The Outside Blog

Adventure : Nature

Exploring Canada’s Extremes

Want to get off the tourist-beaten track? Then look no farther than our northern neighbor, where a string of five national parks—with shifting ice and steep-walled fjords—peer over North America’s 49th parallel.

These Canadian preserves stretch from Newfoundland to high above the magnetic North Pole, offering stunning views and incredible access to the wild. But beware: these are regions where wildlife reigns supreme and humans submit to Mother Nature. 

We start with the southernmost of the parks, Gros Morne, and end with Quttinirpaaq, at the tip of the continent to the north. This is what you’ll find if you follow the trail less traveled.

Gros Morne 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/TK.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gros-morne.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Location: Newfoundland
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 1,200 (south)
Best Time to Visit: May through October
Getting There: Deer Lake airport is less than an hour's drive. Alternatively, a ferry from Nova Scotia docks at Port aux Basques, about four hours away. Because public transportation near the park is very limited, you'll have to have a vehicle to get around.

Sheldon Stone, of Parks Canada’s Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit, knows 697-square-mile Gros Morne National Park is different. “This is not the landscape that people expect for eastern Canada,” he says. “It’s bigger, wilder, and surprising.” The park was even classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1980s.

Challenge yourself by tackling the Long Range Traverse—an unmarked, multi-day backpacking route that requires excellent navigation skills and mental toughness. (Be prepared to get cold and wet.) But you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of arctic highlands and the park’s huge lakes.

Must see: Stone suggests the Tablelands. “It’s a big, barren mountain that looks like it belongs on Mars, but it’s surrounded by dense, green boreal forest.”

Torngat Mountains

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/torngat-mountains.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Location: Newfoundland and Labrador
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 560 (south)
Best Time to Visit: Mid-July through mid-August
Getting There: Arrive via chartered boat or plane from Goose Bay, Nain, or Kangiqsualujjuaq (which is in Nunavik, northern Quebec).

With no direct roads connecting it to a larger hub, Canada’s newest national park (established in 2008) is also one of the hardest to reach. Gary Baikie, Parks Canada’s visitor experience and product development manager, has been traveling here since 1981 and argues that the Torngat experience is worth the considerable effort involved in getting there. “Torngat includes spectacular views of the dramatic fjords and barren mountains that rise thousands of feet out of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Baikie. “Wildlife, such as polar bears, roam freely on the coastline, and visitors experience an arctic ecosystem that meets a southern one.”

Travelers seeking out this remote, above–tree line beauty should enter the Torngat Mountains with flexible plans and an open mind—which means being prepared for mercurial weather. Making the most of the park also means utilizing the local wisdom. “The absolute best way to explore the Torngat Mountains is with the Inuits from the area,” Baikie explains.

The Torngat Mountains Base Camp, which is all-Inuit staffed, provides everything from “Bear Guards” for warding off those predators during hikes to a memorable hospitality crew. Because the park is home to both black and polar bears, Torngat Mountains National Park requires visitors to register before exploring the region, as well as to take part in a mandatory bear-safety briefing. The park staff strongly recommends hiring an armed Inuit Bear Guard (visitors aren't permitted to carry their own firearms). 

Auyuittuq

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/auyuittuq.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Location: Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 0 (the Arctic Circle passes through this park)
Best Time to Visit: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Even though it’s the most accessible park in the Nunavut territory, traveling to Auyuittuq requires serious planning. Depending on ice conditions, the park can be reached over snow or by boat via Pangnirtung Fjord (from Pangnirtung) or North Pangnirtung Fjord (from Qikiqtarjuaq). When ice is breaking up midsummer, the park is inaccessible.

Polar guide Sarah McNair-Landry lives on Baffin Island. Boasting the largest uninterrupted cliff face in the world (Mount Thor) and world-renowned Mount Asgard, this park is a mountaineer’s dream, she says. Mountains named after Norse gods tower over the valley, and the park offers something for adventurers of every stripe: from hiking up the valley system, to traversing the Penny Ice Cap, to climbing one of the impressive peaks. 

This dynamic place isn’t quiet, due in large part to its brutal climate. The blustery weather that can torment area visitors has ripped away shelters (McNair-Landry says the gales whipping through the park’s Windy Lake campsite have snatched away a number of tents over the years), and high glacial melt in midsummer turns brooks into roaring rivers.

You’ll safely enjoy the park’s incredible beauty if you do your homework ahead of time. That means reading up on local resources, including the park’s visitor-information package, and considering exploring the region with a guide. 

Sirmilik

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sirmilik.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 509 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Iqaluit, the hub airport Nunavut, offers flights to the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay. From there, local outfitters can assist with boat or snowmobile travel into the park.

The fifth-largest island in the world, Baffin has ample room to support two of Canada’s national parks: Auyuittuq and Sirmilik. In the latter, slow rivers of ice traverse the park’s 8,571 square miles. 

Visitors to Sirmilik are brought into close proximity with polar bears, so sighting one is not uncommon. The park also offers explorers the chance to observe narwhals and seabird colonies in season. Addressing the park’s diversity of wild inhabitants, Garry Enns, external relations manager in Parks Canada’s Nunavut field office, has this to say: “Wildlife-viewing in and along the park’s edges will give anyone taking the time for this trip an entirely new understanding of what ‘wild’ really means.”

Because the park is so isolated, each visitor is required to attend an orientation that includes information on polar-bear safety. Here, awareness is key: make sure you review the polar-bear safety brochure the park gives out before entering it.

Quttinirpaaq

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/quttinirpaaq.jpg","size":"large","caption":" "}%}

Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 1,113 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Late May to mid-August
Getting There: Fly to Resolute Bay from Iqaluit, then charter a flight to the park. If you aren’t looking for an extended stay, traveling aboard an ice-breaking cruise ship will afford you a taste of the park.

Fittingly, the Inuit name for this remote Canadian park means “on top of the world.” Here, expect wildlife—including arctic wolves, hares, and Peary caribou—to approach closely and without fear of humans.

Harsh weather is another reality. “Very few visitors really understand the meaning of ‘weather permitting’ until they’ve been caught in a fog that threatens to stay for weeks—maybe months,” says Enns. “Anyone planning a trip to this area must allow extra time.” 

Because any emergency help is far away, you have to take the time to slow down. Bring topo maps and a GPS. Decisions that are usually of little note in other areas (traveling when visibility is low) can turn into a life-or-death situation in a place this remote.

Read More

What Sunk the Bounty

Released today, the Coast Guard’s report on the Bounty’s sinking on October 29, 2012, squarely places the blame on the Bounty’s owners and captain, citing multiple “acts of negligence.” There were “many causes” for the sinking and subsequent deaths of captain Robin Walbridge and crewmember Claudene Christian, writes Captain J.C. Burton, USCG Director of Inspections and Compliance. “The most critical was the failure of the Bounty’s management and master to exercise effective oversight and risk management in the overall operation of the Bounty.”

According to the report, both the ship’s owner, Robert Hansen, and its on-shore manager, Tracie Simonin, lacked the maritime experience needed to make sound decisions about the vessel. “This lack of maritime expertise or background with vessel regulations led the organization to manage and operate the vessel in a way that was markedly different from most professional maritime companies." 

These “outlier practices” including a legacy of deferred maintenance and decisions made based on financial considerations “sometimes to the detriment of safety.” This includes decisions about the ship’s stability that may have contributed to its capsizing off the coast of North Carolina.

However, the Coast Guard saved its harshest judgment for Captain Walbridge.

The report found that Walbridge had “utter and total clarity on the size, scope and forecast of Hurricane Sandy”—that he knowingly sailed his ship into that storm, despite an inexperienced crew, his own firsthand knowledge about faulty pumps, and a report of significant rot in the ship’s frames. 

The Coast Guard did not recommend any enforcement action, nor did it recommend further action taken against the Bounty’s officers. It did announce its own investigation into the classification of vessels like the Bounty—floating tourist draws that are only required to meet safety regulations for moored attraction vessels, but often take on volunteers and advertise passage for hire. 

With its wholesale condemnation of the Bounty’s operation, the report could also influence the course of civil lawsuits against the Bounty organization, including those filed by Chris Barksdale, the ship’s engineer, and the family of Claudene Christian. While Coast Guard reports are themselves inadmissible in court, maritime lawyers say, expert witnesses regularly rely on them while shaping their own testimony. And this report offers them plenty of ammunition.

Read More

A Battle Won Against Megadams in Chile—But the War?

On Tuesday, environmentalists and adventurers threw up a collective cheer when a Chilean committee rejected a plan to dam two wild Patagonian rivers. The HidroAysen project, proposed by the Spanish company Endesa and the Chilean company Colbun, would have erected five megadams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, along with a 1,000-plus mile transmission line carrying power to the central part of the country. It would have been the largest energy project in Chile’s history.

It also sparked one big international environmental fight, with the NRDC, International Rivers and Patagonia throwing their weight behind Chilean groups like Patagonia Without Dams. Press piled onto the story, including Outside, which covered the issue briefly in 2008 and at greater length in 2010.

This week's decision came as a welcome surprise in the U.S., where anti-hydro sentiment is gaining steam thanks in part to the film DamNation. But it was less of a shocker in Chile. HidroAysen was met with great and occasionally violent local protests, and Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, spoke out against the dams during her campaign. But Endesa and Colbun are heavy hitters, and the energy-intensive copper mining interests that wanted the juice from the Baker and Pascua have enormous political influence.

The fact also remains that Chile is energy poor, relying on domestic hydropower for nearly 40 percent of its energy and imported fossil fuels for most of the rest. So when the country’s ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy and health voted unanimously to reject HydroAisen based on problems with the project’s environmental impact assessment, people celebrated in the streets in Santiago. A Twitter hashtag, #chaohidroaysen, took off. Stateside, Patagonia rejoiced. Ditto International Rivers.

“We’re usually pretty reluctant to declare victory as emphatically as we have in this case,” Jason Rainey, executive director of International Rivers, told me.

But how could he not? A country with a long history of building dams rejected five huge ones due to problems an environmental impact assessment commissioned by the very companies behind the project. Goliath was on the mat.

But not for too long. Yesterday I spoke with Juan Pablo Orrego, international coordinator of the Patagonia Defense Council, who has led the fight against the dams for the past six years. “We had this victory yesterday,” he said, “but you have to wonder if it’s a mega chess game between the companies and the government.”

Orrego had just received word that Colbun, which is owned by a hugely influential Chilean family, the Mattes, would appeal the decision, possibly amending their proposal and scrapping plans for an inefficient and destructive dam on the Baker River. He was also concerned that Colbun and Endesa would parry by ditching the hugely controversial transmission line in favor of an underwater transmission line offshore.

“The Achilles tendon of the project is the transmission line that would have crossed 51 percent of the Chilean mainland,” he said. “If they do it underwater, the impacts are way less.” Out of sight, out of mind.

Chile is one of a few countries that has entirely privatized water rights. Private companies, many of them foreign, have owned the country’s water since 1981, when General Augusto Pinochet signed into effect a controversial piece of legislation known simply as the Water Code. Recently, a few senators proposed nationalizing the water rights. I asked Orrego about this. Might this initiative, combined with President Bachelet’s opposition to HidroAysen, signal a new era of river conservation?

“We have a very difficult legal problem,” he said. “We are one of few countries in world where generation, transmission, and distribution of energy is 100 percent private, and water is also totally in hands of companies.”

Undoing that, he said, would require expropriating water rights—which sounds a lot like socialism.

“The situation is complex,” he continued. “The thing is, it’s amazing how awareness about these issues has come up. Even high school kids are now going to tell you that in Chile there is a structural problem—the constitution, water code, the mining code. Now these issues under eyes of everybody. Before, these were submerged issues.”

This is wonky stuff, to be sure, but it’s crucial to understanding the future of Patagonia, the crown jewel of the adventure world. Copper mining is Chile’s dominant industry. It requires huge amounts of energy, and much of it takes place in the Atacama desert. The government hopes to develop solar there, but in the meantime, many have warned of an impending energy crisis. Which means that the pressure to increase power output remains. For his part, Orrego sounded prepared to continue fighting.

“Yesterday was a beautiful day because at least for a moment we stopped five dams,” he said. “But have to see what will happen. And Patagonia Without Dams is alive and very alert.”

Read More

National Parks Are About to Get Way More Fun

Next summer, some 110 million visitors will enter America’s National Parks. Among the most enthusiastic will be the paddlers running whitewater sections of the Merced River through Yosemite. That’s because, for the first time since the invention of modern whitewater kayaks and rafts, the National Park Service is allowing them on parts of the river that offer some of the most scenic and challenging rapids anywhere in the world. The opening up of the Merced is part of a much larger project, five years in the making, that will attempt to alleviate road traffic problems, as well as roll back some of Yosemite’s early, ill-conceived development—the ice rink in the shadow of Half Dome will be moved—while allowing more access for some of the sports that have come to define modern adventure.

The Merced River Plan, as it’s called, is a small but significant example of a transformation under way in our national parks. Last October, in a speech before the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an “ambitious initiative … to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors.” Among her goals is getting ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017, a response to the country’s evolving demographics and the aging of park users. At Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, with the largest group between 46 and 50.

Jewell’s vision of inclusivity should be enthusiastically supported by anyone who cares about the future of our park system. I say this despite the fact that it falls well short of what we need. Because, while she has the right idea in reaching out to new communities, like her predecessors, she’s ignoring the people who are most desperate to be allowed in: the paddlers, mountain bikers, and other adventure-sports athletes who are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds. It’s an outdated stance that overlooks the role these activities now play in our relationship with wild places, and it seriously undercuts public support for an expansive and growing park system.

Since the Park Service was founded in 1916, managers have struggled to decide which activities to allow. The congressional mandate is to leave the land “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” “Not dented, not scratched, but unimpaired,” says Mike Finley, a former superintendent at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and several other national parks, who now heads up the Turner Foundation, media mogul Ted Turner’s family land-conservation outfit.

Of course, “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” have always been fuzzy concepts, open to interpretation by whoever happened to be making the rules at the time. From the outset, commercial cattle grazing was grandfathered in at a number of parks. Then, in 1957, Congress approved Mission 66, an unprecedented ten-year, $700 million series of construction projects intended to improve infrastructure by building thousands of miles of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, gift shops, and maintenance bays. The parks as we now know them are a reflection of this single act. In his 2007 book, Mission 66, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes that the act “came to symbolize … a willingness to sacrifice the integrity of park ecosystems for the sake of enhancing the merely superficial scenery by crowds of people in automobiles.”

As Carr notes, Mission 66 certainly opened the parks to more people, but it was widely viewed as a disgrace for the Park Service. Oddly, the backlash hasn’t so much been against cars or hotels or sprawling RV campgrounds but against recreation, which many preservationists came to see “as the primary agent of … destruction.” Officially, superintendents, who have wide latitude in determining what’s allowed in each park, weigh the impact of activities like kayaking against that “unimpaired” mandate. Unofficially, though, as Finley explains, the debate is both simpler and more philosophical: “You can’t roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel, nor should you.” Which is to say that adventure sports are banned in parks for cultural reasons.

What all this has left us with is phenomenal natural areas that are for the most part managed like drive-through museums. Meanwhile, a growing number of outdoor athletes, who should be among the most committed park stewards, have been ostracized. The nonprofit Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C., umbrella group for human-powered-advocacy organizations like American Whitewater, climbing’s Access Fund, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has 100,000 members and skews toward a Gen Y demographic. By comparison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the historical champion of the national parks, has 500,000 members with a median age in the sixties.

“There’s a real relevancy problem with the parks,” says Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance’s executive director. “They’re shutting off vectors like bikes and kayaks for people to have the kinds of meaningful experiences that are the genesis for a conservation ethic.”

Indeed, many young people fall in love with wild places by playing in them. And yet, in a number of instances, park authorities have taken moves to curtail sports. Last December, Death Valley National Park canceled the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, citing safety concerns for runners in the heat. And despite intervention from Colorado senator Mark Udall and governor John Hickenlooper, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was denied a permit to use roads that pass through Colorado National Monument.

“It’s a case where the paperwork hasn’t kept up with the sports,” says John Leonard, a ranger in Denali National Park, which requires guides and clients to be roped together much of the time on Mount McKinley, effectively banning guided skiing. “Out of one side of our mouth we’re saying we want millennials to come to the parks, and out of the other we have all these bureaucracies in place that make everything difficult.”

The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use. This dynamic was revealed starkly in 2011 when bikers and climbers sided with motorized off-roaders in opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado, which would have locked out all three groups. (In the end, the IMBA and others successfully advocated for backcountry land that was bike-friendly but not open to development.)

In another instance of odd bedfellows, last February Cynthia Lummis, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, which would give the Park Service three years to figure out how to allow boats on Yellowstone’s waterways. In February, it passed the House of Representatives. It’s hard to say whether the bill was a politician representing her constituents or a shrewd way for a conservative to divide environmentalists, but it effectively set paddlers against the NPCA, which opposes boating on the park’s rivers.

Within the parks, much of the progress has been due to the efforts of advocacy groups. In Yosemite, long an outlier in welcoming athletes—hang gliding has been permitted since the late seventies—the Merced River Plan was championed by D.C.–based American Whitewater. In 2011, the IMBA helped convince managers at Texas’s Big Bend National Park to perform an environmental assessment and allow a comment period for the new Lone Mountain Trail.

If anyone understands the need to evolve the Park Service’s attitude toward recreation, it’s Jewell, who spent 17 years at REI before she was appointed by President Obama. So far, though, she has ignored the topic. If Jewell truly wants to build a park system that will endure, her next move should be to issue a directive for superintendents to study where and when outdoor sports might be appropriate. Nobody is demanding that bikes be allowed on every trail, that kayakers be given license to bomb every creek, or that climbers be granted blanket permission to start bolting routes. But there is room for more sports alongside the quiet reverence.

Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point, grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit, and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel. When I asked IMBA executive director Mike Van Abel what his dream trail would be, he was ready with an answer: circumnavigating Grand Teton National Park and connecting to Teton Village. Then he offered something more provocative: “There’s some real interest in winter fat biking on the roads in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Read More

The Day We Set the Colorado River Free

On Friday, March 28, 2014, I did something that has been impossible for most of the past 50 years and, by the time you read this, will be again. As photographer Pete McBride snapped photos of me, and two French documentary filmmakers shot footage of him, and an unidentified blue helicopter circled above, I pumped up an inflatable NRS paddleboard, dropped it onto the Colorado River below Morelos Dam, on the Mexico-Arizona border, flopped onto the board, and glided over the cool waters.

What was remarkable about this was not my less-than-graceful launch but the fact that I was launching at all. Morelos, the last of the 12 major dams on the main stem of the “American Nile,” is where you go to watch the Colorado die. Stand on Morelos and look north, toward the United States, and you see a sparkling, reed-fringed river coming at you. Look south and you see an empty channel that twists 100 miles to the sea. After a thousand straws, from Denver to Los Angeles, have sipped the Colorado dry, after 40 million people, 10 million cows, and countless heads of iceberg lettuce have had their fill, the coup de grâce is delivered here at Morelos, where the last 10 percent of the river is shunted into the Reforma Canal and piped west to the Mexicali Valley so we can all eat baby spinach in January.

{%{"video":"262561451","caption":"Pete McBride captured the amazing 2014 Colorado River Pulse Flow on film."}%}
Video by Pete McBride

Thus it has been for more than 50 years. After Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, the Colorado River delta was left for dead. No water, no life. But an unprecedented agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, changed all that. Over eight weeks, a 105,392-acre-foot pulse flow of water—about 34 billion gallons—would pour through Morelos and down the dry channel. The idea was to mimic the dynamics of the Colorado’s historical spring flood, timed to coincide with the germination of willow and cottonwood seeds. For more than a year, restoration ecologists with Arizona’s Sonoran Institute and Mexico’s leading environmental group, Pronatura, had been planting seedlings and digging channels, concentrating on the low-lying areas where the groundwater was already high enough to support clusters of cottonwoods and willows—and even a few beaver and muskrat. With a little luck, the water would make it far enough down the dry channel to reach these places. With a little more luck, there might be just enough extra water in coming years to keep some of those new seedlings alive.

It was the unlikeliest of plans: take a titanic slug of water from the most over-allocated river in North America, shoot it through some of the driest country on earth, and turn these godforsaken wastelands back into an Eden. And how anyone managed to pull it off is mystifying, because—perhaps you’ve heard—the West is as parched as Mars right now. Here in the heart of the Great Megadrought of 2014, with Lake Mead draining behind Hoover Dam like an unplugged bathtub, farmers scuffling for water like dying men in a life raft, and the Bureau of Reclamation warning Arizona and Nevada to plan on rationing by 2016, somehow $10 million worth of agua pura was being jettisoned.

{%{"quote":"Take a titanic slug of water from the most over-allocated river in North America, shoot it through some of the driest country on earth, and turn these godforsaken wastelands back into an Eden."}%}

Honestly, nobody knew if it would make it to the sea. Nobody knew what would happen. Nothing like this had ever been tried before. And while scores of scientists from all over the world had descended on the delta to measure the effects on salinity, hydrology, biology, and every other factor they could think of, we were here to take the river’s pulse in an entirely different way. We were going to float it. Dead for decades, would it now feel like a glorified irrigation canal? Or, somewhere in the middle of it all, away from the cameras and piezometers, might we still summon the spirit of the Colorado? Forget the science; we were here for a séance.

Just below the dam, at least, the river truly looked reborn. All but one of Morelos’s 20 gates were wide open, and so much water was pouring down the channel that a lake had formed around the structure. Before a handful of perplexed onlookers, our ragged flotilla of river rats carried a couple of dented aluminum canoes and two inflatable paddleboards to the shores of the instant lake. The water would be sinking into the dry sand over every mile, but for now it was all systems go.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-before-after.jpg","size":"large","caption":"A sandy stretch of riverbed 40 miles south of Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border, in 2009, and the same stretch during the 2014 pulse flow. Click for more behind-the-scenes shots from Pete McBride.","link":"http://www.outsideonline.com/photo-galleries/outdoor-adventure/exploration/To-The-Delta-SUP-The-Colorado-River.html"}%}

I was with four men, most in their forties, who’d made the Colorado their lives. Fred Phillips, the Flagstaff, Arizona, consultant who’d put the trip together, is the Southwest’s premier restoration ecologist, the man who pioneered the art of transforming barren Colorado riverfront into lush wetlands. Pete McBride grew up on a Colorado ranch that depended on the river. Six years ago, he’d attempted to follow it 1,450 miles to the sea; the resulting book and film are unforgettable testaments to the death throes of the lifeblood of the Southwest. Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, 39, the ecologist in charge of Pronatura’s restoration projects and the region’s preeminent ornithologist, had covered every square mile of the river channel on foot doing bird surveys; he could hardly believe he was about to do it by boat. Sam Walton, a member of the family behind Walmart, had worked for years as a river guide in the Grand Canyon, as well as a hydrologist. He’d assisted Fred on several restoration projects, and the Walton Family Foundation funded some of the pulse-flow-restoration work. Sam had grown skeptical, however, of the pulse-flow strategy—he feared that too much water would simply sink into the dry riverbed, when it could have been channeled directly to restoration sites via canals—and was here to see the results for himself. As it was for all of us, the resurrected Colorado was catnip to him, whatever happened.

Our game plan had been to “start slow, then back off”—we’d be running out of river soon enough—but Sam shot down the channel on a banana-yellow Badfish paddleboard and disappeared, chasing virgin water. The rest of us stuck to the program. Pete glided in a canoe, snapping photos. Fred broke out his guitar and rattled off “The Baggage Boat Blues,” a Fred Phillips original. I paddled upstream until I was above the dam, lay flat on my back, and became maybe the first person to float under the gates since Chris McCandless slipped through here in his canoe in 1990, during one of the last floods to wet the lower Colorado, on his way to the Gulf of California and into the wilds of history. The world felt new.

Days earlier, the world had felt very old to me. Old and exhausted. I’d stood in the center of the parched riverbed and stared at the Mad Max misery of the limitrophe, the 23-mile stretch where the Colorado delineates Mexico from Arizona and where desperate men run the gauntlet to deliver themselves or drugs to the promised land. If you wanted to find a place that symbolized everything that has gone wrong in the delta, this was it. On the U.S. side, the 20-foot-high rusted fence with the halogen spotlights rising above it and Border Patrol trucks stalking the front. Next to it, the bridge in the Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado arching over the riverbed. The guys in San Luis told me how fishing was their life back in the 1990s, when a few unusually wet years revitalized the river. Bass, carp, corvina. As teenagers they used to jump off the bridge. Kersplash. Now it’s a 35-foot plunge to the dry bed below. Bored teens on ATVs did donuts in the sand, round and round.

I tried to reconcile what I saw with Aldo Leopold’s description of the Colorado River delta in A Sand County Almanac, a towering text of the conservation movement. In 1922, Leopold and his brother paddled up the mouth of the river from the Gulf of California, camping along its braided channels and “deep emerald” waters. Leopold fell hard for the place. “The river was nowhere and everywhere,” he wrote, “for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf. So he traveled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we.”

The river Leopold found was a “milk-and-honey wilderness” filled with game “too abundant to hunt,” which Leopold chalked up to the innumerable seedpods hanging in every mesquite tree. “At each bend we saw egrets standing in the pools ahead, each white statue matched by its white reflection. Fleets of cormorants drove their black prows in quest of skittering mullets; avocets, willets, and yellow-legs dozed one-legged on the bars; mallards, widgeons, and teal sprang skyward in alarm.… When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow, they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

There are few birds here now. Few walls of mesquite and willow. A classic case of unforeseen consequences. The delta gets about two inches of rain per year. It makes Kuwait look like a rainforest. But thanks to its great benefactor, it used to be the ecological jewel of the Southwest. Fed by snowmelt from the Rockies, the Colorado would leap out of its banks each spring to green the delta countryside for miles around. At two million acres, the Colorado River delta was half the size of the Mississippi River’s lower delta and, because it was an oasis in a vast desert, probably even more vital.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-map.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":" "}%}

Of the hundreds of thousands of acres of riparian forests that once flourished on the lower Colorado, less than 2,000 acres of native willow and cottonwood remain. The rest has turned largely to tamarisk, a mangy, invasive shrub that is one of the only plants that can survive the salty sands of the modern delta. In jeopardy is the entire Pacific Flyway, that billion-bird artery stretching from Alaska to Patagonia, whose travelers must now make the 400-mile death-flap over the Sonoran Desert without food or respite.

Even today, few Americans grasp that the same river that carved Canyonlands and filled Lake Mead also kept Baja and Sonora alive. Back in the era of massive dam building, farmers and city planners were only too happy to see the wild Colorado transformed into a domesticated delivery system. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexicali, and many more municipalities drink the Colorado every day.

As do you. Most of America’s winter veggies are grown in the irrigated valleys of Southern California and Arizona. Your fridge is filled with Colorado River greens. Your beef was fattened on Colorado River alfalfa. Even your milk may well be the Colorado transformed. We all nurse from the mother river.

I’d planned on misery.

I’d thought: The water won’t be that deep.

I’d thought: The water will be gross.

I’d thought: We’ll be clawing our way through tamarisk thickets. Pushing ourselves through flotsam and froth.

I was wrong on all counts.

We ripped downstream on a bona fide river. It was eight feet deep, a hundred feet wide, roiling cool and green in the desert light.

“Is this what you expected?” I asked Osvel.

“It’s better!” he said, grinning from ear to ear. Small, round, and serene, Osvel was like a Buddha in a sombrero—a quality that had endeared him to officials and foundations in two countries. In 2012, he was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and his recent celebrity has meant a lot of time on the road. When you ask Osvel how he likes his new life of meetings and press conferences, he shrugs and smiles and says, “I miss the birds.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-sup-dam.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"Sam Walton paddleboarding through the open gates of the dam."}%}

Beneath me, drowned tamarisk trees waved like kelp in the current. We were flying through a forest, the paddleboards our magic carpets. I smacked into the top of the occasional tamarisk, staggering like a drunken pirate, but the river had risen right over the top of most obstacles. An hour into our journey, the river felt very alive. And this entire pulse flow was just 0.7 percent of its annual flow. We were surfing on a rounding error.

Yet this miraculous flood—deemed so important to relations between the two countries that it had elicited a morning of speechifying by everyone from the governor of Baja (“There are 260 rivers that cross international boundaries, and this is the first such event in the history of the earth”) to the U.S. deputy secretary of the interior (“In retrospect, it seems so obvious that neighbors should take care of one another”)—had taken 15 years of lobbying to bring to fruition.

{%{"quote":"I'd planned on misery. I'd thought: The water won't be that deep. I'd thought: The water will be gross. I was wrong on all counts. We ripped downstream on a bona fide river. It was eight feet deep and a hundred feet wide."}%}

On March 23, I’d stood with a crowd of 200 on the bank below Morelos Dam, gazing at the concrete monolith and waiting for the first gate to open. Beside me, Jennifer Pitt, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project, and Peter Culp, a Phoenix attorney and the go-to lawyer for Colorado River water issues, held their breath. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Pitt said. It was way back in 1998 when Pitt, who was already at EDF, and Culp, then a law student volunteering for the Sonoran Institute, first came up with a plan for how new water-sharing agreements could free up some flow for the delta.

For years the idea went nowhere. Mexico and the U.S. were battling over Mexico’s water supply, and by 2006 litigation was the preferred mode of communication. It took an earthquake to shake everyone into action. On Easter Sunday 2010, a 7.2-magnitude temblor destroyed much of Mexico’s canal system. The U.S. agreed to store some of Mexico’s water in Lake Mead on an emergency basis until Mexico could use it, and relations began to thaw. In November 2012, Minute 319, the latest amendment to the 1944 Water Treaty between the two countries, was signed. It allows Mexico, which has no large reservoirs of its own, to store future surplus water in Lake Mead in exchange for agreeing to share the burden of any future shortages. The U.S. agreed to invest in improvements to Mexico’s irrigation network, and part of the water saved from that was devoted to delta restoration. Mexico’s National Farmers Confederation objected to what it saw as a water grab by the U.S., and California’s Imperial Irrigation District and Los Angeles squabbled over each other’s role in the agreement, but their voices were drowned out by the deal’s environmental component, which made it a crowd-pleaser in both countries. As Pitt put it, “How could you not fix this problem? It’s so obvious. And it gets people on an emotional level. It’s just not right. Especially at the bottom of something as grand as the Colorado River.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/butron-walton.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium", "caption":"Juan Butron and Walton on the river reborn."}%}

And with that, Gate 11 creaked open, a frothing mass of whitewater spilled out of the dam, and everybody went wild. Jennifer and Peter raised their fists in the air. Cameras clicked. Two drones whirred overhead. A sheet of water rushed over the marsh, simmering with escaping air bubbles, and licked our feet. Champagne corks popped. Jennifer doused Osvel. Osvel doused Francisco Zamora, director of the Sonoran Institute, who cried, “¡Hay agua!” And we all watched as a tendril nosed its way down the channel, hesitated in a pool, seemingly uncertain, then appeared to make up its mind as it spilled over the lip and ran downstream. If the water could make it 50 miles, it would reach the Laguna Grande restoration site, where tens of thousands of seedlings had been planted by Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute.

That was so easy, I said to Peter Culp. Just open the gates and let the water flow. Should happen every year. But Culp wondered if it would ever happen again. As part of Minute 319, EDF, the Sonoran Institute, and Pronatura had agreed to provide a 52,000-acre-foot base flow, to be delivered over five years, to keep the new trees alive. They were scrambling to purchase water rights from Mexican farmers, and they’d teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, the Redford Center, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in a Raise the River campaign to find the $10 million needed to do it. Even Will Ferrell and Kelly Slater lent a hand, shooting a mock PSA with Robert Redford in which they proposed that instead of raising the river, we should move the ocean.

But in 2017, the agreement must be renegotiated, and there is no guarantee that it will include water for the environment at all. With the Southwest projected to add another 20 million people in the next two decades and climate-change models predicting a 10 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, finding extra water is getting harder. Frankly, the fact that it happened here in 2014 felt like a minor miracle. Right up until the moment when the first dam gate opened, I’d half expected black helicopters to swoop in and claim this precious resource for the city-state of Los Angeles.

Knowledge that this flood might never be repeated made it seem even more dreamlike as we forked into a low-lying meander and found ourselves in a lush bayou that felt more like Mississippi than Mexico. Beavers slapped their tails at us. Bees nuzzled willow flowers. Seeds rained down by the billions. Osvel cocked his ear and reeled off bird names. A flock of white-faced ibis wheeled overhead. Beads of light caught where the water surface bulged around cattail stems.

“This looks suspiciously like a green lagoon,” I said.

“I can’t believe how normal it feels,” said Pete, a look of awe on his face. “The ecological memory is so deep.” When Pete tried this journey in 2008, he’d run out of water to travel on and wound up hiking 90 miles through salt pan to reach the sea. “It was hell,” he said. “A total slog. Worst trip I’ve ever done.”

“I can’t believe how safe it feels,” Sam said. Just a few years earlier, every crime known to man took place amid the tamarisks of the limitrophe.

“We used to see miscreants every day when we were doing fieldwork,” Osvel said. “One time we were doing a bird survey, and we always carry a machete, and we came to a clearing and there were people pointing guns at us and shouting, ‘Drop the machete!’ ” They turned out to be police, which made him feel only slightly better. “They were very nervous, and seeing nervous people point guns at you is not fun.”

“This is gonna close my boating résumé on the Colorado,” Fred mused. “I’ve done it all except for this stretch. The culmination of the past ten years.” Fred has floppy hair, fluid eyes, and a mischievous smile that hints of the rebellious teenager he was 25 years ago (twice thrown in the clink). Once, during a Native American ceremony, he’d been taken by intense visions in which he saw himself flying through a lush corridor of cottonwoods and willows as light emanated from his chest. It informed his career. “I try to keep myself open to the spiritual aspect of this work, instead of making it all about salinity and hydrology,” he said.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-fisherman.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"A fisherman hauls in his catch just hours after the river reached San Luis."}%}

I think of Fred as a restoration shaman. Straight out of college, he spent six years living with the Mojave and Navajo Indians along the lower Colorado in Arizona and reviving hundreds of acres of wetlands. I’ve walked and paddled through chirping, trilling marshes that began as visions in Fred’s head. While other restoration projects resemble tree farms, Fred’s are like epic Japanese gardens, waving banks of willows and wildflowers shot through with water and paths. Although he isn’t involved with any of the Minute 319 restoration projects, his sites are where the NGOs take potential donors and government officials to inspire them. As Osvel put it to me, “Fred is always one step ahead.”

By late afternoon, we’d already covered 20 river miles, and the cottonwoods disappeared. Billions of tiny copepods, having lain dormant as eggs for a decade or more, had hatched and were feasting on algae along the water’s fringe. High, sandy banks—perhaps 100,000 years’ worth of powdered canyon—bracketed the flow. Beyond them, a khaki nothingness. The occasional image of a drowned cactus rippled up at us like something out of a Dalí painting. We saw no one.

No one, that is, until we rounded a bend at dusk and heard the throb of ranchero music. The sleepy city of San Luis Río Colorado had awakened. The water had arrived the day before; the party was ongoing. Kids splashed and giggled in the shallows. Dozens of trucks lined the banks, speakers blasting. An ice cream truck and a coconut seller were doing brisk business on the beach beneath the bridge. An optimist with a net waded chest-deep through the water, sweeping it around him. The French filmmakers, who were working on a two-hour documentary for their People of the River series, were waiting for us.

As we paddled into town, five caballeros on horseback galloped through the water beside us, kicking spray behind them. They were experts in charreria, Mexican horse dancing, and they put on an impromptu show for the cheering crowd. Dogs barked. Children screamed. One horse sent the French cameraman sprawling to the ground. An old man with a cane wobbled on the water’s edge, snapping shots with his smartphone.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-cowboy.jpg","size":"large","caption":"Cowboy horse dancers join the party in San Luis Río Colorado."}%}

Sam was sitting cross-legged on his paddleboard, smiling. “I think I underestimated the social impact,” he said. “This is aligning more than just river channels.”

The optimist strode grinning out of the water holding a string of carp the length of his arm. I paddled past one of the guys who used to jump off the bridge. “Happy to have the river back?” I asked.

“Of course, amigo,” he shouted back to me. “It’s our name!”

We camped in a mesquite grove previously restored by Pronatura, where Osvel’s Pronatura compadres were waiting for us with tamales, tequila, Tecate, and a mountain of carne asada so vast that it stretched all the way into breakfast. To the binational agreement we contributed three guitars and a mandolin. Juan Butron, a leathery local guy who’d been working with Pronatura and would be helping us navigate the delta’s twists and turns tomorrow, joined us in time to deliver a rousing rendition of “La Bamba” to the stars, with light coyote accompaniment.

Around the campfire, we discussed what it would take to get San Luis its river permanently. “I wish social memory was longer than it is,” Sam said, strumming absently. “Are people still going to be inspired in three years when there’s not much to show from this?” With Sam’s backing, Fred’s consulting firm had developed a concept design for the delta restoration projects that used high-tech gates and levees to capture much more of the water than the dirt channels dug in the current sites, but it had not been implemented. “There will be a lot of excuses not to go further,” he said. “But the opportunity is huge. It’ll be something to watch.”

Yes it will. Here’s the short version: In ten to twenty years, unless the drought breaks in a big way or everybody in Los Angeles starts recycling their own pee, Lake Mead will run dry, and the Southwest will have to pack up its playthings and move in with its relatives back east.

Here’s the longer version: Each year, according to the Law of the River, the century-old pillar of legal documents governing the allocation of the Colorado, Lake Mead must distribute 1.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water to Mexico, 4.4 to California, 2.8 to Arizona, and 0.3 to Nevada. It loses another 0.6 MAF to evaporation. But the reservoir receives 1.2 MAF—four Las Vegases—less than it distributes. Currently, Mead has just 12 MAF left.

Really, really bad math? Well, yes, but the original math was done during a particularly wet period in the early 20th century, when there seemed to be more than enough water to go around for the sparsely populated Southwest. Even as the Sunbelt boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, Mead’s managers avoided paying the piper, thanks to a series of wet El Niño years.

The piper came calling in 2000, when the worst drought in 1,200 years settled onto the Southwest. Worse, research into the deep archeological record revealed that the wet decades of the 20th century were the anomaly and the dry years of the 21st were closer to the norm. Since 2001, Mead has been dropping 13 to 14 feet each year. It is now below 1,100 feet, with a 120-foot-high white bathtub ring to show just how far it has fallen.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-birds-eye.jpg","size":"medium","align":"right","caption":"The Colorado moves south, forming a lake downstream of Morelos Dam. The canal at left typically diverts the flow west to the Mexicali Valley."}%}

When Mead hits 1,075 feet, which should be in either 2016 or 2017, automatic rationing begins. Farmers in Arizona will begin to be cut off. At 1,050 feet, which looms for 2020, Vegas loses its current water intake, Arizona’s farmers go under, and Hoover Dam stops being able to generate hydroelectric power. “All of those agricultural districts receive federally subsidized power,” Peter Culp had pointed out to me as we’d watched water pour out of Morelos Dam. “Suddenly, you have the ag districts trying to buy power on the market at five times the price.” When the reservoir drops to 1,000 feet, somewhere around 2025, Phoenix is toast, Vegas loses its new intake, and farming becomes impossible in great swaths of the Southwest. “In the meantime,” according to Culp, “you’ve got a bunch of banks and bond markets saying, You know, that Vegas-Phoenix real estate market doesn’t look like such a great investment. The last time they concluded that, it tanked the world economy.” Which is why Culp suspects emergency measures would kick in before then. “There’s no way you can let Mead hit 1,000. It would be so horribly stupid.”

Slowing Mead’s downfall would require suspending the Law of the River, which dictates that Southern California will remain unscathed as its neighbors collapse—something Culp finds unlikely. “It’s not credible that Arizona and Vegas would be entirely cut off before California is affected. Can you imagine the feds standing by and allowing that to happen?” Instead, picture a wildly unpopular federal water czar declaring a state of emergency and parceling out Southern California’s water to keep Phoenix and Vegas on an IV drip. Picture the mother of all lawsuits creeping across the Mojave dunes.

That’s the doomsday scenario. And who doesn’t love the clarifying tonic of impending doom? Y2K. Peak oil. Now the coming megadrought. Dry riverbeds and white bathtub rings seize headlines. Sam wishes there was less focus on scare stories and more on smart water solutions—ways to shepherd the West through its day of reckoning to a green future of thriving cities, hyperefficient agriculture, and a Colorado delta teeming with life. It turns out that, even at the lower-flow levels projected for the Colorado, we have enough water to do all those things, if—and this is a big if, an if as vast as a Sonoran Desert horizon—we get smart. Really smart. Children of Dune smart.

For example, while Phoenix uses 165 gallons of water per person per day, Tucson uses just 128. One difference? Phoenix still favors a lush-lawn look, whereas Tucson embraced its desert identity decades ago. Lawns out, cactuses in. All new homes are required to have gray-water systems that reuse water for irrigation. The city offers rebates for low-flush toilets and rain collectors. And 10 percent of the city’s water is reclaimed from the sewer system, treated, and used for irrigation.

That still can’t touch Vegas, where every drop of water that goes down a drain or toilet is treated and pumped back into Lake Mead. (Vegas really does drink its own pee.) The only water lost is what’s used for irrigation, and even that has plunged since the city banned new front lawns and began paying people to replace existing ones with desert vegetation. Water use in Vegas has dropped by a third. Los Angeles is also now paying people $2 per square foot to remove their lawns.

Every city in the Southwest will need to get aboard the Vegas bandwagon. And they can. Australia already has. Cities there, which have been dealing with crippling aridity longer than we have, use just over half the water per person of their American counterparts. If Southern California alone were to adopt Australian rules concerning outdoor watering and low-flow fixtures, it would save 1.3 MAF of water per year—more than Lake Mead’s deficit.

Agriculture can save even more—though the real gains must come through you, carnivore. At least 70 percent of the water in the Colorado River basin gets used for agriculture, and most of that is used to grow livestock feed like alfalfa. This means that about five million acre-feet of the river—a third of its entire flow—gets turned into milk or hamburgers, and hamburgers are a particularly stupid thing to make out of the Colorado. Each hamburger takes about 500 gallons of water. If we each eat one fewer hamburger per year, we’ve just freed up a generous annual pulse flow for the river.

Not that the river would get it. Current “use it or lose it” water laws don’t allow farmers to sell any surplus allotment, so they end up growing as much alfalfa as they can and selling it on the global market. Peter Culp estimates that 50 billion gallons of water—1.5 pulse flows—is shipped to China each year in the form of alfalfa, and even more to Japan. An open water market would allow both cities and environmental groups to pay farmers far more than they currently make growing alfalfa. Conservation groups are working to establish one, but the effort will face years of political wrangling.

We don’t have years, so let’s get on it. Toilet to tap. Grass to cash. Beef to beans. A new generation of falafel-munching cowboys checking the drip irrigators on their olive farms. And spending their off-season floating the mighty Colorado delta.

Day two at dawn, Fred smudged us all with sage smoke and a turkey feather. “A little love for the delta,” he said, blowing smoke in my face. When I gave him the raised eyebrow, he smiled and said, “It just helps you to shed whatever you need to shed. For a long time I felt a little odd about it, like what right do I have to be doing these things? But the Navajo elder who taught me said, ‘A lot of my tribe isn’t doing it, so somebody needs to.’ ”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/fred-phillips.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium", "caption":"Ecologist Fred Phillips takes a holistic approach to river restoration."}%}

By the time we launched, it felt like we were on a vision quest of our own, traveling the Colorado’s possible futures. There were no more green lagoons. The water got browner, sandier, shallower. In places the surface was dotted with clouds of frothy brown scum. “The Mojaves call this turtle shit,” Fred said. “It used to cover the river before the dams.”

Juan spotted a mysterious backpack trapped in an eddy. He paddled over to it, reached out, then changed his mind. “Mala vibra,” he said. Bad vibe. An old-school Sonoran in his sixties, Juan canoed in his standard uniform of tight denim shirt, tight denim jeans, and dusty red cowboy boots. He eyed the paddleboards with great skepticism. “Want to try?” Sam asked. No, sir.

We saw bizarre things. Around one bend, the river was boiling furiously, like a giant vat of pasta water, as air bubbled out of the sandy bed. “There’s something I’ve never seen before,” said Fred.

“I have,” said Sam. “In flash floods.” As the water sank deep into the sand, as he had predicted, it was forcing long-buried air to the surface. He stared darkly into the bubbling cauldron. “This dry aquifer is the wild card. I’m very curious to see how the groundwater responds.” We all listened to the ominous gurgling, the sound of the river choking on sand. “I hope this river makes the sea,” Sam said, “even though it would prove me wrong.”

Sam offered Juan the paddleboard again. Juan shrugged. “Come on, try it.” OK. Juan pulled off his cowboy boots, mounted the paddleboard, and puttered downstream in tight denim shirt, tight denim jeans, and bare feet. A strange look crossed his face as he shifted his weight and gazed down at the water around him. He began singing to himself. “Esta agradable,” he murmured softly.

In late afternoon, I asked Juan if he wanted back in the canoe. He shook me off.

We knew we were running out of river when the channel flattened and we found ourselves paddling in a foot of brown, tamarisk-clogged water. Osvel and I were in a canoe up front, and as we cleared a stand of tamarisk we saw a ten-foot-high wall of sand stretching across the channel—a road crossing installed by some farmer who never expected the river to be wet again. I looked up at the wall and thought, This is how it ends.

{%{"quote":"Was the grand experiment worth it? Do we let the river go back to its slumber? Or do we raise it again? Having seen it wet and dry, having watched the dam open and close, I understand more than ever that it is simply a choice we get to make."}%}

But then we saw two figures standing on the berm. It was Peter Culp and Jennifer Pitt, who’d been chasing the leading lobe of the river for days by jeep through farmers’ barren fields. After spotting the dam from the air, the NGOs had sweet-talked a local excavator into digging an emergency trough through the berm. It was still too high for the water, but not by much. Osvel and I canoed through the last few inches, pushing our paddles against the sandy bottom, until our bow ground to a stop. We’d run the river dry.

The others arrived behind us. “Keep it going!” they shouted. We attacked the trough with our paddles, shoveling it down to the water’s level. Peter and Jennifer joined in. For 15 years they had written reports, filed briefings, raised funds, and bended ears to get the water this far. Now they were digging with their bare hands to get it a few feet farther.

At 6:24 p.m., as the shadows of tamarisks lengthened across the red-tinged sands, the first trickle escaped the trough and dropped into the empty channel on the far side. We cheered. Soon the water was building on itself, picking up speed, scouring the sandy walls of the road. Through the night it rose, and we rode the mini-rapids on our paddleboards again and again, occasionally knocked sideways by a calving chunk of road. Pronatura had brought Fred’s truck down from Morelos to haul our gear back, and we spent the night by the river, sleeping in the sand.

We had come 32 miles. That meant there were another 68 or so to reach the sea, some of them very dry. The water would make just a few more miles the next day, and the day after that, creeping on through the saline lands. A week later, it would fill the backwaters of Laguna Grande, where 100,000 trees are now sprouting, and it would touch places—and people—that never thought they’d see water again.

Having no more river to travel, we returned to our lives. Fred to Arizona, Sam and Pete to Colorado, me to Vermont. Osvel and Juan to Pronatura’s bird counts and flow monitoring. Sam gave Juan his paddleboard, scrawling “Por Juan del Rio” on the yellow deck.

A few days later, they began reducing the flow out of Morelos, and the river slowed even more. So I was surprised when I received a note from Pete. He and Sam had returned to the delta. “I have to make the sea,” Pete wrote. “Kind of reaching mission stage at this point.” With Juan divining the way on his Badfish, they took it in 20-mile chunks, waiting for the water to fill each reach. It wasn’t pretty. “Complete warfare,” Pete wrote. “Chopping, pleading the boards through dead and living cattail and mesquite jungles. It will go down as the most beautiful and one of the hardest paddles in this kid’s book.” They battled mosquitoes and 107-degree temperatures; they floated over swimming coral snakes and under endangered clapper rails. Toward the end, they had to paddle commando on their bellies in the dark to hide from malditos—narco bandits who work the empty lower delta—but on May 5, they hit the high-tide line of the gulf and kissed salt water.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-group.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"From left: McBride, Butron, Walton, Hinojosa, Jacobsen, and Phillips at journey's end."}%}

Thus the séance ended. On May 21, the gates of Morelos Dam groaned closed, and the last of the water snaked into the dust. San Luis Río Colorado went back to being the city on the sandbox.

Was the grand experiment worth it? To Sam, that depends on what happens next. “One pulse does not a living system make, but it does remind us that it is alive,” he wrote. Knowing that, do we let the river go back to its slumber, or do we raise it again? Annually? Permanently? Having seen the limitrophe wet and dry, having watched the dam open and close, I now understand more than ever that, at some level, it is simply a choice we get to make, and I have to believe that for anyone, Mexican or American, who got a taste of the delta in the spring of 2014, it’s an easy call. We’d found the bucking, ecstatic Colorado of old, right where we’d left it, romping through its old playgrounds like an oversize kid. For a few electric miles, it was in its element, and so were we. It tumbled into a hundred green lagoons, traveling them all, and so did we. It divided and rejoined, twisted and turned, meandered in awesome jungles, got lost and was glad of it, and so were we. It turned down long-forgotten paths, trying to find a graceful way forward, and so did we.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Subscribe
to Outside
Save Over
70%

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!

Categories

Authors

Advertisement

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

Previous Posts

2014

2013

2012

Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.