This is the second (and final) installment of Jeffrey St. Clair’s essay, Deep Time and the Green River, Floating. Click here to read Part One.
Dawn in the canyon.
The early morning light is liquid and orange, amniotic. Everyone is sleeping. Jennifer is zipped up tight under a spreading box elder. Craig and Chris have opted for a shimmering white tent from which you might envision the gap-toothed Omar Sharif emerging with wrinkle-free clothes and perfect hair. While Judy threw her bag down on a white stretch of beach and was lulled to sleep by the steady hiss of the river, John and Susette, old hands at desert camping, are serenely mummified in a pharaonic mound of quilts, pads and sleeping bags. Should I inform them that our beach seems to have been previously reserved for a convention of scorpions? No. Better to let sleeping innocents lie.
I fill the pots with water, light the burners and brew a riverside version of Turkish coffee. I grab a gray plastic mug with “Drain It!” stamped on the side, top it off with the grounds-flecked coffee and head up a trail in Cascade Canyon to watch the sun ease over the high parapets of Lodore.
On a ledge above our camp I am struck by an overwhelming odor of cat. More precisely, cat shit.
It doesn’t take long to find the source: a fresh mound of cougar feces, still warm to the touch, recently deposited near the plated trunk of a fat Ponderosa pine. I poke around in the steaming pile with a stick. The big cat appears to have recently sampled three of the four basic food groups: ground squirrel, jackrabbit, mule deer. No evidence of the remains of a Forest Service timber sale planner, though. Still, there are many hours left in the day for our felix concolor to fulfill her dietary regimen. After all, the Ashley National Forest, currently being blitzed by clearcuts, is only a few miles away. Up the canyon and take a right. Just follow the survey stakes.
I’ve spent many weeks in remote western wilderness areas and this is the closest I’ve come to a mountain lion-though I’m sure they’ve spied on me many times. Perhaps you know the sensation? Those eerie moments, alone in the outback, when you feel a cold prickling ripple across your skin, the hairs on your neck stiffen, the air electrifies and the world goes silent. Being scanned by a cougar is like walking in the presence of a ghost–your own.
As the suburbs continue to sprawl mercilessly into the mountains and deserts of the West, a new frenzy of mountain lion panic has broken out with calls to revive the old bounty campaigns to wipe out the big cats, once and for all. The cover of a recent book on mountain lion attacks depicts a cougar looming menacingly over the city of Boulder, Colorado, as if to suggest that a lion had snatched Jon Benet.
But the lions of the West are survivors. Only wolves and coyotes have suffered more grotesquely at the hands of the hired killers in the government’s war on predators. This grim history is recounted in harrowing detail by my friend Michael Robinson in his painfully researched book, Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West.
For the past 100 years, mountain lions have been trapped, poisoned, skinned alive, blown up by M-44 cyanide bomblets planted in bait, hunted with dogs, gunned down from helicopters and had their decapitated heads stacked into a grisly pyramid as a photo-op for western newspapers. Someday, someday soon, there will be a mighty reckoning. Even big empires can go defunct, have their equilibrium punctuated almost overnight-geologically speaking. Thank Bush for that. He didn’t open the fissures in the American behemoth, but his presidency has revealed how quickly the foundations of power can erode away when arrogance is genetically encoded with stupidity.
Still the big cats endure. And with the decimation of the grizzly, mountain lions are becoming the supreme predators of the American West. But perhaps they always were.
While the griz asserts its dominance through direct confrontation, which inevitably results, sooner or later, in the death of the bear (and nearly every other bear in the neighborhood), the lion settles on a different stratagem: stealth, speed, adaptation. It is the ninja of the quadrupeds: a cat that is capable of flying thirty feet across slot canyons, scaling vertical walls, killing in silence and savoring a secret revenge.
We see something of ourselves in wolves and bears. Perhaps that familiarity explains our cruelty toward those species and our small measure of guilt for the torments we’ve inflected upon them. But the cougar seems to be an alien presence, inscrutable and unknowable. Consider the Fremont people. Their rock art represents an amazingly complete catalogue of the flora and fauna of the Green River basin, from bison and bears to scorpions and rattlers. But you’ll search the sandstone walls in vain for an image of a cougar, even though the cats must have taken many Fremont lives. Some beings are too powerful to make engraven images of. And perhaps that fact, to this point at least, has made all the difference.
I amble back to camp, now alive with activity. The first face of the morning I see is Susette’s. It’s a pleasant face: bright, confident, inviting. She waves and smiles. Oddly, her smile turns to a frown, the frown to a paralyzing glare. She’s staring at my coffee mug. The one with Drain It! stamped on one side and SUSETTE on the other. Uh, oh. The hairs on my neck stiffen. A prickling sensation runs up my back. Busted.
Susette has handed down the two laws of the river. Don’t tangle the bowline and don’t– don’t ever–pour coffee into her mug. Like a good anarchist, I have violated both strictures on the second morning and am promptly placed on probation. One more transgression and she’ll boot me back to Pinedale with a note pinned to my shirt: “This is one of them Earth First!ers. He wants to raze your town and sow it with salt. Dispose of him in the customary manner.”
I pledge to behave-though I never get the knack of tying those insanely complicated knots. I take comfort only in the fact that Craig’s rope-knotting skills are even more chaotic than mine. In fact, I admire him for it.
* * *
As a folklorist, Craig spends his time unknotting more complex matters, such as the exquisite dances of Mormon farming communities (endemic variations on the old quadrilles), interpreting the techniques and symbolism in Ute weaving and pottery, tracing the lineage of cowboy songs and tall tales. It’s a race against time to get it all down before it dissipates into the white noise of sprawl culture, its remorseless homogeneity, the cold logic of the clone.
Utah remains a cultural refugia, for traditional Mormons, Utes and Paiutes, and desert loners of all kinds. As in Appalachia in the 1930s and 1940s, the old ways still persist here-for awhile. Vast stretches of Utah remain cable free and serve as dead zones for cellphones. But even Utah is changing and the oil bonanza is exacerbating the worst manifestations of American techno-culture, as cell phone towers sprout along the red-rock ridges above the new oil fields.
Fresh out of Florida State, Craig came to the west back in the 1970s to work as a geographer and cartographer for the BLM and the Forest Service, working mainly out of Rangley, Colorado. One of his last assignments was to perform a survey in the Piceance Valley, where in one of the most unnerving and least known episodes in the modern history of the American outback, the federal government nuked western Colorado.
The idea sprang from the diseased brain of Edward Teller, architect of the hydrogen bomb. At the prodding of David Lilienthal, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Teller developed a series of schemes to designed to display the utilitarian side of nuclear weapons. At first, Teller called his initiative Atoms for Peace. It later became known as Project Plowshares. First on Teller’s agenda was plan to explode three nuclear weapons off the coast of Alaska to excavate an instant harbor. At a public meeting in Point Hope, Alaska, where he was confronted by angry Inuits, Teller said, infamously, “Don’t worry about your fish. Most of that radiation dissipate in a matter of seconds. If your mountain is in the wrong place, just drop us a card.”
That was in 1960. And Teller suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Inuit and a nascent environmental movement. But the project lived on in new and more devious incarnations. In reality, Project Plowshares was a way for the H-bomb boys to continue nuclear testing under the guise of domestic works projects.
In all there were three big nuclear explosions in the Colorado Basin: Project Gas Buggy, Project Rio Blanco (in the Piceance where Craig did his survey work) and Project Rulison. Rulison was the last major episode in the Atoms for Peace program. The peace in question wasn’t a cooling of the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, but between two even more entrenched rivals: the nuclear industry and the oil companies, then locked in fierce combat over which sector would control America’s energy future. The AEC wanted to prove that a few well-placed nuclear bombs could strategically rearrange the geology of the Earth’s the crust in such a way as to release deeply buried and once untappable reservoirs of oil and gas.
At the Rulison site on Doghead Mountain, near Rifle, Colorado, there is a layer of gas trapped by a barrier of sandstone called the Williams Fork Formation. In the spring of 1969, the AEC’s nuclear team showed up, drilled an 8,500 foot bore hole into the ground, lowered a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb down the chute and blew it up. Teller pushed the button himself. The blast knocked several unsuspecting local residents to the ground and at least one rancher was blown off of his horse.
Gas began to percolate up. Not much, but some. There was a problem, though. An intractable one. The gas was dangerously radioactive.
The AEC and Department of Interior plugged the bore holes with cement and left. After all, this flank of Doghead Mountain wasn’t their land. It was a private ranch. In the grand tradition of western mining law, the nuclear excavators only owned the subsurface rights.
The radioactive waste remains. Lots of it, eternally mixed with shattered rock, ground water and natural gas. No one knows how to remove the radiation. Most people out here hope they never try.
Think again. They are trying to remove it. The gas that is. A Texas company called Presco, Inc. is intent on drilling 65 new gas wells in the blast zone, squeezing it out through an experimental process known as hydrofracturing. In other words, Presco wants to pulverize those subterranean sandstone reefs with blasts of pressurized water. Where will the water come from? Lake Powell? Will the water become radioactive when it hits the nuclear blast zone? Will the gas? Who knows.
Stiff-arming fears from local residents that the drilling will release those long-buried radioactive fumes, the BLM and the State of Colorado have already given Presco the greenlight.
Yes, it looks a lot like war out here on the Western front, where thousands of volunteers are enlisting as mercenaries for the oil industry, which seems intent on putting the boom back into bonanza.
* * *
The rocks of Dinosaur don’t need to be shattered. This is already a fractured landscape.
In the Grand Canyon, the stratigraphy of rock layers is laid down chronologically, with an inexorable precision that demolishes the creed of the Creationists. But the landscape of Dinosaur is different. As in a different planet. Here the canyons and mountains present themselves in contorted galleries of geological cubism. Here strata of rock stand on their head, bend over backwards, break of into space and then resume miles away. This is Jumbleland. Chaos theory in stone.
Here some of the oldest rocks in the West sit on top of much younger deposits, younger by a half billion years. And some strata of rock have gone missing altogether, giant gaps of time elided from the geologic record-and that’s before the coal companies started strip mining.
But perhaps no mystery is more opaque to the untutored mind than why the Green River, not a mighty stream by most measures, decided to drive south smack into the eastern flank of a nearly impregnable massif with 13,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Uinta Mountains, and, having made this fateful turn, how such a modest little river could have cleaved such a savage wound through this formidable range of billion-year old rocks, rising from the depths of the Pre-Cambrian zone.
The explanations for this phenomenon have changed over the decades. John Wesley Powell opted for the antecedent theory. He postulated that an early incarnation of the Green River flowed through this region before the Uinta mountains began their amazing uplift from the basement of the planet during what is known to geologists as the Laramide Orogeny and the rest of us as the Making of the Rocky Mountains. Under Powell’s scenario, which is laid out in his intriguing monograph The Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains, he contends that the Green River functioned as a saw, cutting through the quartzite of the Uintas as they began their dramatic uplift in the late Tertiary period, a mere five million years ago.
Having witnessed the vast void of the Grand Canyon, Powell believed in the omnipotence of erosive forces. He was right to concede such power to erosion. Consider the fact that the Uinta Mountains have risen nearly 45,000 feet, but have probably never been taller than they are today. In other words, aside from that first great thrust upward, erosion has essentially leveled the Uinta uplift, inch for inch. (By the way, the mountains remain in an aggressively tumescent phase.)
Still, Powell was almost certainly wrong and the first to contradict him was his brilliant student Grove K. Gilbert, who postulated what is now known as the superimposition theory. Under this scenario, the Uinta Mountains rose nearly five million years ago, then were flooded under a vast inland sea, which deposited layer upon layer of sediments. As the sea drained, the Green River formed on the eastern fringe of the range and began its steady excavations through the rock.
Gilbert’s theory held sway for many decades. Then in the 1960s an even stranger explanation was put forth by Wallace Hansen, a top research geologist at US Geological Survey. In his monograph, The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains, Hansen merges Powell and Gilbert. He demonstrates, fairly persuasively to blank slate minds like my own, that there was indeed an ur-Green River in the general vicinity of Dinosaur before the rise of the Uintas. But he also argues that the current course of the river was superimposed over the newly revealed mountains.
Then he throws a bomb. Hansen argues that the Upper Basin of the Green River used to flow not southwesterly to the confluence with the Grand River and to the Sea of Cortez, but easterly toward the North Platte to the Missouri and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, sometime in the last four million years, the Green River jumped the Continental Divide. Hansen calls this event “stream capture,” a kind of geomorphologic imperialism where through a complex gymnastics of faulting and uplift one drainage steals the water of another.
These geologic arcana take on a more tangible meaning here on the floor of Cascade Canyon, which less than a million years ago formed the main channel of the Green River. The old, abandoned riverbed can be found in a hanging valley, some 500 feet above where we made our camp. This is an object lesson about flux and dynamic change.
The Earth hasn’t stopped shaping itself. Not by a long shot.
The ground continues to shift. The restless river eats relentlessly into the rocks. Cliffs collapse. Valleys sink. Ridges buckle. Even human structures aren’t immune to Powell’s omnipotent forces. Last summer, only a few days after my son Nat and I spent an enjoyable afternoon inspecting the ancient bones laying in situ, the foundation of the great museum at the Dinosaur Quarry cracked, its footings detaching from the fossil-bearing slopes of the Morrison Formation. The building is now closed.
Flaming Gorge Dam take heed.
* * *
We glide onto the river late this morning. The sky is pallid and sickly, stained by smoke from distant fires.It will be a short day of big rapids and sharp rocks, in unbroken succession: Harp Falls, Triplet and, the monster of them all, Hell’s Half Mile.
Time seems to move, if not in circles, at least deeply entrenched meanders. Dawn, breakfast, loading, rapids, Tecate, lunch, rapids, unloading, dinner, gin, coyotes, sleep. And it’s not just time that is moving this way, but the river, too, as it loops, twists, and circles back on itself, presenting different angles on the same mountain peaks, passing through layers of geological strata and then witnessing the same formations of rock unfold in reverse order.
Sky, stone, river. Our stable trinity. All we really need.
At the entrance to Harp Falls, we are joined by five Mergansers. The birds will accompany us on and off for the next two days. The flashy red crests of the Mergansers are exquisitely coiffed in the style of the early Little Richard. The ducks sluice over the falls and ride the wave train in a fluid line of crimson. They wheel into the eddy below the rapids and wait patiently for us to complete the run.
In higher water, the overhanging cliff at Harp Falls could easily become Decapitation Rock, as the main current of the river drives into the sharply angled stone. This afternoon in such low water Harp Falls is simply a thrilling short chute that pulls us within a few inches of the imposing rock and then spits us downstream into the rough-and-tumble descent of Triplet Falls. The next ten minutes are a miasma of cold spray and jarring collisions with river-smoothed boulders. All in all, this is the most enjoyable stretch of rapids in Lodore.
We pause in an eddy below the last cascade and a debate breaks out over whether Mergus serrator is a dabbling duck or a diving duck. I reach for my Sibley’s Guide. But after our trauma at Lower Disaster, the soggy pages of the book have blurred into a gooey and unintelligible mess, like Bush’s sentences when the teleprompter blinks out.
It doesn’t matter. Subverting such rigid categorizations, the Mergansers settle the dispute for us with an empirical demonstration that they go both ways. They are both dabblers and divers and so much more. Try watching closely instead believing everything you read, they seem to say.
We tie the rafts to a cube of rock, freshly spalled from the cliff-face, and walk tenderly over sharp shards of chert to a view of Hell’s Half Mile, a boulder strewn reach of river that has earned a fearsome reputation for flipping rafts and mangling kayaks. The rapids are powered by two debris flows of spiny rocks spewed from large canyons on each side of the Green and by the Disaster Fault which strikes across the ramparts of Lodore near the beginning of the run.
From our perch above the falls, the rapids resemble the thrashing tail of a stegosaurus.
Weisheit leans toward me and whispers that he feels more anxious about this rapid than any he has run in the last decade. This confession comes from a man who has descended the raging torrents of Cataract Canyon more than 400 times, in all kinds of conditions.
Since no one brought along crash helmets, I size up the corridor of stone along the river. Not that hard of a walk, really. A small cliff to scramble up, some rubble, poison ivy, probably a snake or two. Piece of cake, once I change my shoes.
Then I notice the look in the eyes of the Riverkeeper. No sign of fear or trepidation. He’s actually grinning. It’s a look of glee and calculation. The thrill of the new, I guess. Oh, what the hell. If danger be fun, play on.
As it turns out, Weisheit executes a perfect run over the falls and through the dizzying maze of rocks. More or less perfect, anyway. We do go down backwards. And we knock and scrape rather rudely against a few rocks. But he alleges that those were premeditated collisions, demonstrating his refined technique of using boulders to make minute course corrections in mid-stream. Who am I to dispute him?
Judy comes next and, despite seeming to be slightly off line at the lip of the falls, makes a smooth descent, weaving gracefully through the prongs of stone. All eyes fix on Susette as her raft comes hard over the craggy drop, smacks the standing wave, buckles and snags on a spindle of rock, where the neoprene craft spins like an old vinyl record and hangs in the air, suspended at a gut-squeezing angle above the gnashing water. Then with a deft flick of an oar, the raft pivots and leaps off the rock into the spastic rhythms of the wave train. All ends well here in Hells Half Mile.
In the tailwaters of the next small rapids, we strain hard across the pulse of the current and haul out on a secluded white beach at the foot of Wild Mountain.
* * *
It’s birthday night at Wild Mountain. Craig and Jennifer are both looking hale and fit on the bright side of fifty. Steaks sizzle on the small grill. Someone mixes a container margaritas. A porcupine shuffles through the sagebrush near my sleeping bag. Did I zip up?
The night is cold, but our campsite is warmed by the walls of the canyon, which absorbed the heat of the day and now release it slowly back.
Susette reaches into a neon river bag and begins hauling out an assortment psychedelic clothes of such outrageous designs that even George Clinton and Bootsie Collins would be embarrassed to wear them on stage.
I seem to have been awarded a snugly fitting jacket and pant suit adorned with glowing cheetah spots and made of the cheapest velour. Velour with ruffles. I hold them before me like dead carp and shake my head.
“Put them on, Jeffrey,” Susette commands. “And lose that T-shirt.” These Moabites seem to have a particular fetish about my attire. I slide into the costume, which feels like it is made from the latest in skin-devouring lichens. Even Elvis never sank this low. Did he?
Someone has brought an I-Pod and battery-powered speakers, which have been strategically placed inside two aluminum pots to maximize the reverb. John, dressed discreetly in a leather top hat with purple polka dots, stokes the fire with branches of sweet-smelling juniper. The music begins. Christ, is that Donna Summer? Yes. Followed quickly by the BeeGees. Then Kool and the Gang. On and on in rapid succession (but not rapid enough). You get the drift. The coyotes sure did. They seem to have fled for another scene-perhaps the ornithologists camped up river are performing “Bye Bye, Birdie”?
People once familiar to me, some of them wearing illuminated devil’s horns (or are they the headresses of Fremont anthropomorphs?), initiate a kind of dancing around the leaping flames of the fire. Chris, an unrepentent Bay Area hippy, calls for the Dead. Susette begs for the Talking Heads. I yell: What about that Bill Monroe! Merle Haggard!! The Drive-By Truckers!!! Our requests go unheeded. Disco rules. The night descends into a blur of Bacchanalian rites. And, like Iago in his final scene, from this moment forth I shall speak no more about it.
Below Hell’s Half-Mile, the Green River relaxes into a series of undulating bends. The red rocks of Lodore slip away, replaced by the calming brown tones of the Weber sandstone. You might be in Glen Canyon. But, of course, you’re not.
On river left looms Jenny Lind Rock, named after the Swedish Nightingale, who captured the hearts of antebellum America during her 1846 tour with Gen. Tom Thumb under the direction of P.T. Barnum. In front of us, a peninsula of sandstone rises 760 sheer feet above the river. Someone lets loose a wolf howl. It bounces back, over and over again. We all join in, an oscillating chorus. Euphonies of stone.
We have entered one of the world’s great amphitheaters: Echo Park. The acoustics are clear, crisp, resonant. Even the softest sounds reverberate five or six times down the chambers of rock. Please don’t tell Paul Winter. There’s no need for him to unbundle his New Age band here to record another CD au naturale. Leave the music to the canyon wrens and coyotes.
Powell called the sinuous wall of sandstone Echo Rock. The was right to resist his natural inclination to dip into the classical namebag for some obscure minor deity out of the Greek Myths or the Bhagavad Gita. Echo Rock is concise, descriptive and right.
Of course, the Park Service inexplicably chooses to call this entrenched meander Steamboat Rock. What do steamboats have to do with it? Perhaps Park Service recreation planners were envisioning the day when they could offer steamboat tours of Narcissus Lake in the new improved Echo Aquatic Park, after their pals at the Bureau of Reclamation had flooded the canyon under 550 feet of dead water, turning the big rock into a small island illuminated by Klieg lights with a faux adobe hotel perched on the edge accesorized in Anasazi chic, with shuffleboard courts, Kiva-shaped hot tubs and fishing platforms. You chuckle. But they’ve done worse. Been to Yosemite lately? Bought gas at Grant Village in Yellowstone? Seen the big stumps at Olympic National Park?
As we glide around Echo Rock, our raft is buffeted by a rush of current coming from the East. I turn and gaze into a gaping canyon of streaked stone. This is the mouth of the Yampa River, concluding its wild course down from the Colorado Rockies.
The Yampa is one of the last free-flowing, undammed rivers in the West. Undammed, except for about 100 small, trout-killing irrigation impediments on the river’s high country tributaries. Yeah, except for them. But novelist Jim Harrison has scripted a solution for those obnoxious little plugs. Go read A Good Day to Die, if you are so inclined. It’s out of print, so check it out from a library. Don’t worry. The librarians won’t turn you in. Most of them.
(Advisory Note to Homeland Security. A Good Day to Die is fiction, that is fantasy. Please do not dispatch your goons to Livingstone, Montana for the rendition of Jim Harrison to Uzbekistan. Mr. Harrison is now a portly, Cabernet-swilling, sushi-eating, bone-fishing millionaire who has long since denounced the juvenile escapades detailed in his novel.)
We beach our rafts downstream from the confluence and prepare lunch under the lacy shade of two box elder trees. We are down to our last six-pack of Tecate, but they are still icy cold. I unwrap a special treat for the crew: smoked wild chinook salmon from Oregon, caught in dip-nets at Shearer’s Falls on the Deschutes River by young men of Warms Springs Nation. The thick filets are lightly salted and embedded with garlic. One gets hungry, lazing on the river. The salmon disappears. Same old story.
We drain our last beers, grab a fistful of brownies and trudge up into the golden meadows of Echo Park, once the home of the desert hermit Patrick Lynch, and long before him, the Fremont people, who inscribed on these walls some of the most fascinating and exquisite art to be found anywhere on the continent, including the National Gallery and the Guggenheim. All of which would have been destroyed by the Echo Park Dam. It would have been an act of desecration as extreme as Napoleon’s troops gouging out the eyes of the disciples on DaVinci’s Last Supper in the dining hall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which the French had turned into an armory.
The Fremont people (named after the Fremont River in central Utah) are often lumped in with the Anasazi, who occupied the Four Corners region during approximately the same period. But these were strikingly distinct cultures. The Anasazi, for example, were almost exclusively agrarian, growing maze and melons, squash and beans. They were sedentary and built large multi-room structures out of stone and adobe. Later, they constructed vast defensive palaces on inaccessible cliffs. About a thousand years ago, Anasazi culture seems to have decayed into inter-tribal wars, paranoia, a priestly dictatorship, perhaps even cannibalism. (See the controversial but well-documented study Man Corn by Arizona State University anthropologist Christy Turner.) The famous roads radiating from the religious compound at Chaco Canyon may have been military highways for Anasazi militia and the secret police of Chaco’s high priests. At least, that’s the heterodoxical view of anthropologist David Wilcox. I tend to agree. There’s something creepy and oppressive about the later Anasazi sites. Many Navajo feel the same kind of trepidation near the haunted castles of Betatakin and Keet Seel.
By contrast, the Fremont, who occupied a territory spanning from central Utah to the Snake River plains of Idaho and from the Great Basin in Nevada to the Yampa Canyons of Colorado, were a more versatile and nomadic culture, less centralized and not nearly so death-obsessed. They practiced both agriculture and hunting and gathering. Often farming one year and gathering the next. They lived in pit houses and small settlements at the mouths of canyons, usually near mountains, such as the Wasatch or Uintas. Close to bighorns and elk, alpine herbs and berries, trout.
In rock-shelters across the region the Fremont left black trapezoidal figurines with deeply lidded eyes that are adorned with ornate necklaces, belts and earrings. The enlarged ghosts of those figures are painted, carved and pecked into the walls of Echo Park.
So what happened to the Fremont? No one really knows. Through radiocarbon testing of corn husks and other debris from the middens at Fremont sites, it seems that their culture began to fade away in Utah around 1250 AD, before petering out altogether around 1500. Some anthropologists contend that climatic changes in the thirteenth century wiped out Fremont crops. While this may hold for the religious slave-farmer society of the Anasazi, it doesn’t fit the Fremont, who never gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Others argue that the Fremont were gradually assimilated along with the new arrivals in the region, the Numic-speakers from down south in the doomed Owens Valley: the Utes, Paiutes, Comanche and Shoshone.
But there is another, more unsettling explanation for the demise of the Fremont that is convincingly sketched out in David B. Madsen’s excellent little monograph, Exploring the Fremont. Under this scenario, the Numic-speakers, relatives of the Aztec, weren’t interested in making a pact with the Fremont, but instead waged a war of imperial aggression against them, seizing their land, annihilating their culture. The best evidence behind this theory is that the last known Fremont sites, near Pocatello, Idaho and in the Yampa Canyons, are all on the remote northern and northeastern fringes of the Fremont territory, the last stretches of land to be occupied by the Numic invaders. So the concealed meadows and rock shelters here at Echo Park may well have been a last hold out of Fremont culture, a people under siege. I don’t have to tell you how it all ends.
Our walk ends before an overhang of sandstone that displays an astonishing panel of rock art, which for no good reason is known as the Poole Creek petroglyphs. The images soar above us, thirty to thirty-five feet above the creek bed.
I envision a Fremont artist clinging to a frail ladder of cottonwood branches held together by elk sinews as he pecks out his masterpiece, like Michelangelo painting the Judgment of Christ.
But Weisheit says no. This little canyon has been entrenched by a phenomenon known as arroyo cutting. Well, phenomenon may not be the right word since it almost certainly involved cows. Overgraze the meadow, trample the microbiotic crust, compact the soil to the texture of concrete and when a big rain comes along it plows the pleasant grassy little canyon into something resembling the badlands of South Dakota. Over night. Grazing in a national park, you say? Happens all the time. We even have a national park devoted to cattle grazing. It’s called Great Basin, pride of Nevada and Sierra Club-approved.
In Dinosaur National Monument, local ranchers were permitted to graze their cows and sheep in the park through the 1980s. The land shows the strain. Most of the hills and small buttes in Echo Park, Browns Park, Jones Hole and Island Park have been trampled under hoof into terraced ziggurat-like mounds. Bovine pyramids that will last for a thousand years or more.
The strange images scroll across about 500 feet of rock. Technically, they are called petroglyphs, meaning that the figures have been etched into the rock, rather than painted-although many petroglyphs also show signs of weathered paint. But not these. These images of flying headdresses, sun disks, shields, floating spirits, sheep and spirals have been drilled into the rock in intricate dot patterns. Using drills on rock, there is no margin for error and here at Echo Park there is no evidence of error. Pointillism on stone. This is the work of a master of technique and composition. Often, rock art on the Colorado Plateau has the feel of a graffiti tagging war, a collage of images inscribed by different artists across the centuries. But some sites, such as the Grand Gallery in Canyonlands National Park, vividly described in Doug Peacock’s book Walking It Off, are clearly the work of a single artist, perhaps working on commission. So too with the Echo Park panel. It tells a story as surely as Guernica does. And perhaps a similar one.
I’m sure there’s deeply religious and probably astronomical significance to these surreal images. But even the best interpreters, such as Polly Schaafsma, author of the indispensable Rock Art of Utah, agree that their readings of the petroglyphs are little more than informed guesswork. Ultimately, the images defy critical deconstruction-and are all the more powerful because of it. I’m struck by the fact that these flying necklaces and strange beasts scrolling across the sandstone are fundamentally different than most Fremont rock art: scarier, weirder and funnier, too. Perhaps the images functioned as a kind of drive-in movie screen to entertain Fremont kids, illuminated for night-time viewing by campfires along the creek bank.
A dust-devil scuffles down the dirt road into Echo Park that was secretly punched into Dinosaur in the 1940s by the Bureau of Reclamation. From the cloud, a hybrid SUV emerges with Colorado plates. The door opens. A man in yellow golf pants slides out, wielding a camera with a giant lens, a lens the size of the Hubble telescope-though still not powerful enough to locate the weapons of mass destruction.
In the passenger seat, a woman with meticulously maintained blond hair examines her nails as if they were retractable claws. She adopts a look of supreme indifference. She doesn’t once glance at the rock art. The man clicks three tightly zoomed photos of the cliff-face, re-enters his $50,000 climate-neutral truck, slams the door, turns the cumbersome machine around and hurtles up the road.
It’s 30 miles of dirt and gravel back to the gate and Highway 40. They were here for two minutes max. I flash to Anna Karina’s nine-minute race through the halls of the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard’s film “Band of Outsiders.” But Karina and her cohorts were having fun, breaking the rules, subverting convention, tweaking the art cops. This couple expresses the heavy dullness at the core of Bush’s America, a cancerous imperial ennui. Still, their snap-and-click moment counts as two more visitor days in the Park Service’s bureaucratic accounting system and they didn’t even harass the bighorns. If only Yellowstone was so lucky.
* * *
As the river unfurls around Echo Rock, the winds pick up and suddenly rowing the rafts becomes real work. On most rivers, the commercial guides would simply fire up the outboard engine and roar across the wind-whipped flatwater.
But not here. The canyons of Dinosaur are the only stretch of river in the entire Colorado system free of motorized boats. Even in the Grand Canyon, outfitters shred the holy silence of the chasm with the metallic shriek of motors. Dinosaur is unique and long may it be so. If only the river itself wasn’t motorized, controlled by engineers, valves, turbines and computers– the industrial waterworks of the big hydro-dams that trade the wild for the automaton.
The narrow slot of Whirlpool Canyon resurrects the red Cambrian rocks of the Uinta Mountain Group. Gothic spires of rock stab at the sky above us. The fissured walls of the canyon are the remnants of ancient sea stacks and reefs, interlaced with petrified dunes. A great blue heron is spooked by the approach of our raft, barks her annoyance and takes flight on giant wings.
As we pass the dark mouth of Wild Canyon our raft is swept into a brief but energetic rapids. On river left, a chuck of iron pipe protrudes from the wall of the canyon, like a stake driven into the heart of a zombie-and let no man or woman remove it. Here lies the site of Echo Park Dam, the wet dream of the Bureau of Reclamation that perished on July 8, 1955.
I want to stop and sketch the walls of the canyon, pock-marked to a height of 550 feet with the bore holes of the dam builders, but the river pulls us relentlessly on, through the footings of a dam that isn’t there, downstream another two miles, out of Colorado into Utah and our shady camp at Jones Hole.
* * *
I sit on my on bedroll and try to salvage pages from the ruined Sibley guide. I’m looking for paintings of my favorite birds: Vermillion Flycatcher, Swainson’s Hawk, Cerulean Warbler, Northern Spotted Owl, American Coot and, of course, the Red-Necked Stint. It’s a useless endeavor. The entries have blended into an abstraction resembling a Helen Frankenthaler lithograph, a swirling delta of greens, yellows and reds.
A cry from Weisheit interrupts my melancholy funk.
Then a pause.
“Wait a minute. Otter. River otter!”
I shake my head, despondently. All of a sudden this trip is going to hell. The Riverkeeper has snapped. The most rational man I know has finally lost his faculties of reason. John Freakin’ Weisheit can no longer distinguish a cliff-walking bovid from a riverine weasel with a bright innocent-looking face that bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Meg Ryan.
Perhaps someone brought along a few of those Liberty Caps, after all. Perhaps that same someone slipped a magic mushroom into the trail mix. Weisheit has been as straight as the All-American Canal for twenty years. He hasn’t even sipped a Tecate since before James Watt was indicted for perjury. This little prank has obviously hit him harder than the Big Drops at full throttle.
How will we ever explain the indiscretion to Bobby Kennedy, Jr.? Such a default in decorum might prompt the Green Czar to strip the Riverkeeper logo from Weisheit’s red raft. Then Kimberly would never meet Leonardo DiCaprio. No. We simply must keep it under wraps, bury it like Bush’s “pretzel” episode.
I amble through a bank of purple desert asters toward the river, thinking of how Burson-Marsteller would spin the incident.
It’s worse than I feared.
Caught in a moment of urinary tract overload, Weisheit is standing in the river with his pants bunched around his knees pointing urgently, like Sacajawea when the Corps of Discovery neared Beaverhead Rock. Across the river, a single bighorn ram nuzzles at grasses, indifferent to the man’s wild gesticulations.
Did anyone pack a taser?
Just as I am poised to pat the Riverkeeper on the back and gently usher him to camp, I spot a dark hump breaching the glassy surface of the water near the far bank, like one of those grainy stills of Nessie. Then another and another. A head pops up, radiant and glistening, stares our way, grunts, submerges. Two more repeat the same curious inspection, scanning us like living periscopes.
One otter bolts out of the river, scrambles across the bank and slides onto a boulder, where it smashes something on the rock, eats it, urinates, dives into a pool, resurfaces, chomping on a fish. The others follow, acting out the same frenetic routine, sleekly working their way down river, pool by pool, feasting on fish, diving for crustaceans, dining on the rocks, spraying their foul musk to ward us off.
What looks like play or clowning is actually hard work. River otters, perhaps the most active of all mammals, must eat upwards of twelve percent of their total body weight each day just to refuel.
In total, we spot five river otters, all adults. A rare sighting, indeed. River otter generally travel in pairs and, except during mating season, adult males are loners. Perhaps they have been drawn to this spot because of the clear, spring-nourished waters of Jones Hole Creek, just a few hundred yards upstream from our camp.
Otters are piscavores, mainly, tracking down the movements of young trout and carp with their motion-detecting whiskers, before catching and crushing the fish in their powerful, unforgiving jaws. Far from being cuddly, otters are the premier predator of the river, as aggressive and nasty-tempered as the badger, to which they are closely related. Their grunting and barking indicates a fierce resentment at our intrusion into their territory.
This stretch of the Green River used to be prime otter habitat. But the fish-eaters were nearly extirpated from the basin by the 1920s, largely at the hands of one of Weisheit’s heroes, the early river guide Nathaniel Galloway, who floated the Green River all the way down to the confluence with the Colorado and through Cataract Canyon six times. Galloway is revered by river runners because he invented a new style of whitewater rowing, which allowed the oarsman to face downstream, ferrying his boat at an angle toward the rocks and rapids.
Galloway, who lived in a cabin outside of Vernal around the turn of the last century, made his money, such as it was, selling furs. Each month he set out his traplines along the Green, the Yampa and the Colorado rivers, killing beaver, muskrat, otter, lynx, coyote, kit fox, long-tailed weasel, raccoon, ringtail cat. On one trip alone in 1912, Galloway boasted of trapping ninety-five beavers, at a time when beavers were themselves heading beyond the zero of extinction in Utah. A Park Service brochure on Dinosaur flaunts a photo of Galloway proudly gripping six dead otters by their tails, each snared in his merciless traps.
As the apex predator on the Green River, the otter population was never very robust. One estimate by the biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service suggests that at its maximum density, the Green River probably supported one breeding pair of otter for every ten river miles. So, in that single trapping blitz, Nathaniel Galloway may have wiped out a third of the adult otters in what is now Dinosaur National Monument. But, then again, he did perfect the proper angle for the downstream ferry!
Our otters are almost certainly recent transplants from southeast Alaska, which may be another reason they have opted to forage in a pack: protection in numbers. Over the past decade, more than forty river otters have been released on the Green in or near Dinosaur National Monument, most of them kidnapped in Alaska, flown to Salt Lake, trucked to Vernal and unceremoniously dumped in Browns Park, Little Hole and Sand Wash.
No one really knows how well river otters raised in a temperate rainforest will thrive in a murky desert river which offers a fare of carp and catfish instead of salmon and steelhead. Indeed, the Alaskan otter (Lontra c. pacifica) is an entirely separate subspecies from the one which originally ruled the Green River (Lontra c. nexa). Are there still Nexa otters in Dinosaur? Will they breed with the Alaskans? If so, will they lose their genetic identity? Or will the newcomers simply drive them out altogether, finishing the job Galloway started? None of these questions were answered before the reintroduction program began. Likely, they weren’t even asked.
But these northern otters certainly are smart and crafty. They’ve already zeroed in on the easiest pickings in the neighborhood: the Jones Hole Fish Hatchery, where otters have been making nightly raids on the genetic mutants in the rearing tanks for the past five years. If the environmentalists can’t shut down the disease-spreading hatchery with a lawsuit, perhaps the otters in a concentrated attack can wipe it out by other means.
Why is the State of Utah engaged in a river otter recolonization program, any way? Is this a rare act of predator altruism from a state which once, not that long ago, rewarded ranchers who gassed coyote pups as they slept in their dens? No. The ultimate goal of the program is to artificially propagate the otter population to a level where the state can begin selling licenses for so-called annual otter “harvests,” as if the “liquaceous creatures,” in Edward Abbey’s poetic phrase, were organic vegetables. Grown in Alaska, Harvested in Utah.
Yes. Otter fur is back in demand, at least according to the fashionistas at Vogue magazine, which has repeatedly featured the emaciated bodies of supermodels draped in otter pelts. Is the wearing of a scalped otter an erotic or necrotic fetish?
A recent fur trade publication takes note of the upswing in the dead otter market, propelled in part by the rise of the Chinese middle class: “May auction sales established record levels for Otter with a $104.00 average and a top of $195.00 per pelt. These new price levels show that promotional efforts in China and elsewhere in the world, continues to pay huge dividends. There should be excellent demand for Otter again next season, with the paler types bringing the most money.”
Swim for your lives, swift Lontras of the Green, and be sure to muck up your coats along the way!
* * *
After otter hour, Susette orchestrates a meal of startling complexity, headlined by tilapia in south Indian curry sauce with eggplant, red peppers and rice. As we devour the meal, the sky blackens prematurely, the winds stiffen and shards of lightning splinter the sky. The bats retreat and even the coyotes scatter as power-chords of thunder crash down the canyons.
With the storm bearing down on us, I reluctantly set up my tent for the first time. I dislike sleeping in tents. They are claustrophobic, steamy structures that occlude the nightsky. Yet, sometimes the elements compel your submission.
In an interior pocket of the little nylon shelter, I find a chapbook of poems that I’d accidentally left behind from my last outing, a weekend in the wind-sculpted Sweetgrass Hills of northwestern Montana. The verses are by Wang Wei, a Taoist painter, naturalist and political prisoner during the T’ang Dynasty in Eight Century China, who wrote his best poems during his long exile on the Wheel-Rim River deep in the Whole South Mountains.
As the tent shivers in the wind, I recite Wang’s poem “Golden-Rain Rapids” over and over, a mantra for dreams.
Wind buffets and blows autumn rain,
Water cascading thin across rocks,
Waves lash at each other. An egret
Startles up, white, then settles back.
I am awakened abruptly in the pitch dark. There’s something tip-toeing across my chest. Something much heavier than a canyon mouse. Christ, surely it’s not a porcupine?
I wiggle back and forth in my bag gently encouraging the animal to continue its explorations elsewhere. The invitation is refused. Instead, it feels as if the creature has taken up residence on my sternum. A bouncing kind of residence.
I slide my hand out of the sleeping bag, grapple for my headlamp, and flash on the light. I am confronted by eyes the size of billiard balls, glassy and neurotic. A ringtail cat, the nocturnal clown of the desert, caught in the act. Gripping in its right paw what appears to be a tortilla chip left behind from last night’s feast, the ringtail bounces one more time, then levitates into the night. Gone. Just like that.
Ringtails aren’t cats. No one seems to be precisely sure what they are. The creatures are a quirk of mammalian evolution, apparently related to the raccoon, with whom they share a passion for thievery and mischief. The naturalists call them Bassariscus astutus. The accent here is on astutus. Ravens with fur.
I don’t know if we are communing with nature, but nature seems to be communing with us. Last night, Weisheit found a scorpion in his bedroll. This morning Jennifer awoke to find that a beaver had homed in on her sleeping bag and had deposited an oily and pungent pile of beaver stool a few inches from her head. Only otter shit exudes a more disagreeable odor. Perhaps, the animal kingdom is sending us an eviction notice: Time to go.
* * *
The mood is solemn as we dismantle our last camp, rig the rafts, sweep away the traces of our stay. Call it a pre-partum depression. It happens on the final day of nearly every river trip.
Naturally, we all vow to remain friends and to run this river together again. Soon. We talk about tackling others: the frenzied Bruneau, the croc-laden Zambezi, the mysterious Tsang-Po and, of course, Glen Canyon Dam Falls.
But who can predict the future? We only know this is our final day on this manifestation of the Green River, a river that has consecrated us as a group, bound us together, a river that will flow through our dreams.
Jennifer tries to snap us out of our gloomy reverie. “How do you get down off an elephant?” she asks. “You don’t! You get down off a duck.” Her jokes are getting progressively worse and our response to them more demented. Perhaps it’s time to wrap this excursion up after all.
A few hundred yards downstream from Red Wash, the Green River loops through the small, white cliffs of Island Park. On river left, Weisheit points out the image of a bison etched onto the canyon wall. The carving is large, perhaps eight feet wide and four feet tall, and it has narrowly escaped destruction after a huge chunk of the rock wall next to the petroglyph exfoliated into a mound of rubble and dust.
The bison carving was made by a Ute shaman, probably in the Eighteenth Century, after the arrival of the horse in the Rockies. The image refutes the notion, perpetrated by many environmentalists and government bureaucrats, that the canyons of Dinosaur had been essentially vacant of human habitation from the demise of the Fremont to the arrival of white fur-trappers.
It’s the same old story floated about most lands whites wanted to grab from Native people. In Yosemite, the Mewuk were prodded out of the Merced Valley first by infectious disease, then by gold miners followed by the notorious butchers in the Mariposa Battalion and finally by the Park Service, which tried to wipe them out of history. Until recently, Park Service literature on Yosemite postulated that the Mewuk had abandoned the Yosemite Valley in the late 1700s, claiming the tribe considered it the valley of “black death”. And that was before Hetch Hetchy dam went up. Of course, they could have simply asked Chief Tenana his opinion.
In Yellowstone, the Sheepeater Shoshone were discounted as mere transients and were disparaged by early Park Service historians as a “lazy” and “primitive” people who were not worthy of the landscape. The mountain men knew better. In his journals, the fur-trapper Osbourne Russell described the Sheepeater Shoshone tribe living in the Lamar Valley as “neatly clothed in dressed deer and sheepskins of the best quality, well-armed with bows and arrows pointed with obsidian and seemed to be perfectly happy.”
These are the myths that sanctify our brittle and self-serving concept of the wild, as a landscape devoid of any trace of previous human occupation. It is a perverted fantasy indeed that finds a way to sanction Grant Village and Ahwahnee Lodge into national parks, but excludes the presence of native people who co-existed with grizzlies and bison for 10,000 years.
The canyons of Dinosaur are scattered with historical evidence of recent Ute occupation: campsites, fire pits, middens, the remains of wickiups and petroglyphs of horses and bison. Yet, in most of the literature about Dinosaur National Monument the Utes are inexplicably elided from history in favor of extended passages about the long-vanished Fremont. Of course, the Fremont come guilt-free. They disappeared long ago, before the white conquest. No mention is made of the fact that the Green and Yampa basins were once, very recently, Ute land, from which hundreds of families were forcibly evicted and confined to small reservations under treaties that were later declared to be manifestly unjust. Steal their land, then claim they were never there.
* * *
As we struggle against the stiff winds of Island Park, Weisheit and I talk about our late friend and mentor Dave Brower, the man who saved both Dinosaur and Grand Canyon National Park from being inundated behind big dams.
Like Dinosaur, Brower had his own faults. But he had the rare talent of turning them to his advantage. That’s how he got Weisheit to forsake his river-guiding career and devote himself to becoming the Colorado/Green river’s most forceful advocate. Weisheit confronted Brower at a meeting over the old man’s role in the political-dealmaking that led to the construction of Glen Canyon Dam (and Flaming Gorge, too, which often escapes mention). Brower didn’t flinch under the assault. He was used to it by now. Hell, Katie Lee had been carping at him for nearly forty years about the dam-and her criticism was not always good-natured in tone. “Yes, I’ve made mistakes,” Brower confessed to the river guide. “Now, what are you going do to fix them?”
Weisheit was stumped. But not for long. He soon joined forces with Owen Lammers, the brilliant anti-dam campaigner from the Bay Area, and my old pal David Orr, the most militant environmentalist ever incubated in swamps of Arkansas, to establish Living Rivers, a group dedicated to draining Lake Powell and restoring ecological rhythms of the Colorado/Green River system. In tandem with their allies at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, they have grown into one of the most powerful and innovative force in American environmentalism. Living Rivers is a testament to how much you can accomplish with a little bit of money, a lot smarts and a bright-line mission that defies political compromise.
I had a similar encounter with Brower twenty years earlier than Weisheit. Fresh out of college and 200 pages into a sprawling and inchoate novel about a doomed expedition in the snowy wilderness of Manitoba, I ran into Brower at a rally in Baltimore against the nuclear power industry, which had nearly burned a hole through the earth at Three Mile Island a few dozen miles up the Susquehanna. We both spoke at the protest (I got the mic for 30 seconds, Brower for 30 minutes) and went out for drinks afterwards. Drinks with Brower meant martinis –often just Tangueray gin, straight up. One after the other.
I was inebriated after four rounds. Brower showed not the slightest tic of impairment. We drained two more martinis and then he asked me to explain what I was doing with my time now that Kimberly had given birth to our daughter, Zen.
“Changing diapers and writing a novel,” I said. “Changing diapers, mostly.”
He laughed. Then swooped in for the kill.
“There’s plenty of time for novels in your dotage, Jeffrey,” Brower said, zeroing in with his impish eyes. “Not so much time left for those Chesapeake blue crabs out there in the Bay or the grizzlies that you love and which frighten me. Why don’t you write about them?”
So I mulched the novel and went to work for Brower at Friends of the Earth for a few months. It wasn’t always a smooth relationship. He often felt I was too critical of the big environmental groups and lacked an ultimate faith in the political system to deal with acute environmental problems. Of course, on any given day of the week, Brower adopted both of these opinions as articles of faith. He was a complex and contradictory man. Some might call it character.
We hadn’t spoken in about five years when I ran into Dave at the Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, where we were both featured speakers. Jim Ridgeway and I had just written a vicious little book called A Guide to Environmental Bad Guys, which we had dedicated to the fall of Glen Canyon Dam. I handed a copy to Brower. He flipped through the pages absently, tossed it to his wife Ann and resumed a conversation with his latest recruit to the Sierra Club, Adam Werbach, now hustling as a frontman for Wal-Mart.
If Dave and I endured a fractious relationship, Ann and I had always shared fundamental values and a warm and unwavering friendship. Through many fraught hours, Ann Brower served as Dave’s spine and his conscience-not to mention editing his sometimes tangled prose into clear and potent sentences. As I turned to walk away, miffed at Brower’s snub, Ann grabbed my wrist. “I’ll make sure he reads it.” She winked. And so she did. I received beautiful notes from both of them a few weeks later.
I last saw Brower at Glen Canyon Dam, during the protest that served as the coming out party for Living Rivers. He was in a wheelchair, fiercely battling the illness that would soon claim his life. As the speeches rambled on, I rolled Dave across the parking lot to the Glen Canyon Bridge with a view down into the last seventeen undammed miles of the canyon.
“Right the wrong,” he demanded.
More than a decade after his death, the only real commemoration of the life of America’s greatest environmentalist is on a building in Berkeley, now under green construction, that will house Earth Island Institute and other environmental and social justice organizations. Supposedly Dave gave his enthusiastic assent to the project in the waning weeks of his life. But I think Dave was probably just happy that Earth Island, his last organizational progeny, would have a permanent base of operations from which to cause global trouble in the name of sea turtles and killer whales.
Dave Brower wasn’t about buildings, even earth-friendly ones. His legacy resides in what Howie Wolke calls the Big Outside. Brower deserves to have his name immortalized on a Sierran peak, an ancient forest grove in Oregon, a wild run of rapids in Grand Canyon and a living canyon in Dinosaur-Lodore, perhaps?
* * *
Dozens of trout rise before us, puckering the smooth surface of the river as it squeezes through the brooding walls of Split Mountain Canyon. A fat rainbow finally makes a twisting leap out of the water, snatching an unwary damselfly.
These rainbows aren’t native to the Green River, whose warm and silty waters never produced many trout and then only the brightly marked and sleek Colorado Cutthroat, now endangered, largely as a consequence of the government’s stocking the river basin with non-native competitors, such as the ubiquitous rainbow.
Most of these fish found their way into the Green River from the Jones Hole Hatchery a few miles upstream, which is why the facility must be closed immediately. All hatcheries should be shuttered eventually, but this one deserves to be first in line. It is polluting the Green River with alien beings, android trout, generated in cloning tanks that sacrifice identity for the identical. The phony fish are eating away at Dinosaur’s aquatic ecosystem, still more ecological blowback from Flaming Gorge Dam. Among other serious problems, the hatchery is a vector for infection, especially a fatal disorder called whirling disease, known to ichthyophiles as “trout AIDS.”
The Jones Hole Hatchery was constructed a few yards outside the Dinosaur National Monument boundary by the Fish and Wildlife Service with money provided by the Bureau of Reclamation. The hatchery was meant to mitigate the damage done by Flaming Gorge dam. Mitigation can be succinctly defined as making amends for one bad act by doing something worse.
Here the federal government deliberately eradicated the native species (which the Bureau men dubbed “trash” fish) of the Green River above and below the dam by saturating the waters with poison, an act that gives new meaning to liquidation. Then the waters of the reservoir and the stretch of river below the dam through Browns Park and into Dinosaur were seeded with non-native lake trout, brown trout and rainbows. The Bureau of Reclamation now touts Flaming Gorge and Browns Park as “a world class trout fishery.” Yet, you’ll cast in vain for a Colorado Cutthroat, considered by many to be the most beautiful trout in the world. That’s a strange kind of progress.
This begs another question. Should sport-fishing even be permitted in national parks? There’s an easy and emphatic answer for that. No. No more than digging for fossils, gathering potsherds, gunning down bison, recreational operation of bulldozers, torturing grizzlies or building big resorts. Leave the fishing in the parks to eagles, osprey, bears and otters. Where else are they going to eat?
Yellowstone shut down its hatcheries in 1960. Why is the FrankenFish factory at Dinosaur National Monument still pumping out drones forty-seven years later? Because the hydro-potentates at the Bureau of Reclamation desperately need to maintain a recreational constituency to defend their dam-and the houseboaters keep killing themselves off. To Congress, a trout fishing lobby sounds authentic-even when the trout are not.
The rainbows, brown trout and channel cats are also edging out the native desert fish, the Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub, in particular. These fish are now endangered. None of these species were considered commercial fish, so, naturally, they were boxed in by the dams–Hoover, Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge-before biologists even knew much about their life histories.
This much we now know. They like warm, murky water and the turbulent pools below mighty rapids. Though not anadromous, these big predators are migratory, sometimes moving dozens of miles between spawning grounds, rearing spots and feeding zones. They breed in the submerged limbs of cottonwoods and willows during the spring floods. They eat other fish, including their own young.
But in the post-dam system the water runs clear and cold, released from the icy belly of the reservoir at 54 degrees in the heat of August. The rapids are diminished or inundated entirely. The spring floods are regulated. The prey species, including most critically (and ironically) their own young, are disappearing, year by year. The endemic fishes of the Green/Colorado River are now mere flashing shadows in a closed system. As the humpback chub goes, so goes the river ecosystem. And once they are gone, they can’t come back. They exist nowhere else in the world.
So let us resolve to unplug that hatchery, dry it out and leave behind the empty buildings, vats and tanks as another memorial of science gone wrong. Call it the Dachau of the Cutthroats.
* * *
And so the afternoon passes, down the halls of red rock on the dark river. There’s much to say, but no reason to speak. Not now. No reason at all to violate the wild silence.
It’s only early afternoon, but already the sun has melted on the high rim, igniting the walls in slanted light, canyon glow.
The gorge narrows, the river accelerates, the current grips the raft, flexes its hidden strength. Rapids aren’t the only testimonial to its power.
But rapids are coming. Vicious ones that will shoot us through the center of Split Mountain in a five-mile long conspiracy of rocks and water: Moonshine, Schoolboy, SOB. We rocket over them one after another, cutting through standing waves, twirling on mossy table rocks, bouncing off boulders that do not yield. We are attuned to the rhythms of the river now. For a moment, at least, we are at one with the current of the water. A Zen thing.
So it flows.
We break for lunch one last time on a thin crescent of beach at the mouth of SOB rapids. I unwrap four smoked brook trout, caught on dry flies in the Warm Springs River on the eastern flank of Mt. Hood–our last treat. The beer is gone; so is the Tequila. We settle for water, cool and delicious.
Suddenly, the wind picks up. Powered by the tightening walls of the canyon, the wind scalps the surface of the river, lifting up peels of water and driving the spray upstream against the rapids. The sky darkens, thunder pounds the mountains, lightning stabs the rim of the canyon. Close, very close. This is no mere light show. The hair rises on my arms, prickling with electricity.
Rain pelts us, lightly at first, then in a furious torrent that soaks our clothes and food. There’s nowhere to hide. We huddle together as the rain morphs into hail, pecking at us like buckshot. Newly formed waterfalls erupt from the rim, pouring in wispy tails over the face of the canyon. The water runs red.
The storm rages for thirty minutes, then dissipates, leaving behind a disc of lemon sun and a fat rainbow arching across the canyon in an unmarred sky.
Back on the rafts, we float the final mile through the belly of Split Mountain in silence, down an eerie corridor of violently eroded limestone to the stark gate of the canyon and the slab of bland concrete at the takeout point.
As we empty the rafts and heave them onto the boat trailer, a Park Ranger pulls up in a grumbling SUV. He slides out and slams the door, leaving the monster truck idling, a blue smudge of hydrocarbons belching from the tailpipe. He saunters toward us, walking with that calculated limp made iconic in Sergio Leone movies and crudely adopted as the war-strut of George W. Bush. The ranger is a little man with a big gun strapped to his thigh, which he fingers obsessively. The shadow of a Kevlar vest sprouts from beneath his starched Park Service uniform. From his military-style belt dangle plasti-cuffs, a taser and pepper-spray–all the toys of a post-modern cop.
With his eyes shaded behind the obligatory Ray-Bans, the tiny ranger begins to question Susette about our trip. In his puff-adder voice, he demands to see our permits and interrogates her about where we camped last night. He says he is “in receipt of information” that we didn’t stay at Big Island. Apparently, the frat boys have filed their snitch report.
Susette handles the tedious interview as coolly as she navigates rapids. She explains that thanks to the incompetence of Park Service recreation staffers, who had assigned us a landlocked campsite, and the engineers at Flaming Gorge Dam who had shrunk the river, we had no choice but to beach our boats at Red Wash.
I don’t have Susette’s capacity for patient explanation. Or her subtle sense of irony. But I suddenly realize that I am wearing my verboten t-shirt. Inside-out, natch. I flip the park cop the Curse of the Slain Bison, turn my back to him and watch the flowing and living river one last time before heading back to Oregon and eight months of moss, fog and rain.
The storm has flushed a juniper stump into the current, bobbing its way down stream to lodge like a small bone in the throat of Glen Canyon Dam.
Roll on, little juniper, roll on.
We Used to Only Worry About Them After Dark
What I’m reading this week…
Arturo’s Island: a Novel
The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning
Long Litt Woon
Barbara Haveland (Translator)
(Spiegel & Grau)
What I’m listening to this week…
Songs From the Deluge
(Free Dirt Records)