The Tale of Two Rivers: The Wilderness and Waterless
From two sources to the sea down the Green and Colorado Rivers
To understand a used and abused watershed, two friends resolved to paddle the Colorado River from its headwaters down. Twice. Back-to-back in historic high- and low-water years. Knowing where the river starts and where it ends would help.
Will and I climb out of a concrete irrigation canal somewhere in northern Mexico. A rusting pickup truck pulls up, a few bikes stop, an old man setting a fishing line in the canal wanders toward us. The gathering crowd watches mutely as we struggle to pull our overloaded packrafts out of the trash-laden water and onto the dusty, canal-side road. We are bearded and dirty, looking ridiculous in our life jackets and knee-high rubber boots in the warm January sun. We grin sheepishly. Then the questions begin. I attempt to explain how we arrived in my broken Spanish. “Many months,” I say, “on the Rio Colorado. In boat. Three-thousand kilometers. All on the river.”
The fisherman smiles sadly at the confused gringo. “El Rio Colorado?” He shakes his head and chuckles. “No hay agua en el Rio Colorado.” There’s no water in the Colorado.
We were a little unsure of what happened to the river ourselves, even after paddling it for 1,700 miles. The largest and longest river in the Southwest, the Colorado drains parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican ones. For roughly six million years it filtered its way to the Gulf of California through a vast network of wetlands, estuaries, and overgrown channels. Early Spanish explorers found crossing the complicated wetland jungle more foreboding than traversing the hundreds of miles of empty desert that surround it in every other direction. Today, the delta remains the river’s most intimidating section to explore, though for an entirely different reason: Its last drops dry up at the U.S.-Mexico border, diverted across the former delta through a system of canals.
To arrive there, Will and I had paddled down the Green River from its Wyoming alpine source to its desert confluence with the Colorado in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. We crossed Lake Powell, floated the Grand Canyon, and portaged and paddled our way down the series of reservoirs between Las Vegas and Mexico.
[Click here to see a three-minute TIMELAPSE of the entire source-to-sea paddle.]
When we finally reached the long-awaited saltwater of the Gulf, we wore suits of mud, the sludge caked to our rain gear and uncut hair, cracking on every bit of exposed skin. It was Day 113, the last nine of which we’d spent tracing a dried-up river. The final leg across the Mexican farmlands and desert was a mix of sewage-laden canal water, swamps of agricultural runoff, horrendous bushwhacks through tamarisk jungles, not to mention a narrowly avoided robbery. And then the mud. I was done, ready to retire from expeditions.
But upon return to the land of hamburgers and Internet, I started thinking that our source-to-sea journey wasn’t entirely successful. We’d found the sea, but lost the river in the process. Where had the river gone? That question burned.
And before I knew it, we were hiking to another source. This time we were starting from the Colorado’s birthplace high in Rocky Mountain National Park; our destination, Lake Powell, 600 miles downstream. And so five months after sludging to the sea, we began following the tiny headwaters down this vast drainage. Again.
This trip was different. And so was I. After paddling the Green’s isolated desert canyons in the dead of winter following one of the biggest water years on record, we were back the following summer on the heavily diverted, managed and used upper Colorado in the midst of a severe drought. Having moved beyond the moments of pure solitude under towering canyon walls that can only be understood from the river, my mind was now keyed into the rapidly escalating problems facing the basin. By traveling the full length of the river’s two longest arms, we started to absorb what the river system once was, and what it may become.
Wind River Mountains: October 2011
The trip begins with a Grand Canyon permit I’d won for late November 2011. I invite Will, my college housemate and a fellow boater, who immediately starts making more ambitious plans. His thought: The winter launch allows a rare opportunity to line up all the upstream permits and do a river trip long enough to make 25 days in the Grand look like a weekend float. So after months of convincing and planning, we are trudging up icy scree slopes on our three-day snowshoe trek to the Green’s alpine source, buried under two feet of snow. Starting deep in the Wind River Range, we don’t see a sign of another person for days. We can’t imagine a more fitting place to begin our journey to impossibly far-off tacos and saltwater.
Rocky Mountain National Park: June 2012
The sun bakes us as we climb to 10,000 feet. Two more college friends, David and Carson, join Will and me this time around. We’re only adding to the crowds. Each time we pause for a drink along the 14-mile hike to La Poudre Pass where the Colorado River officially begins, we play leapfrog with other groups of hikers clad in full REI, hiking-pole and hydration-wear regalia. Across the valley, swaths of dead brown trees sweep up the hillsides, marking the recent work of the pine beetle, whose population boom was made possible by a series of uncharacteristically warm winters. Only a few dirty patches of snow dot the peaks, a reminder of the area’s snowpack for June is at a mere two percent of average, dropping from 200 percent a year prior.
Our goal is simple: Find the source, turn around, follow the river to Lake Powell. But when we reach the pass, we find a dirt road paralleling a canal filled with clear water. Dug into the slopes of the Never Summer Mountains, the Grand Ditch is designed to capture the snowmelt from what was once the uppermost headwaters of the Colorado and carry it across the Continental Divide to the farms and cities north of Denver. The Colorado River is diverted as soon as it begins to flow.
[CLICK HERE to see a five-minute episode from the expedition covering diversions along the Colorado’s headwaters.]
Southwestern Wyoming: October 2011
The CRASH in the river jolts me awake as I shoot upright, poking my head through the tightly drawn hood of my sleeping bag to the sight of an enormous bull moose emerging in the starlight. It’s crossing the upper Green River and heading for the easiest line out—directly through our low-lying camp on the banks. Twenty feet and closing fast, I react with instinct, screaming mad nonsense. The moose veers upstream, jumping the bank and thundering off into the brush. Another night on the river.
The next day, we startle more moose as our tiny packrafts quietly round a river bend. Bald eagles fish from the branches of cottonwoods, elk bugle in the distance. Then the wind picks up, proving the packrafts much more responsive to gusts than to the 200-cfs current below us. Desperate to make miles, we paddle until the sun sets and our drysuits begin to freeze, finally pulling onto a gravel bar as the first stars begin to show.
Dinnertime. Will slices thick hunks of summer sausage into a boiling pot of butter and lentils. His cooking inevitably maximizes calories and disregards consistency, nutrition, or taste. “We’ve only been out a week and we’ve eaten enough nitrates to kill a small horse,” I groan, stoking the fire.
Will grins, slicing off another half-pound of the pink cylinder plus a block of Velveeta and the remainder of our spice kit. Slurping the hot ooze, feeling comes back to my toes for the first time in hours.
Grand County, Colorado: June 2012
We’re nearly two weeks in and have yet to inflate the packrafts. Whenever the Colorado begins to accumulate a bit of water, it hits a diversion or reservoir and disappears into the elusive “East Fork of the Colorado,” the underground system which tunnels through the Rockies to the Denver metro area—part of Colorado’s 20-plus large-scale diversions that siphon out roughly half of the upper Colorado basin’s water. We walk for five days along the headwaters’ creeks, paddle across Shadow Mountain Reservoir and then “Lake” Granby, only to find a nearly dry riverbed on the other side of the dam. We then hike for 15 more miles along U.S. Highway 40, waiting for packraftable flows in what should have been the year’s peak runoff.
To track the river’s unnatural journey beyond its banks to human uses we worked with the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project, scheduling interviews along the way with water experts of all kinds: farmers, ranchers, politicians, environmental nonprofits. Rob Firth of Trout Unlimited tells us we’ve reached what’s locally called the “hole in the river.” In a drought year like 2012, less than 40 percent of natural flows make it downriver; the rest is diverted. And that number could soon decrease to 20 percent as Denver continues to grow. Local river advocate Ken Neubecker drives home the point, telling us how most only see the upper Colorado as a beautiful winding river. “What they don’t see,” he says, “is an ecosystem on the verge of collapse.”
Fontenelle Reservoir, Wyoming: October 2011
Will and I had never portaged a big dam until we reach the end of Fontenelle reservoir, about 200 miles in on the Green. We don’t know what to think about access or security as we paddle across its choppy desert waters devoid of shoreline vegetation. Surely somebody is watching.
After finally gaining enough flow, we’d switched our packrafts for 14-foot sea kayaks. And as we pull the loaded boats up the back of the earthen dam, we give a stealthy quick scout. Nobody. The far side slopes steeply down to the river, so we prep throw-ropes to lower the kayaks. Suddenly a pickup truck at the nearby power plant starts up and heads our way. We brace ourselves for a scolding, worrying about the alternate two-mile road portage. The pickup blows past us at full speed, country music blaring from its open windows—all the approval we need.
Flaming Gorge, the next, much bigger dam, is even easier. Two sheriffs meet us at the boat ramp, and invite us to load our kayaks into the back of their SUV. The boats hang six feet over the tailgate; we ride in back, holding onto the bows of our boats as we bounce over potholes toward the next leg of our trip.
Cameo Dam, Colorado: July 2012
A man appears on the porch of the dam keeper’s house, speaking into a radio. “The Mesa County sheriff has been notified of your arrival,” he says, watching with the indifference of a grocery cashier as we pull the last of four sea kayaks onto the shore. “It will take the sheriff 30 minutes to get here, but soon enough, you’ll be receiving a trespassing ticket.”
“Can we just portage the dam and get back in the river?” I counter. The dam keeper radios his boss. No luck.
“OK, how much is the ticket?” Will asks.
“Probably not more than a thousand dollars each.” Back to the drawing board.
This small dam has been responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of area farmers since its construction a century ago, holding claim to one of the oldest water rights around. It is a powerful legal counterweight to the trans-basin diversions upstream. Eventually, everyone realizes it’s far too important to waste time on scruffy kayakers, and we agree to cross the river and portage along Interstate 70. The dam keeper agrees to call off the sheriff. We fight our way through a thick patch of poison ivy, reach the highway, and see the much smaller river below. One hour and two diversions later, we’re standing in the few inches of warm water that’s left in the Colorado.
At Desolation Canyon on the Green, Will and I opt for a solo float. For four days and over 90 miles of river, we don’t see any other people including each other. Instead, I see wild horses, mountain lion tracks through the middle of my camp, and the full moon rising over the mile-deep canyon walls. For weeks, the river remains completely deserted. The first other boater we see since Wyoming in mid-October: Thanksgiving Day in the middle of Lake Powell when a powerboat shoots past us, serenading the canyons with Kid Rock. That night, we eat turkey jerky and instant mashed potatoes to celebrate. We’ve just reached the halfway point between the source and the sea.
We’ve made it through the whitewater crux of the trip in Gore Canyon, and made it under the pipelines and through the gauntlet of riverside well pads, drilling rigs and pumping stations that support western Colorado’s booming shale-gas infrastructure. And then we hit the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado on a weekend. Being flat and unpermitted, we share the popular 25-mile canyon stretch with barges of Walmart rafts, families riding in shiny new canoes, and bachelorette parties demanding we dance. We float with the parade in varying densities until we meet the Green River and arrive at a far more crowded Lake Powell than we’d seen the winter before.
Jack’s Plastic Welding lent us a prototype of a solar-powered raft that we take across 160 miles of reservoir. So we feel better about the fossil fuels required: zero. Max speed in full sun, though: three miles per hour. Max speed with cloud cover or wind: zero to a marginal one-half mph.
As the metal frame of the solar array creaks back and forth violently in the never-ending wakes of passing houseboats, I think of the lost potential of Glen Canyon submerged beneath us. I think of the people who rely on the Colorado River—30 million of them and counting. I think of the forecasts of drought. I recall the river downstream from here: the reservoirs, the diversions, the casinos, the lettuce fields, the point where the last dam carries off the last bit of water. The end of this river.
But I also remember instances of resilience: the fish surviving in the concrete canals, the pockets of living delta, and a 30-mile-long tidal channel at the head of the Gulf of California. We floated that channel at night six months earlier. The crescent moon lit our way as the murmuring waters lulled us along. Exhausted from days of struggling across mudflats, I was drifting to sleep when a fin emerged a few feet from my packraft. Before I could react, the gleaming eye of a dolphin broke the surface and stared at me. Its mouth opened and clicked before it disappeared. Suddenly, a small pod of dolphins appeared, popping up in steady rhythm while swimming upstream to the former mouth of the Colorado. We watched the dark forms rise and fall until the whole pod had passed. The tide carried us away from the moonlit mountains on the horizon and the remnants of the delta above. The smell of saltwater hung thick on the air.
“Dude,” Will said, “I think we found the sea.”
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