Spectacular Heartbreak

I suppose you could apply this melancholy then-and-now reaction almost anywhere ‘wild’ these days, but the Colorado River below the Grand Canyon is such a blatant example that, for me, it becomes inescapable. I simply can’t be there without confronting that contrast. I’ll explain.

But first, to call my January outing a river trip strains the definition. Let’s call it a ‘dabbling’. I dabbled in the lower section of this great river. First, a couple of days on Lake Mead, exploring from Temple Bar up into Virgin Canyon. Another couple of days in the Topock Gorge area just downstream of Needles, California. Finally, two more days in the Imperial Dam area, probing the channels of the Wildlife Refuge and the wetlands behind the dam. For all of it I was based out of my T@B trailer, parked in various campsites or on dispersed camping BLM lands. For all of it I was alone, and mostly had these spots to myself. My timing was fortunate, because all of these places can be overrun with powerboats, jet skis and the like. For that I am grateful.

I saw some cool stuff. Landforms like The Temple, on Lake Mead, or the dark, rugged beauty of the volcanic rock in Topock Gorge. I saw the way wildlife has worked around our presence and managed to maintain their existence. A coyote padding along the beach, great blue herons in the shallows, a stooping falcon narrowly missing making a meal of a golden-eye that ditched into the water and escaped. The moon was full around that time, so my nights were illuminated in cool pale wash. I avoided the worst of the winds, and paddled up and downstream with impunity. All nice enough, especially if you don’t allow yourself to think of what once was.

For me, I can’t avoid recalling Aldo Leopold’s essay, Green Lagoons, in Sand County Almanac. It recounts his week-long canoe jaunt through the labyrinth of the Colorado Delta, in Mexico, with his brother. Then, the river supported a massive wetland seamed with bewildering channels where jaguar still hunted, where deer hid in the underbrush, where all manner of birds rustled the waters and beat the air with the rush of their wings. A place you could happily lose yourself for weeks. I think of early explorers like John Wesley Powell who ran the unchecked river where the threat of disaster lurked around every bend and where the untamed power of nature was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

These days the lower river has been tamed, managed, manicured to our needs. It services the thirst for power and irrigation and recreation for some 25 million people in cities like Las Vegas and Pheonix and Los Angeles, people who could not exist in anything like those numbers without the life support of the Colorado River basin. It is dammed, pooled, diverted, run through turbines, shunted off into canals, spread over fields, sent into pipelines in a system so convoluted and contentious that it beggars the imagination.

On the water, I paddle over a shallows on Lake Mead and I picture what it once might have been, perhaps the lip of a gully that led into the main channel. Or a dropoff into deeper water that was once the edge of a limestone cliff perched high above the river below. I see some birds, coots mostly, and also representatives of herons and hawks and other ducks, but I imagine the throngs of winter migratory waterfowl that once covered the waters and burst away with a thunder of wings at the approach of a canoe. On my paddles I was lucky to see one heron, one bufflehead, one kingfisher, one pintail in addition to the ubiquitous coots. Catching sight of a coyote or beaver was a singular bonus. Coasting through the back channels of wetlands I couldn’t block the knowledge that the wetland was there because of a dam, not because it was a creation of the natural river channel. And the wetland itself was often little more than a set of pools and geometric impoundments feeding the system of canals and pipelines diverting the river. What was once a valley forested by vast cottonwood groves, sustained by regular floods, has become a channel rimmed by exotic and invasive tamarisk, grasses and weeds, punctuated by the odd palm tree.

The country remains evocative, full of dark rock, distant mountain ranges, the unfurling glint of river winding its inexorable way to the sea. The Colorado River will, in the end, reassert itself, do away with the dams, the impoundments, the canals, the bridges and pipelines. Geologically speaking, this invasion is a brief, jarring interlude in the slow ebbing of time, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, the coming and going of oceans, the creeping migration of continents.

But here, today, in my life, in my canoe, feeling the water flowing under my hull, spent and recycled as it is, it is inescapable heartache that overlays everything.

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