Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur
Below Hell’s Half-Mile, the Green River relaxes into a series of undulating bends. The red rocks of Lodore slip away, replaced by the calming brown tones of the Weber sandstone. You might be in Glen Canyon. But, of course, you’re not.
On river left looms Jenny Lind Rock, named after the Swedish Nightingale, who captured the hearts of antebellum America during her 1846 tour with Gen. Tom Thumb under the direction of P.T. Barnum. In front of us, a peninsula of sandstone rises 760 sheer feet above the river. Someone lets loose a wolf howl. It bounces back, over and over again. We all join in, an oscillating chorus. Euphonies of stone.
We have entered one of the world’s great amphitheaters: Echo Park. The acoustics are clear, crisp, resonant. Even the softest sounds reverberate five or six times down the chambers of rock. Please don’t tell Paul Winter. There’s no need for him to unbundle his New Age band here to record another CD au naturale. Leave the music to the canyon wrens and coyotes.
Powell called the sinuous wall of sandstone Echo Rock. The was right to resist his natural inclination to dip into the classical namebag for some obscure minor deity out of the Greek Myths or the Bhagavad Gita. Echo Rock is concise, descriptive and right.
Of course, the Park Service inexplicably chooses to call this entrenched meander Steamboat Rock. What do steamboats have to do with it? Perhaps Park Service recreation planners were envisioning the day when they could offer steamboat tours of Narcissus Lake in the new improved Echo Aquatic Park, after their pals at the Bureau of Reclamation had flooded the canyon under 550 feet of dead water, turning the big rock into a small island illuminated by Klieg lights with a faux adobe hotel perched on the edge accesorized in Anasazi chic, with shuffleboard courts, Kiva-shaped hot tubs and fishing platforms. You chuckle. But they’ve done worse. Been to Yosemite lately? Bought gas at Grant Village in Yellowstone? Seen the big stumps at Olympic National Park?
As we glide around Echo Rock, our raft is buffeted by a rush of current coming from the East. I turn and gaze into a gaping canyon of streaked stone. This is the mouth of the Yampa River, concluding its wild course down from the Colorado Rockies.
The Yampa is one of the last free-flowing, undammed rivers in the West. Undammed, except for about 100 small, trout-killing irrigation impediments on the river’s high country tributaries. Yeah, except for them. But novelist Jim Harrison has scripted a solution for those obnoxious little plugs. Go read A Good Day to Die, if you are so inclined. It’s out of print, so check it out from a library. Don’t worry. The librarians won’t turn you in. Most of them.
(Advisory Note to Homeland Security. A Good Day to Die is fiction, that is fantasy. Please do not dispatch your goons to Livingstone, Montana for the rendition of Jim Harrison to Uzbekistan. Mr. Harrison is now a portly, Cabernet-swilling, sushi-eating, bone-fishing millionaire who has long since denounced the juvenile escapades detailed in his novel.)
We beach our rafts downstream from the confluence and prepare lunch under the lacy shade of two box elder trees. We are down to our last six-pack of Tecate, but they are still icy cold. I unwrap a special treat for the crew: smoked wild chinook salmon from Oregon, caught in dip-nets at Shearer’s Falls on the Deschutes River by young men of Warms Springs Nation. The thick filets are lightly salted and embedded with garlic. One gets hungry, lazing on the river. The salmon disappears. Same old story.
We drain our last beers, grab a fistful of brownies and trudge up into the golden meadows of Echo Park, once the home of the desert hermit Patrick Lynch, and long before him, the Fremont people, who inscribed on these walls some of the most fascinating and exquisite art to be found anywhere on the continent, including the National Gallery and the Guggenheim. All of which would have been destroyed by the Echo Park Dam. It would have been an act of desecration as extreme as Napoleon’s troops gouging out the eyes of the disciples on DaVinci’s Last Supper in the dining hall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which the French had turned into an armory.
The Fremont people (named after the Fremont River in central Utah) are often lumped in with the Anasazi, who occupied the Four Corners region during approximately the same period. But these were strikingly distinct cultures. The Anasazi, for example, were almost exclusively agrarian, growing maze and melons, squash and beans. They were sedentary and built large multi-room structures out of stone and adobe. Later, they constructed vast defensive palaces on inaccessible cliffs. About a thousand years ago, Anasazi culture seems to have decayed into inter-tribal wars, paranoia, a priestly dictatorship, perhaps even cannibalism. (See the controversial but well-documented study Man Corn by Arizona State University anthropologist Christy Turner.) The famous roads radiating from the religious compound at Chaco Canyon may have been military highways for Anasazi militia and the secret police of Chaco’s high priests. At least, that’s the heterodoxical view of anthropologist David Wilcox. I tend to agree. There’s something creepy and oppressive about the later Anasazi sites. Many Navajo feel the same kind of trepidation near the haunted castles of Betatakin and Keet Seel.
By contrast, the Fremont, who occupied a territory spanning from central Utah to the Snake River plains of Idaho and from the Great Basin in Nevada to the Yampa Canyons of Colorado, were a more versatile and nomadic culture, less centralized and not nearly so death-obsessed. They practiced both agriculture and hunting and gathering. Often farming one year and gathering the next. They lived in pit houses and small settlements at the mouths of canyons, usually near mountains, such as the Wasatch or Uintas. Close to bighorns and elk, alpine herbs and berries, trout.
In rock-shelters across the region the Fremont left black trapezoidal figurines with deeply lidded eyes that are adorned with ornate necklaces, belts and earrings. The enlarged ghosts of those figures are painted, carved and pecked into the walls of Echo Park.
So what happened to the Fremont? No one really knows. Through radiocarbon testing of corn husks and other debris from the middens at Fremont sites, it seems that their culture began to fade away in Utah around 1250 AD, before petering out altogether around 1500. Some anthropologists contend that climatic changes in the thirteenth century wiped out Fremont crops. While this may hold for the religious slave-farmer society of the Anasazi, it doesn’t fit the Fremont, who never gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Others argue that the Fremont were gradually assimilated along with the new arrivals in the region, the Numic-speakers from down south in the doomed Owens Valley: the Utes, Paiutes, Comanche and Shoshone.
But there is another, more unsettling explanation for the demise of the Fremont that is convincingly sketched out in David B. Madsen’s excellent little monograph, Exploring the Fremont. Under this scenario, the Numic-speakers, relatives of the Aztec, weren’t interested in making a pact with the Fremont, but instead waged a war of imperial aggression against them, seizing their land, annihilating their culture. The best evidence behind this theory is that the last known Fremont sites, near Pocatello, Idaho and in the Yampa Canyons, are all on the remote northern and northeastern fringes of the Fremont territory, the last stretches of land to be occupied by the Numic invaders. So the concealed meadows and rock shelters here at Echo Park may well have been a last hold out of Fremont culture, a people under siege. I don’t have to tell you how it all ends.
Our walk ends before an overhang of sandstone that displays an astonishing panel of rock art, which for no good reason is known as the Poole Creek petroglyphs. The images soar above us, thirty to thirty-five feet above the creek bed.
I envision a Fremont artist clinging to a frail ladder of cottonwood branches held together by elk sinews as he pecks out his masterpiece, like Michelangelo painting the Judgment of Christ.
But Weisheit says no. This little canyon has been entrenched by a phenomenon known as arroyo cutting. Well, phenomenon may not be the right word since it almost certainly involved cows. Overgraze the meadow, trample the microbiotic crust, compact the soil to the texture of concrete and when a big rain comes along it plows the pleasant grassy little canyon into something resembling the badlands of South Dakota. Over night. Grazing in a national park, you say? Happens all the time. We even have a national park devoted to cattle grazing. It’s called Great Basin, pride of Nevada and Sierra Club-approved.
In Dinosaur National Monument, local ranchers were permitted to graze their cows and sheep in the park through the 1980s. The land shows the strain. Most of the hills and small buttes in Echo Park, Browns Park, Jones Hole and Island Park have been trampled under hoof into terraced ziggurat-like mounds. Bovine pyramids that will last for a thousand years or more.
The strange images scroll across about 500 feet of rock. Technically, they are called petroglyphs, meaning that the figures have been etched into the rock, rather than painted-although many petroglyphs also show signs of weathered paint. But not these. These images of flying headdresses, sun disks, shields, floating spirits, sheep and spirals have been drilled into the rock in intricate dot patterns. Using drills on rock, there is no margin for error and here at Echo Park there is no evidence of error. Pointillism on stone. This is the work of a master of technique and composition. Often, rock art on the Colorado Plateau has the feel of a graffiti tagging war, a collage of images inscribed by different artists across the centuries. But some sites, such as the Grand Gallery in Canyonlands National Park, vividly described in Doug Peacock’s book Walking It Off, are clearly the work of a single artist, perhaps working on commission. So too with the Echo Park panel. It tells a story as surely as Guernica does. And perhaps a similar one.
I’m sure there’s deeply religious and probably astronomical significance to these surreal images. But even the best interpreters, such as Polly Schaafsma, author of the indispensable Rock Art of Utah, agree that their readings of the petroglyphs are little more than informed guesswork. Ultimately, the images defy critical deconstruction-and are all the more powerful because of it. I’m struck by the fact that these flying necklaces and strange beasts scrolling across the sandstone are fundamentally different than most Fremont rock art: scarier, weirder and funnier, too. Perhaps the images functioned as a kind of drive-in movie screen to entertain Fremont kids, illuminated for night-time viewing by campfires along the creek bank.
A dust-devil scuffles down the dirt road into Echo Park that was secretly punched into Dinosaur in the 1940s by the Bureau of Reclamation. From the cloud, a hybrid SUV emerges with Colorado plates. The door opens. A man in yellow golf pants slides out, wielding a camera with a giant lens, a lens the size of the Hubble telescope-though still not powerful enough to locate the weapons of mass destruction.
In the passenger seat, a woman with meticulously maintained blond hair examines her nails as if they were retractable claws. She adopts a look of supreme indifference. She doesn’t once glance at the rock art. The man clicks three tightly zoomed photos of the cliff-face, re-enters his $50,000 climate-neutral truck, slams the door, turns the cumbersome machine around and hurtles up the road.
It’s 30 miles of dirt and gravel back to the gate and Highway 40. They were here for two minutes max. I flash to Anna Karina’s nine-minute race through the halls of the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard’s film "Band of Outsiders." But Karina and her cohorts were having fun, breaking the rules, subverting convention, tweaking the art cops. This couple expresses the heavy dullness at the core of Bush’s America, a cancerous imperial ennui. Still, their snap-and-click moment counts as two more visitor days in the Park Service’s bureaucratic accounting system and they didn’t even harass the bighorns. If only Yellowstone was so lucky.
* * *
As the river unfurls around Echo Rock, the winds pick up and suddenly rowing the rafts becomes real work. On most rivers, the commercial guides would simply fire up the outboard engine and roar across the wind-whipped flatwater.
But not here. The canyons of Dinosaur are the only stretch of river in the entire Colorado system free of motorized boats. Even in the Grand Canyon, outfitters shred the holy silence of the chasm with the metallic shriek of motors. Dinosaur is unique and long may it be so. If only the river itself wasn’t motorized, controlled by engineers, valves, turbines and computers– the industrial waterworks of the big hydro-dams that trade the wild for the automaton.
The narrow slot of Whirlpool Canyon resurrects the red Cambrian rocks of the Uinta Mountain Group. Gothic spires of rock stab at the sky above us. The fissured walls of the canyon are the remnants of ancient sea stacks and reefs, interlaced with petrified dunes. A great blue heron is spooked by the approach of our raft, barks her annoyance and takes flight on giant wings.
As we pass the dark mouth of Wild Canyon our raft is swept into a brief but energetic rapids. On river left, a chuck of iron pipe protrudes from the wall of the canyon, like a stake driven into the heart of a zombie-and let no man or woman remove it. Here lies the site of Echo Park Dam, the wet dream of the Bureau of Reclamation that perished on July 8, 1955.
I want to stop and sketch the walls of the canyon, pock-marked to a height of 550 feet with the bore holes of the dam builders, but the river pulls us relentlessly on, through the footings of a dam that isn’t there, downstream another two miles, out of Colorado into Utah and our shady camp at Jones Hole.
* * *
I sit on my on bedroll and try to salvage pages from the ruined Sibley guide. I’m looking for paintings of my favorite birds: Vermillion Flycatcher, Swainson’s Hawk, Cerulean Warbler, Northern Spotted Owl, American Coot and, of course, the Red-Necked Stint. It’s a useless endeavor. The entries have blended into an abstraction resembling a Helen Frankenthaler lithograph, a swirling delta of greens, yellows and reds.
A cry from Weisheit interrupts my melancholy funk.
Then a pause.
"Wait a minute. Otter. River otter!"
I shake my head, despondently. All of a sudden this trip is going to hell. The Riverkeeper has snapped. The most rational man I know has finally lost his faculties of reason. John Freakin’ Weisheit can no longer distinguish a cliff-walking bovid from a riverine weasel with a bright innocent-looking face that bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Meg Ryan.
Perhaps someone brought along a few of those Liberty Caps, after all. Perhaps that same someone slipped a magic mushroom into the trail mix. Weisheit has been as straight as the All-American Canal for twenty years. He hasn’t even sipped a Tecate since before James Watt was indicted for perjury. This little prank has obviously hit him harder than the Big Drops at full throttle.
How will we ever explain the indiscretion to Bobby Kennedy, Jr.? Such a default in decorum might prompt the Green Czar to strip the Riverkeeper logo from Weisheit’s red raft. Then Kimberly would never meet Leonardo DiCaprio. No. We simply must keep it under wraps, bury it like Bush’s "pretzel" episode.
I amble through a bank of purple desert asters toward the river, thinking of how Burson-Marsteller would spin the incident.
It’s worse than I feared.
Caught in a moment of urinary tract overload, Weisheit is standing in the river with his pants bunched around his knees pointing urgently, like Sacajawea when the Corps of Discovery neared Beaverhead Rock. Across the river, a single bighorn ram nuzzles at grasses, indifferent to the man’s wild gesticulations.
Did anyone pack a taser?
Just as I am poised to pat the Riverkeeper on the back and gently usher him to camp, I spot a dark hump breaching the glassy surface of the water near the far bank, like one of those grainy stills of Nessie. Then another and another. A head pops up, radiant and glistening, stares our way, grunts, submerges. Two more repeat the same curious inspection, scanning us like living periscopes.
One otter bolts out of the river, scrambles across the bank and slides onto a boulder, where it smashes something on the rock, eats it, urinates, dives into a pool, resurfaces, chomping on a fish. The others follow, acting out the same frenetic routine, sleekly working their way down river, pool by pool, feasting on fish, diving for crustaceans, dining on the rocks, spraying their foul musk to ward us off.
What looks like play or clowning is actually hard work. River otters, perhaps the most active of all mammals, must eat upwards of twelve percent of their total body weight each day just to refuel.
In total, we spot five river otters, all adults. A rare sighting, indeed. River otter generally travel in pairs and, except during mating season, adult males are loners. Perhaps they have been drawn to this spot because of the clear, spring-nourished waters of Jones Hole Creek, just a few hundred yards upstream from our camp.
Otters are piscavores, mainly, tracking down the movements of young trout and carp with their motion-detecting whiskers, before catching and crushing the fish in their powerful, unforgiving jaws. Far from being cuddly, otters are the premier predator of the river, as aggressive and nasty-tempered as the badger, to which they are closely related. Their grunting and barking indicates a fierce resentment at our intrusion into their territory.
This stretch of the Green River used to be prime otter habitat. But the fish-eaters were nearly extirpated from the basin by the 1920s, largely at the hands of one of Weisheit’s heroes, the early river guide Nathaniel Galloway, who floated the Green River all the way down to the confluence with the Colorado and through Cataract Canyon six times. Galloway is revered by river runners because he invented a new style of whitewater rowing, which allowed the oarsman to face downstream, ferrying his boat at an angle toward the rocks and rapids.
Galloway, who lived in a cabin outside of Vernal around the turn of the last century, made his money, such as it was, selling furs. Each month he set out his traplines along the Green, the Yampa and the Colorado rivers, killing beaver, muskrat, otter, lynx, coyote, kit fox, long-tailed weasel, raccoon, ringtail cat. On one trip alone in 1912, Galloway boasted of trapping ninety-five beavers, at a time when beavers were themselves heading beyond the zero of extinction in Utah. A Park Service brochure on Dinosaur flaunts a photo of Galloway proudly gripping six dead otters by their tails, each snared in his merciless traps.
As the apex predator on the Green River, the otter population was never very robust. One estimate by the biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that at its maximum density, the Green River probably supported one breeding pair of otter for every ten river miles. So, in that single trapping blitz, Nathaniel Galloway may have wiped out a third of the adult otters in what is now Dinosaur National Monument. But, then again, he did perfect the proper angle for the downstream ferry!
Our otters are almost certainly recent transplants from southeast Alaska, which may be another reason they have opted to forage in a pack: protection in numbers. Over the past decade, more than forty river otters have been released on the Green in or near Dinosaur National Monument, most of them kidnapped in Alaska, flown to Salt Lake, trucked to Vernal and unceremoniously dumped in Browns Park, Little Hole and Sand Wash.
No one really knows how well river otters raised in a temperate rainforest will thrive in a murky desert river which offers a fare of carp and catfish instead of salmon and steelhead. Indeed, the Alaskan otter (Lontra c. pacifica) is an entirely separate subspecies from the one which originally ruled the Green River (Lontra c. nexa). Are there still Nexa otters in Dinosaur? Will they breed with the Alaskans? If so, will they lose their genetic identity? Or will the newcomers simply drive them out altogether, finishing the job Galloway started? None of these questions were answered before the reintroduction program began. Likely, they weren’t even asked.
But these northern otters certainly are smart and crafty. They’ve already zeroed in on the easiest pickings in the neighborhood: the Jones Hole Fish Hatchery, where otters have been making nightly raids on the genetic mutants in the rearing tanks for the past five years. If the environmentalists can’t shut down the disease-spreading hatchery with a lawsuit, perhaps the otters in a concentrated attack can wipe it out by other means.
Why is the State of Utah engaged in a river otter recolonization program, any way? Is this a rare act of predator altruism from a state which once, not that long ago, rewarded ranchers who gassed coyote pups as they slept in their dens? No. The ultimate goal of the program is to artificially propagate the otter population to a level where the state can begin selling licenses for so-called annual otter "harvests," as if the "liquaceous creatures," in Edward Abbey’s poetic phrase, were organic vegetables. Grown in Alaska, Harvested in Utah.
Yes. Otter fur is back in demand, at least according to the fashionistas at Vogue magazine, which has repeatedly featured the emaciated bodies of supermodels draped in otter pelts. Is the wearing of a scalped otter an erotic or necrotic fetish?
A recent fur trade publication takes note of the upswing in the dead otter market, propelled in part by the rise of the Chinese middle class: "May auction sales established record levels for Otter with a $104.00 average and a top of $195.00 per pelt. These new price levels show that promotional efforts in China and elsewhere in the world, continues to pay huge dividends. There should be excellent demand for Otter again next season, with the paler types bringing the most money."
Swim for your lives, swift Lontras of the Green, and be sure to muck up your coats along the way!
* * *
After otter hour, Susette orchestrates a meal of startling complexity, headlined by tilapia in south Indian curry sauce with eggplant, red peppers and rice. As we devour the meal, the sky blackens prematurely, the winds stiffen and shards of lightning splinter the sky. The bats retreat and even the coyotes scatter as power-chords of thunder crash down the canyons.
With the storm bearing down on us, I reluctantly set up my tent for the first time. I dislike sleeping in tents. They are claustrophobic, steamy structures that occlude the nightsky. Yet, sometimes the elements compel your submission.
In an interior pocket of the little nylon shelter, I find a chapbook of poems that I’d accidentally left behind from my last outing, a weekend in the wind-sculpted Sweetgrass Hills of northwestern Montana. The verses are by Wang Wei, a Taoist painter, naturalist and political prisoner during the T’ang Dynasty in Eight Century China, who wrote his best poems during his long exile on the Wheel-Rim River deep in the Whole South Mountains.
As the tent shivers in the wind, I recite Wang’s poem "Golden-Rain Rapids" over and over, a mantra for dreams.
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain,
Water cascading thin across rocks,
Waves lash at each other. An egret
Startles up, white, then settles back.
To be continued.
Click here to read Part One: Dams, Oil and Whitewater.
Click here to read Part Two: Through the Gates of Lodore.
Click here to read Part Three: At Disaster Falls.
Click here to read Part Four: A Half Mile of Hell.
Click here to read Part Five: Greetings from Echo Park.
Click here to read Part Six: The Dam That Isn’t There
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.