Evan Belknap successfully punches the hole at Crystal
Rapid in the Grand Canyon with the help of his crew-member Janet’s
A river odyssey
Eighteen days, two-hundred-and-twenty-six miles, rowing inflatable
rafts down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon—a trip
of a lifetime. Day Seventeen started pretty much like all of the
others—breaking camp, stuffing gear into dry bags, eating
breakfast and drinking coffee. Then we loaded the rafts and strapped
everything down before the hot sun rose above the canyon walls and
the inevitable last call for the toilet bucket signaled ten minutes
Day Seventeen included none of the big rapids that we had previously
encountered daily. Only ten miles lay ahead, and the main challenge
was to survive the heat. A suggestion that we row all the way to
the take-out at Diamond Creek and go to an air-conditioned hotel
in Flagstaff was quickly dismissed. Most of the sixteen members
of our party were loving every minute of it.
That morning, we lazed about in the shade of a sandstone lodge,
accessed through a round vertical tunnel created by some miraculous
geological process about a billion years ago.
Somebody said that the first man in one of the creation myths was
born through this tunnel. The kids amused themselves by jumping
off the cliff into the water.
After lunch, we read and enjoyed a siesta on a sandy beach under
the shade of another ledge. It was the hottest day yet. Every so
often one of us would brave the sun to walk fully clothed into the
Monsoon moisture had proved a mixed blessing throughout our journey.
It kept temperatures relatively cool through July and kept water
levels high enough to make navigation of the rapids easier and more
exciting. It also filled the river with mud, every day a different
color—shades of red and chocolate. One day it turned black
when a thunderstorm extinguished a forest fire somewhere on the
We were lucky enough to have several oarsmen among us who were
veterans of a dozen trips down the Grand. They knew all the side
canyons that led to desert oases with cottonwood trees and springs
that flowed crystal clear. Warnings to avoid the dramatic slot canyons
during monsoon season were ignored by our otherwise safety-conscious
guides. We took our chances with flash floods.
The rapids are, of course, the big attraction. Thousands of people
float through the canyon every year, mostly on commercial trips
aboard forty-foot motor-driven inflatables. River travel is the
best way to fully appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur of the canyon
and it also provides the thrill of running world-famous rapids like
Crystal, Lava Falls, Hermit, and Granite, which at moderately high
water were full of huge waves and pour-overs that dwarfed our sixteen-
to eighteen-foot rafts.
One of our oarsman flipped his raft twice, both times escaping
dire consequences or serious injury. He was, however, forced to
endure jokes about his “flipper’s shoulder” and
membership in the Grand Canyon Swim Team. The only other flip was,
quite fittingly, encountered by the friend who convinced me to take
the rare cancelled private boating permit that got us on the river
in the first place.
This was the second “trip of a lifetime” he had goaded
me into this summer—the other being the Selway River in Idaho.
My story about that trip was rejected by the Signpost editor for
being “too dark and scary.” It was everything I had
feared and hoped for, and fun for the most part except for the time
I carelessly flipped my raft in a colossal hole (first time for
everything). Two members of that expedition flipped the next day
and were pulled, bruised, bloodied, and seriously hypothermic from
the river after swimming nearly a mile of a stretch of a river billed
as some of the most technically challenging whitewater in the country.
There were sleepless nights in the Grand Canyon, worrying about
putting my family in harm’s way. My poor wife limped for days
after hiking down the steep South Kaibab Trail to meet the trip
following a solo publication of the August Signpost. My seventeen-year-old
son, lacking in big whitewater experience, rowed a raft on his own
(see photo) along with some of his buddies.
It was almost too much. I read Homer’s Odyssey throughout
the trip. This added heroic inner visions and dreams filled with
gods and monsters to a summer of nearly thirty days moving place
to amazing place and sleeping on the ground.
And so on the seventeenth night we feasted on onions grilled over
glowing embers and a box of heady wine fit for the gods.
And on day eighteen, when young Dawn with rose-red fingers shone,
we again plied our weighted oars and turned the river to foam behind
our multicolored hollow ships, hoping that it would be our fate
to make it back alive and reach our well-built houses and native
land. Here we would bath in clear water boiled in a cauldron, mixing
hot and cold to suit our taste. We would shower head and shoulders,
washing away spirit-numbing exhaustion ....
Back home in “Rim World” at last, my raft (which,
now that my river résumé is completed, I have given
to my son) still lies in a muddy bundle on the portal amidst a pile
of life jackets, coolers, water jugs, oars, and helmets. I’m
going to buy myself a sporty little cataraft and get my kicks on
single-day trips down the Taos Box. No more big expeditions. No
more Homer. For the immediate future, I’ll get to the wilderness
Two weeks in the West
—STAFF, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
Court to public-lands plaintiffs: Sit down and shut up. The 10th
Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on July 24 that third parties cannot
legally challenge the sale of public lands to mining companies,
a decision that could silence public dissent about similar sales
from New Mexico to Montana. The plaintiffs had argued that the U.S.
Bureau of Land Management broke the law in 2004 when it sold 155
acres on Mount Emmons, which overlooks the Colorado resort town
of Crested Butte, to the Phelps Dodge Corporation for $875 (HCN,
6/21/04). The 1872 Mining Law allows such "patenting"
of land if buyers show they can turn a profit through mining it;
Phelps Dodge, the plaintiffs said, had failed to provide such proof.
But the appeals court upheld an earlier ruling that only people
with competing property claims can challenge a patent.
Drill rigs really don’t fit in the wilderness. On August
1, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled that the BLM violated
the National Environmental Policy Act when it leased 16 Utah parcels,
including some near Desolation Canyon on the Green River, to oil
and gas companies without adequately evaluating their suitability
for wilderness. The BLM has leased more than 100 parcels in Utah
with wilderness characteristics since a 2003 out-of-court settlement
between then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and then-Utah
Gov. Mike Leavitt allowed the agency to do so. Once drilled, those
lands can never be designated as wilderness.
Vegas is still waiting for the mushroom cloud. The Defense Department
announced in August that it would again delay "Divine Strake,"
the proposed detonation of 700 tons of non-nuclear explosives at
the Nevada Test Site. Downwinders joined with Utah and Nevada politicians
in protesting the test, partly because of its potential to launch
contaminated dust 10,000 feet into the air. The Defense Department
says it may find another site for the blast, which will take place
in 2007 at the earliest.
The Salton Sea: coming to your garden. Efforts to save the Salton
Sea—the watery sump kept alive by farm runoff in California’s
Imperial Valley—have become mired in a bureaucratic miasma.
In late July, however, the Salton Sea provided a not-so-subtle reminder
that it still exists, though perhaps just barely: 3 million tilapia
died when algae blooms consumed all of the oxygen in the lake and
asphyxiated the fish. The die-off was the biggest since 1999, when
at least 10 million tilapia went belly-up. A California company
is now collecting the dead fish to process into liquid fertilizer.
Drill the desert, spare the mountains. So it goes in the Northern
Rockies, where Wyoming’s Jack Morrow Hills are now targeted
for more oil and gas development, thanks to a recent BLM decision
allowing energy companies to expand operations there despite the
presence of rare desert elk, sage grouse and dunes. Meanwhile, the
stars are lining up to protect part of the 500,000 acres of federal
land along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. In recent weeks,
two energy companies said they are willing to sell or donate their
leases to conservationists, and Montana’s senators are pushing
legislation to allow buyouts.
This article originally appeared in High
Country News (www.hcn.org),
which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues
from Paonia, Colorado.
Get ready for Día de los Muertos parade
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an ancient tradition
rooted in Mexico. It celebrates life and honors those who have passed
on. The celebration draws its influences from Jose Guadalupe Posada’s
early-1900s portrayal of personalities and professions as skeletons
or calaveras. Posada depicted rich and poor alike as skeletons in
ordinary and sometimes outrageous but tragic life settings, seizing
the opportunity for political satire and comedy. The Posada calavera
always seemed to be laughing, frolicking, and up to some kind of
This year’s theme is “!Ya Basta! Stop the Violence—Building
a Bridge to Peace.” On November 5 from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m.,
the fourteenth annual South Valley Marigold Parade will travel Goff
Road to the Westside Community Center, 1250 Isleta SW, and will
be followed by celebrations with music, poetry, food, altars, and
vendors. For more information, go to www.muertosymarigolds.org.
Free art workshops for the celebration and Marigold Parade will
be held on Saturdays from noon until 4:00 p.m. at the Southwest
Network for Environmental and Economic Justice Studio, 803 La Vega
SW (corner of La Vega and Armijo) as follows:
September 2: Build and decorate giant puppets and props for the
September 16: Silk-screen t-shirts with Día de los Muertos
September 23: Silk-screen more t-shirts, posters, and cards
September 30: Make and paint calaveras, flowers, and cardboard
October 7: Create more marigolds, papel picado, and celebration
October 21: Build altars and learn about the traditions and
October 28: Make and decorate crosses in a variety of media
All ages are welcome. For more information regarding the art workshops,
Heard around the West
Thanks to two wet winters in a row, it's a booming summer for Western
toads in the Washoe and Lemmon valleys of Nevada, reports the Reno
Gazette-Journal. Suddenly, toads and toadlets are everywhere, and
there's the danger that you'll step on one as you cross the street,
or mow down hundreds when you cut the lawn. They are also attractive
nuisances to children.
randylynn Marshall says her 1-year-old daughter
Lori toddled up to her pointing at her diaper. Marshall said the
baby didn't need changing, "she had five or six (toads) stuffed
in there. I had to chase them all over the house."
Jack Clements, 62, was fishing in Provo harbor when he hooked a
fish with "teeth like a human," reports the Deseret Morning
News. "That's a piranha," cautioned his son. According
to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, he was right: The 13-inch-long,
1-and a-half-pound fish was almost certainly a flesh-eating piranha
that someone had dumped into Utah Lake.
Two good Samaritans in the town of Joseph went to extreme lengths
to save the life of a deer hit by a vehicle. After passersby pulled
the badly hurt animal from beneath a trailer, the deer woke up,
started walking, and then lurched into a creek where it began to
drown, reports the Wallowa County Chieftain. Two men dragged the
deer out of the creek and, treating the animal like a half-drowned
human, began giving it chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth. Detective
Neil Rogers, who later had to shoot the almost-dead deer, called
the effort "one of the funniest things I've seen in law enforcement.
… I couldn't even imagine going to that extreme." The
wannabe saviors, he guessed, "were probably from Portland or
IRAQ AND THE NAVAJO NATION
Donald Rumsfeld's televised get-together with five hand-picked soldiers
at Iraq's Balad Air Base July 12 was probably meant to be one of
those staged, nice-nice interviews. It didn't turn out that way,
reports the Navajo Times, because "one of the Navajo Nation's
finest," Marine Cpl. Arthur King from St. Michaels, Arizona,
put the visiting secretary of Defense on the hot seat. King began
by telling Rumsfeld that his job was looking for the kind of deadly
IEDs—improvised explosive devices—that have killed more
than 2,000 troops in Iraq. He then pointed out that his unit had
been waiting three months for a new IED detector to replace "one
of the oldest pieces of equipment in country." That was bad
enough, but then the soldiers in his unit were watching television
when they saw a state-of-the-art IED detector on display in New
York City. "We just wondered why that was?" King inquired.
Rumsfeld quickly said that New York City had its own budget and
could buy what it wants—although he added proudly that his
department's $3.6 billion budget "dwarfs" that of the
Big Apple. The government was working hard on what he called the
"IED problem," Rumsfeld said, but the Defense secretary
stumbled through an explanation that ended with him wondering why
King's Marine unit was "still stuck with an old piece of equipment?"
Rumsfeld turned to George Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq,
and asked if he could answer the question. Casey told King, "We'll
get back to you on that."
Who would dream that the super-rich would brag about living on a
lowly irrigation ditch? That's what some two dozen landowners who
live along Mitchell Slough near Victor, Montana, have done in court,
insisting that the waterway rolling past their homes is "no
more than a man-made ditch," reports The New York Times. The
homeowners, including rock singer Huey Lewis, broker Charles R.
Schwab and Kenneth Siebel, managing director of Private Wealth Partners,
recently won a district court case on the ditch issue and have erected
"Keep Out" signs and wire fences, barring the hoi polloi
from floating through or fishing without permission. Now, the case
has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court by both the state
and a group called the Bitterroot River Protective Association,
who say the waterway belongs to everyone under state law. Governor
Brian Schweitzer, (D), an expert in water law who is also an irrigator,
says the case is crucial "because it affects streams, creeks
and sloughs all over Montana." He points out that since 15
cubic feet per second of water enters the slough through irrigation
gates, and 300 cubic feet per second exits, that's "proof that
it was fed by springs and groundwater and more natural than not."
Schweitzer has a blunt warning for newcomers with big bucks and
a yen for exclusivity: "If you want to buy a big ranch and
you want to have a river and you want privacy, don't buy in Montana.
The rivers belong to the people of Montana."
Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High
Country News in Paonia, Colorado (Betsym@hcn.org).
Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared
in Heard around the West.