The Remaking of Cataract Canyon

Day One.

A couple of years ago, Daniel Wolff and I began a casual email banter about floating one of the West’s mighty rivers. We thought we might canoe the Missouri, rewinding Lewis and Clark’s route, from Ft. Benton, Montana to the badlands of the Missouri Breaks. The summer passed and the Missouri rolled on without carrying us on its back.

The following year there was manly talk again, this time centering on Oregon’s John Day River, which is born in the Elkhorn Mountains and cuts its way in a lazy arc through basalt canyons to the Columbia River. By most standards, the John Day is not a big river, but it now stands, with the Salmon and the Yampa, as one of the longest free-flowing streams in the American West. The dam builders have marred nearly everything else. But book tours and wars came in the way. So, another day for the John Day.

Still, desert rivers haunted my daydreams. One in particular: the one that begins in on the south slopes of the Wind River Range in Wyoming and once emptied into the Gulf of California in Mexico, though not a drop of river water reaches that far today. That river is, of course, the Green-Colorado, the great river of the desert southwest.

Word had come from Moab that Lake Powell, that noxious sewage lagoon in the heart of Glen Canyon, was drying up and the river was regaining its flow, carving through canyons of sediment to reveal sections of Glen and Cataract Canyons that hadn’t been seen since the floodgates closed at Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. I proposed to Wolff that a summer float down the river through Cataract Canyon, the most challenging stretch of whitewater on the river, might give us the rare glimpse of a river being reborn-a victory of nature over technology.

Wolff said, “Why not?”

Why not, indeed.

Well, for starters, neither of us had the slightest experience with the kind of extreme rapids that would confront us in the throat of Cataract Canyon, especially in the harrowing triplet of cascades known as the Big Drops. And neither did our three companions in this flight from daily realities: Wolff’s wife, the filmmaker and choreographer, Marta Renzi; their 16-year-old son, Lorenzo, a devotee of Edward Abbey and a stunningly gifted bass guitarist, coming soon to an arena near you; and my wife, Kimberly Willson, a librarian.

Lorenzo and Marta boast on their resume of several descents of the mighty Hoosick River in inner tubes. When she was 18, Kimberly paddled her surfboard from the south point of Ocean City across the channel to Assateague Island in the hope of hearing the roar of wild ponies. And that’s about it.

I have a few rivers in my past: the Little Beaver and Churchill in Canada; Michigan’s Pine and Manistee; the French Broad in North Carolina; West Virginia’s New and Gauley rivers; the Deschutes and Rogue in Oregon. But those descents were years, decades ago. Since 9/11 I haven’t strayed away from my computer for more than three consecutive days. The Mac has extracted a terrible price from my body: hunched back, indiscrete waves of fat, tenderized hands and feet and pixel-eroded eyes. A ruin.

These days Wolff gets out on the water much more often than I do. And even though he’s a poet, and by all precedents of literary history should be confined to a consumptive sanitarium in the Poconos, Wolff’s in better shape, too. He takes daily breaks from scribbling sonnets, or writing books about the legendary Sam Cooke or Springsteen’s Ashbury Park or the Negro Baseball League, and escapes in his beautiful wooden sloop to sail up and down the Hudson, keeping an eye on the remorseless development biting into the Palisades and the grim cooling towers of Indian Point, America’s most dangerous nuclear plant, a few miles upstream from the Renzi-Wolffs’ mossy manse in Nyack.

Obviously, we needed help.

So I called up my old friend John Weisheit, one of the most acclaimed guides on the Colorado River. But there was a problem. After 25 years of guiding rafts down the Green and Colorado Rivers, from Dinosaur National Monument and Desolation Canyon through Labyrinth and Cataract to the Grand Canyon itself, Weisheit had become so disgusted by the state of the river ecosystem and the three big dams that were destroying it that he hung up his oars and became a full-time environmental activist.

Weisheit and Owen Lammers, a battle-hardened veteran of global fights against hydrodams from China’s Three Gorges to the demented Animas-LaPlata scheme in Colorado, founded Living Rivers in Moab back in 2000. This two-person operation has done more for the preservation of rivers in American West in the past five years than Sierra Club with all its millions had accomplished in a decade. In his spare time, Weisheit and two of his colleagues, Robert Webb and Jane Belnap, wrote the book on Cataract Canyon. It’s a meticulously detailed and passionate work, a model of environmental history writing that belongs on the same handy shelf with Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire and Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert.

Weisheit is also the Colorado Riverkeeper. It’s his job to keep an eye on the environmental changes in those canyons. It turns out he was looking for an excuse to get back on the river and check out the latest revelations from the ongoing retreat of Lake Powell.

“Let’s do it,” Weisheit said. “Just one minor thing. Let’s go Powell’s route, down the Green River, rowing all the way. No motors.”

The Powell in question was Maj. John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who commanded two pioneering expeditions down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869 and 1871/2.

So we packed our bags (strike that: BAG, they only permit you one) and converged on Moab.

* * *

By the time we get the old International Harvester bus loaded with several thousand pounds of our gear outside the Tag-a-Long offices in Moab, the temperature has topped 90 degrees. It is 8 am.

Weisheit has already been working for hours, rigging the rafts. And, typically, it didn’t take him long to provoke a confrontation with the owner of the company. Weisheit was wearing a Drain It! T-shirt, featuring an image of an giant sledgehammer smashing a hole in Glen Canyon Dam. The owner of Tag-a-Along and Weisheit’s former boss was not amused. Outfitters don’t want to offend anyone, even when their own livelihood is at stake. It’s one of the big reasons Weisheit retired from guiding.

More and more the outfitters are becoming apolitical and corporate, unwilling to defend the true source of their livelihood. The indigenous and family operations that sprang up in Moab during the 1960s are beginning to fade away and with it a personal connection to the canyons and the river. They are replaced by multi-national companies, such as Aramark that also manage Park Service visitor centers and peddle inedible food to schools and prisons.

The profiles of the river guides, once an outlaw culture of hippies and desert anarchists, are changing, too. More and more the guides are college students from LA or the east coast game for summer kicks and big tips. They guide for a couple of years, then become lawyers and equity analysts. The intimate connection to the river and the forces, political and natural, that shape it is being lost. “The Colorado has been Wal-Marted,” Weisheit sneers.

We drive north across the redrock, past Arches National Park, then turn west across cow-trampled BLM lands with expansive views of the glowing Book Cliffs to the north and the blue buckle of the Henry Mountains to the south, the last range to be explored by whites in the lower 48 states. All around us, blonde domes of Navajo sandstone breach up off the surface of the earth like the rumps of humpback whales.

When we finally reach the rim of Labyrinth Canyon, the temperature has spiked to 100 degrees, on its way to 110 by late afternoon. From the red lip of the canyon, the road plunges downward 1,500 feet in a torturous swirl of extreme switchbacks that cling to the shear cliffs of Wingate sandstone, laid down by the great sand dunes of the Jurassic period. The descent makes the crazy road on the island of Capri seem as leisurely as a drive down I-5.

We make our first snap decision: get off the damn bus! Much better to face the dust and the heat, now radiating off the vertical walls of sandstone, and walk to the bottom, leaving the groaning bus, loaded with rafts and gear, to its own uncertain fate. We smell the brakes sizzling all the way down.

At the fifth switchback, our cowardly decision is confirmed as we encounter the crumpled maroon hulk of a station wagon that had plunged off the road and smashed headlong into unforgiving boulders like Thelma and Louise, whose final ride into the blue negative spaces of the canyon was filmed nearby.

We watch from above as our bus attempts to negotiate the most perilous curve on this dangerous road. It takes Bob our driver a good five minutes to coax the rig the few hundred feet necessary to traverse the hairpin. That was a triumph worthy of a Formula One driver compared to the fate of an oil rig that inched its way down the canyon a few days earlier. It took the giant drilling rig two and a half days to make that one curve. I can’t help thinking the wrong vehicle crashed.

The oil companies have never given up on extracting the last drop of crude from the shallow pools of crude lurking beneath Canyonlands. They can’t drill directly into the National Park, so they take advantage of the BLM and State of Utah’s open door policy and set their rigs on those lands and aim their drilling bores at an angle to pierce into the park from all sides. Slant drilling is one term for it. Backdoor larceny is a better one. Abetted by the government.

Halfway down the canyon, we spook a pair of desert bighorn sheep, ewe and lamb. The mother cuts down the canyon toward a copse of cottonwood trees, while the young lamb streaks straight up the nearly vertical face of the cliffs, as if gliding on air. You can see why the Anasazi and their contemporaries the Fremont carved more images of bighorns onto the rocks of the Colorado Plateau than any other animal. Both peoples also adorned their sandals with the dew claws of desert bighorns, no doubt as a kind of talisman for their own miraculous climbing feats to their secret granaries, cliff dwellings, watch towers and astral observatories perched hundreds of feet above the canyon floor.

Finally we arrive at Mineral Bottom, our launch site. What mineral is that, you ask? Why uranium, of course. The ore that keeps on paying.

Back in the 1950s, little Moab was deemed the Uranium Capital of the World, thanks to H-Bomb Harry Truman. The bonanza created a handful of millionaires, like Charlie Steen, thousands of chronically sick miners and many dead Indians, mainly Navajo, whose plight in the irradiated deserts of the Southwest is achingly portrayed in If You Poison Us by Peter H. Eichstaedt and Murrae Haynes.

In the late 1950s, Disney did its part as a uranium booster. A special episode of the Mickey Mouse Club featured the Mouseketeers floating down the goosenecks of the San Juan River in search of uranium. Atoms for peace, naturally. This hour-long adventure rivals Dr. Strangelove for black comedy from that decade of group paranoia and imperial fantasias.

Still the absurd episode offers some luscious footage of the San Juan before it was inundated beneath the waters of Lake Powell, which even now is soaking up the radioactive waste of the hundreds of uranium mines and tailings piles beneath its jewel-like waters.

As a memento of that iridescent era, the town of Moab enjoys a large uranium dump, courtesy of the Atlas Corporation, on its outskirts, flush on the bank of the Grand River. On windy days-four or five afternoons on a good week-the air in Moab is peppered with uranium dust and its lethal sidekick Radon.

After decades of zen-like contemplation, the Department of Energy has recently decided to solve Moab’s little problem by excavating the contaminated soil, trucking it 30 miles up Highway and burying it near the base of the Book Cliffs outside the old cowboy town of Thompson. In the true West, this is known as spreading the wealth.

* * *

With the river so tantalizingly close, it is hard to remain patient. But readiness is all. There is still much work to do, most of it by Weisheit and our swamper Brian McManus, an 18-year old psychology student at the University of Florida, who is one of Tag-a-Long’s rising stars. They’ve sent Brian with us to crib some of Weisheit’s unparalleled knowledge of the river, the canyon’s hidden campsites, its geology, and natural and human history. Like the rest of us, Brian’s mind seems fixated on the rapids of Cataract Canyon, especially the Big Drops, which he has never rowed. But those are distant challenges, days away.

We unload the bus and begin pumping air into two inflatable kayaks, known affectionately as “duckies.” I soon espy Marta Renzi caressing the bow of the bright yellow single kayak, for which she has already developed an unnatural attraction.

The rigging and loading of the two large rafts takes nearly two hours, as a week’s worth of gear and supplies is carefully piecemealed and clipped into the holds of the raft: eight 10-gallon canteens of water, each weighing 50 to 60 pounds; a dozen or so large metal ammo cans jammed with food and supplies; two tables; seven folding chairs; a portable toilet; sleeping bags, pads and tents; coolers stuffed with blocks of ice; a keg of sunscreen; allegedly waterproof bags for clothes, cameras, toenail polish; a stove and propane tanks; field glasses and field guides (ie, Donald Baars’ The Geology of Canyonlands, Sibley’s Western Birds, Weisheit’s Cataract Canyon and, natch, The Monkeywrench Gang); Lorenzo’s guitar; first aid kits and antivenom; and the obligatory rocket launcher. If I they’d permitted me to bring a suitcase, I could have scooped up some of the sand from Mineral Bottom and boarded the raft with my own dirty bomb. No ticket to Niger required.

(Of course, in these days of government paranoia you have to be careful even allowing these quite natural fantasies to slip into your consciousness, never mind idly voice them aloud. Consider the case of my old friend Jim Bensman, a longtime enviro from southern Illinois-yes, there are quite a few of “them” down there in the sticks-who recently testified at a public hearing that if the Army Corps of Engineers really wanted to facilitate fish migration on the Mississippi River it might consider blasting down some of the archaic fish-killing dams on the river. At light-speed this entirely rationale observation was transmitted from the Corps of Engineers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who immediately launched a probe into the life and thoughts of Bensman-never mind the fact that Bensman was only quoting from the Corps’ own Environmental Impact Study, which put forth the idea of dam removal by dynamite as a legimate means of saving the lives of fish. When thoughts are crimes, you know your government is on the run. A few months ago, the Reverand Pat Robertson predicted that the Almighty God would unleash from the heavens a torrent of dam-busting rains to drown the town of Dover, Pennsylvania for the inequity of teaching evolution in its schools. There’s no word on whether the FBI opened an probe of the Supreme Deity and his bloodthirsty prophet.)

All of that and I forgot the Tanqueray! Dave Brower never left home for a river trip without a bottle or two of his favorite gin, but booze was impossible to buy in Utah on a Sunday afternoon. Just as well. Alcohol exacerbates dehydration and under these scorching skies we’re in for a daily dose of desiccation.

At the first bend in the river, we flush a great blue heron hunting crawfish along a sandbar. The giant bird uncorks it angular body and flies awkwardly downstream, always downstream. I’d like to write that the herons escorted us down the river. But that wouldn’t be true. The herons seemed agitated by our presence, barking angrily at us as they made their ungainly lift offs from beaches and the branches of cottonwoods. Compared to scream of the jetboats, we are a fairly unobtrusive gang of interlopers, floating silently down the river, leaving no wake behind us. Still the herons scold us, as if we should know better.

As we laze down a corridor of crumbly Kayenta sandstone, Kimberly perches on the edge of the raft, shielded from the sun by a rainbow-colored umbrella, like a figure in a Seurat painting. She is reading Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Zafon’s labyrinthine novel of secret libraries, coded texts, forbidden romances and revolution during the fascist takeover of Spain. The book has startling resonances to America under Bush.

No time to brood on those matters. Look at those swallows overhead! They could teach the superstars of Cirque du Soleil a thing or two.

Ed Abbey longed to be reincarnated as a turkey vulture. If I earn a right of return, I hope to come back as a cliff swallow, the most graceful and acrobatic of birds. Through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons, the darting, purple-winged birds with the cinnamon rump are a constant, though diminished, presence, feeding on mosquitoes and mayflies. Their dome-like nests, their with perfectly round entry holes, are affixed in vast colonies to the faces of White Rim and Cedar Mesa sandstone. The adobe-like structures bear an eerie resemblance to the ancient granaries we will float by over the next week. I suspect the Anasazi learned much about architecture syle from Petrochelidon pyrrhonota.

While we encounter hundreds of cliff swallows as we drift down the Green, we see few, if any, white-throated swifts, once a common resident of the canyonlands. Apparently, the swift is in rapid decline, owing to the ever-diminishing populations of insects and from an invasion of its nesting sites in the cracks of high cliffs by rock climbers, especially near Moab, where curtains of lycra-clab climbers festoon the red walls of Wingate sandstone.

Late in the afternoon, we make camp on a sand island fringed with tamarisk, wavy clumps of slough grass and sand willow, just inside the unmarked boundary of Canyonlands, the real Jurassic Park.

First things first.

Before the tents are erected, we must deploy the small metal box known affectionately as “the Groover.” Like some desert reliquary, the Groover has its own tent. Instructions are given for it’s use. The shiny receptacle is for shit only. Urine gets heavy, Weisheit advises, so piss in the river. It can take it. Some among us are skeptical and hold out as long as they can. But, eventually, all must make the pilgrimage. One river, under a Groover.

Marta wanders off in search of a tent site. She soon comes scampering back to our riverside kitchen, where Weisheit is hunched over a tray of charcoal, grilling coho salmon seasoned with the pungent smell of dill snatched from his wife Susette’s herb garden. Marta seems transformed, her body surrounded by a strange, hovering aura. An aura that buzzes. Then she whispers the fatal alarum we had all feared: “Mosquitoes!”

Believe it or not-and it does seem a stretch of logic under this evening’s bombardment-the population of mosquitoes along the Green River has been in steady decline since 1964 when the floodgates closed on Flaming Gorge Dam, reducing the annual flows of the Green by 20 percent.

Mosquitoes need still water to breed, little ponds for sex pads and birthing rooms. But the yearly floods on the Green aren’t as big or nearly as frequent as they used to be. There are fewer marshy places in the bottomlands and they dry up faster. Fewer mosquitoes means fewer swallows, swifts and bats. Our little island has a small trench of stagnant water on the backside, near our tents, and tonight the orgy is on. But not like the good old days.

We varnish ourselves in non-toxic insect repellant, which, being non-toxic, proves to be no deterrent against the microscopic vampires. We slide into sweaters and long pants, gloves, bandanas and sarongs. All to no avail. The mosquitoes penetrate every defensive shield mustered against them. We retreat to our tents, fleeing just as Weisheit is ready to serve us heaping mounds of strawberry shortcake topped with whipped cream. The horror, the horror.

Bottom line on day one: Nature bites back.

To be continued

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: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at:



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3