#1: The Grand Canyon, Arizona
An American Sacred Site
Above photo: Zak Podmore paddling a flash flooding Little Colorado River near Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris.
By Zak Podmore
This is a place where distance twists. I awoke this morning only one mile from the nearest road, legs cramping as I rolled off my packraft-turned-sleeping-cot and watched the sunlight slide its way down the canyon walls. One mile, but a tortuous, inverted mile of ledges, boulders, cliffs and the red-stained layers of millenia. One mile as the raven flies, but a mile so riddled with up-currents, downdrafts and vertical gain that it seems it would be a daunting ascent even for the winged.
This is a place defined by depth, not distance. This is the Grand Canyon.
I'm taking an unusual route into the national park. Over two trips, I've floated nearly 60 miles down a flash-flooding Little Colorado River and now I'm just a few turns away from the big Colorado, which was dubbed the official start to the Grand Canyon by Major John Wesley Powell in 1869 and today marks the border between the Navajo Nation and Grand Canyon National Park. Yesterday, I paddled past a bubbling travertine-rich spring which, according to Hopi tradition, was the place where humanity emerged into this world. For much of the year, the lower Little Colorado flows bright blue from these springs, but even though rain has turned it a thick, soupy brown for now this sheer-walled sanctuary still seems a fitting setting for the birthplace of a people. Downstream lies the confluence where the Colorado's often muted waters meet the glowing Little Colorado; it's one of the signature sights for river runners in the Grand and has long been held as a significant sacred site in Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo cultures.
It's also a place under threat. Developers from Scottsdale, Arizona, and boosters in the Navajo tribe are hoping to run a giant tram called the Grand Canyon Escalade to the confluence. It would take up to 10,000 people per day from rim to canyon floor in a short, comfortable gondola ride, once again rendering a mile an insignificant distance. Visitors would be able to eat a corndog within spitting distance of a place that today is most easily reached on a raft trip over 200 miles long or a multi-day backpack trip.
And the confluence? Don't worry, say the developers on their website, the concrete walkway will end a full 150 yards from the Little Colorado's blue waters. What's more, the landing area for the tram would have "elevated walkway with railings, so people couldn't just wander off and go explore, they [would be] stuck on the walkway and couldn't go near the Confluence." Visitors will go where they're supposed to but know farther, unlike today where nonnative rafters, myself included, wander freely, desecrating the sacred ground. The tram will keep people out, supporters say, while in the same breath emphasizing that the project would open the floor of the Grand to everybody for a modest price. All will be able to see the canyon bottom no matter, in the ever-provocative words of Edward Abbey, how "fat, feeble or flaccid."
Mid-morning, I round the bend and finally see the mighty Colorado rolling past. I'm feeling a little feeble myself. It was a bitch to get here. The 3,000-foot descent down a loose scree trail from canyon rim to floor carrying camping and paddling equipment and enough drinking water for several days (the Little Colorado's waters are too salty and silt-laden for consumption) left my legs in a near-unusable state–and I still have to get back out. There's a reason why I have the canyon to myself: this is not a weekend jaunt that many will attempt twice in a lifetime. The canyon is protected from overuse by its rugged terrain, a strict river permit system, and a large body of law. Undo any one of those and you'll quickly threaten the Grand's wilderness character.
"The Grand Canyon is the most protected land in the world," David Uberuaga, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, told the New York Times last year, "…and I still spend most of my time protecting the place, day in and day out. Everybody wants to make a buck off the canyon."
The Escalade is not the only threat Uberuaga was referring to. A large housing development in the town of Tusayan would tap aquifers that could cause some of the Grand's famous springs, such as Elves' Chasm, to dry up. Add in a renewed push to mine uranium on the fringes of the canyon and it's easy to see why advocacy group American Rivers declared the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon the country's most threatened river in 2015.
I spend all day alone at the confluence watching canyon shadows make their slow dance opposite the moving sun. The only sounds are the gurgling of the river, the occasional caw of a raven. I'm a just over a mile from a road but I might as well be 100, the river calling out with its slow pulse, begging to be followed.
The Grand Canyon is the most sought-after river trip in America and with good reason. Where else can you paddle for 277 miles without seeing a paved road or highway bridge? Where else can you spend close to a month (on a winter river permit) living out of your boat in the wild heart of what is perhaps the country's most iconic national park?
As dangerous as it is to say from within our idol-smashing postmodern culture, the Grand Canyon is an American sacred site. The 5 million people who look over its rim each year have the chance to encounter not just its magnificent panoramic beauty, but a place that resists the ubiquitous, simple ease of combustion engine transportation. The canyon remains grand today not in spite of its inaccessibility but because of it. A tram wouldn't bring people to the canyon so much as it would force the Canyon–the real canyon, the sacred canyon–to retreat.
Look into the Grand Canyon or float its waters and you'll be asked to slow down for a few minutes or a few weeks. That itself is worth preserving.
This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other rivers on the list: