You Can’t Step Into the Same River Twice

By Dan Reicher

Thirty-seven years after taking part in the first full descent of the
Rio Grande, Dan Reicher joins the second

J

ohn Ledyard, namesake of Dartmouth’s canoe club, was the first in a long succession of great American explorers—and the college’s first dropout. Following a restless year in the wilderness encampment that was the fledgling Dartmouth, he hollowed out a log on the banks of the Connecticut River in 1772 and paddled to Long Island Sound. Sailing to London, he signed on with Captain Cook’s perilous final voyage, searched for the source of the Niger River, and, with help from Thomas Jefferson, began a walk around the world. Catherine the Great had him arrested 15 months into his journey.

Ledyard’s many exploits, some successful and more not, have motivated generations of Dartmouth adventurers who have paddled rivers and oceans all over the world—the Sea of Japan, the Danube, the Yangtze, the Tsangpo. In 1977, as I hit the age of majority, I was part of a Ledyard Canoe Club expedition that was the first to navigate the entire 1,888-mile length of the Rio Grande.

At Stony Pass – source of the Rio Grande – April 1977. From left: Pete Lewitt, Rob Portman, Dan Reicher, Tony Anella.

Tony Anella, who grew up on the river’s banks in Albuquerque, organized the trip with three other Dartmouth classmates: photographer Pete Lewitt, Rob Portman, now a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and me. Our friends Bill Semmes and Mike McMurtry would join us for portions of the trip. National Geographic sponsored the expedition, helping to fund the six-month journey and supplying us with mountains of camera equipment and 300 rolls of film. In April 1977, we hiked to the Rio Grande’s source in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, following the winding stream on foot until it was finally wide enough to slip our whitewater kayaks into the icy flow.

Last year, journalist Colin McDonald retraced our steps and our strokes, marking only the second time the river has been run from source to sea. As Colin organized the “Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition” and later as he worked his way downriver, I lent him a hand. That gave me the chance to take a second look at this unusual river—from the seat of a kayak as I joined Colin in the river’s deepest canyon and at its mouth near Brownsville Texas, and at my desk reading his regular blog posts. The experience gave me a bone-deep appreciation of Heraclitus’ famous aphorism: “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” So very true.

Crossing Falcon Reservoir on the Texas-Mexico Border.

The Rio Grande has two special characteristics: It is a desert river and a border river.   Even in a rainy year with heavy snow pack, little if any water makes it from Colorado or New Mexico to the ocean. In fact, thanks to 19th century laws and 20th century dams, the Rio Grande is really two rivers. The first dries up in southern New Mexico behind the  Elephant Butte Dam. The second, revived hundreds of miles downstream by the Rio Conchos flowing north from Mexico, completes the river’s journey to the sea—barely.

These two characteristics defined our 1977 journey. Early on, the river petered out near Albuquerque and we were forced to paddle on irrigation ditches, then drag our boats across mud flats further south. When the river completely dried up, we hiked and biked to the confluence with the Conchos.  

Reicher, Bill Semmes and Mike McMurtry pose with remains of a previous trip.

On the Texas-Mexico border, we saw drug smugglers cross the Rio Grande, burlap sacks slung over their backs. We were shot at. And at a muddy river crossing below Big Bend, we found a bloated man floating face down in the river with a noose around his neck. Not your average wilderness adventure, but we made it to the Gulf of Mexico, playing like porpoises in our battered kayaks as a plane with a photographer circled above and reporters waited on the beach.

Thirty-seven years later I was sitting at my desk in California when I received an e-mail from Colin. A Hearst newspaper reporter, Colin told me he had heard about our expedition and wanted to repeat it. I had remained an avid kayaker and lover of rivers, and now serve on the board of the river conservation group American Rivers. My day job had taken me from Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration, to a venture-backed wind company and clean energy investment fund, and to Google where I helped launch the company’s energy business. I had recently joined the faculty at Stanford, where I set up a center at the business and law schools focused on energy policy and finance. 

Anella paddles the Taos Gorge.

Colin’s note came at an interesting time when, as Robert Frost (Dartmouth’s other famous drop-out) once said, my “vocation and my avocation” were beginning to “unite…as my two eyes make one in sight”. Living in the midst of California’s historic drought, I had begun to focus on a fundamental fact: water is key to energy, and energy to water. From the huge generators at the base of hydroelectric dams to the giant steam turbines at coal-fired power plants to the serious quantities of water used in fracking, water is integral to the production of energy. Likewise, energy is essential to providing the life-giving services of water – from pumping and cleaning our drinking water to treating and disposing of our waste. And there is an even more fundamental connection, as power plant emissions warm our planet, which in turn alters the hydrologic cycle. We are confronting the results, with ever more severe hurricanes, floods, and droughts.

Wave-trains in Big Bend.  

Colin’s journey captured this dimension and I was intrigued. He visited me in California and we dug through expedition journals, fundraising letters, and water testing data from the ’77 expedition. I introduced him to Fred St Goar, as we sipped coffee one day under palm trees on the Stanford campus. Fred, a Dartmouth classmate, is a Harvard-trained cardiologist, biotech entrepreneur, and serious kayaker whose paddling experiences include the first descent of the Upper Mekong River. Sizing up Colin’s capabilities and obvious resolve, Fred and I immediately decided we would help him raise money, get some press, and introduce him to folks along the way. In exchange, we’d join him in October in the canyons of Big Bend, the Rio Grande’s crown jewels.

Colin and photojournalist Erich Schlegel pushed off in June 2014. A far cry from our water-stained journals and delicate rolls of film packed carefully in waterproof ammo boxes, Colin blogged daily from the river using a satellite uplink powered with a solar panel that he stuffed in the stern of his kayak.  Meanwhile, Eric shot hundreds of photos, uploaded directly from the riverbank to the web. The duo made their way south, stopping to interview and photograph water-starved ranchers and farmers, talking to biologists, engineers and lawyers wrestling with the river’s problems, and spending an afternoon in Santa Fe with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who had recently stepped down as Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and joined us at our Stanford center to lead a project on state clean energy policy.

The flood gates of Retamal Dam near Brownsville, Texas.

In October, a group of us assembled in the dusty ghost town of Terlingua Texas to join Colin. I carried my ’77 expedition journal in a Ziploc bag and my tattered green Ledyard Canoe Club jacket folded in a waterproof duffel. Our group of 14 was diverse and colorful—from Nat Cobb, a former Outward Bound instructor and Indian Public Health Service doctor who had recently completed a 2,750-mile bike race along the Continental Divide to Bob Irvin, a former Justice Department litigator and president of American Rivers, to a local outfitter named Mike Long who had paddled the river hundreds of times, his long grey pony tail and wild beard wrapping a sun-wrinkled face.   

And we had a virtual guest, who joined us one evening when our emergency satellite phone rang. On the line was my ‘77 expedition mate, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). Rob and I had made our way to China in 1984 with a collapsible kayak and ran the Great Gorges of the Yangtze, before the world’s largest hydropower dam flooded them.  And in 1989 he was the best man at my wedding in the mountains near Aspen. Rob was running fast on the campaign trail raising money for top candidates just days before the election, but took time to trade stories with Fred, patiently answered Colin’s questions, and talked paddling with Nick Gottlieb, perhaps Dartmouth’s best recent whitewater kayaker.

Mexican Cowboys in the Lower Canyons of Big Bend.

We spent five days in Big Bend cruising through 1,800-foot deep Mariscal Canyon, crossing cactus-filled landscapes with 30-mile views, and encountering just four people along the way: a pair of Mexican cowboys rounding up a stray, and two U.S. government scientists collecting data on sediment flows into the river. Evenings we simply tossed sleeping bags on the ground and fell asleep under a star-studded sky. 

After 60 miles we pulled ashore, threw our boats and gear on a beat-up trailer, and waved Colin goodbye. He had another 800 miles ahead of him. We followed his blog posts as he wound his way south through more canyon country, around dams near Del Rio and Eagle Pass, and past farms in south Texas where Mexican laborers harvested the winter grapefruit crop. While water quantity – and quality – remain a central challenge to life along lower Rio Grande, immigration is the new dynamic. Hundreds of thousands of people—including a surge of children from Central America—have slipped across the border in recent years, undeterred by a multi-billion-dollar wall of steel and cement and thousands of border patrol agents.

The limestone canyons of Big Bend rise 1,500 feet above the river.

In January, Colin invited me to join him as he made his final stokes to the sea. I met him and a group of his friends and family by the river’s banks the evening before. A cold wind greeted us as we crawled out of our tents the next morning, and dense clouds loomed overhead. In canoes and kayaks we paddled the twisting river, on some stretches pulling hard into a 40-mile-per-hour head wind and others coasting blissfully with gusts at our backs.

The final turn in the river brought back a flood of memories. Big waves rolled in from the Gulf of Mexico, as the sun broke through the low-hanging clouds and pelicans glided overhead. The river has changed a lot in thirty-seven years—plagued by ever more serious demands on its shrinking water supplies and rising immigration challenges that have sparked a nasty debate around the southwest and in the halls of Congress. But in many ways the Rio Grande is the same crazy-quilt place it was before: palm trees and prickly pear cactus, U.S. border patrol agents and Mexican cowboys, searing droughts and roaring floods.

The mud flats above Elephant Butte Reservoir.
Hot Springs Bath in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.

Changed or not, the Rio Grande is in desperate need of help. I’d like to think that with almost four decades in the energy and environmental policy world I’d have some ready answers to the river’s serious challenges. Sadly, I don’t. But in conversations with Colin I concluded that solutions will come from two very different directions—bottom up, and top down. Colin emerged from his journey excited about the creativity of communities along the length of the river—U.S. and Mexican alike­—as they restore river banks, remove old dams, install fish ladders, eradicate invasive cane, and plant trees.

Testing the Waters.
From left: Portman, McMurtry, Reicher.

And my long journey since the Rio Grande through the halls of political power leaves me with some optimism that the federal governments on both sides of the river can rise to the Rio Grande’s broader challenges: managing water quantity and quality in smarter ways; responding to the climate imperative with a sense of urgency and resolve; and dealing with immigration problems with more head—and heart.  These are not easy challenges and they require complicated dealings among nations and with state and local governments and private players of all sorts. But I don’t believe my hope is theoretical.

Dan Reicher takes a close up view of a walking stick, during his 2015 return to the Rio Grande.
Photo by Colin McDonald.

A few months after his trip ended, Colin and I went back to Big Bend, this time with my wife Carole and two sons Will and Graham, some close friends from the October trip, and another special guest, U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico. Tom’s father, Stewart, Secretary of the Interior in the 1960’s did much to protect America’s public lands and wild rivers, and establish our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Tom himself, who serves on both the Senate Environment and Foreign Relations Committees, has been a long-time advocate for the Rio Grande and the environment more broadly, including leading the recent charge to update the federal law that controls toxic substances. 

Colin McDonald talks via satellite phone with U.S. Senator Rob Portman, a member of the 1977 expedition, as Dan Reicher looks on.  Photo Courtesy of the Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition 2014.

There is much I could write about seeing the river through the eyes of a U.S. Senator, especially one with this pedigree, but one thing stands out: Tom and a number of his Senate colleagues remain committed to the problem-solving capacity of the Congress and believe that today’s gridlock can and will recede.  For example, working with other members of the New Mexico Congressional delegation, including then-Senator Jeff Bingaman, Tom was able to convince the Obama Administration to designate the 240,000-acre Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. He also has some compelling ideas about the role that the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, with the right person in the job, could play in addressing the Rio Grande’s problems. And Tom and I talked about whether there was a deal to be cut among the federal government, states, and private land owners regarding one of the Rio Grande’s biggest challenges, the Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico.

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (bow) and Fred St. Goar in Boquillas Canyon. Photo by Colin McDonald.

Most happily, Tom and I agreed that it was time to get Senator Portman back to the river, after almost 40 years away. I’m excited to say that both senators – one a Democrat and the other a Republican and each with a deep connection to the Rio Grande – have agreed to a joint return to the river in 2017. Bipartisan paddling in Big Bend. That gives me some new hope for this long neglected river and another Rio Grande adventure to look forward to – 40 years after the first.

Boca Chica Beach, at the mouth of the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas. Clockwise from top left: Semmes, Anella, McMurtry, Reicher, Portman.

— Don’t miss Colin McDonald’s feature from the August 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak — A River Divided: Source to Sea Down the Rio Grande