The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989

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Evan Belkap in raft

Evan Belknap successfully punches the hole at Crystal Rapid in the Grand Canyon with the help of his crew-member Janet’s high-siding skills.

A river odyssey

—TY BELKNAP
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 until launch.

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 muddy river.

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 rim above.

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 on foot.


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 mischief.

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 parade

September 16: Silk-screen t-shirts with Día de los Muertos designs

September 23: Silk-screen more t-shirts, posters, and cards

September 30: Make and paint calaveras, flowers, and cardboard cut-outs

October 7: Create more marigolds, papel picado, and celebration signs

October 21: Build altars and learn about the traditions and symbols

October 28: Make and decorate crosses in a variety of media

All ages are welcome. For more information regarding the art workshops, call 344-4028.


Heard around the West

—BETSY MARSTON

NEVADA
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."

UTAH
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.

OREGON
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 somewhere."

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."

MONTANA
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.




 

 

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