Last week we watched a short film called Voyagers Without Trace about a 1938 trip on the still-free-flowing Green and Colorado Rivers. The French trio – 2 men and a woman – completed the first recorded kayak journey from Green River, Wyoming, to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. The film also follows a similar American trio of our time who follow the original journey, only now they must ‘portage’ around the Flaming Gorge dam and their take out is the upper end of Lake Powell.
In 1997 we were part of a quartet on the Green and Colorado Rivers, kayaking through Canyonlands National Park and taking out just below the confluence. That June the days were hot and unrelentingly sunny. The current mostly carried us along and we often rafted together to enjoy the float and canyon scenery. That stretch doesn’t have any rapids but the Green carries a lot of water and we had a couple of unintended dunkings when we weren’t paying enough attention.
We didn’t notice any influence of the dams above or below us, but we suffered every evening from another change since 1938. Invasive tamarisk lines much of the shore of the Green River today. These thick plants have become mosquito haven. Every evening as the sun dipped below the canyon walls, the bugs came out in droves along the shore. The first evening we were unaware of what was to come and were so overwhelmed that we abandoned a pot of shrimp, boiled in beer, that had just finished cooking, to dive into our tents. Eventually one of us snuck back out of our tents, clothed head to toe, to retrieve the food and deliver it to the tents. Then we understood why when we got onto the river, another party was cutting their trip short, some still crying, over the mosquitos they had encountered. We camped higher after that first night and our trip was memorable for the scenery and company.
I’m currently re-reading Cadillac Desert, which was written 30 years ago, about how water in the western US has been moved, exploited, and over-allocated. The book and film reminded me of the southwest rivers that we rafted or kayaked when we lived in Colorado. We mostly boated sections that had survived the obsession of the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, and many state governments with damming rivers so that water wouldn’t be ‘wasted’ by flowing to the ocean. Ironically, a significant portion of the water in these huge reservoirs evaporates without ever being used. We did kayak on Lake Powell once, near the beginning of the period of its falling water level. We visited an archaeological site, which gave us some idea of the history and magnificence of Glen Canyon, which had been drowned by the dam of the same name. (The film DamNation includes footage of the canyon taken by an interesting group of river runners before it was flooded.)
Re-reading Cadillac Desert reminds me of how lucky we are to now live in Alaska and be floating big wild rivers that are still flowing freely to the ocean. Thankfully all the efforts to waste public money on large dams whose costs outweigh their benefits continue to fail here. Adventurers and regular people like us are still boating (or swimming!) the Susitna, Kenai, Yukon, and other big rivers for 10s to 100s of miles without encountering a single dam. That never feels like a waste of water to me.
More photos of our 1997 trip on the Green and Colorado rivers are here: