Let There Be High Water
Outside magazine, July 1996
Let There Be High Water
Thirty-three years after Glen Canyon Dam strangled the West’s most celebrated river, the Grand Canyon gets its first regularly scheduled flood. Only Jehovah could have done it better.
We tether our boats in furnace flats, at the mouth of a parched side canyon called Basalt, and are just beginning to set up camp when we notice that the water is on the rise. The sun is slipping out of the sky, and the crenellated walls of the Grand Canyon are ranged around us, opiates of rock, as stupefying as they always are and always will be. There are 15 of us on a private
Yes, we all agree, it’s a fine day for a flood.
With the scent of tonight’s dinner–jambalaya–wafting over from the Dutch ovens, we watch as the 50-degree water licks at our feet, swallowing an inch of shoreline with every wave. It’s a businesslike advance, informing every instinct that Jehovah is up to old tricks,
Our odd flotilla–three rafts, a dory, three kayaks, and a 22-foot, motorized snout raft that looks something like the African Queen–is shifting fast in the swirl of an eddy, forcing us to fasten on more and more lines in an expanding cat’s cradle of nylon. Farther out in the river, the current has snapped into a frenzy, as though it just realized
But this is no garden-variety flood, no mere impetuous gush of water. It was rehearsed in elaborate cybermodels and unleashed on schedule by engineering wonks, and right now it’s being monitored by battalions of scientists stationed along the 300-odd serpentine miles of the Big Ditch. It may be the world’s first premeditated flood, and it’s certainly the first one whose sole
The Bureau of Reclamation, which oversaw the building of the dam and is now staging this week’s festivities, prefers not to call it a flood at all. No, this is an experimental beach/habitat-building test flow. Not that anyone can tell the difference between whatever the hell that is and a
At six o’clock this morning, March 26, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt donned a hard hat and strolled across a catwalk outside the humming ramparts of concrete that Edward Abbey once dreamed of blowing up. Then, with the twirl of a wheel, he let the foam fly. From the blue fathoms of Lake Powell, the water came roaring through the penstocks in four jets that shot
Reporters will grope for metaphors. It is, they’ll say, enough to fill Chicago’s Sears Tower in 17 minutes. Enough to fill Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium in less than ten minutes. Tourists will ask the Park Service when and where they can expect to see the tidal wave that will come churning
Alas, the tsunami never arrives, but the hydraulics are huge enough to make me grateful for the party I’m with. Nearly all of my companions are or have been professional rafting guides. All told, they’ve racked up some 1,000 trips through the canyon, a collective wisdom that I find particularly reassuring under the circumstances. Some of them even boated in the historic high
For my rafting hosts, this flood wasn’t part of the original plan, just a happy coincidence. The application for this permit had languished, as they all do, for six years on a Park Service waiting list. When the number came up, they realized, with very large smiles, that the put-in date fell only a few days before the high water. And now here it is. By nightfall the river is
The sky ripens from pink to indigo, and soon the Hyakutake Comet floats into view, inching like some ghostly flagellate across the cosmos. We’ve been admiring it all week, treating it as our personal night-light. But now I’m thinking this isn’t right, this isn’t natural, this is a sci-fi flick. Surely this scene has been enhanced for our benefit by some obscure special-effects
All of which could be skewing my sense of scale. But from where I’m sitting, never having run the Colorado before, the water out there appears to have turned from merely malevolent to homicidal.
“Yeah, it’ll be big tomorrow,” says Dennis, a coolheaded, ponytailed river guide of 15 years, looking inscrutably over the river.
Big? I ask.
“Yeah. Big and squirrely.”
“Look, if we flip, we flip,” Dennis says, borrowing a line from a deceased canyon legend named Whale, who before becoming a river runner had seen action in Vietnam. “I mean, it’s not like there’s going to be snipers.”
Three days before the flood, however, the river did indeed take on a vaguely martial cast, looking like a staging area for some imminent assault. As we floated down from the put-in at Lees Ferry, past Badger Creek, past Indian Dick Rapid, and on through the Roaring Twenties, we kept spotting impressive evidence of our government at work. Surveillance planes droned overhead.
At one point we met a young technical assistant whose job for nearly two weeks was to take hourly water samples and then pick out all the organic matter–“orgs”–separating the damp stuff into neat little stacks and labeling them: piles of midges, piles of flies, piles of gnats. It
Most of the time I was riding with veteran guide and photographer Dugald Bremner in his dory, the Skagit. “Graceful in repose, high and dry in the heavy going,” he likes to say, quoting an old river-running brochure. He is a soft-spoken purist of the river, with a desert-baked face and a taste for single-malt scotch. His attitude with regard to
At mile 32, we rounded a bend to confront two long mare’s tails of springwater hissing out of the canyon wall, some 200 feet up. It’s a famous little spot called Vasey’s Paradise. The constant spray from this pair of natural faucets has created an incongruously lush microclimate, like a green wadi in the Sahara, with hanging gardens of fern and watercress and monkey flower
Vasey’s was crawling with scientists on this blustery day. “Come on up!” a young biology student called, waving us into the cove. He looked glad to see some fresh faces.
“What’s going on here?”
“Snail duty!” he replied. “We’re using nine-irons to chip these guys up the bank.”
Over by the twin falls, a few biologists were crouched in the wet weeds, hunting for specimens of the Kanab ambersnail, an endangered species. It is believed that this tiny terrestrial snail is a last vestige of an age when there was a great deal more moisture in the canyon. The objective
It was a surreal scene, all the more so when one considered the fact that these painstaking biologists were ultimately being paid and marshaled by the Bureau of Reclamation, erstwhile destroyer of riparian ecosystems. The notion that the bureau’s apparatchiks were now overseeing this elaborate environmental project came with loud ironies–shades, one might say, of the fox
But what environment were we seeking to restore? What sort of conditions were we, to borrow bureau parlance, “managing for”?
Floods, often bigger than this one, were once a regular spring fling on the Colorado, a swell of Rocky Mountain snowmelt and sediment glurping down through the canyon. The spectacle was not only impressive to watch; it was a crucial part of the natural order of things, a seasonal flux to which all life was intricately tied. But after the dam was constructed in 1963, the spring
It took more than a decade for scientists to figure out just what kind of havoc all these changes were wreaking on the river–and what could be done about it. Some 13 years and $60 million were spent studying the various options in a vast, tedious process that took into consideration more than 37,000 public comments and the findings of some of the country’s finest ecologists.
No one was sure the test flow would do what it was supposed to do, but if it worked, the bureau hoped to stage these faux floods every few years, viewing them as a Roto-Rooter maintenance plan on a big, big scale. The scheme was extremely ambitious, and this initial test alone would cost upwards of $3 million, when you tallied up all of the scientific work and the estimated
And yet this wasn’t just any river; this was the Ganges of the environmental movement, hallowed waterway of John Wesley Powell, David Brower, and Edward Abbey. It was already perhaps the most regulated, most studied, and most politicized swath of water in the world. If the history of grandiose public-works projects has taught us anything, it’s that playing God can be a little
“Hello, various humans!” a skinny, auburn-haired biologist called down to us from the camp at Vasey’s. He was wearing squishy irrigation boots, short pants, and an Australian outback hat, and he had a distracted air about him, like a director on opening night.
A contract scientist for the bureau, Larry Stevens has been intimately involved in the flood’s planning for the past four years, a vital voice in the byzantine process. River runner, author of one of the canyon’s definitive river guides, restless polymath, and biologist with a Ph.D. in zoology, Stevens has devoted a quarter-century of his life to figuring out this monumental
I shook hands with Stevens and asked him if he had a minute to talk. “Nope,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Got a helicopter to catch.” Just then a chopper popped over the rim and perched on a flat spot just below the talus. “Maybe I’ll see you somewhere downstream!” he yelled as he grabbed a briefcase and ran down the footpath to hitch his ride.
Yeah, right, I thought. There’s only 245 miles of Grand Canyon left to go. We’ll see you down there. Then up he floated, whisked to the rim like some raja of the river.
Yet sure enough, two days later we ran into him. It was at mile 55, at a place called Kwagunt Marsh, where he was conducting a survey. “There’s going to be a lot of loss of life here tomorrow,” he said, looking out over an expanse of rustling cattails that would be fully inundated
At nightfall Stevens sauntered over to our camp, his survey complete. We were having margaritas on the big snout raft, the whir of the blender resonating obscenely down the canyon. After a few drinks, Stevens was howling old sailor ditties, a guitar on his knee, the scientist metamorphosing into his old river rat self.
It was turning cold and windy, but it didn’t matter, for tonight was sauna night, a time-honored river running tradition. We baked a dozen stones in the fire, and draped a tarp over a pair of kitchen prep tables, insulating the structure with sleeping bags. When the stones were ready, we shoveled them into a pit dug in the sand. Then we stripped down and crawled toward the
After we got a handle on the furnace heat, the conversation turned to the dam, and the irony that the very thing that had made a mess of the canyon environment was now being used to move back the clock. “Yes,” Stevens said, “but we’ll never really get back to that other river. That river is long gone. What we have now is something else entirely, something that’s not altogether
There was a long silence, and then Stevens started crowing an unfamiliar song: “Bring back the river! Set that muddy water free!” It was a piece of doggerel he once wrote about the humpback chub, a prehistoric-looking Quasimodo of a fish that’s native to the canyon. The chub is the closest thing the canyon has to a mascot, but because it does better in warm water, its
After the song was over, we sat for a few long moments, thinking chub thoughts, paying silent homage to its sorry humpbacked fate, but the verdict was unanimous. We couldn’t take it anymore. Our brains were turning to consomm‹. We scrambled out and plunged ourselves into the Colorado. Someone had to devise a way for people to actually want
I stayed under as long as I could bear it–three seconds, maybe. It was an otherworldly cold, all out of character for a river that runs through desert lands. It felt wrong.
We could make it warmer if we really wanted to spend the cash. The scientists have proposed a special intake mechanism that could be rigged up at the dam, drawing water from different thermal levels of the lake. Which would be good for the chub but bad for the trout that have flourished in the canyon and thus bad for the bald eagles that have come to feed on the trout. There
All the river-running advice in the world cannot adequately prepare you for your first encounter with truly gigantic whitewater: the basso profundo rumble, the fugues of froth, the million watery rhythms bombarding the senses. I’m standing on a promontory above a monster rapid named Hance, feeling the mist rising off the water, smelling the turbid river smells. Some of the
Well, that’s some comforting news there, Dugald. Kind of you to share.
As we’ve already experienced this morning, the high water has made everything more dynamic, less predictable, harder to read. There are strange “boils” that keep bursting to the surface, causing us to lift and spin out of the current like waterbugs. The tranquil pools between the rapids are no longer tranquil at all, more like pneumatic tubes suctioning us downstream to the
Not so with Hance. Hance has only gotten mightier, louder, squirrelier.
They ever find the guy’s body? I ask.
“Well,” Dugald shouts back, “they helicoptered me and this other guy in with kayaks, and we spent a couple days searching downstream. Never did find’m. Probably got trapped under some rock Had to swell up with methane before it would pop back up. Couple months later, a science team spotted the body floating past Phantom Ranch, and they retrieved it.”
To further blacken the atmospherics, there’s a Park Service “observer” stationed on the banks here, a clipboard in hand. He inquires as to how the high water’s been treating us thus far, asks a series of pointed questions about flips and near flips, and then waves us off to
I won’t give you some ridiculous yahoo account of the proceedings, because you can well imagine: It’s huge, it’s wild, we take on many gallons of water–but somehow we make it through without flipping.
As we’re flung out of the swirlies and back into the main channel, we can plainly see the enormous redistribution of sand that’s quietly taking place all around us, can sense the floor plan of the canyon rearranging itself. Indeed, a week after the flood recedes, officials will estimate that beaches and sandbars have been restored by as much as 30 percent. In some places, 12
Yet as we point our boats into the Inner Gorge, feeling the black walls closing in, the script is perfectly unreadable. We’re wet, shivering, and inexplicably euphoric, lurching toward the soul of the Grand Canyon, toward Granite and Crystal and Lava. At this point it makes no difference who or what unleashed this great brown roil we’re riding, or for what reason. It’s an
Hampton Sides is a senior editor of Outside.