Crew Voices - Rafting the Colorado River's Biggest Water
“…Let her go. Give this river back her soul. Let her waters be released. Let this mighty river flow…”
I’ve been off the river and lying here under the stars of Glen Canyon for almost an hour but TR Ritchie’s words are still echoing through my head punctuated now then by distant yelps of coyotes and the chirping of crickets. We were somewhere near our ninetieth mile on the river when TR pulled his guitar from a drybag and picked a song for the Colorado.
Maybe it was the sun. Maybe it was the two solid days of feeling the raw power of this river throwing us at her will. Or maybe it was the nearly 25 feet of silt piled up on ether side of us like a sun-worn gift once headed south to the sea now baking in the heat of a dammed up canyon. Or maybe it was just the song, but something caught in my throat and it hasn’t exactly gone away yet.
There were echoes today in Glen Canyon that did more than call back the lyrics. There were harmonies it seemed. Bass notes. Chirps from canyon wrens and the drumming of calloused fingers as our sunburned river guides stared off into the same distance as the rest of us--seeking some way through the stillness to maintain composure while still soaking in the moment.
TR finished and shook his head and we all just kind of sat there in something I can only compare to a Sunday in the south. A July Sunday. One with saints who seem to know something and sinners along for the ride.
I glanced over at my good friend Jon Waterman hoping he might be the first to break the silence with the right words. But he didn’t. And while I’m old-fashioned enough to know you don’t just run off to the scrap of paper you find and jot down that you saw tears in a grown man’s eyes, I’ll never forget seeing his.
Jon paddled this river from its soggy start, down its roaring canyons, and all the way out to the pitiful trickle it turns into somewhere between the border town of Mexicali and the delta it once called home. He’s seen this stretch of river before. He’s felt her raw power. He literally wrote the book on it for God’s sake. Plus a coffee table collection of images. And a wall map. He was Alexandra and my go-to guy for this whole stretch of the story. But today got to him too. Which is one of the things that’s still getting to me.
The stretch of river past the confluence of the Green and Colorado makes every other set of rapids I’ve ever seen look like a yard sale slip-n-slide rolled out in a sandbox. The National Park Service has even erected a sign near Spanish Bottom that mumbles out sound wisdom and dire warnings in faded red paint: “Hazardous Rapids, Permit Required…” Trust me, the permit does not serve as a flotation device.
We entered the thirty-something mile of rapids in Cataract Canyon like someone threw a yellow gummy bear into a Vita-Mix full of chocolate ice cream and rocks while holding down the “high” button. Very high. And also tapping on the “pulse” button.
And then this. Flat, still stagnant this. Someone built a wall across paradise and it’s keeping as much in as its ever let out. I don’t know why we call this “management.” We’re swapping grand rivers and great water for suburbs that sprawl boring all the way out past the truck stops and factories that suck packaged food from the land. And it’s breaking us in the process. Our farmers have become contractors and our lives have become places where we store our jobs. We’ve taught our kids to recycle but most have never had the chance to dip their Wii paddling skills into real water or spend a day in some wild place, which is sad because it’s hard to dream inside. And I can’t help but believe we’ll wild imaginations for the road ahead.
As much as this day has made me want to go all Edward Abbey on the whole situation, there’s this other side of me that says this one’s not lost. For all the bad that can be said about what became of our cries to “Go West,” there’s a lot of good in the spirit that drove us over the Rockies and out to the coast. We are still a culture capable of big ideas and I believe we are a generation looking for the chance. Here’s hoping we decide to focus some of that energy on water.
I’ll leave it at that for now and try to get some rest for the road ahead. I’ve got a bruise on my knee from cowboying a big rubber boat through a canyon. I’ve got a horribly sunburned spot on the top of my left ear that’s even more annoying than the mosquitoes. And I’ve got a tune in my heart that I think I’ll hum to the moon. I started this trip out swapping stories with TR about our red dirt roots in Oklahoma and I can’t help but think that somewhere out there tonight Woody Guthrie is smiling.
For more information on the Colorado River, check out the Nature Conservancy's website at http://nature.org/mycolorado