David Brower (center) and other Sierra Club members putting it out there around 1960.
I was taking care of a dozen preschoolers on a beach that looked just like the one where I was sleeping. The children had to go home, but they had left things on the shore, and the water level had risen. So I walked along the bottom of the river, picking up tiny shoes and shirts. I wasn’t having any trouble breathing underwater. When I looked back at the beach, I woke up.
My dreams no longer included urban scenes, domestic life, or missed plane connections. The river had soaked through me. We were getting up before sunrise and going to bed after dark, and the canyon was all we saw or talked about. It was hard to remember the date (June 19), and our biggest concerns had not existed four days ago. One of the burners on our stove was stuck in the “on” position. Peter had called PRO on the satellite phone the day before to ask for a replacement, and we were told the new stove would leave Lee’s Ferry on a motorized commercial trip as soon as possible.
We would see two or three of these trips a day. They were usually a couple of blue rafts, maybe 30 feet long, with about two dozen people sitting on opposing benches that ran from bow to stern. The guide sat on a raised chair in the back, his/her hand on an outboard motor. The rafts would plunge into the rapids without hesitating, and from our perspective, the waves barely made them wobble. Some commercial customers do the whole canyon in as little as six days. They don’t set up or take down their camps, and they don’t row – instead, they sightsee (float) and eat (bloat). We always waved and chatted with these folks, but the main thing we wanted to know was where they were planning to camp that night, so we wouldn’t go there.
Many of the guides knew Rod, and their short conversations focused on how conditions had changed at various rapids, who was working where, and other practical matters. Their exchanges reminded me that the Canyon is a workplace — a particularly nice one. While I drifted along in a pleasant mental haze, enjoying the scenery and thinking up things to write in my notebook, the guides (and Pete Kirchner, our trip leader, pictured here) were always one step ahead, worrying and calculating. Guides see themselves as the heirs in a line they trace back to John Wesley Powell. They call their clients “sports,” as in, “get the sports into the boat.” I was a chore or two away from being a sport.
The personal gear Tania and I had brought was working well, although we both wished we had brought our own life preservers (also known as personal flotation devices, or PFDs). When you wear these things all day for more than two weeks, it makes sense to get one that fits and has pockets. Sadly, the ones we rented from PRO did neither. Tania’s was particularly unsuited to her small frame. So if you go on a long river trip, choose your PFD with care.
We pushed off at 9am. The cliffs and mountains were still overwhelming, but this morning I focused on details. These would pop up unexpectedly and stay in view for a few seconds. A mallard sitting on a rock. A heron fishing with its beak open. Tania scanned river right for a glimpse of a natural bridge called the Bridge of Sighs, and when we passed it, the waning moon was positioned perfectly underneath the arch. It was there for just a fraction of a second before we drifted past. By the time I took the picture, it had gone out of the frame.
As a life member of The Sierra Club, I wanted to see the site of Marble Canyon Dam. It showed up at river mile 37.9 – there were large bore holes in the rock, and the letters A through E were painted next to them. The sandstone cliffs rise hundreds of feet from the river’s edge at this spot, which has to be one of the most remote places in the park. The cliffs are so sheer that they have their own buttresses; hundreds of observers, starting with Powell, have compared them to classical architecture. Rod says that he rarely sees people trying to climb these cliffs, because they are so hard to get to. But I had to admit, it would have been a fabulous place for a hydropower generating station.
Back in the 1920s, when land was cheap and dams were considered a no-lose proposition, people started talking about building an unbroken chain of concrete plugs that would tame the Colorado River from the Rocky Mountains to the Mexican border. The talk continued until 1968, when an intensive grassroots lobbying campaign stopped all of the dams except two.
Hoover Dam opened in 1936. But plans for a ten-dam Colorado River Storage Project did not arouse opposition until the early 1950s, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that one of the proposed dams would be in Echo Park, within Dinosaur National Monument. The controversy raged for more than a decade. The Sierra Club had only a few hundred members when the protests started, and it had over 100,000 when they ended. The fight for the wild Colorado River has been called the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
David Brower. the Sierra Club’s executive director, and other environmental leaders mounted a national campaign. They raised enough money to buy full-page newspaper ads that asked, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” They criss-crossed the country and spoke to whomever would listen. Brower, who had been an editor at the University of California Press, commissioned a series of high-profile books that extolled the wilderness areas the club was trying to save.
Congress halted the Echo Park Dam fairly quickly, but the Club kept pushing. So Congress passed legislation in 1956 that prohibited all dams and reservoirs within National Parks and Monuments. Eight years later, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which now preserves more than 109 million acres of the US in a “natural” state. And in 1968 they passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects 156 river corridors.
The protests stopped all the dams on the Colorado except Glen Canyon, which closed its gates in 1963. Today, the boreholes in Marble Canyon remain as the dam builders’ high water mark. And just below the damsite is Brower’s Camp, a small, pretty cliff indentation with a sandy beach.
David Brower lived for 37 years after the Glen Canyon Dam opened. He was fired from the Sierra Club in 1969 for being reckless and shrill. He started several new organizations and kept fighting, and he always said that failing to save Glen Canyon was his biggest regret. Most folks would say that stopping nine out of ten dams isn’t a bad record — but Brower couldn’t let his losses go. He mourned them, publicly.
After he died and stopped irritating people, he gained many more admirers, and they erected heartfelt memorials to “the father of the environmental movement.” There’s a preposterous statue of Brower in Kennesaw, Georgia, along with a much classier theatre, think tank, and art gallery named for him in his hometown of Berkeley. That’s the way it goes with radicals: you beat on them until they die, and then you build statues of them because in your heart, you always knew that the bastards were right. I am pretty sure that David Brower would have liked his Camp the best.
We pulled over at Mile 41 to hike Buck Farm Canyon on river right. Just before the canyon entrance we saw a young male mule deer with a nice rack. It was such a perfect scene that I wondered whether the deer was a Park Service employee. We stopped to stretch our legs and also to see The Great Unconformity, a geological oddity that exists across the continent but can be seen easily in the Grand Canyon. It’s where rock layers from two eras that
are separated by hundreds of millions of years are nevertheless adjacent to each other. Where did all that time go?
Rod explained it all. But to understand it, you have to start thinking in geologic time, where a million years is nothing. Submerged, older layers of volcanic rock break through the surface of the earth, are eventually submerged under seawater, and then are covered with silt that turns into sedimentary rock. The age gaps vary, depending on where you see the Unconformity. In Buck Farm Canyon, we looked at Cambrian sandstone (540 million years old) directly below Mississippian shale (350 million). And just to make us all extra confused, Rod pointed out a streambed from the Devonian era (400 million) cutting through the shale.
Rod is a good teacher, but it was very hot, and everyone huddled together in the shade of a rock while he fried in the interests of science. After a while, I wandered away to look at the cute tadpoles in the shallow creek. Then we stumbled back to the boat and the 55-degree water.
We floated past the Anasazi Bridge, a remnant of an intricate cross-canyon trail system Native Americans used to get from place to place 1,000 years ago. They built the short span out of timber to get past a gap in a cliff ledge. The ledge still extends a fair distance, but it is hundreds of feet in the air, and it is not at all clear how one would get to the ledge or down from it. The route looks like a set piece from The Lord Of The Rings. It’s amazing that no one has disturbed it. But why would you want to, and how would you if you did?
Later that day we bounced through President Harding Rapid, which is not a grateful nation’s tribute (that is in Marion, Ohio). Instead, the rapid is named for Warren G. Harding because a boat expedition camped near the spot on August 2, 1923, the day he died. How did they know he had died? They heard it on KHJ, an AM station in Los Angeles that has started broadcasting just one year earlier, according to Boatman’s Quarterly. I never realized that at night, the “skip” would allow you to get AM radio signals in the Canyon! Also, the radios are a lot lighter now.
We stopped for the day at Upper Saddle Canyon Camp, a beach that leads to another canyon hike we were too tired to try. I jumped in the river for the first time, and was shocked out of my afternoon 105-degree fahrenheit stupor enough to help set up the kitchen. A commercial trip stopped at Lower Saddle Camp, which faced us across several hundred yards of water, and our groover was barely sheltered from their view.
Christy and Rod thought this was funny. “Modesty is impossible here,” said Christy. “If somebody sees you, just wave. What else can you do?”
We had stir-fried chicken and vegetables over rice, green salad, and gingersnaps. The circle of chairs where we ate was ringing with laughter and conversation, but Tania and I were so exhausted that we went to bed before it even got dark. We slept soundly. I don’t remember what I dreamed about. But in the morning, looking out at the eddy just offshore, I noticed a flip-flop shoe circling slowly.
Quotes of the day:
Rod: “I have been called a cactus hugger.”
Tim: “That’s not the next molting of my snake.”