By SUSAN MUNROE
Danilo Cruces massages the bellows of his accordion, his fingers dancing across the keys. Blacktail Canyon, a cleft of maroon sandstone in the depths of the Grand Canyon, reverberates with the melody of Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel. Danilo’s companions, teenagers from Chile and the United States, lean against the canyon walls in their sprayskirts and drytops, shouting the lyrics to the sliver of blue sky overhead. This is fundamental exchange: young, international kayakers harmonizing, sharing; students learning from the place and from each other. This is Ríos to Rivers.
We’re at Day Six of a 12-day kayaking trip through the Grand Canyon, from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead, a journey through one of the most spectacular and yet most dam-impacted waterways in the United States. This is the second leg of Ríos to Rivers’ kayaking exchange program. (Click HERE to read about the first, which led the same students down the threatened Río Baker in Chilean Patagonia.) In the Grand Canyon, the students study its history, seeing first-hand the impact of damming the Colorado River, and learning how to speak up for their rivers back home. History suggests that the best way to find the necessary inspiration to protect a place is by falling in love with it through a sport (click HERE to read my argument for this type of exposure in C&K‘s March 2014 issue). The young paddlers have that love. Ríos to Rivers’ helps them find their voices. Here’s how.
Make a connection. Linking the Grand Canyon with Chile’s Baker and Pascua rivers (where a five-dam mega-project threatens to destroy a vast wilderness and a way of life) was a no-brainer. The Grand has been heavily impacted by the Glen Canyon Dam and other dams and diversions upstream, and was itself almost flooded by additional dams in the 1950s, until public outcry persuaded Congress to rescind its approval of two major hydroelectric dams. Today the canyon is protected as a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Chile’s Baker and Pascua rivers, and the remote Patagonian region where they run, have comparable grandeur and value. They deserve to be recognized and protected as such. The Grand Canyon provided our students with both a cautionary tale of a dam’s irreversible damage and an inspirational example of what motivated advocates can achieve.
Engage the next generation of spokespeople. Ivan Zanzana emerged gasping from the icy Colorado River, dragging his kayak onto shore behind him. “I hate swimming! That V-wave wouldn’t let me go. I ran out of breath.” He grinned. “I gotta go do that again.” Hoisting his boat, he started hiking back upstream, stepping nimbly between rocks, determined to have another go at Lava Falls, the most challenging rapid in the Grand Canyon. Ivan and the nine other Chileans who traveled to the U. S. are the first generation of kayakers to emerge from Cochrane, Chile, a rural community on the shores of the Río Baker. They are members of the groundbreaking Escualos (River Sharks) kayaking club, and their town will be the most impacted if the proposed dams, workers’ camps, and transmission lines are constructed. Determined, passionate, and charismatic, the Escualos have a profound connection to the Baker and Pascua rivers, and a strong sense of local identity. They aren’t just kayakers. They are Patagonian kayakers.
Make it more than a kayaking trip. Amory Lovins, world-renowned energy efficiency expert, showed students around his home and living laboratory in Aspen, Colo., the week before the Grand trip as part of a series of presentations and workshops on solar energy and river ecology. “Chile has the richest renewable-opportunity portfolio of any country on Earth to my knowledge,” Lovins explained, “but efficiency is also key. We must invest in material and technology that will minimize the amount of energy we used instead of finding ways to generate more.” Students toured Solar Energy International and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. Chilean senator Antonio Horvath flew to the U. S. to participate in the Ríos to Rivers program and talk about the political side of the energy debate. Larry Stevens, the lead ecologist for the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, spoke to the students, summarizing a lifetime of research and conservation: “You have to live your fight,” he encouraged them.
Make it personal. On the last night of the river trip, our group sat in a circle on a crumbling silt beach in Lake Mead. A sluggish current, silt deposits, and invasive weeds made it obvious that we were no longer in a river ecosystem. Students shared reflections on the trip, lessons learned, and messages they would like to share with their communities back home. Danilo, the accordion player, spoke about exploring test tunnels in the upper canyon, actually climbing through the rough-hewn rock where Marble Canyon Dam’s turbines would have spun, had the dams not been stopped. “I was so claustrophobic I almost puked,” Danilo said. “It was powerful, awful, to imagine this happening in Patagonia. But I learned that if someone wants to see a change, they must begin with themselves. Set an example for others to follow. And if you live with complete conviction, how can that not be contagious?”
Make the impact global. From the students’ elation while running the rapids, to visiting the awful specter of Glen Canyon Dam, to group discussions about history and ecology, each moment of the journey was captured on film and explored in one-on-one interviews. Hundreds of hours of footage from the Grand Canyon, and from the first exchange trip to Patagonia and the Río Baker, are being sculpted into a forthcoming documentary that will carry the knowledge and understanding gained by our participants to the widest audience possible. By exploring our students’ experiences, the film will promote the intrinsic value of wild places like Grand Canyon and the Río Baker, and demonstrate their capacity to facilitate personal growth.
It is essential that the lessons learned from Glen and Grand canyons are passed on, so that our mistakes are not repeated. Ríos to Rivers is working to spread that understanding through our global conservation community, on the paddles of the next generation. Stay tuned for updates on the film release.
Click HERE to read more about the Rios Grand Canyon trip. Follow Rios to Rivers on FACEBOOK and TWITTER.
Click HERE to watch Rios to Rivers Executive Director Weston Boyle’s short film about the Escualos below:
SEE MORE OF C&K’s RECENT COVERAGE OF THE GRAND CANYON