And so it ends just as it began, in mud and cow shit. After two-and-a-half months on the Green and Colorado Rivers, rowing 1,024 miles in an old leaky rubber boat, 80 sunsets and 80 sunrises, two full moons, two broken oars, a few brushes with death, and after rowing some of the biggest and most dangerous rapids in North America, we are now standing on the landing in South Cove on the reservoir called Lake Mead, with my spirits slowly deflating along with my raft. During the last two days of the trip, we had run almost completely out of rations. We were down to nothing but food and water!
The water here at the takeout is unnaturally clear and lifeless. The reservoir is only about half full, leaving a bathtub ring on the surrounding cliffs and exposing several square miles of mudflats strewn with driftwood and (unfortunately) empty beer cans. In the distance, you can see the petrochemical haze hovering over Las Vegas like a bad hangover. I know now why the dam that forms this reservoir is named after Herbert Hoover: it can cause a deep depression.
I try to make sense of what just happened, to understand the feeling I have in my gut, but it’s no use. There are no words to describe my emotions. After what seems like a lifetime in the glorious canyons of the Colorado Plateau, I will have to go back to work. And even more disturbing, I don’t have a job to go back to.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My goal here is to recount the last leg of our trip, the portion that takes us through the Grand Canyon, truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. Running the Grand Canyon is a privilege, and for most of the people who do get the chance, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. This has been my third trip in 12 years, and given that the number of people who want to run this river greatly exceeds the amount of permits issued each year by the National Park Service, I cannot decide if I am lucky or perhaps a little greedy. As we roll up the boats and load the coolers onto the truck, I realize it’s a bit late to worry about that now.
If you have been reading my previous posts, you will recall that we arrived at the Glen Canyon Dam just 40 minutes behind schedule, a feat accomplished only by Josh working me like a galley slave. Note to self; never try to keep up with two highly athletic people half your age. After two nights in a real bed and a full day off, we re-launched our rafts at the foot of Glen Canyon dam. Most Grand Canyon trips begin at Lee’s Ferry, but there is 15 miles of river above that we must row, if for no other reason than that it runs through the only portion of Glen Canyon that is not underwater.
To get there, we must be towed up river by the pontoon boats that regularly ferry tourists down this stretch to the takeout at Lee’s Ferry. The large commercial rafts have to make the return trip empty, and the operators are happy to tow us up river for a small fee. We float down casually, our coolers restocked with beer and ice, and I can see for the first time what Glen Canyon must have looked like to the few people who were lucky enough to see it before the dam was constructed. And it is incredible.
Since we launched in Wyoming above Flaming Gorge, we have become accustomed to seeing steep cliffs of various colors rise above us on both sides of the river. Every layer of sandstone or limestone has its own unique characteristics, giving each of the canyons their own special shape and color, from pinks and reds, to light buff colors, and dark shades of brown’s and even coal black. In most cases, the walls are too steep and unstable and the climate much too arid to support much plant life above the waterline, except were there are large side canyons entering or where there are large enough seeps in the porous rock that run throughout the dry season.
This all changes dramatically when we enter Glen Canyon. Everywhere there is water seeping out of the cliffs, and these seeps and springs have formed cavities in the rock walls, from small alcoves to vast caverns, many large enough to be called amphitheaters. Some of which resemble large parks and others are suspended hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. And where there is water there is vegetation, lush green hanging gardens like nothing we’ve seen anywhere up river. It is no wonder that despite the presence of numerous arches, pinnacles, hoodoos and other fantastic stone features, John Wesley Powell chose to name this canyon after the glens one might expect to see in the hills of Scotland or Ireland. The landscape is truly magical, which only deepens the sense of loss one feels looking upriver at the large obstruction that has buried what most surely was one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
When we reach Lee’s Ferry late in the late afternoon, we find the camp of the 13 people who will run the Grand Canyon with us. The campsite is deserted and they are up at the lodge on the rim having dinner. We are used to retiring early, so we share a quick meal, get in our sleeping bags and wait for morning, which arrives with a bang. An illegal hunter fires two quick rounds from his shotgun while standing on the boat landing, kills two ducks, which his dog obediently retrieves. In the process this knucklehead had almost sprayed Josh with birdshot as he was loading his raft. By the time anyone can figure out what has happened, the poacher was driving off in his truck, never to be seen again. Where are the Park Rangers when you need them?
Most of our new team members are from Missoula, and two are from Lander, Wyoming. And then there is Bob, returning from his two month absence, and who is the only one who I have met before. We receive our obligatory orientation from the River Ranger, who is thorough, but thankfully brief. To save time, anther party that is scheduled to launch the same day has joined us for the briefing. During the question and answer period that follows, their trip leader complains that because of the new regulations that prohibit anyone from going on more than one canyon float per year, he was unable to get the boatmen he wanted because they were all ready committed to other trips. This elicits an understandable groan from the boatmen he did have, who rightly felt slighted. From this time on, we refer to them as the B-Team. Fortunately for both of us, because there are not many other rafts on the river, we see them very infrequently down river.
At the moment, I am more concerned about our team. Spending 21 days in close quarters on a river trip can strain even the closest of relationships. I have had very good luck on my previous canyon floats, but have heard plenty of stories about trips that were plagued by personality disputes, so try to size them up a little. They are a pleasant group, mostly in their forties, a few older, one younger and most have a good deal of whitewater experience.
None of them are activists, so I’m thinking that if they don’t like loud, self-important, obnoxious environmentalists, they won’t like me either. Not to worry, though, there is than enough ego around to float a large battleship, and before long we have bonded into a happy, if somewhat dysfunctional family. I don’t want to bore you with yet another account of running the Grand Canyon as there are enough published accounts out there already to fill a library. Few of them rise to the level of literature, or even reflect well on the sport of river running. Suffice it to say that our days were filled with bloodcurdling rapids, stunning vistas, starchy food and long nights of drinking. We did flip a heavy gear boat early on in House Rock rapid, and only with great effort and a lot of yelling did we manage to right it. The rest of the trip went without major incident until an emergency developed when the two guys from Lander ran out of beer and began to raid the coolers of their teammates.
I will say that no matter how many times you have run the Grand Canyon, it is nothing short of terrifying. Looking down river at the churning waters, hearing the sound of the thundering waves, gazing into those big holes and contemplating a collision with the jagged rocks always makes me question my own judgment. Why do I put myself in these positions? I am not that experienced of a boatman. My raft is smaller than the recommended size. Josh’s boat is even smaller. I do not enjoy this feeling of abject fear. But there is no other way out of this canyon, at least without abandoning my boat and my honor, and even then it would take an extremely difficult climb up the canyon walls through a parched desert.
But like most of the expeditions that run these rapids every day, we somehow get through the rapids unscathed, which is a cause for celebration. Every moment, every move is then endlessly recounted in song and story, as if we had just battled an invading Mongol horde and chased them out of Arizona. And like victorious warriors everywhere do after a hard battle, we drink ourselves into a stupor. At least I did. And when reach Diamond Creek, we leave our new friends while Jen, Josh and I continued on towards South Cove at the top of Lake Mead.
Most boaters get out at Diamond Creek even though the canyon extends for another 60 miles. Usually this is because the next opportunity for taking out is on Lake Mead, which requires a few days of rowing on flat water. For most white water rafters, flat water is to be avoided like Utah beer. Some will make the trip down river from Diamond Creek only if they can be met by a motorboat to tow them out the last 20 or so miles. For us, since we had already rowed over 250 miles of flat water, the prospect of rowing down to South Cove was not especially troubling. For me, it would be a relief.
Diamond Creek is on the Hualapai Reservation, and the gravel road out is maintained by them, and they meet every party and count every head, charging a $75 fee per boater to drive out. As we pushed off, an elderly Hualapai man, his long white braids hanging beneath his cowboy hat, raised his hands and gave a loud holler as we entered Diamond Creek rapid just downriver from the take-out.
Coming up soon was Mile 232 rapid, considered by many to be one of the most difficult rapids in the Grand Canyon, and for good reason. On river right, at the end of the long rapid, a formation of pointed black fins of Vishnu Schist jut out of the river looking like Darth Vader’s gloved hand. A train of large pyramid-shaped waves leads up to the fins, and unlike most rock formations, these fins only deflect a small percentage of the water that is forced against them, as the rest of the current surges through them. Imagine holding your spread fingers at the opening of a fire hydrant. Many boats have been ripped to shreds on these rocks, and some rafters have died here, not realizing in time that it is very difficult to pull back from the fins once you are in the wave train. The only safe option is to stay left, and avoid the waves altogether.
Well, this was certainly my plan. I had heard enough stories about Mile 232, and even though those waves looked tantalizingly fun and pulling off didn’t look that difficult, I decided to heed the warnings and stay left. I got into trouble right off the bat. When I entered the rapid, instead of pulling left, I decided to face my boat left and push on the oars. This made it easier for me to enter the rapid, and I was initially successful in getting left of the waves, but halfway down the wave train thecurrent sucked my raft back in. Now I was pushing on the oars frantically, and going sideways over 14-foot haystack shaped waves, and heading directly towards the fins that some rafters call the Fangs of Death. Realizing that I would not be able to push the oars hard enough to avoid the rocks, I attempted to spin my boat around to face them, so I could pull back on my oars, which would give me considerable more power.
It was too late. The water moves much faster in the lower part of the canyon. Instead of facing the fins while pulling away as planned, I was now moving sideways up the big pillow of water directly in front of them. I was so close to the rocks that my oar hit one of the fingers and I had to quickly ship it so it wouldn’t be knocked out of my grip. The other oar was useless, pulling or pushing it would only change the angle in which I would collide with the rocks, so I shipped it too, bracing for a collision and hoping for the best.
As I rose up the wall of water towards what was surely my stony death, the front of my boat hit the rocks which spun the raft around helplessly, spinning me backwards and dropping me about four feet below in the turbulent hole on their downriver side of the fins. The boat landed hard, almost knocking me out of my seat and into the swirling vortex, and it immediately filled with water. This was good; as it meant that I had spun off the rocks rather than be pushed up against them. Soon, I was flushed out of the hole and back into the current. A close call, and my heart was beating wildly. Just when you think you are almost through with danger, it hits you like a freight train.
We continued downriver and on the last night we camped beneath what is now being billed as either one of the eight wonders of the world, or the most hideous abomination ever constructed on a wild river. I am of course talking about the controversial Hualapai Skywalk. We had heard a lot about it, and from all the stories you’d think that it was going to be a development so hideous that it would spoil our entire experience in the lower Grand Canyon. One of the Park Rangers even grumbled that he wanted to blow it up. I fully expected to see something like Bob Stupak’s Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas, complete with neon lights and a roller coaster.
Instead, what I saw looked like a tiny basketball hoop way up on the canyon rim. There was no hotel, no casino, no roller coaster, only a gift shop, and the dang thing was even closed at night. Given what the National Park Service has allowed to happen on the South Rim in the so-called Grand Canyon Village, the Ranger’s objection seemed highly hypocritical. Even though we were camped directly beneath this incredible structure, it seemed far less intrusive than the hotels, gift shops and IMAX Theater in Canyon Village, some of which is also visible from the river.
While I do not approve of the skywalk, I cannot figure out why is it O.K. for the white people to build Las Vegas, which impacts the air quality of the National Park and consumes large quantities of water and fossil fuels, while it is sacrilegious for the Hualapai to build what is basically a pier on the rim high above the river to generate a little badly needed income on what has been their land for centuries?
After loading up the rental truck we head into In Las Vegas, where we have rooms waiting at the Gold Nugget, an old downtown Casino. Jen and Josh have decided to stay on the river and keep rowing to Yuma, and possibly beyond. They invite me to join them, but I have no desire to sit in a wet raft, not for even one more day. This is close to where John Wesley Powell took out and if it’s good enough for Powell, then it’s good enough for me. I was excited about spending a few days in Vegas, taking a hot shower, sleeping in a real bed, and eating at one of those big hotel buffets and getting home for some rest and recuperation.
Las Vegas, however, was a letdown. After being in the wilderness for so long, it seemed like I had been transported to another planet. I am no stranger here. During the years that the Pentagon was conducting underground nuclear weapons tests at the nearby Nevada Test Site, I had spent months at a time here organizing protest rallies and taking part in backcountry expeditions to ground zero. Two of these incursions actually forced the Department of Defense to delay a nuclear bomb test, a very expensive proposition. But now the place seemed just too strange to enjoy and I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there and back to Wyoming to pick up my car.
One thing I did look forward to was drinking coffee and reading a newspaper in a café. At the café in the Gold Nugget I picked up a fresh copy of The November New York Times and tried to find out what, if anything had changed since we launched in mid-August. Perhaps the world had woken up to the threat of global warming. Perhaps all sides had decided to end hostilities in the Holy Land. Maybe Dick Cheney went to see the Wizard and got a heart. Maybe the San Francisco 49ers had developed an offense. But, no, very little had changed.
My attention was drawn to an op-ed in the Times by Eduardo Porter. In it, he bemoaned the fact that while Americans are richer today, in a material sense, we are less happy than we have been in earlier times, and this got me to thinking. Now happiness would seem to be of paramount importance. It was important enough for the framers of our constitution to include in the Declaration of Independence. And yet, with all of our wealth and technology, we seem to have forgotten how to be happy.
I do not believe that what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their friends had meant by happiness and what Porter means by it is exactly the same thing. Happiness meant more to the participants of the Enlightenment than just feeling good. They were careful to say that it was not happiness that we had an unalienable right to, but the pursuit of happiness. Now I am not generally a happy person. I might say that I am mostly content and I consider myself fortunate that my situation is no worse than it is.
Like most of us, I experience fleeting moments of happiness, but usually I am depressed. It is hard to be happy when you see the planet going to Hell in a handbasket, and there are so many millions of people who don’t have diddly-squat. Aldo Leopold once said that the price of an ecological education is to forever observe a landscape of scars. Climate change is depressing, and so is the prospect of mass extinction. It seems wrong to me to be too happy under these circumstances.
One of my reasons for rowing 1,000 miles down the river was to ponder all of this. I was not trying to pursue, much less catch happiness. No, actually achieving happiness would engender so much guilt and self hatred that it would probable have the opposite effect and make me even more depressed. Generally, people who are happy all the time tend to annoy me, even more than people who are depressed all the time. As a rule, I wouldn’t wish happiness on anyone, even my worst enemy. Over the last 80 days I did have fleeting moments of pure happiness. Thankfully, they were not permanent.
For the founders of our great nation, happiness was more often defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. In the eighteenth century, if you were not royalty, clergy, landed, or wealthy, you were supposed to work. The lower classes were to expect nothing more from life, just hard work, a short miserable life and if you had sufficient piety, a reward awaited you in Heaven. You were not even supposed to enjoy sex! You worked all of your waking hours and got a little rest on Sundays so you could worship the Christian God. No one was willing to see a poor serf sit around in idleness, because that meant a loss of income for the higher ups. Unless you were one of the elite, leisure time was not something in great supply.
It has been said that at either end of the economic spectrum there lies a leisure class. Once you give up the desire to be one of rich, you may then begin to live like them. I have seen the look of pure envy in the eyes of my wealthy friends when describing my plans to row from Wyoming to Arizona. They have the money, but they don’t have the time. With all of our wealth and technology, few of us have the time, or take the time to hike a canyon, run a river or even take a walk in the local woods. Time cannot be money if the people with a lot of money don’t have any time.
In the modern era we have simply become too busy pursuing wealth and security to be happy. Yet studies show that people who do volunteer work in their communities, work such as helping out the disadvantaged and caring for the environment are among the happiest people. They are also healthier and tend to live longer. And I think most of us know this, we are simply too depressed to do anything about it.
So am I happier now? I am in better physical condition. I’ve lost some weight and have a nice suntan. I am more rested then I have been in years. I have had some time to reflect on the reason for my own existence on this planet, and to think about the road that lies ahead. But I am glad to report to you that I am no happier for all of effort. And that is how it should be. We have a lot of work to do and very little time to do it. If we want to ensure that our children can have a decent planet on which to pursue their own happiness, then we will have to think less about our own wealth and comfort, and more about happiness itself.
MIKE ROSELLE writes turgid prose for Lowbagger.org and other fine publications.