by Howie Wolke
In late October, Marilyn and I headed south for a 226 mile 21-day float trip down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. There were four of us, in two rafts. For most of the 20,000 or so folks who annually float the Colorado, the scenery and numerous challenging rapids are big attractions. But for Marilyn and me, the big draw was the vast desert wilderness that the river punctuates. Although I hadn’t rowed challenging whitewater in nearly two decades, we all made it through the rapids upright, though I had a few close calls.
Wilderness. The Big Outside (Foreman and Wolke, Revised Edition 1992) inventoried the Grand Canyon wildland complex at 2,700,000 acres of roadless country in one unbroken block, the fourth largest such area in the lower 48 states. The 2.7 million acre wildland includes over a million roadless acres within Grand Canyon National Park, but also a number of contiguous national forest and BLM roadless areas and designated wildernesses. There are also big contiguous roadless areas on three Indian reservations and in the “Lake” Meade National Recreation area. Nowhere else in the U.S. south of Alaska can one float over 200 winding river miles without crossing a road or encountering civilization. So, at least here, big wilderness is unblemished….or so it would seem.
That is, until you look closer. If you can see through the smog from L.A., Phoenix and Las Vegas that periodically obscures the canyon (it was relatively minor during our journey). The Grand Canyon wildland also lacks connectivity with other chunks of big wilderness. And of course, the Colorado River drainage basin is an ecological mess, primarily because of dams, agriculture and off-road vehicles. Also, due to evaporation from reservoirs and irrigation, the river delta is usually dry, and it no longer feeds the Gulf of California with the plethora of life and nutrients that formerly enriched the Gulf. The details of Colorado River Basin ecology are beyond the scope of this essay, so for now, I’ll focus on stewardship issues in the Grand Canyon.
For example, the annoying drone of helicopter and small airplane companies that offer “scenic flights” for rich customers made me grateful that I couldn’t wear my hearing aids while rowing (wet hearing aids are expensive to replace). In addition, there’s ongoing and planned uranium mining adjacent to the park boundary. And motor boats roar up and down the river from April 1 to September 15, sanctioned by the Park Service.
That’s not all. Occasional threats emerge from Indian Reservations that abut the river corridor, such as the proposed “Escalade”: a tramway that some in the Navaho Nation proposed to build from rim to river, at the confluence of the Little Colorado. Complete with a huge tourist development on the canyon rim, this insult was recently defeated, but as conservationists know, destructive projects tend to shamelessly resurface.
All of these annoyances pale, however, compared with the gigantic concrete plug called Glen Canyon Dam(n), which bakes in the sun just a few miles upstream from the Grand Canyon complex. Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, Dave Brower, Martin Litton and others, there are no dams in the Grand Canyon. But as you float the river, the upstream Glen Canyon Dam is unavoidably with you, every day, all the time, like a tar baby that you can’t release.
The dam created “Lake Powell” Reservoir upriver. It is a gigantic evaporation tank and silt-trap, an unnatural insult to the otherwise largely wild and beautiful red-rock canyon country of southern Utah. The Glen Canyon Dam flooded what was arguably the loveliest and most beautiful canyon complex anywhere. It was a canyon country wilderness second to none, where the river was far gentler than in the Grand Canyon, and thus suitable for nearly anyone to float. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation closed the spillways on Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, burying Glen Canyon under hundreds of feet of water, destroying over a million of acres wilderness and radically altering the river environment downstream in the Grand Canyon. As Ed Abbey noted at a rally in March, 1981, right after a small group of us hung a 300-foot long symbolic crack down the face of the dam, “No structure has ever been so hated for so long by so many and for such good reason”.
I said that the dam is with you all the way down the canyon. Prior to heading down the river, a park ranger addressed us about safety and “leave no trace” camping rules. He also noted that increased releases from Glen Canyon Dam occur at the same time each day, and because the water travels at a known speed, boaters can calculate the daily times of crest and low water, depending upon your distance downriver. Many of the rapids are toughest to navigate at low water. But the big problem is that if you miscalculate, you might wake up to find your rafts earth-bound, high and dry, too heavy to move, requiring a wait for the return of high water. Which happened to us one day, when we couldn’t get on the river until nearly 3 PM. Thank you, Bureau of Reclamation.
Before the dam, the Colorado River periodically flooded, dumping huge loads of sand and silt along the riverbanks, creating many dozens of large sand beaches. Probably my favorite river is the Main Salmon, in the Frank Church river of No Return Wilderness of central Idaho. There are no dams on the Salmon, and big flood-deposited sandy beaches abound. Such campsites are wonderful. But in the Grand Canyon sandy beaches are mostly historic relics of pre-dam floods, ever-shrinking and ever the cause of intense campsite competition among river floaters.
Of course, as most folks know, it gets hot in the canyon, up to 120-degrees in summer. Before the dam, the Colorado River heated up to around 80-degrees in late summer, and cooled to roughly 40-degrees in late winter. It was a warm water ecosystem. Think catfish. Now, because the water comes from the bottom of Powell Reservoir, think trout. The water temperature stays close to a chill 52-degrees F. year round. This means that you really don’t want to flip your boat or otherwise get tossed into the drink! A human can survive maybe 8 minutes immersed in such water, before succumbing to hypothermia. So, even on a hot day, to safely navigate the tougher rapids, you must wear some type of dry-suit or wetsuit or waterproof/water resistant outer shell, just in case of an involuntary swim, very uncomfortable attire as you bake in the Arizona sun. In fact, the icy water and ones’ desire to avoid an unplanned dunk provide a constant reminder of Glen Canyon Dam(n).
Still, the feeling of remoteness on a 21-day river trip is wonderful. So is sleeping out under a starry desert sky. The vistas are unparalleled. And we saw a lot of wildlife along the river, including numerous herds of bighorn sheep (they had been successfully reintroduced) and also a great variety of birds, including California condors, which also have been reintroduced. There’s also evidence that the tamarisk leaf beetle has moved into the big canyon, killing invasive non-native tamarisk trees, after being introduced upriver as a biological control. Tamarisk trees reduce biodiversity. They transpire huge quantities of water and displace native vegetation across the Southwest. They also support fewer species of insects and birds than do native plants.
Finally, there is no designated wilderness in Grand Canyon National Park, though nearly all of the rugged backcountry has been proposed for wilderness designation by both the Park Service and conservation groups (the NPS recommends 1,144,000 acres of wilderness in GCNP, or about 94% of the park). The Park Service claims to manage the backcountry as wilderness, but they typically fall short of what we at Wilderness Watch would consider to be good wilderness stewardship, especially regarding the seasonal allowance of motorboats. For more information on challenges facing the Grand Canyon, stay tuned to Wilderness Watch and also see www.grandcanyontrust.org.
Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter who has been on the Wilderness Watch board on and off for two decades. He lives in Montana, just north of Yellowstone.
thank you howie. even if you didn't mention ed abbey i would have thought of him by your comments. sad that the environmentalists didn't win that fight against the dam. ...you're lucky you were there before.
Sounds wonderful - past time to get rid of these dam dams!! And why not designate part of this area as Wilderness? Who needs motor boats in a place like that!
You don't mention public lands grazing as one of the systemic problems in the Colorado River watershed (not to mention elsewhere). You should.
Good point. My bad. Public lands grazing is a major destructive problem throughout the Colorado Plateau and across most of the West.
I want to see and ride the Grand Canyon in all its beauty. Please don't destroy it by drilling, mining, or fracking.
I have had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon 3 times in my lifetime. I still think it is the most beautiful act of God or millions of years of changes in weather (whichever you believe). We must deal with the environmental issues that are clogging the Colorado River and stopping it from draining to the Gulf of Mexico, bringing all the nutrients with it. I am not certain exactly what can be done to save it so future generations can raft down the river and view the gorgeous canyons from the top. Please support any bills or plans to preserve this magnificent place witch is the heritage of our youth. Keep the wilderness wild and do not let humankind in to destroy what God has so beautifully created.