Colorado River Blues

“This river is loud,” I say, overwhelmed by the constant roar in my ears.

“It will be quiet soon,” says Serena Supplee, the official artist of the Colorado Plateau and a Cataract canyon companion. She refers to water that is pooling up downstream of us, even as we speak, in the Powell reservoir.

The comment is as eerie as the prospect of such a forceful current being tamed.

We’re camped on river left below Rapid 19. The giant V-wave of Rapid 18 still churns in sight. The two surging laterals join together mid-rapid and stand powerful for generations to come, though you can only smash through that wave once a run.

The ride through 18 is so amazing that all you can do when you are finished is look back upstream and feel the joy and satisfaction of a smashing line. But at the same time sadness sets in. You begin to mourn that such a magnificent wave is upstream.

Feelings like those bring a boater back to Cataract again. And again.

Boaters like John Weisheit of Living Rivers, based in Moab. Weisheit has run the big water, roller coaster lines of Cat well over 400 times.

“I stopped keeping track around 390,” he said. Numbers like those and a passion for clean, free-flowing rivers led John to become the Colorado River Keeper. You can’t pass a gypsum dome or a salt intrusion without Weisheit tying off the boats and trudging a visitor through the coarse footing of Cataract canyon to explain how a one-time ocean evaporated leaving only crystals.

He’ll even give you jeweler’s loop to examine the residue.

If an exploration of the geologic record isn’t enough, get Weisheit going on the Glen Canyon dam. Not only does that wall of concrete stop the movement of all things wild; like pike minnows, me, grains of sand, and mule deer ­ it’s a safety issue now. When the Bureau of Reclamation built the dam it ignored the true high-water capacity of the Colorado river. And in not taking into account the levels that can be achieved during the 500-year-flood, the dam engineers have stacked the dominoes tight with every dam down the river. If one of these flood walls crumples, they all could, until the current flows straight to the sea.

Nobody wants this.

Unsafe dams are bad for business. Just like bad bridges and levees.

Don’t think a dam can bust here in the land of milk and honey? Guess again. The Bureau of Reclamation lost a dam in the relatively low populated Teton Valley of Idaho in the 1950s. And they almost lost Glen Canyon dam to the high waters of 1983.

That’s why Weisheit thinks we should drop the Glen Canyon dam 10 feet per year until it is drained. Sell chunks to philanthropists and treehuggers to fund the project.

People get real antsy when you talk about decommissioning dams. But like any great vessel even a dam can outlast its usefulness. To continue funding a money pit like the Glen Canyon Dam is the definition of stubborn. Especially while taxing the natural environment.

What will be the cost of this dam if it does collapse under the burden of shoddy craftsmanship? How much longer does the West have to live beneath the yoke of a dangerous, costly, and destructive dam?

The next morning we woke up to rapids drawn in the sand. We drank camp coffee while looking over the lines through the Big Drop, a collection of three falls in the river that required some scouting. The day was long, but the runs were clean, and the light in the canyon filtered off and on through the clouds, spotlighting the canyon walls. It was a beautiful place to be young, free, and healthy. A good moment to be alive. Just a speck on the geologic record. But when you’re out dodging the house-sized boulders in a maze of dropping whitewater, and soaking in the folds of canyon surrounding you it all seems very significant ­ like you’ll live forever. You feel like an entire layer of Navajo sandstone.

After the Big Drop the river careens through a few more rapids. Rapid 28 is the last one on the map. Before the dam there were 46 rapids through Cataract and Glen canyons. With historic low reservoir levels, though, and current running past Hite, Cataract canyon is slowly reclaiming itself one blowout at a time.

It was the giant storm of last October that created Rapid 29 at the mouth of Waterhole canyon.

29 is a burly drop and we run its stand-on-your-toes steepness while zig-zagging through a collection of boulders.

Then we see another horizon line.

Weisheit had said there would be no more rapids after Waterhole.

But down here in Cataract evolution is in process.

A steep, no-name gulch has gashed through the left side of the canyon. The gulch normally wouldn’t have been noticeable. But today there is a massive debris flow spilling from its shallow walls and into the river.

As our boats approach the new rapid, the angle smoothes and we see down its gentle tongue. The flow merges into a series of rolling waves.

“This rapid is still forming,” Weisheit says. “Someday it could be a large.”

We run Rapid 30 ­ a brand new Cataract canyon drop. High on the canyon wall above the blown out gulch is an eroded sandstone fin.

“It looks like a buffalo head,” Jen says.

Buffalohead Rapid.

We leave Serena and John at Cove canyon, where Serena is going to paint a watercolor landscape of the winding wash.

“Powell called this place Eden,” John says. “It has a perennial stream flowing through it.”

Mike props a DRAIN IT flag that John has given us in the frame of his blue Hyside. It flaps furiously in the strong upstream wind.

“Powell would want it this way,” John says, referring to us parting company at Eden.

We thank him for his expertise and push down into the howling wind. But we’re not rookies at this point. With over 40 days on the water and over 500 miles of river behind us, we know how to pull into the gale and make camp on Rockfall beach.

The next morning we float past Dark canyon, once home to one gnarly Dark Canyon rapid, considered one of the most ferocious. The current flows past it again, now. It’s no longer choked up in the stillness of the reservoir that took its life. The massive Dark Canyon itself still has a couple boulders in its belly. I am confident that that rapid will again one day strike fear deep into the bowels of boaters. All good things are restored in time.

We continue on through the hundred-foot high silt beds that have been left behind by the recession of the reservoir. Though they’re ugly and mar the canyon walls for now, it’s obvious these sands will one day soon be washed downstream. For now, they don’t seem all that out of place. This landscape was created by oceans that have receded. It will outlive this reservoir. It’s all of the animals that are dying because of the monster rock wall that stops the flow of all things wild.

Eventually we wind our way to Hite, formerly known as a marina. It’s been left high and dry, though. Jen attempts to reach the meager facilities that appear to be more oasis for the Columbus Day RVs than anything. A voracious mud covers the ground between river bed and dry fall. It sucks Jen in to her waist. Hite will not be reached.

The winds pick up and we are forced behind a rock reef at the mouth of North Wash for shelter. Happy to be out of the howling wind, we lie on our mats and don’t stir for 14 hours. The next morning is windy, too, with gusts over 50 miles-per-hour as we push down reservoir. We’re hardly moving, and take shelter on a beautiful beach at the mouth of Trachyte.

Finally, the glass moves in, and awaking at dawn we strike out for Good Hope Bay. It’s good to be moving without resistance and we take in the beauty of Glen Canyon. Much like Flaming Gorge the stifled and stagnant waters cannot strangle the grandeur from the region. It’s a fantastic landscape named for its lush glens. And one day each side canyon will run free again.

These are the things I think about as I row.

Jen gets on the oars and starts moving the boat. And this girl can move the boat. Sometimes I think about waterskiing behind. But this time I doze. I awake to a cataraft pulling up beside us with a motor assist. A nice couple named Gary and Elizabeth Perry from Flagstaff have just pulled off of a San Juan trip and are motoring the reservoir until they run out of “river kill,” the extra food from the expedition.

Gary tells us we’re making 1.7 miles-per-hour. The number makes us happy, as we’ve adjusted our speed of motion over the days. They say they’ve heard of us, from around a campfire on the San Juan trip, and that they respect what we’re doing. We chit-chat a bit more, Gary offers us a tow, which we decline, and the Perry’s are off to the next side canyon.

A houseboat drones slowly by. A frat boy on the top deck yells, “Hey.” Then he holds up his beer and yells, “Beer.”

I hold up my beer high to the sky and in an international gesture sweep it to by lips in a large chug. It’s a luke warm PBR, but better than ice cold 3.2. The frat boy cheers wildly.

Mike sips a 3.2 Bushch Light. “I’m not sure how I’ve made this 12 pack last so long,” he says.

“It’s a 30-pack,” replies Jen.

A bit later a jet skier comes up and asks us about the silt beds in Cataract.

“Have they washed out yet?” he asks. It’s obvious he’s a river runner and when he leaves he says, “Got to make the best of this damned backed up water,” referring to his craft.

We push on. Two row boats in a small sea. The waters are quiet, though, even for a busy weekend.

“You know the motor boats hit peak numbers on a couple weekends, like when we were going through Flaming Gorge on Labor Day weekend,” Roselle says. “The rest of the time these waters sit empty.”

The motorboats aren’t much of a user group, and the environmental destruction this lake creates should be weighed heavier than the motor boat’s right to troll up a side canyon. If these people are truly in love with this redrock landscape, it’s time to use the current to see it.

Right about then I started thinking about the THOUSAND BOAT FLOAT. That’s right, folks, next Labor Day weekend, bring out your self-propelled craft and let’s row these waters, demanding that current be restored to Glen canyon. Imagine rafts, kayaks, and canoes, lined out over dozens of miles of reservoir. The front of our flotilla will be hitting camp as the back still leaves the camp from the night before. Let’s take this canyon back! And have a good time doing it.

If you think about it, half of the water that sits in this desert lake evaporates straight into the sky, without ever kissing the earth. Take this dam down. Decommission it. Replace it with smaller diversion projects to deliver the water. But let the river flow. Divert no more than half of it, and let the other half, which would have evaporated anyway flow into the Sea of Cortez.

I know this is only a proposal from an enterprising journalist river rat, but it makes even less sense to stay the course. We screwed up big time when we built this dam.

I’ll see you at the THOUSAND BOAT FLOAT.

JOSH MAHAN is editor of You can follow his adventure down the Colorado on Down the River website. He can b reached at: