These days there isn’t a vacant hotel room to be found in Vernal, Utah. Or Craig, Colorado. Or Pinedale, Wyoming, for that matter. The rooms are all booked up with oil workers, pipe-layers, explosive technicians and tax accountants versed in the intricacies of the depreciation allowance.
The No Vacancy signs out here in the Interior West have been flashing for a year and half at upscale Best Westerns and dusty Mom and Pop trailer parks. From the Pinedale Anticline to the San Rafael Swell, the Green River basin is taking the brunt of the new oil boom, brought to you by the Iraq war, Alan Greenspan and the Bush Interior Department, and accelerated by Obama and Trump. Just another object lesson in the ways of the True West.
The current bonanza will last another two or three years, then fizzle out into another 20-year long bust. It’s the oldest and dumbest cycle in the post-conquest West. With each iteration the booms become less frenzied, the depressions more entrenched. Vernal, its city limits demarcated by a pink brontosaurus, will survive, thanks to the National Monument. But Craig and Pinedale may well decay into post-modern ghost towns. Few will shed tears for their passing. But as a preventative measure, the last ones out alive should consider torching the remains. Pinedale delenda est.
We come here not to drill the Green, but to float the river as it carves through Dinosaur National Monument. The burning question isn’t whether there will be places to sleep, but whether there will be enough water to carry our three rafts, loaded with a week’s worth of gear, water, food, shitter and beer, through 60 miles of rock-studded canyons. You see, the ever considerate hydro-barons at the Bureau of Reclamation have squeezed closed the gates on their misbegotten plug in Flaming Gorge, thirty miles upstream from our put-in, permitting only an ice cold dribble of water to escape into the ancient channel of the Green River.
We’re on a pilgrimage, of sorts. The river’s twisting course through heart of Dinosaur should be designated a National Battlefield site, after the first great victory of environmentalists over the forces of industrial pillage. This is our Little Big Horn, where David Brower and his cohorts, Wallace Stegner, Howard Zahniser and Ulysses Grant, III, routed the hydro-imperialists, saving one of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes in the world from inundation by two ill-conceived dams-one at Split Mountain and the other in Whirlpool Canyon near the glorious sandstone amphitheaters of Echo Park. But as with the Sioux’s great victory over Custer, the battle of Dinosaur proved to have its own pyrrhic consequences. The fatal price of saving Dinosaur from being flooded was the nearly uncontested construction of equally monstrous dams at Flaming Gorge, Fontenelle and, most infamously, in Glen Canyon.
But these stories of triumph and tragedy must come later. Now there is unloading and raft-rigging to do, the hours of grunting, groaning and eruptions of profanity that are the opening act of any true river expedition.
* * *
We assemble in Brown’s Park, a secluded hole in the mountains that was once the redoubt of the suave black cattle rustler Isom Dart, hunted down by the grim mercenary Tom Horn, who, if truth be told, looked nothing like Steve McQueen.
There are seven of us, led by the two Weisheits–John and Susette. Both are acclaimed river guides. Both are militant defenders of the rivers of the Colorado Plateau-rivers anywhere, for that matter. Both are gifted naturalists and fine campfire cooks. But only Susette is a master of the delicate art of deep tissue massage. It’s a crucial distinction-especially at our age.
Up from Moab come Judy Powers, a former river guide and a gifted actor specializing in musical comedies, and Jennifer Speers, owner of a critter-friendly ranch at the confluence of the Colorado and the Dolores Rivers and a raconteur of deliciously rude jokes.
Down from Salt Lake City, the sprawling Mormon metropolis wedged between the Wasatch and the Great Salt Lake that is rapidly outstripping Los Angeles as the Smog Inversion capital of the country, arrive documentary film-maker Chris Simon, a vital (and grossly unheralded) contributor to Les Blank’s best films, and Craig Miller, a folklorist and geographer who is putting the finishing touches on a fascinating social history of Highway 12, which runs through the ranch lands of central Utah from Panguitch to Torrey–an old road through a disappearing culture.
I’m the outsider in the group, a mossy-toed lowlander from Oregon who begins huffing and puffing while merely hauling modest-sized water canteens in the thinnish air of Dinosaur’s mile-high altitude. But we share much in common. Namely we are all supplicants to the mesmerizing power of the Green River, the canyon-cutting umbilicus of the Interior West.
At last, the truck is emptied, the gear lashed onto the inflatable rafts powered by wooden oars on the only river in the Colorado basin devoted to non-motorized boats. The sun slips behind the peaks of the Uintas, the evening sky a surreal collage of purple and orange thanks the big fires up in Idaho. The night winds whistle through the canyon, as Chris and Craig prepare a fabulous dinner of garlic bread and homegrown eggplant with pasta on the propane stove in the bed of Judy’s red truck. Susette has miraculously conjured up a round of Mojitos. Judy belts out a Broadway show tune, the first of many. The coyotes chime in. Up in the hills a bull elk broadcasts the news that he is ready for sex. His come-and-get-it call reminds me of the darkly erotic growl of the great soul singer Clarence Carter. The temperature drops and the Milky Way spreads across the abbreviated sky. I slide into a supreme sleep and dream of a one-armed geologist in a small wooden boat dissolving into the jaws of a cleaved mountain.
* * *
I awake well before dawn. Only the bats are active, cruising through their final circuits of the night.
The air is cold, frosty. It occurs to me that I haven’t prepared very well for this trip. I packed for a week on a desert river. But we aren’t in the desert. These are mountains, big ones, with autumn bearing down.
I wiggle out of my sleeping bag, put on my headlamp and go for a walk to get the blood flowing and the body temperature up.
A cobbly trail switchbacks up a cliff above our campsite to an outcrop with a view into the Gates of Lodore. I scuffle past sagebrush and juniper, stunted barrel cacti and rabbitbrush top-heavy with fat yellow blooms. After an hour or so the sun peers over the distant Rockies in the east and the western walls of Lodore alite in dazzling crimson.
As I snap a photo of the canyon’s glowing ramparts, a desert bighorn bounds in front of me and disappears below, dancing down the terraced face of the cliff toward a marsh by the river. Instinctively, I follow the young ram. I have notoriously bad instincts. Suicidely bad. I take two steps and fall, hurtling down the rocky slope until, finally, I arrest my descent by clutching the only stable thing around. My salvation, such as it is, happens to be that most unforgiving of plants on the Colorado Plateau, the blackbrush. Its spikey branches dig aggressively into my hands, but I hold on and, eventually, scramble back up the cliff, lucky not to have bitten it right at the gate, so to speak.
My left leg is chewed up from my ankle to my hip. I vow to conceal this ungainly mishap from the group, not wanting to alarm them with the fact that they are about to embark on a challenging week down a dangerous river with someone who has the common sense and directional acumen of Lindsay Lohan after a night of tooting and toking in a West Hollywood hot spot.
Even from these heights, I can smell coffee percolating and bacon sizzling back at the campsite. Chris and Craig at it again. Amen. I hobble down the trail, presenting my relatively unscathed side to the group.
“Oooh, nasty cut.”
Damn. It’s Judy, who emerges from the feathery curtain of tamarisk behind me.
“Would you like some tree oil for that?”
Tree oil? As in sap?
She waves the bottle at me. Was she expecting this? Had Weisheit already informed everyone I was a terminal klutz prone to self-mutilation?
“Don’t worry. Natural antibiotic. Seal it right up.”
No, not like sap, apparently. More like varnish. Shellac.
Judy takes this as informed consent. She smears the concoction over the most ragged part of the wound. Now it is sealed. Now it is shiny. Now it is preserved as a warning for all: Stand back; don’t follow.
We finish breakfast, visit the last latrine on the river until Echo Park, strap the final bags onto the rafts. And then we wait. We wait for Park Rangers to come down the forty mile road from Maybell, Colorado to inspect our permits and bureaucratically release us from our concrete mooring.
The rangers don’t come. Instead, a group of two canoeists and a kayaker pull up at the put-in site. One of the paddlers is a former ornithologist at Grand Canyon National Park, who conducted an acclaimed study documenting the tenuous status of passerines in the canyon country. He knows Weisheit. Most people around here do. After all, John is the Colorado Riverkeeper. They are a friendly and intelligent group of accomplished river runners who express concern about whether we will be able to navigate our rafts safely down the diminished river. They are good company and, incredibly, they are the only other people will encounter in the next three days.
Another hour goes by and still the rangers don’t come. Distilling the consensus of the group, Susette sez: “Fuck it, time to go!” We untie the rafts and push off. It is 11:30 in the morning. Finally, we are on the river. Legally or not.
The Gates of Lodore confront us from the river like a misty portal in a Romantic ode. That must be why John Wesley Powell lifted the name from Robert Southey’s clunky poem, “The Cataract of Lodore.” Jack Sumner, the most seasoned outdoorsman on the Colorado River Exploring Expedition of 1867, protested. He derided Southey’s poem as “musty trash.” Sumner was right.
A radical turncoat, the David Horowitz of his time, Robert Southey is one of the more odious figures in the canon of English literature. As a young man, Southey dreamed of establishing a utopian community in the United States. His partner in this endeavor was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They were going to call their commune of virtue on the banks of the Susquehanna: Pantisocracy. It never got beyond the lines on a map and an airy poem by Coleridge. Instead, unnerved by the French Revolution, Southey the utopian turned government snitch, informing to the British secret police on the subversive activities of a radical circle of English writers, including Hazlitt, Byron, Cobbett, Godwin and even his old friend Coleridge. Southey was rewarded for his treachery with the title of poet laureate.
There is the infamous Lake District incident, when a police snoop was dispatched to Wordsworth’s cottage at Grasmere, perhaps on information passed along from Southey. As the officer crouched beneath an open window, he eavesdropped on a raging debate between Wordsworth and Coleridge over the merits of Spinoza’s thoughts on government. The officer wrote excitedly back to the Home Office with the news that sedition was indeed afoot in the English countryside and that the poets were in covert contact with an agent of the French menace known as “the Spy Nozi.”
Yes, we live in a new age of government paranoia, of snitches, spies and informants. But must we commemorate them in our national parks?
In any event, even the best English Romantic poetry (Keats’ “Ode to Autumn”, say, or Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”) doesn’t hint at the mysteries to be found in the canyons of the Green River, which over the eons have been the haunts of some of the strangest creatures on the planet: the Allosaurus, the sabre-toothed herbivore (Why the long teeth? Think rough sex), the ringtail cat and the Bureau of Reclamation engineer.
Lodore is a deep and narrow fissure in the High Uintas, that odd east/west range that strides across northern Utah. It is a canyon of echoes and shadows. Cool and dark. Spooky. Here the rocks show their age.
And old they are. Very old. The red quartzite of the Lodore Formation dates back nearly a billion years to the Cambrian period. Back to a time-an unimaginably extended epoch of time-when the future direction that life on Earth would take was being decided, a drama which the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould eloquently narrates in his fascinating and controversial book Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Would the chordata prevail over the spineless soft-tissued oddities, setting the stage for the rise of the vertebrates? For Democrats (and some environmentalists), it remains an open question.
In addition to the Gould and my river maps, I’ve brought along three other volumes, which, for handy access, I’ve wedged under a strap in the bow of Weisheit’s raft: David Allen Sibley’s Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America, John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons and G.E. Untermann’s Guide to the Geology of Dinosaur National Monument. Putting the books in the bow of the raft will prove to be a fatal mistake-fatal for the books, anyway. (And, perhaps, for me too, given that I cohabit with a librarian who puts the rough treatment of texts on the same unpardonable level of moral degeneracy as the abuse of animals.)
The Untermann volume is an heretical choice, which Weisheit immediately notices and passes condemnatory judgment upon. Let this be known: the Riverkeeper doesn’t forget and he doesn’t forgive.
Like many progressives of his time, Untermann was a cheerleader for the Echo Park Dam back in the 1950s, even though the concrete monstrosity would have flooded most of the geological, archaeological and paleontological sites that the geologist writes about with such zest and awe in his little monograph.
There was a time when the American left, of which Untermann was a member, viewed hydro-power as the democratizing salvation for the industrial economy, promising a future of cheap power, high-paying jobs and freedom from the shackles of big oil. (Go read John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A. for a taste of just how deeply these hydro-delusions were cherished by liberals and leftists of mid-century America.) Inexplicably, many progressives, including some self-advertised environmentalists, persist in promoting these long discredited myths in the name of saving the planet from global warming.
Consider the case of liberal icon Woody Guthrie, the Okie troubadour. In the 1940s, Guthrie prostituted himself for the Department of the Interior, which paid him to write propaganda songs to promote the big salmon-killing dams on the Columbia River. While penning “Roll On Columbia” and similar doggerel, the folksinger watched silently from his rented house in Portland as the river tribes were forcibly evicted from their villages and salmon fishing sites to make way for the dams. The Red Okie remained mute in the face of cultural genocide. As for the electrical power, it sure wasn’t disseminated to Guthrie’s rural poor, never mind the dispossessed tribes of Celilo and Wishram. Most of it crackled down giant powerlines to the H-bomb making factories at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Guthrie never apologized for being the Leni Riefenstahl of the Columbia and Untermann, as far as I can tell, never retracted his support for the proposed dams that would have turned Dinosaur National Monument into a holding tank for dead water and toxic silt.
Still I admire the way the man writes. The prose in most geology books is as arid as the floor of Death Valley. But Untermann writes about fractures and faults, upthrusts and grabens, as if telling the story of a mighty battle, a thrilling dialectical struggle between the competing forces on the crust of the Earth.
Untermann knew a little about dialectics. As I waited to rendezvous with Craig and Chris in Vernal, I took a stroll through the town’s top attraction: the Utah Field House Museum of Natural History. I’ve toured many natural history museums, from New York to Paris. The sprawling Field Museum in Chicago is my favorite haunt, but Vernal’s more compact and concentrated offering is a close second. The building unfolds like a strand of DNA, spiraling up through the ages of the earth, from trilobite fossils of the pre-Cambrian to a stunning mural of petrified maple leaves and fossilized bird feathers from the Green River shales of the Eocene, which are currently being cannibalized in the Bush oil rush.
Thanks to the rich trove of fossil-bearing loads from the Morrison Formation in Dinosaur National Monument, the little museum in Vernal offers some of the most complete dinosaur skeletons in the world, including a stegosaurus, a rare Haplocanthosaurus and one of the most ferocious predators of the Jurassic Period, the allosaurus, a sleeker, faster and more colorful version of T-Rex. T-Rex with feathers.
The tour concludes in a room of vibrantly colored oil paintings featuring fearsome battles between dinosaurs. I am a sucker for dioramas and these scenes of terror and tragedy in the Triassic age are incredibly exciting. They were all painted by Untermann’s father, Ernest.
Untermann, Sr. was one of the founders of the Field House Museum. He was also one of the founders of the American Socialist Party and an early translator of the works of Karl Marx into English. Apparently a committed Trotskyist, in 1935 Ernest wrote a book-length attack on the Stalin titled Lenin’s Maggot. Born in Brandenberg, Germany in 1864, Untermann came to Vernal, Utah in 1919 looking to strike it rich in the gold fields. But the gold rush was long over and Untermann was soon distracted though by excavations of fossils in Dinosaur National Monument by paleontologist Earl Douglass, who had been hired by Andrew Carnegie to bring back to Philadelphia a dinosaur “as big as a barn.”
After a few years, Untermann left Utah for Milwaukee, where he ran the city zoo, and Chicago, where he studied painting at the Art Institute. By 1940, Ernest was back in Vernal, where over the next 15 years, he executed more than 100 paintings of life in the Uinta region during the thrilling Mesozoic period. Like many socialists of his era, he lived a long and adventuresome life, dying in 1956 at the age of 92.
Busloads of Utah school children are shipped off to Vernal every year for an obligatory visit to the museum. It must be a mind-blowing experience for them. Although Mormon doctrine embraces the existence of dinosaurs (the Terrible Lizards are good for the economy and, given the heavy tithing obligations imposed on the Saints, for church coffers as well), it also teaches that the Earth is only 7,000 years old-a chronology that the museum exhibits dispute with what Gould called “geology’s most frightening facts.” But complex geological timelines depicting the fossil record are easily forgotten by the minds of young Mormons (or adult Gentiles, for that matter). Less so are the subversive messages encoded in the dinosaur dialectics painted by the Marxist of the Uintas.
As I scan the maroon cliffs of Lodore, trying to make sense of the geological processes Untermann describes, I am distracted by a growling sound emerging from the river itself. We round a sharp bend in the canyon and are rudely jerked into our first rapids: a short, violent run of water. The tumult is over almost before it began. A case of premature excitation. Not to worry. There are thirty more where that one came from. Bigger, wetter, nastier.
* * *
We break for lunch at a place called Winnie’s Grotto, a dark slot canyon draped with maidenhair ferns and fuzzy mosses–a moist exemplar of the marvels of microclimate. A pair of ravens scrutinize our meal, but noisily dismiss the fare of smoked oysters with Pringles chips and wheel off in search of more robust offerings.
Chris hands me a frosty Tecate. I remove my jacket and recline on a warm slab of stone that only months ago was submerged under four-feet of calamitous water.
It’s Judy again. This time she seems to have sprung from behind a stand of rippling willow trees-one of the few such groves left in the canyon thanks to the dam, the dropping water table, the invasion of the tamarisks. These stage actresses sure know how to maximize the effect of their entrances.
“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure.” Thinking she needs me to perform a manly task, like setting up the shitter or standing between her and a marauding tarantula. In post-feminist America, it feels good to finally be needed.
“Can you take your shirt off?”
This is one request I wasn’t expecting. But …
“Or at least turn it inside out. It’s disturbing me.”
I look down at one of my favorite shirts. I’ve worn it once a week for six years. The cotton is pliant and soft, pleasantly frayed, familiarly stained. Nearing perfection. The offensive image on the front was designed by my pal Steve Kelly, the environmentalist and artist in Bozeman, Montana. It reproduces one of Kelly’s best paintings, a field of slain bison, their blood staining the snowy plains. The caption above the startling image reads: “Grown in Yellowstone, Slaughtered in Montana.”
The painting, which Kelly placed on billboards along I-90, protests the ongoing killing of Yellowstone’s wild bison on the bogus pretext of protecting cattle from being infected with brucellosis. I’ve nearly come to blows over this shirt before: in a bar in Salmon, Idaho (one of America’s meanest towns) and at a rusty diner in the cattleburg of Burns, Oregon.
But here in the depths of Lodore, in the blood red basement of the Uintas? This is the last place in the world I’d expect to be censored. But Judy is an animal lover. She works closely with the Humane Society in Moab. The shirt clearly upsets her. Still I’m usually a cantankerous asshole at precisely these critical moments and I surprise myself by relenting without even a nasty quip. Kelly’s painting has done its work. I reverse the shirt, but secretly vow to flash its brutal truth if we ever encounter one of them damn park rangers.
Jennifer snaps the tension by popping another Tecate and retelling a joke that the Riverkeeper still doesn’t get: “A termite walks into a saloon and asks: Is the bartender here?”
Now we enter the very marrow of Lodore. Fractured and fused cliffs of metamorphized stone soar 3,500 feet above the Green River. Up in the narrow wedge of sky, a golden eagle sails a thermal in a tightening spiral like those etched on the canyon walls by the Fremont a thousand years ago, before dissolving into fierce sunlight.
The roar of an unseen rapids booms up the canyon. Disaster Falls. Yes, we are floating in the deepest corridor of Lodore and it is impossible not to turn your mind to thoughts of Powell and his men. This strange and shadowy chasm was in many ways the real beginning of their historic expedition and Disaster Falls nearly proved its traumatic undoing.
Powell the man and his expedition have been relentlessly romanticized by western writers of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular. And the worst offenders happen to be, coincidentally, two of my favorite essayists: Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. Stegner’s Powell, as presented in Beyond the Hundreth Meridian, is a scientific messiah for the englightened stewardship of the fragile resources of the arid West. Abbey’s Powell is, typically, a figure who looks and smells a lot like Abbey’s vision of himself: a gritty desert rat, a fearless river-runner, a rural anarchist.
It wasn’t until 2001 with the publication of Donald Worster’s sprawling biography, A River Running West, that we finally got a full and unvarnished portrait of the man. Far from being an anarchist, for much of his life Powell was an office-bound Washington bureaucrat, engaged in mundane and soul-sapping struggles on Capitol Hill over budgetary line items, the editing of government reports and petty feuds with rival agency heads and members of congress, such as his fateful dust-up with the behemoth of Nevada, Senator William Stewart.
Still Powell is a decisive figure in the modern history of the Interior West. His only real rival is Gifford Pinchot, intimate advisor to Teddy Roosevelt and first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pinchot and Powell not only helped to define the public estate and draft the regulatory prescriptions for its use, but, more critically, they also shaped the bureaucratic agencies charged with managing the federal lands and rivers of the West: Forest Service, BLM, Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Preservation of wilderness and wild rivers wasn’t on the agenda of either Powell or Pinchot, who went head-to-head against John Muir in support of the Hetch-Hetchy Dam in the heart of Yosemite. Both men were utilitarians. They were political progressives who evangelized, in the phrase of historian Samuel P. Hays, the Gospel of Efficiency. They viewed oil, timber, grasslands, gold, coal and water as public resources awaiting managed exploitation–managed by federal bureaucrats, exploited for the public good.
Even though Powell cautioned about the intrinsic limits of the Interior West for agriculture and the development of large cities, Worster makes clear, where Stegner and Abbey do not, the unsettling fact that the one-armed major envisioned a system of small-scale, upper basin dams and water diversions that would have “drained every drop” of the Colorado River system.
The really bruising battles back then were over how those public resources would be distributed: to the land barons, railroads and corporations or, following the old Jeffersonian vision, to the small farmers, homesteaders and rural communities of the West. Guess which prevailed? Both Powell and Pinchot lost their jobs in the fight, early casualities in the power plays of the Western Imperialists.
Even so, it’s not hard for me to prefer Powell, with all of his faults, to Pinchot. As a fellow son of the prairies, I empathize with the Major, understand his midwestern eccentricities and lament the way the war that took his arm at Shiloh cast such a long-range shadow over his psyche.
Pinchot is another beast entirely: an east coast Brahmin, educated at Yale, parlor guest of the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts. Where Powell scraped up his own meager resources and those of the tiny Illinois Natural History Society to finance his first expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers, Pinchot lived off of trust funds and grants from the oldest money on the continent and learned the art of tree-killing on a silvicultural sabbatical in Germany’s Black Forest directly from the old meisters, soaking up their peculiar ideas about order and genetics.
Powell recognized that the land had limits and sought to devise a system for putting the waters of the West to use without inflicting permanent damage on the productive capacity of the landscape. Pinchot rejected such dusty realism for what historian Paul Hirt aptly calls “a Conspiracy of Optimism“. The forester loftily asserted that by imposing his system of scientific management on western woodlands the national forests could be transformed into eternally productive tree farms. Pinchot was wrong. Fatally wrong. But then so was Powell, only less arrogantly.
* * *
Mystique aside, the Powell expedition was not the first group of white men to venture down the Green River through the canyons of Dinosaur. Far from it. In 1825, William Ashley, the impresario of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, floated the Green from Wyoming through Flaming Gorge, Red Canyon, Brown’s Park, Lodore, Whirlpool and Split Mountain canyons, all the way to the Uintah River south of Vernal. Ashley was searching for a speedy, Indian-free route to transport beaver and otter furs to market. The master of the skin trade rapidly concluded Lodore Canyon wasn’t the easy way and instructed his brigades of mountain men to cart their bloody cargo by horse to the notorious annual rendezvous on the Green up at the Henry’s Fork in Wyoming.
Ashley made two fortunes, first as a defense contractor in the War of 1812 and later amassing enormous wealth from the beaver pelt trade, which in the grim year of 1826 alone topped 325,000 skins. He bought himself the title of General and a seat in congress from St. Louis. Little known today, Ashley was an almost mythical figure, who ventured down more than 50 crushing rapids on the Green River in a bull-boat, a floating saucer made of stretched bison hides.
Then there is the strange case of Denis Julien, the Kilroy of the Green River, who carved his initials on rock walls from Lodore to Cataract Canyon. (Later we will examine one of Julien’s faint inscriptions in a shady cove in Whirlpool Canyon, near the planned site of the Echo Park dam. Beneath the fur-trapper’s initials, river otters have come to defecate, as if to render a final judgment on the merits of his enterprise.)
Julien was a Frenchman from New Orleans, and later St. Louis, who trapped along the Green in the 1830s. If one of his carvings is to be believed, Julien traversed the tumultuous river in a poleboat similar to those used on the lazy lower stretches of the Missouri.
Twenty-five years after Ashley first navigated the Green, William Manly and a group of bullwhackers from Missouri, desperate to stake their claim in the California Gold Rush, set off down the Green in a ludicrously unstable ferry boat. After a series of close calls, they encountered Disaster Falls, where the miners came across a mangled boat with a note attached advising, “Walk to California.” They portaged. Portaged again and again and again. And finally abandoned their brittle boat for an arduous overland route across the mountains.
Despite extensive research at the US Archives, Powell, it appears, knew none of this history. Oddly, he had never even heard of Ashley, despite the fur trader’s fame as the leader of the Mountain Men and blazer of what would later become the Oregon Trail. In fact, when Powell discovered an inscription by Ashley near Flaming Gorge he misread the date as 1855, not 1825. Ashley’s hair-raising journal entries might have prepared the Major for the challenges to come inside Lodore.
For starters, Powell might have opted for a better design for his boats. The geologist drew up the plans himself and the boats were crafted from sturdy oak by the Chicago boat-builder Thomas Bagley. They were big, heavy, rode deeply in the water and resembled the ferry-tenders plying the Chicago River and Lake Michigan-scarcely a trim suited for descending a river that falls 9,000 feet in a mere 730 miles. In Powell’s design, the oarsman rowed the boat facing upstream, his back to the rapids-a technique now known by many river-runners as “Powelling”, as in “Powelling right into that fucking rock.”
Powell himself, of course, was not a boatman. For most of the journey, the Major found himself strapped into a chair on the deck of the Emma Dean, like Odysseus tied to the mast during the frightening passage through the Straits of Messina.
At the big rapids, Powell and his top scout, Jack Sumner, would scan the obstacles and decide whether or not to risk a descent. By the time the group entered Lodore, Powell had devised a tedious method of lining the boats down rock-strewn passages and over cataracts. It was time-consuming and difficult and the men generally preferred the excitement of running the rapids.
A few hundred yards upstream from Disaster Falls, Powell pulled over and scrambled up on a ledge to get a better view of the falls. He instructed the young William Dunn to flag the other three boats over to the river bank. From his perch Powell watched as the Maid of the Canyon and Kitty Clyde’s Sister tied up near the Emma Dean, but the No-Name hurtled right by the other boats and got sucked into the tongue of the rapids. The No-Name survived the first big drop, but the second falls, of a reported 15 to 20 feet, punched the two Howland boys and Frank Goodman from the boat and into the roiling whitewater. Swept into the lower run of rapids, the No-Name smashed into a sharp boulder, shattering its oak planks and breaking the boat in half.
Miraculously, the Howlands and Goodman survived, thanks largely to the quick actions of Sumner. But the No-Name and its cargo were lost, including clothing, rifles, maps, journals from the first month of the trip, field instruments and, most critically, three months worth of food. The morale of the expedition sank as well, and never fully recovered.
The Howlands may have missed Powell’s signal because they were drunk. The Major had banned alcohol from the voyage. But on an island downstream from Disaster Falls some of the wreckage of the No-Name washed up. Among the debris were Powell’s precious barometers and a 10-gallon keg of whiskey, which had been secretly cached in the bow of the boat. The Major was so ecstatic at having recovered his instruments of atmospheric measurement that he uncharacteristically overlooked the contraband and encouraged all the men to have a round of drinks.
* * *
The rapids we face this afternoon don’t much resemble the ferocious falls that sundered the No-Name and nearly destroyed the Powell expedition on that June day in 1869. According to Weisheit, nearly omniscient in these matters, the Green was likely running at 24,000 cubic feet per second when Howland “Powelled” his boat into Disaster Falls. Today, the river spurts along at a mere 650 cubic feet per second, thanks to the water wardens at Flaming Gorge dam.
Yet, this miserly flow presents its own challenges and unique dangers. The river has been turned into something resembling a pinball machine, a machine with teeth of stone. Under natural flows, most of these rocks would be safely submerged under several feet of rushing water. Now they are all hazards, each one waiting to trap a foot, rip a raft, smash a skull.
We scout the run for about an hour, charting and discussing every possible route. At Disaster Falls proper, the river is squeezed between two large rocks, pours over a four-foot ledge and into a snarling standing wave. Below the falls, the rapids continue for another quarter of a mile through a glistening maze of prong-like rocks.
Weisheit turns to me and asks, “What do you think?”
I play it cool, shrug my shoulders, kick a stone, quote Peter Tosh: “Bad, mon. Plenty bad.”
“Let’s do this thing,” Susette exhorts, over the thunder of Disaster Falls. I love Susette. Susette gets my vote as the best river guide on the Green and Colorado Rivers. She’s ridden long-distance motorcycle races and is a champion barrel racer of horses. She is a gifted desert gardener and a genuine Reiki master. She is lovely, smart and strong. But … Susette also thinks Niagara Falls is a Class Five rapid! The exalted Class Six designation, according to Susette, is reserved only for rapids that are always fatal. Emphasis on the always. And, of course, the fatal.
“Now, go get ’em, boys” she says, kicking our raft into the maw of the current with the Vibram sole of her Chaco sandal. As the river asserts its claim on us, my last image is of Susette’s toenails, shimmering with purple polish.
With an unnerving directness of intent, we approach the two boulders that guard the falls, boulders the size of Wooly Mammoths. Weisheit thrusts the bow of the raft into the mossy rock on river right, the boat rotates and we slide backwards over the cataract, just like Howlands and Co.
Water pours into the raft as the stern dips into the curling wave, then we pop up, slam into a hidden rock. The raft swings in the swirling water and rights itself. We rattle and scrape through Lower Disaster, a dicey run of swift water punctuated by thorny rocks. Finally we reach an eddy and turn to watch Susette delicately pivot her raft between the twin rocks and down the falls. It’s a gorgeous run. Susette evades every hazard with the easy precision and grace of a gifted slalom skier.
I only have two questions: How did she do that? And where the hell is Judy’s raft?
* * *
The circulating waters of the eddy hold our raft in place as we scan the river for the yellow nose of Judy’s boat. Four bighorns look down on us from a ridiculously narrow ledge of rotten rock, casual and free from fear. With still no sign of our missing cohorts, we tie our raft to a rock, grab two rescue bags and stumble up the stony shore.
Susette, as usual, is ahead of us. She points to a small tangle of driftwood. “I saw a snake slip into that pile. Couldn’t tell if it was a rattler.”
Weisheit hops over the den of sticks. I give it a wide berth. I’m wearing sandals and have an aversion to rattlesnakes that is either Jungian or Freudian–I’m much too jittery to undergo analysis for a definitive answer. Only images of dentists with drills strike me with more psychic terror.
Driftwood piles are becoming rarer and rarer along the Green River, especially in this part of Dinosaur. The big piles are all more than fifty years old and loom far up on the banks. Flaming Gorge Dam not only traps water behind its bland concrete arc, but also all of the woody and organic debris that play such a crucial role in recharging the rich ecology of riparian areas: providing nutrients for the river, nesting and feeding habitat for fish in floodtime, and shelter for bugs, mice, scorpions and, yes, snakes.
We wade across a stagnant pool, the surface of which is etched by the trails of waterstriders, and onto a sandbar, desolate except for the stalking prints of a great blue heron.
On the far side of the river, the yellow raft is wedged between two rocks. Judy strains at the oars, while Craig, hip-deep in the river, pushes at the stern of the boat. Prudently, Jennifer adheres to the Apocalypse Now! Rule of River Safety: Stay in the boat. Whatever happens stay in the fucking boat.
Craig has long legs, but still he must be careful. Foot entrapment here is a real danger. It’s easy to get your foot wedged between two sunken rocks, especially when you’re working to dislodge a snagged raft. Then the force of the river, even at these reduced flows, pushes you down and grips you there, parallel to the river bottom, where, as they said in the “Alien” movies, no one can hear you scream.
There’s not much we can do from this side of the river but watch. They are too far away for us to toss them a rescue line. Then, with Jennifer giving a forceful tug on the rigging, the rocks release the raft. Craig scrambles onto the boat just as it smacks another boulder and bumps and grinds its way down to the sanctuary of the eddy.
We trudge back through a wavy thicket of wild cane. Weisheit tells me to look high on canyon walls downstream at the white planking of rock near the rim, the first appearance of the Madison limestone formation. As I take out my binoculars and scan the distant rim of the canyon, which looks like icing on a cherry layer cake, I am interrupted by a hollow buzzing, an emphatic buzzing, coming from beneath my left foot, which at this precise moment is rapidly descending toward the very driftwood pile that Susette had, only moments before, warned us to avoid.
I freeze. I look down. The snake is coiled into a ball not much bigger than my fist. Its tail is erect and is making a declarative statement. You know the one. Not a large snake. And from the stern and unflinching posture of its flat, triangular head with the destinctive loreal pits, not a happy snake, either. And, oh yes, Susette, most definitely a rattler. Most likely the relatively passive, yet potently toxic, Midget Faded Rattlesnake– though I defer from looking for the distinguishing characteristics that would definitely mark this agitated little creature as Crotalus viridis concolor.
Weisheit crunched across the driftwood pile without even pausing. The Riverkeeper leads a charmed life, and long may it be so. The man has spent 30 years in the canyon country, scaling slickrock and tackling the worst rapids in Cataract and Grand Canyon, and has never required more than a Band-Aide. So he says. I, however, retreat, scramble down to the river and slop my way through the knee-deep mud to the raft.
* * *
Back on the Green, the lovely Green.
We exit the eddy and promptly hit a rock. Hard. Our red raft swings violently to the right, slamming into another concealed shard of stone with such force that one of the Riverkeeper’s oars jolts free from his hand and rips my head. The raft tilts to the left and down, down into the river. Currents of silver water flood into the raft, creating our own little reservoir and drowning my books, one by one.
“High side,” Weisheit instructs, calmly. I clamber up to the elevated side of the raft and gaze down at the churning water and spikey rocks below, which resemble a scene from the illustrated torture manual at Abu Ghraib. (Think Waterboarding meets the Bed of Nails.)
I look back at Weisheit. Our acute encounter with the rocks has knocked the huge-brimmed white hat off his head. It hangs down his back like Kokopelli’s bag of seeds. “Now!” he shouts, above the orgasmic roar of the river. We bounce on the side of the raft, again and again, in a kind of unison. Eventually, one rock relinquishes its grip and the stern of the raft wheels, pointing downstream.
“Need a kickstart?”
It’s Judy’s boat, returning the favor. Craig extends his leg from the side of the raft, long as advertised. All it takes is a vigorous little stomp and we are free. Wet and free. The way all river-runners (and rivers) should be.
* * *
We anchor our rafts for the night on a small beach, lushly framed in cottonwoods, at the mouth of a broad technicolor valley we call Cascade Canyon and the Park Service labels Pot Creek. Why Pot Creek? Who knows? This bench of Indian ricegrass, red boulders and fire-scarred Ponderosa pines is too arid for marijuana plantations and for that we have no regrets. Some in our crowd prefer mushrooms instead, though no one seems to have had the foresight to secrete any dried Liberty Caps (known to Latin-speaking pranksters around the globe as psilocybe semilanceata) into the food cache, even though the fungal treats would have made a highly patriotic addition to our larder.
First things first. The rafts must be unloaded, the kitchen erected and, yes, the shitter must be deployed.
This curious device is not the shiny aluminum Groover found on commercial river trips, the Airstream trailer of Honey Pots. No. Ours is a humble U.S. Army ammo can, about 20 inches long, six inches wide and 12 inches deep. The vintage is hard to discern. It may be a relic from our glorious triumph at Grenada–or perhaps the charge up San Juan Hill.
Thankfully, Weisheit has fashioned a crude but ass-cradling seat so that it doesn’t exactly feel like shitting in a can, though proper posture and a delicate balance must be maintained at all costs. Naturally, defecating is done in public. Strike a pose.
It is our night to cook. Weisheit builds a small fire with twigs and coals in the firebox laid on top of a rug made of glass fibres to keep from scarring the beach, while I get pots boiling and pans sizzling on the propane campstove. Tonight’s menu: smoked trout, pepper jack cheese, salad with red onions and green peppers, filet of sole with coucous and broccoli, and brownies baked in a Dutch oven. There will be no leftovers for the ringtails and ravens.
Jennifer mixes drinks. She hands me a gin and tonic and inquires, “What do you call a Mormon gynecologist?”
“Overworked?” I ask.
“No. A Box Elder.” Touché.
Night descends early in this narrow, somber region of the canyon and I fade into sleep to the frantic incantations of coyotes.
Continued in Greetings From Echo Park.
Take Me Back Down Where Cool Water Flows…
What I’m reading this week…
Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music
Places: Things Heard. Things Seen
Blood and Sand: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border
John Carlos Frey
What I’m listening to this week…
Across a Crowded Room: Live at Barrymores, 1985
(Real Gone Music)
Who Are You Now
Antagonists of the Republic
Gerald Horne: “The Africans were oftentimes allied with the antagonist of the Republic. Now, you may want to step back and ask yourself why that might be. It may lead you to a reconsideration of the origins of the nation now known as the United States of America. As opposed to seeing it in the same vein as the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, you might see it in the same vein as the revolt against British rule in Rhodesia in 1965, and, if so, that might help to shed light on why conservatism is so deeply entrenched in this republic.”