Running Free

The Age of the Paddler-Conservationist

This story featured in the March 2013 40th Anniversary Issue.

View at the Condit Dam site in 2011. Photo: Andy Maser


And 2012. Photo: Andy Maser

Drums beat the earth as I lie down by the river. The wind carries off the CLICK-PUFF, CLICK-PUFF from the diesel engines, but the deep bass THUMP of the pumpjacks still quakes through miles of loose rock and sand. The pumpjacks roll, the compressor stations pump, and the oil and gas flows. I push farther down the Green into the safety of Desolation Canyon, into a quieter landscape. Even in this wonder of the world the protection is patchy at best, and I try to remember that when I return to email and Internet, to petitions, and to phone calls to neighbors and senators. Water made me a paddler, and paddling made me a conservationist.

Canoe first hit newsstands in 1973 amidst a nascent environmental movement: The Clean Water Act had just come into effect, and Earth Day and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers program were only a few years old. That first issue’s ‘Conservation’ section detailed the efforts of paddlers and politicians to save the Chattanooga River, and asked readers a simple question: “Interested in joining a nationwide fight to save running water?”

For four decades, these pages have told the stories of paddler-conservationists, and described what makes us tick. For one, paddlers are selfish. We like to move through clean open water, and we want it free from dams and radioactive waste, from PCBs and trash and acid rain and pipelines. We want migrating salmon beneath our hulls and caribou on gilded hillsides. We live in an ever more connected, more crowded, more energy-dependent world, yet we still want to be able to drink the water we paddle. There’s a flip side, though, to having more people using and depending on the waterways: more advocates.

Last year was the first in American history that more dams were removed than installed. Historic victories on the Penobscot River in Maine brought down the Great Works Dam and will soon topple the Veazie Dam, opening the way for Atlantic salmon to return. On the opposite coast, the Elwha and the White Salmon Rivers now flow almost unimpeded to the sea, and Pacific salmon have already been seen above the old Elwha dam site. How we tell these stories has changed as we watch high-definition dam-busting in real-time, but the heart is the same: Small groups of passionate people fighting hard battles for posterity. Sometimes they win.

In 40 years, paddlers challenged dam projects around the world, and won. Hydro-Quebec’s James Bay Project of the early 1990s would have flooded an area the size of France and been the largest hydro project in North America. It was stunted in part by paddlers and guides from Earth River Expeditions running last-ditch publicity expeditions on the threatened rivers, and by Cree First Nations people paddling from their northern Quebec homes to New York Harbor to raise awareness. Today, local paddlers and First Nations in British Columbia protest pipelines with paddles in their hands.

There have also been defeats. Brower saved Echo Park, but Glen Canyon drowned. The famed whitewater of the Bío Bío disappeared. The China Rivers Project and Last Descents continue to explore the rivers of the third largest country on Earth, even as China continues to dam them at an unprecedented pace. The Zambezi and the Nile were dammed, and the Danube was fouled by war. Longtime contributor Alan Kesselheim wrote last year about the 2011 pipeline spill on the Yellowstone, our longest undammed river in the Lower 48.

As paddler-conservationists, our Hall of Heroes contains a motley mix of river guides, fishermen, lawyers, ranchers, and everyday paddlers, from the likes of B.C. pipeline crusader-sea kayaker Ryan Vandecasteyen back to Grand Canyon legend Martin Litton. These folks have banded together based on the simple understanding that water is life, and that recreation matters. This is not a new idea. Paddler-activists have been contributing key voices since John Wesley Powell informed an 1893 International Irrigational Congress that they would be fools open the West to intensive irrigation and agriculture-based development, “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights.” Of the fight to save the Futaleufu, Eric Hertz of Earth River says, “It all starts with bringing people down the river.” Don’t proselytize. Let the river speak. That’s how you get “their hearts in it to save the river.”

Forty years of victory, defeat, and progress. The case for conservation has never been stronger, as paddlers continue reaching Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s 1990 conclusion that “one cannot judge the value of an untamed river solely by cash and kilowatts. We must consider it in spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic currencies as well.” And the tools we use to fight have only multiplied.

Meanwhile, our hunger for energy is writ upon the land. Driving to the put-in for the Deso run, I traverse a moonscape of drills, wells, pumpjacks and compressor stations, and a haphazard spider-web of pipes; downriver, weary canyon walls that have withstood all attacks bear the scars of old dam survey cuts. Later, on the drive home, we pass the spot for the proposed Blue Castle nuclear plant.

In a scary future, I drink from tributary streams tainted with the water-soluble byproduct of huge open-pit shale oil mines, Alberta-style.

The basin country of western Wyoming and Colorado, and much of eastern Utah is one of the major ecological battlegrounds of the United States today. It is home to thousands and upstream of millions, right in the crosshairs of oil and gas companies focused on short-term gain. It’s at this crossroads of energy and development, conservation and water rights, here in this canyon athwart the basin and the range, where I realize that as paddlers we still have a voice, and we still have a role to play.

— Zand B. Martin is a river instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. He paddled across North America in 2010, and Europe in 2011.

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