A Case for Giving the River a Year Off

I wrote this piece in May, while Grand Canyon National Park was still closed, and when stay-at-home orders were in effect across much of our country. These were my thoughts then, at that time – and so much has changed since. The outfitters I guide for in Grand Canyon ran their first COVID-era trip in mid-June. I spoke with my lovely and conscientious manager just after he got off the river, and he explained that for the foreseeable future our trips will not be stopping in Navajo communities en route to the put-in. Our clients will not revel in the travertine paradise of Havasu Creek, that azure artery of Havasupai territory. And when the trips end at Diamond Creek, our busses will not stop on the Hualapai reservation on the way back to Route 66. While the business of running river trips will never be without impact, I am heartened by these efforts to protect the health of tribal communities near and in Grand Canyon. Moreover, there are a lot of smart, dedicated, passionate people working hard in various capacities – as biologists, ecologists, health specialists, conservationists, economists, and social scientists – to assess the true impact of human travel through Grand Canyon; to care for and support the guiding community; and to learn more about the intricacies of the Canyon’s wholly unique desert ecosystems. With this commentary, in no way do I intend to discount the work and research of these experts. This is simply a collage of my thoughts – some of them sprung up alongside COVID, others always there, like vines, tangled up with that which I think I know to be true.

I have built a small organization around the act of sharing rivers with people. I don’t know if my company will survive this season.

In my business I collaborate with our local university to build accredited courses that teach various forms of storytelling, creative writing, journalism, and, most recently, water law. Our courses take place on rivers across the West; the river corridors become our classrooms. Most of our river-based courses for 2020 have been postponed or cancelled or rescheduled due to COVID-19. I cannot yet imagine what it will take to feel confident in guiding people from across the country into the wilderness, first in busses, through communities that are not ours, and then in boats, to camp and eat and sleep alongside one another. So, we are waiting, at least until a clean and conservative line emerges from the melee. It’s scary, of course, watching the sprouting limbs of my little organization wither in the economic stagnancy of now.

People are, understandably, anxious to get back to work and onto the river. But, personally, despite the financial discomfort and ambiguity, I can’t help but wish for a little more time.

I am not an outfitter, though I work closely with a few of them. We partner with nonprofits whose priorities align with ours, like American Whitewater (who advocates for river access and protection) and American Rivers (who fights to keep rivers clean and flowing freely). We curate creative and educational experiences in important places, on rivers, in wilderness, so as to bring people closer to the spaces deserving of protection and reverence. This is not a novel concept, the idea that outdoor education allows us to discover more about ourselves and our work, and about place. We build deeper connections to landscapes, to ideas, and to one another when we learn together, outside, when we navigate challenges and celebrate successes as a cohesive clan, bonded by sun and sand.

There are a lot of businesses, like the river outfitters we partner with and for whom I still guide occasionally, whose primary service is helping people get outside, safely. The outfitters certainly face a tenuous future. But now, as we wait and observe and analyze in this forced pause, that concept of safety is evolving. Guide services, educational institutions, and regulatory agencies are tasked with creating innovative COVID-19 protocols. There are myriad questions about how to incorporate testing, masks, distancing, and management of symptoms into the river experience. There are a lot of good ideas tossed around in Zoom meetings.

People are, understandably, anxious to get back to work and onto the river. But, personally, despite the financial discomfort and ambiguity, I can’t help but wish for a little more time.

Though most of my professional energy is now directed toward building my business – with a strong side hustle of tutoring high school kids, freelance writing, and teaching the intermittent undergrad field course – I still guide one or two commercial river trips each year on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. When I work in Grand Canyon, it’s secretly the thought of tadpoles that makes me squirm; the tadpoles won’t allow me to feel completely okay with what we do. And I’m thinking about them now.

Havasu Canyon. Photo: Tom Martin

I think about the quiet world of amphibious life in the river corridor, and about the oil slick of sunscreens, lotions, creams, and salves that drips into the ephemeral puddles into which the tadpoles are born, as thousands upon thousands of river travelers hike up and into the fragile side canyons. I think about the tadpoles’ chances at survival as the heavy footsteps of humans leave a filmy, iridescent chemical residue that stretches atop the surface of their puddles and, at least in my mind (which often imagines the worst), leaves those dark and tiny primordial beings without much hope for success at life, at living.

I also think about the Kanab ambersnail, who only lives in a series of ponds near the town of Kanab, Utah, and at Vasey’s Paradise, where water springs from the Redwall and flows through an anomalous explosion of richly colorful flora – ivies, watercress, sedges, rushes, and monkeyflowers – in one of the most iconic bends in Marble Canyon. How much of the ambersnail’s retreat from the endangered species list is dependent upon the will of humans to stay away from its last two biological strongholds?

I wonder, too, about the endemic species of fish – the flannelmouth suckers, razorback suckers, and humpback chub, the latter of which my friend and writer David James Duncan has likened to aquatic unicorns. And certainly they are: their pale pink bodies glistening in the cloudy water, sparkling like ancient, elusive mud nymphs. These fish can thrive only in tepid waters of the original Colorado, before its dams cleared and cooled the river through Grand Canyon, making way for the industry of cold-water sportfishing; before the sucker and chub populations were whittled to abysmal numbers, outcompeted by trout, deprived of nutrient-rich sediment, forced further and further downstream, away from the dam and toward warmer waters.

I think about those fishes, and the juveniles that we see in Shinumo Creek when we take our clients swimming on impossibly hot afternoons: those littlest of fishes making their one attempt at proliferation, at survival, in the most surreal of desert grottos, a place that every river runner enjoys unless they have no particular affection for beauty. We traipse over and on top of those fishes as we trudge toward the upper pool with our clients, and, because fish are generally tough, maybe it’s fine. (But, really, is it fine?) Again, the slick of sunscreen haunts me.

In June and July, when the river traffic is at its peak, there may be 150 visitors to Shinumo Creek every day. What does that mean for those young fish whose elders in the mainstem are stunned, tagged, and counted by government biologists all summer long, every summer? And what does this pause, this unprecedented and momentary absence of river travelers, mean for all those tiny creatures: the tadpoles, the snails, the ancient and disappearing fishes?

I wonder about the beaches, the ones we work so hard to keep clean and free of the littlest of escaped food particles and detritus – but not of our footsteps. What do those beaches look like after the winds have cleared them of the tracks of campers, of the tens of thousands of river runners who splash and hike and eat their way through Grand Canyon each year? I wonder about the most heavily trafficked spots like Deer Creek Falls, Elves Chasm, Redwall Cavern. What life will return to these places during this unexpected break in visitation?

I also think about the food we waste: On an average 15-day commercial Canyon trip we produce at least one military surplus rocket box of food waste each day. At least 30 pounds of waste every 24 hours. And that does not account for the ammo cans full of human waste that we also carry downstream.

I think about the big trucks we drive from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry on the front end, and, at the take-out, the long, nauseating return to asphalt via Diamond Creek “Road”, which is really a sometimes-dry creek bed that traverses desiccated and beautiful Hualapai land.

But then, too, I think about my young friend who is a wild soul, a lover of ravens and frogs and coyotes, a painter who sees desert rivers when she closes her cerulean eyes. She is 22 years old and her mother died just over one year ago, one year before the pandemic. She called me back in January, her voice two octaves above normal, to tell me she’d drawn a permit for a December 2020 Grand Canyon trip. It would have been her first time down the river but not her first time to the Canyon, which was a few years ago when she hiked down the Thunder River trail and she melted into that landscape.

And what does this pause, this unprecedented and momentary absence of river travelers, mean for all those tiny creatures: the tadpoles, the snails, the ancient and disappearing fishes?

She became obsessed, infatuated – in love with Terry Tempest Williams, flash floods, and the romance of rowing boats through the gorges of the Colorado. In spite of her strength in the wake of her mother’s passing I know that four weeks in the Canyon would have catalyzed healing, perspective. Those weeks in the Canyon would have been a balm to the trauma of death.

I think about the clients I take rafting, our conversations, the stories, the way their eyes open to the singular, superlative wonders of the place. I don’t know how many of those clients are changed by Grand Canyon, or if any are even changed at all, or how those transformations look above the rim, or for how long they last. But the thing that keeps me going back to guiding there is the hope, however misplaced, that the experience of being in Grand Canyon, in the absence of phones and Internet and machines, spurs our clients to take some of that wildness with them, and that it translates as humility, thoughtfulness, or peace when they return home. I hope that they are able to feel who they are at their most basic, when they’re dirty, vulnerable, and dependent on the care and attention of their fellow river runners.

Photo: NPS

I think, also, about the people who live near or in or adjacent to the Canyon, some of whom are currently suffering the effects of the pandemic with disproportionate severity. Tribal spokespeople cite myriad factors that may influence or exacerbate Navajo and Hopi susceptibility to the virus: pervasive challenges to health, including disease associated poverty, cancer associated with decades of uranium mining near and on the reservation; lack of electricity, and a lack of modern communication methods; and limited access to clean or running water. Shouldn’t awareness of these conditions alert us to yet another grizzly disparity within our own country? Shouldn’t this spark embarrassment and, subsequently, action toward equalization, reparation, or, at the very least, compassion? Shouldn’t we, as outfitters, guides, and individuals who enjoy the privilege of recreation consider these facts – these people – as we devise our plans for reopening our rivers to tourism?

I think about how it would feel to drive through or past the reservation this summer, en route to Lee’s Ferry, to work, to facilitate vacations for people from around the country, knowing the degree to which some people – especially poor people – are suffering now. What will it mean to invite tourists from around the country to Arizona to go rafting on the heels of a pandemic? What will it mean for the city Flagstaff, or for the rural communities on its periphery? What will it mean, for that matter, for any and every disenfranchised or devalued or impoverished community in this country? Patronizing a small town gas station on our way to the put-in is not an economic incentive enough to offset the effect of spreading sickness to the attendant’s family. While I cannot speak for any one person but myself, I am concerned that the choices that I – that we – make now may significantly impact the health of others. Until we have the testing, PPE, and medical equipment to control and manage many more sick people, should we really be encouraging widespread ambulation to places far from our homes?

As someone who has guided and taught outside for almost two decades, I’ve always thought that taking people to the places that are threatened by bad policy or industrial ambition helps protect them by creating more advocates for conservation: tourism helps us get more people on our team. At this moment, though, even that tactic – tourism as a mechanism for conservation – seems a little dangerous, hurried, uncertain. And to further muddy the waters, the US administration is shredding environmental protections while the general population is distracted by economic distress and a new awareness of its very mortality – shattering standards for clean air, relaxing environmental compliance protocol for industry, and opening up inroads toward renewed uranium mining near Grand Canyon, among other subversive moves executed in the midst of the health crisis. The last thing I want to be is passive in the face of such deplorable behaviors.

Green River, left; Yampa, right; Lower river is the two converged into the Green. Photo: Mia & Steve Mestdagh

And yet the relative quiet in Grand Canyon this spring must have been magnificent. The ethereal song of the canyon wren, for once, did not have to compete with the low whir of motors.

I feel like we have not yet learned all that the pause has to teach us.

My little organization was slated to run its first course on the Yampa River on May 22. I would have driven from western Montana to southern Utah, met my clients and introduced them to our outfitting partners and their instructor, the brilliant conservationist and Pulitzer finalist William deBuys. We would have loaded into a van and traversed the desert to the eastern end of Dinosaur National Monument, where we’d put in and float five days through the last free-flowing tributary to the Colorado proper. We’d have floated through Echo Park, that icon of compromise and concession, the place that David Brower traded for Glen Canyon.

The workshop would have been centered around permutations of the concept of change: climate change in the Southwest, as well as our capacity to change as individuals, communities, and societies. Students would have read John Fowle’s classic The Tree, a 90-page autobiographical rumination on the connection between nature and creative arts. They would have read excerpts from deBuys’ refreshingly readable account of climate change in the region, A Great Aridness. They would have read some of Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert, as well as Harvey’s dense and essential tome, A Symbol of Wilderness, about Echo Park and the conservation movement.

While I deeply appreciate the desire to return to business as normal, I wonder what new perspective we might gain after considering the analysis that the closure has afforded us.

We would have gathered in the mornings for riverside coffee and discussion of craft, we would have followed our guides on hikes up side canyons and to overlooks, we would have eaten well and slept well and our bodies would have slowed to the rhythm of the river. The group would have cohered in the way that groups on river trips tend to, and they would have made promises to themselves to carry a bit of the river with them on the return to home.

Maybe they’d remember the levity, the slowness, the awareness, or the connection that emerges from disconnection.

Maybe they’d stay in touch and maybe they’d remember the sensory details of this experience the next time the stressors and manufactured priorities of quotidian life threatened to overwhelm them. They’d make connections between the literature, the history, and the water that cooled their feet and propelled their bodies down-canyon. Perhaps they’d consider their own place within the system, and, if we are successful in our objective, they’d find themselves a part of the system, rather than apart from it. They’d discover new affinity for the landscape and also for their capacity to speak for it, write about it, thrive within it – their latent, wild selves might be revealed as the layers of excess, obligation, or structure are scrubbed away by moving water and the grit of sand.
Maybe. That’s the best case scenario.

But all this, at what cost? I’ve not yet finished figuring the cost. I’m not quite ready to get in my car, on a bus, on a plane. I’m certainly not yet ready to engage in this dance of conservation, consumption, communication, and concern for what we could be doing better – or not doing at all. It’s confusing. I don’t have answers and I will welcome the day that comfort and certainty return to our business decisions, to our plan-making and our social interactions. Until then, maybe it’s best to continue to explore the questions that emerge from the pause. While I deeply appreciate the desire to return to business as normal, I wonder what new perspective we might gain after considering the analysis that the closure has afforded us.

I think we can do better, as an industry and as individual stewards of the places where we do our work. And to my fellow guides, entrepreneurs, artists, and lovers of wild rivers: May we perhaps allow the health of our communities, the tadpoles, the snails and the fishes to influence and guide our next steps back toward the river.



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