The Remaking of Cataract Canyon (Part Four)

We ease down the river for another hour or so working our way along the large meander around the Turk’s Head and then tie our rafts to a crack in the roof of an alcove in the flesh-toned Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It’s a cool and shady spot for a floating lunch and yet another swim. Weisheit whips up tunafish wraps, apple cobbler, and, amazingly, watermelon that is ice-cold and delicious.

There’s a small hanging garden lurking on the cliff-face above us. Glen Canyon was famous for them, but they are much rarer here in Stillwater and Cataract. Hanging gardens are usually found under alcoves of porous rock, such as sandstone, where water seeps through the face of the cliff to create a lush microhabitat for maidenhair ferns, alcove columbine and desert orchids.

Here sprouting out of a nest of ferns is a close relative of poison ivy (to which I am pathologically allergic and more frightened of than rattlesnakes) called the lemonade bush. But far from being toxic, this leafy shrub offers up pink flowers and sour berries that can stimulate saliva production for the parched desert nomad. I pop of a couple of tart berries in my mouth, swill them around until my mouth begins to erupt with foam. Hmm. Might make for nicely perverse treats for Halloween.

After lunch, Lorenzo dives into the deep pool. He breaks the surface of the reddish water, yelping. “Hey, something bit me!”

“Nothing to worry about,” I say. “Probably just a minnow.”

Yeah, a minnow all right. The Colorado Pikeminnow: once the most voracious predator in the Colorado River system. The Pikeminnow is far from a tiny fish. When Powell descended the canyons, his men caught Pikeminnows that were bigger than barracudas. One was six feet long and weighed around 100 pounds. When they gutted the mighty minnow, it’s large heart continued beating on the ground at twenty beats a minute for four minutes.

Then again that little nibble probably wasn’t a kiss from a Pikeminnow, since those cruisers of the Green and Colorado have nearly been wiped out, along with all of the other native fish in these salty, silty, hot and turbulent desert rivers.

What the dams didn’t kill, the rotenone did. Fish managers considered the native minnows and suckers “trash fish” to be eradicated and replaced with catfish, striped bass, and cold water fish like rainbow trout, which now thrive in the clear and frigid waters in the reaches downstream from the spillways of Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon dams.

As a result of the dams, eradication regimes and competition with exotic fish, four of the eight species of native fish are on the endangered species list: the Colorado Pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail chub. The other four species are also in freefall, with no help in sight.

* * *

In the sizzling glare of the late afternoon sun, the water of the Green River appears flat, mellow. But once you’re in it up to your neck the pull of the current is strong and decisive. A weak swimmer could easily be swept downstream, tire, slip under, surrender to the river’s covert power. It happens. Whiskey helps make it so. Most of the deaths in Cataract Canyon involve the consumption of spirits, of one kind or another.

One by one, we wade out to the channel and plunge in, breaststroking across the silent surge of tepid water to get a closer look at a Fremont granary clinging to the canyon wall. Here the river is perhaps two hundred yards across and yet it sweeps us a hundred yards downstream before we reach the far bank and once again fight our way through an unyielding hedge of tamarisk. If the only the French had planted the Maginot Line with a thicket of tamarisk, they might have been able to repel the onslaught of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

We contour around the base of the cliff, casually looking for the pot sherds Weisheit found here a few years ago. But site has been picked clean by looters.

A decade or so ago, the looters were mainly Mormon ranchers busting across the desert on ATVs. They would dig up Anasazi and Fremont sites for pots, metates, sandals, jewelry and skeletons and sell them to eastern collectors and museums. Now the threat largely comes from New Agers seeking a personal communion with Anasazi mysticism, a potsherd to serve as a talisman to transport them to the spirit world. They are spiritual trespassers and there are legions of them now, criss-crossing the plateau, festooned in coral and turquoise jewelry bought in the haute boutiques of Santa Fe and Sedona, spewing misty platitudes about the interconnectedness of the universe.

And they’re not only after human antiquities. Several of the anthills we’ve come across have been looted as well, dug up in search of shark’s teeth from the Triassic Epoch. Give them the slightest pretext and humans will mine almost anything. During World War II, there was an all-out blitz on rabbitbrush, a desert scrub that used to be a ubiquitous plant in the canyonlands that could thrive for 150 to 200 years, when the Pentagon offered contracts for uprooted plants for use in the manufacture of tires for jeeps and airplanes.

The maroon granary looms thirty feet above us, blending in with the dark reds of the Organ Rock formation. The rectangular structure is about 12 feet tall and eight feet wide with a small window framed in wood near the top. It is affixed to the sheer wall of the cliff like a tick with no visible means of access. Once the structure was reached by a rickety ladder, tied together with strips of yucca and deer sinew. But there is no sign of that now. These are the kinds of seemingly inaccessible, floating buildings that led the Navajo to conclude that the Anasazi and Fremont practiced black magic, that somehow they had learned to fly.

The granary is a corn bin fortified as if it were a missile silo. The beautifully austere building must have been incredibly dangerous to build. At least a ton of sandstone rock would have been hauled up to the small alcove, where it would have been drystacked on the perilous cliff, probably with some kind of scaffolding, though there are no apparent holes in the rockface as signs of such an edifice. Then cottonwood branches would be used to frame the window and as vegas and latillas for the roof. The whole structure was then coated in adobe.

In the fall, women, most likely, would carry woven baskets and pots stuffed with corncobs and beans up a series of ladders and ropes to the granary and dump the seeds through the tiny window. Then in the spring the grain would be retrieved for the planting season. Both ventures were very risky propositions. Surely many fell to their deaths on the sharp rocks below.

Of course, the Fremont and Anasazi were desert farmers, planting their corn, beans and melons in these sun-scorched bottomlands, dependent on the summer monsoons and snow-melt floods. The picked spots were the water table was near the surface, so that their crops could be moistened from below. On the Hopi mesas, women still cart down water in clay pots to irrigate the crops during the driest weeks. Certainly the Fremont did the same.

Hording was a necessity of this tenuous existence once the Fremont culture gave up the life of nomadic hunter and gatherers to raise crops in the sandy bottoms of canyons of inscrutable stone. But it seems unlikely that these kinds of extreme precautions were taken merely to secure the grain from the elements or from ravens. Something much darker was haunting the Fremont culture; their art and architecture display all the signs of a highly developed society slipping into a self-consuming paranoia.

This granary, I called it the Maroon House, was probably constructed around 1100 AD and perhaps used for less than a decade. There are at least a dozen similar structures within a few square miles. The capital and human investment in the construction and maintenance of these buildings must have been a huge drain on the resources of the community. By 1300, the Fremont, as known through their rock art, pottery, architecture and burial figurines, vanished as a culture across the Great Basin, where they had arrived so mysteriously a thousand years earlier.

If the anthropologists are right, and that’s a very frail “if,” the religious beliefs and customs of the Fremont and Anasazi still resonate in the rituals of the Hopi and other pueblo tribes living on the sun-blasted mesas of northern Arizona and New Mexico. That means the Fremont were end-timers, believers in the approach of a great, cleansing apocalypse that would sweep away the tormenters and redeem the believers. From Mount Sinai to the Trinity Site, most desert religions cleave to this chilling faith in a final cataclysm.

I imagine the Maroon House as the cell of a visionary, an entombed Wovoka, the Paiute shaman, eyes starring through that tiny window at the searing arc of the sun, day after day, year after year, until the final vision of how it would all come to an end burned into his soul, giving rise to the Ghost Dance movement that swept across Native America, promising that soon, very soon, the skin of the earth itself would rise up and consume the white invaders.

And, yes, we still have to get past Rockfall Canyon.

I look across the river. Brian is doing a little dance as he tries to drain a big boiling pot of pasta without the use of a strainer, which seems to have mysteriously vanished from the cargo hold. Raven, again? It’s time for dinner: Chicken Alfredo. The intoxicating smell of Susette’s herbs being put to efficient use lures us back.

* * *

Night falls suddenly in what Powell called “these solemn depths.” Weisheit passes around a plate of brownies. No one asks if he has perhaps slipped a little hashish into the mix. No one needs any embellishment for what is unfolding above us. The virgin sky pulsates with stars, unbleached by even the faintest strains of light pollution. We begin to notice yellow streaks blazing down toward the earth, then burning out in a fast orange fizz. One after another. A meteor shower, perhaps, though it’s a month too early for the glorious annual migration of the Perseids.

“Probably not meteors,” Weisheit advises. “Might be space junk. There’s a hole in the sky up there, a window in the ionosphere, where the space shuttle and other debris from deep space slips through into the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s one reason Moab attracts a lot of sky watchers, alien hunters.”

So here we sit, munching brownies, smack on the landing pad of God’s trash chute. Perhaps that explains how Upheaval Dome came to be.

To be continued.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part One.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Two.

Remaking Cataract Canyon: Part Three.

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