Going Down on the Rocks in Dinosaur
I am awakened abruptly in the pitch dark. There’s something tip-toeing across my chest. Something much heavier than a canyon mouse. Christ, surely it’s not a porcupine?
I wiggle back and forth in my bag gently encouraging the animal to continue its explorations elsewhere. The invitation is refused. Instead, it feels as if the creature has taken up residence on my sternum. A bouncing kind of residence.
I slide my hand out of the sleeping bag, grapple for my headlamp, and flash on the light. I am confronted by eyes the size of billiard balls, glassy and neurotic. A ringtail cat, the nocturnal clown of the desert, caught in the act. Gripping in its right paw what appears to be a tortilla chip left behind from last night’s feast, the ringtail bounces one more time, then levitates into the night. Gone. Just like that.
Ringtails aren’t cats. No one seems to be precisely sure what they are. The creatures are a quirk of mammalian evolution, apparently related to the raccoon, with whom they share a passion for thievery and mischief. The naturalists call them Bassariscus astutus. The accent here is on astutus. Ravens with fur.
I don’t know if we are communing with nature, but nature seems to be communing with us. Last night, Weisheit found a scorpion in his bedroll. This morning Jennifer awoke to find that a beaver had homed in on her sleeping bag and had deposited an oily and pungent pile of beaver stool a few inches from her head. Only otter shit exudes a more disagreeable odor. Perhaps, the animal kingdom is sending us an eviction notice: Time to go.
* * *
The mood is solemn as we dismantle our last camp, rig the rafts, sweep away the traces of our stay. Call it a pre-partum depression. It happens on the final day of nearly every river trip.
Naturally, we all vow to remain friends and to run this river together again. Soon. We talk about tackling others: the frenzied Bruneau, the croc-laden Zambezi, the mysterious Tsang-Po and, of course, Glen Canyon Dam Falls.
But who can predict the future? We only know this is our final day on this manifestation of the Green River, a river that has consecrated us as a group, bound us together, a river that will flow through our dreams.
Jennifer tries to snap us out of our gloomy reverie. "How do you get down off an elephant?" she asks. "You don’t! You get down off a duck." Her jokes are getting progressively worse and our response to them more demented. Perhaps it’s time to wrap this excursion up after all.
A few hundred yards downstream from Red Wash, the Green River loops through the small, white cliffs of Island Park. On river left, Weisheit points out the image of a bison etched onto the canyon wall. The carving is large, perhaps eight feet wide and four feet tall, and it has narrowly escaped destruction after a huge chunk of the rock wall next to the petroglyph exfoliated into a mound of rubble and dust.
The bison carving was made by a Ute shaman, probably in the Eighteenth Century, after the arrival of the horse in the Rockies. The image refutes the notion, perpetrated by many environmentalists and government bureaucrats, that the canyons of Dinosaur had been essentially vacant of human habitation from the demise of the Fremont to the arrival of white fur-trappers.
It’s the same old story floated about most lands whites wanted to grab from Native people. In Yosemite, the Mewuk were prodded out of the Merced Valley first by infectious disease, then by gold miners followed by the notorious butchers in the Mariposa Battalion and finally by the Park Service, which tried to wipe them out of history. Until recently, Park Service literature on Yosemite postulated that the Mewuk had abandoned the Yosemite Valley in the late 1700s, claiming the tribe considered it the valley of "black death". And that was before Hetch Hetchy dam went up. Of course, they could have simply asked Chief Tenana his opinion.
In Yellowstone, the Sheepeater Shoshone were discounted as mere transients and were disparaged by early Park Service historians as a "lazy" and "primitive" people who were not worthy of the landscape. The mountain men knew better. In his journals, the fur-trapper Osbourne Russell described the Sheepeater Shoshone tribe living in the Lamar Valley as "neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheepskins of the best quality, well-armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian and seemed to be perfectly happy."
These are the myths that sanctify our brittle and self-serving concept of the wild, as a landscape devoid of any trace of previous human occupation. It is a perverted fantasy indeed that finds a way to sanction Grant Village and Ahwahnee Lodge into national parks, but excludes the presence of native people who co-existed with grizzlies and bison for 10,000 years.
The canyons of Dinosaur are scattered with historical evidence of recent Ute occupation: campsites, fire pits, middens, the remains of wickiups and petroglyphs of horses and bison. Yet, in most of the literature about Dinosaur National Monument the Utes are inexplicably elided from history in favor of extended passages about the long-vanished Fremont. Of course, the Fremont come guilt-free. They disappeared long ago, before the white conquest. No mention is made of the fact that the Green and Yampa basins were once, very recently, Ute land, from which hundreds of families were forcibly evicted and confined to small reservations under treaties that were later declared to be manifestly unjust. Steal their land, then claim they were never there.
* * *
As we struggle against the stiff winds of Island Park, Weisheit and I talk about our late friend and mentor Dave Brower, the man who saved both Dinosaur and Grand Canyon National Park from being inundated behind big dams.
Like Dinosaur, Brower had his own faults. But he had the rare talent of turning them to his advantage. That’s how he got Weisheit to forsake his river-guiding career and devote himself to becoming the Colorado/Green river’s most forceful advocate. Weisheit confronted Brower at a meeting over the old man’s role in the political-dealmaking that led to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam (and Flaming Gorge, too, which often escapes mention). Brower didn’t flinch under the assault. He was used to it by now. Hell, Katie Lee had been carping at him for nearly forty years about the dam-and her criticism was not always good-natured in tone. "Yes, I’ve made mistakes," Brower confessed to the river guide. "Now, what are you going do to fix them?"
Weisheit was stumped. But not for long. He soon joined forces with Owen Lammers, the brilliant anti-dam campaigner from the Bay Area, and my old pal David Orr, the most militant environmentalist ever incubated in swamps of Arkansas, to establish Living Rivers, a group dedicated to draining Lake Powell and restoring ecological rhythms of the Colorado/Green River system. In tandem with their allies at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, they have grow into one of the most powerful and innovative force in American environmentalism. Living Rivers is a testament to how much you can accomplish with a little bit of money, a lot smarts and a bright-line mission that defies political compromise.
I had a similar encounter with Brower twenty years earlier than Weisheit. Fresh out of college and 200 pages into a sprawling and inchoate novel about a doomed expedition in the snowy wilderness of Manitoba, I ran into Brower at a rally in Baltimore against the nuclear power industry, which had nearly burned a hole through the earth at Three Mile Island a few dozen miles up the Susquehanna. We both spoke at the protest (I got the mic for 30 seconds, Brower for 30 minutes) and went out for drinks afterwards. Drinks with Brower meant martinis –often just Tangueray gin, straight up. One after the other.
I was inebriated after four rounds. Brower showed not the slightest tic of impairment. We drained two more martinis and then he asked me to explain what I was doing with my time now that Kimberly had given birth to our daughter, Zen.
"Changing diapers and writing a novel," I said. "Changing diapers, mostly."
He laughed. Then swooped in for the kill.
"There’s plenty of time for novels in your dotage, Jeffrey," Brower said, zeroing in with his impish eyes. "Not so much time left for those Chesapeake blue crabs out there in the Bay or the grizzlies that you love and which frighten me. Why don’t you write about them?"
So I mulched the novel and went to work for Brower at Friends of the Earth for a few months. It wasn’t always a smooth relationship. He often felt I was too critical of the big environmental groups and lacked an ultimate faith in the political system to deal with acute environmental problems. Of course, on any given day of the week, Brower adopted both of these opinions as articles of faith. He was a complex and contradictory man. Some might call it character.
We hadn’t spoken in about five years when I ran into Dave at the Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, where we were both featured speakers. Jim Ridgeway and I had just written a vicious little book called A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, which we had dedicated to the fall of Glen Canyon Dam. I handed a copy to Brower. He flipped through the pages absently, tossed it to his wife Ann and resumed a conversation with his latest recruit to the Sierra Club, Adam Werbach, now hustling as a frontman for Wal-Mart.
If Dave and I endured a fractious relationship, Ann and I had always shared fundamental values and a warm and unwavering friendship. Through many fraught hours, Ann Brower served as Dave’s spine and his conscience-not to mention editing his sometimes tangled prose into clear and potent sentences. As I turned to walk away, miffed at Brower’s snub, Ann grabbed my wrist. "I’ll make sure he reads it." She winked. And so she did. I received beautiful notes from both of them a few weeks later.
I last saw Brower at Glen Canyon Dam, during the protest that served as the coming out party for Living Rivers. He was in a wheelchair, fiercely battling the illness that would soon claim his life. As the speeches rambled on, I rolled Dave across the parking lot to the Glen Canyon Bridge with a view down into the last seventeen undammed miles of the canyon.
"Right the wrong," he demanded.
Seven years after his death, the only real commemoration of the life of America’s greatest environmentalist is on a building in Berkeley, now under green construction, that will house Earth Island Institute and other environmental and social justice organizations. Supposedly Dave gave his enthusiastic assent to the project in the waning weeks of his life. But I think Dave was probably just happy that Earth Island, his last organizational progeny, would have a permanent base of operations from which to cause global trouble in the name of sea turtles and killer whales.
Dave Brower wasn’t about buildings, even earth-friendly ones. His legacy resides in what Howie Wolke calls the Big Outside. Brower deserves to have his name immortalized on a Sierran peak, an ancient forest grove in Oregon, a wild run of rapids in Grand Canyon and a living canyon in Dinosaur-Lodore, perhaps?
* * *
Dozens of trout rise before us, puckering the smooth surface of the river as it squeezes through the brooding walls of Split Mountain Canyon. A fat rainbow finally makes a twisting leap out of the water, snatching an unwary damselfly.
These rainbows aren’t native to the Green River, whose warm and silty waters never produced many trout and then only the brightly marked and sleek Colorado Cutthroat, now endangered, largely as a consequence of the government’s stocking the river basin with non-native competitors, such as the ubiquitous rainbow.
Most of these fish found their way into the Green River from the Jones Hole Hatchery a few miles upstream, which is why the facility must be closed immediately. All hatcheries should be shuttered eventually, but this one deserves to be first in line. It is polluting the Green River with alien beings, android trout, generated in cloning tanks that sacrifice identity for the identical. The phony fish are eating away at Dinosaur’s aquatic ecosystem, still more ecological blowback from Flaming Gorge Dam. Among other serious problems, the hatchery is a vector for infection, especially a fatal disorder called whirling disease, known to ichthyophiles as "trout AIDS."
The Jones Hole Hatchery was constructed a few yards outside the Dinosaur National Monument boundary by the Fish and Wildlife Service with money provided by the Bureau of Reclamation. The hatchery was meant to mitigate the damage done by Flaming Gorge dam. Mitigation can be succinctly defined as making amends for one bad act by doing something worse.
Here the federal government deliberately eradicated the native species (which the Bureau men dubbed "trash" fish) of the Green River above and below the dam by saturating the waters with poison, an act that gives new meaning to liquidation. Then the waters of the reservoir and the stretch of river below the dam through Browns Park and into Dinosaur were seeded with non-native lake trout, brown trout and rainbows. The Bureau of Reclamation now touts Flaming Gorge and Browns Park as "a world class trout fishery." Yet, you’ll cast in vain for a Colorado Cutthroat, considered by many to be the most beautiful trout in the world. That’s a strange kind of progress.
This begs another question. Should sport-fishing even be permitted in national parks? There’s an easy and emphatic answer for that. No. No more than digging for fossils, gathering potsherds, gunning down bison, recreational operation of bulldozers, torturing grizzlies or building big resorts. Leave the fishing in the parks to eagles, osprey, bears and otters. Where else are they going to eat?
Yellowstone shut down its hatcheries in 1960. Why is the FrankenFish factory at Dinosaur National Monument still pumping out drones forty-seven years later? Because the hydro-potentates at the Bureau of Reclamation desperately need to maintain a recreational constituency to defend their dam-and the houseboaters keep killing themselves off. To Congress, a trout fishing lobby sounds authentic-even when the trout are not.
The rainbows, brown trout and channel cats are also edging out the native desert fish, the Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub, in particular. These fish are now endangered. None of these species were considered commercial fish, so, naturally, they were boxed in by the dams–Hoover, Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge-before biologists even knew much about their life histories.
This much we now know. They like warm, murky water and the turbulent pools below mighty rapids. Though not anadromous, these big predators are migratory, sometimes moving dozens of miles between spawning grounds, rearing spots and feeding zones. They breed in the submerged limbs of cottonwoods and willows during the spring floods. They eat other fish, including their own young.
But in the post-dam system the water runs clear and cold, released from the icy belly of the reservoir at 54 degrees in the heat of August. The rapids are diminished or inundated entirely. The spring floods are regulated. The prey species, including most critically (and ironically) their own young, are disappearing, year by year. The endemic fishes of the Green/Colorado River are now mere flashing shadows in a closed system. As the humpback chub goes, so goes the river ecosystem. And once they are gone, they can’t come back. They exist nowhere else in the world.
So let us resolve to unplug that hatchery, dry it out and leave behind the empty buildings, vats and tanks as another memorial of science gone wrong. Call it the Dachau of the Cutthroats.
* * *
And so the afternoon passes, down the halls of red rock on the dark river. There’s much to say, but no reason to speak. Not now. No reason at all to violate the wild silence.
It’s only early afternoon, but already the sun has melted on the high rim, igniting the walls in slanted light, canyon glow.
The gorge narrows, the river accelerates, the current grips the raft, flexes its hidden strength. Rapids aren’t the only testimonial to its power.
But rapids are coming. Vicious ones that will shoot us through the center of Split Mountain in a five-mile long conspiracy of rocks and water: Moonshine, Schoolboy, SOB. We rocket over them one after another, cutting through standing waves, twirling on mossy table rocks, bouncing off boulders that do not yield. We are attuned to the rhythms of the river now. For a moment, at least, we are at one with the current of the water. A Zen thing.
So it flows.
We break for lunch one last time on a thin crescent of beach at the mouth of SOB rapids. I unwrap four smoked brook trout, caught on dry flies in the Warm Springs River on the eastern flank of Mt. Hood–our last treat. The beer is gone; so is the Tequila. We settle for water, cool and delicious.
Suddenly, the wind picks up. Powered by the tightening walls of the canyon, the wind scalps the surface of the river, lifting up peels of water and driving the spray upstream against the rapids. The sky darkens, thunder pounds the mountains, lightning stabs the rim of the canyon. Close, very close. This is no mere light show. The hair rises on my arms, prickling with electricity.
Rain pelts us, lightly at first, then in a furious torrent that soaks our clothes and food. There’s nowhere to hide. We huddle together as the rain morphs into hail, pecking at us like buckshot. Newly formed waterfalls erupt from the rim, pouring in wispy tails over the face of the canyon. The water runs red.
The storm rages for thirty minutes, then dissipates, leaving behind a disc of lemon sun and a fat rainbow arching across the canyon in an unmarred sky.
Back on the rafts, we float the final mile through the belly of Split Mountain in silence, down an eerie corridor of violently eroded limestone to the stark gate of the canyon and the slab of bland concrete at the takeout point.
As we empty the rafts and heave them onto the boat trailer, a Park Ranger pulls up in a grumbling SUV. He slides out and slams the door, leaving the monster truck idling, a blue smudge of hydrocarbons belching from the tailpipe. He saunters toward us, walking with that calculated limp made iconic in Sergio Leone movies and crudely adopted as the war-strut of George W. Bush. The ranger is a little man with a big gun strapped to his thigh, which he fingers obsessively. The shadow of a Kevlar vest sprouts from beneath his starched Park Service uniform. From his military-style belt dangle plasti-cuffs, a taser and pepper-spray–all the toys of a post-modern cop.
With his eyes shaded behind the obligatory Ray-Bans, the tiny ranger begins to question Susette about our trip. In his puff-adder voice, he demands to see our permits and interrogates her about where we camped last night. He says he is "in receipt of information" that we didn’t stay at Big Island. Apparently, the frat boys have filed their snitch report.
Susette handles the tedious interview as coolly as she navigates rapids. She explains that thanks to the incompetence of Park Service recreation staffers, who had assigned us a landlocked campsite, and the engineers at Flaming Gorge Dam who had shrunk the river, we had no choice but to beach our boats at Red Wash.
I don’t have Susette’s capacity for patient explanation. Or her subtle sense of irony. But I suddenly realize that I am wearing my verboten t-shirt. Inside-out, natch. I flip the park cop the Curse of the Slain Bison, turn my back to him and watch the flowing and living river one last time before heading back to Oregon and eight months of moss, fog and rain.
The storm has flushed a juniper stump into the current, bobbing its way down stream to lodge like a small bone in the throat of Glen Canyon Dam.
Roll on, little juniper, roll on.
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
Click here to read Part Seven: Splitsville.
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.