment here is a real danger. It’s easy to get your foot wedged between two sunken rocks, especially when you’re working to dislodge a snagged raft. Then the force of the river, even at these reduced flows, pushes you down and grips you there, parallel to the river bottom, where, as they said in the "Alien" movies, no one can hear you scream.

There’s not much we can do from this side of the river but watch. They are too far away for us to toss them a rescue line. Then, with Jennifer giving a forceful tug on the rigging, the rocks release the raft. Craig scrambles onto the boat just as it smacks another boulder and bumps and grinds its way down to the sanctuary of the eddy.

We trudge back through a wavy thicket of wild cane. Weisheit tells me to look high on canyon walls downstream at the white planking of rock near the rim, the first appearance of the Madison limestone formation. As I take out my binoculars and scan the distant rim of the canyon, which looks like icing on a cherry layer cake, I am interrupted by a hollow buzzing, an emphatic buzzing, coming from beneath my left foot, which at this precise moment is rapidly descending toward the very driftwood pile that Susette had, only moments before, warned us to avoid.

I freeze. I look down. The snake is coiled into a ball not much bigger than my fist. Its tail is erect and is making a declarative statement. You know the one. Not a large snake. And from the stern and unflinching posture of its flat, triangular head with the destinctive loreal pits, not a happy snake, either. And, oh yes, Susette, most definitely a rattler. Most likely the relatively passive, yet potently toxic, Midget Faded Rattlesnake– though I defer from looking for the distinguishing characteristics that would definitely mark this agitated little creature as Crotalus viridis concolor.

Weisheit crunched across the driftwood pile without even pausing. The Riverkeeper leads a charmed life, and long may it be so. The man has spent 30 years in the canyon country, scaling slickrock and tackling the worst rapids in Cataract and Grand Canyon, and has never required more than a Band-Aide. So he says. I, however, retreat, scramble down to the river and slop my way through the knee-deep mud to the raft.

* * *

Back on the Green, the lovely Green.

We exit the eddy and promptly hit a rock. Hard. Our red raft swings violently to the right, slamming into another concealed shard of stone with such force that one of the Riverkeeper’s oars jolts free from his hand and rips my head. The raft tilts to the left and down, down into the river. Currents of silver water flood into the raft, creating our own little reservoir and drowning my books, one by one.

"High side," Weisheit instructs, calmly. I clamber up to the elevated side of the raft and gaze down at the churning water and spikey rocks below, which resemble a scene from the illustrated torture manual at Abu Ghraib. (Think Waterboarding meets the Bed of Nails.)

I look back at Weisheit. Our acute encounter with the rocks has knocked the huge-brimmed white hat off his head. It hangs down his back like Kokopelli’s bag of seeds. "Now!" he shouts, above the orgasmic roar of the river. We bounce on the side of the raft, again and again, in a kind of unison. Eventually, one rock relinquishes its grip and the stern of the raft wheels, pointing downstream.

"Need a kickstart?"

It’s Judy’s boat, returning the favor. Craig extends his leg from the side of the raft, long as advertised. All it takes is a vigorous little stomp and we are free. Wet and free. The way all river-runners (and rivers) should be.

* * *

We anchor our rafts for the night on a small beach, lushly framed in cottonwoods, at the mouth of a broad technicolor valley we call Cascade Canyon and the Park Service labels Pot Creek. Why Pot Creek? Who knows? This bench of Indian ricegrass, red boulders and fire-scarred Ponderosa pines is too arid for marijuana plantations and for that we have no regrets. Some in our crowd prefer mushrooms instead, though no one seems to have had the foresight to secrete any dried Liberty Caps (known to Latin-speaking pranksters around the globe as psilocybe semilanceata) into the food cache, even though the fungal treats would have made a highly patriotic addition to our larder.

First things first. The rafts must be unloaded, the kitchen erected and, yes, the shitter must be deployed.

This curious device is not the shiny aluminum Groover found on commercial river trips, the Airstream trailer of Honey Pots. No. Ours is a humble U.S. Army ammo can, about 20 inches long, six inches wide and 12 inches deep. The vintage is hard to discern. It may be a relic from our glorious triumph at Grenada–or perhaps the charge up San Juan Hill.

Thankfully, Weisheit has fashioned a crude but ass-cradling seat so that it doesn’t exactly feel like shitting in a can, though proper posture and a delicate balance must be maintained at all costs. Naturally, defecating is done in public. Strike a pose.

It is our night to cook. Weisheit builds a small fire with twigs and coals in the firebox laid on top of a rug made of glass fibres to keep from scarring the beach, while I get pots boiling and pans sizzling on the propane campstove. Tonight’s menu: smoked trout, pepper jack cheese, salad with red onions and green peppers, filet of sole with coucous and broccoli, and brownies baked in a Dutch oven. There will be no leftovers for the ringtails and ravens.

Jennifer mixes drinks. She hands me a gin and tonic and inquires, "What do you call a Mormon gynecologist?"

"Overworked?" I ask.

"No. A Box Elder." Touché.

Night descends early in this narrow, somber region of the canyon and I fade into sleep to the frantic incantations of coyotes.

To be continued.

Click here to read Part One: Dams, Oil and Whitewater.

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

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.