This is the second in a two-part journey down the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon guides have developed the peculiar habit of sleeping on their rafts, carrying pads that fit snuggly over the coolers, and little tents that can be erected in the rare case of rain or bugs. It seemed odd to us northern river-runners, all neophytes in the desert environment. We were accustomed to hunkering in four-season tents during endless coastal downpours, so at first we slept on the sandy banks, 16 friends scattered among the dunes. But an 18-day journey offers plenty of time for things to play on your mind, and the concept of sleeping aboard the raft itself seemed so novel, and well, so cool, that eventually, near the middle of the trip, I gave it a try.
After double-checking the stake serving as an anchor in riverside sand, I pushed the boat afloat in a gentle eddy. The rhythmic to-and-fro and the sloshing of the river proved lulling. Stars drifted across a narrow wedge of sky. Occasional rockfall echoed through the silence of the gorge. It was perfect. Until midnight, when I rolled off the cooler and landed in the raft's damp bilge.
Flicking on my headlight, I discovered that the once-floating raft was high and dry, perched at an awkward angle on the parched riverbank. The "tide" - a peculiarity of the Grand, a canyon deeply embroiled with the politics of water and conservation - had gone down.
The taming of the Colorado
Every day a bulge of water is released from the Glen Canyon dam, slowly making its way downstream, taking more than 48 hours to traverse the canyon's length and spill into Lake Mead. The size of this bulge corresponds directly to the temperature in Phoenix, for it is created as electrical turbines struggle to satiate the electrical demand of air conditioners in the distant city. Each and every day, beaches in the Grand Canyon are slowly flooded and then exposed again. Rapids gradually build, and later ease.
It took 3½ years of continuous concrete pouring to build the 10-million-ton Glen Canyon dam at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. In those 3½ years, a labyrinthine maze of arches, slots, caverns and canyons sank below water. A desert cathedral, seen only by a few thousand eyes, was lost forever, now buried beneath millions of tons of silt at the bottom of Lake Powell. And what was the purpose of this 600-foot-high dam? Ironically, not to produce electricity (which it does), but to extend the life of the Hoover Dam 480 kilometres downstream by catching a portion of the sediment load destined for Lake Mead.
These two dams tamed the Colorado. Gone are the great floods: flows of 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) that regularly built beaches and scoured riparian vegetation. Gone are the stagnant summer dribbles of 3,000 cfs or less, when turbid waters allowed chub, razorbacks and other native fish to spawn. Gone are the winter freezes.
Today's flows are restricted to between 8,000 and 20,000 cfs; spring summer, fall and winter. Water temperatures are permanently pegged at 8 C, the exact temperature at the bottom of Lake Powell. Trout have replaced catfish in the clear, swirling eddies. The nutrients and sediments that once swept downstream, feeding the ecosystem, lie trapped upstream. With no floods to wash them away, tamarisk (or salt cedars) overrun the banks. Each one of these thirsty plants consumes upward of 760 litres a day in a land where water is more precious than gold.
And things get worse downstream. Much worse.
A quiet Eden once existed where the Colorado meets the Pacific, a morass of twisting waterways that once teemed with birds, fish and even jaguar. For 2,000 years, the Cucapa Indians lived here, planting squash, harvesting wild rice in the fertile soils, and hunting mule deer.
"A milk and honey wilderness," is how famed conservationist Aldo Leopold described the million-acre delta, which he visited in 1922. "The river is nowhere and everywhere, for it cannot decide which of a hundred green lagoons offers the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf, so it travels all, dividing and rejoining, twisting and turning, meandering through awesome jungle."
Ten years later, Herbert Hoover stood atop the dam that bore his name, and declared, "The water of this great river, instead of being wasted in the sea, will now be brought into use by man." Today, every single drop of the river's water is accounted for. Seven states eagerly suck up 90 per cent of the flow before it reaches the Mexican border. The trickle making it across the international border is instantly diverted into irrigation canals.
On even the rainiest of years, two steel culverts buried under a gravel road are all that is needed to handle what was once the American Nile as it reaches the Gulf of California. And these days even a trickle is rare. With the southwestern United States in the grasp of record drought, the Colorado River has not reached the sea since 1998. In the prophetic words of Sally Ranney, long-time river advocate, "Water flows towards money, it has nothing to do with gravity."
Drifting near the belly of the Earth
While a plethora of powerful groups continue to yank, tug and disagree over the management of its water, the Colorado keeps peacefully and slowly carving the Grand Canyon ever deeper. It was hard to imagine those struggles as we silently drifted beneath rust-orange cliffs, feeling as close to the belly of the Earth as we'd ever come.
For two weeks, memories of the outside world receded behind us, until they were nothing more than vague remembrances swirling in our wake. Raccoon eyes and sun-burnt noses marked every member of the group. Neoprene wetsuits had ripened to a distinctive odour. The ice was gone from the coolers. Clothes, tents and sleeping bags were full of sand.
And still, somewhere ahead, lurked the giant rapids; Granite, Hermit, Crystal, Lava, every one now bigger than the last. Approaching Horn, the first with a skull-and-crossbones designation in the guidebook, the roar was deafening. Mist rose as the water disappeared over a blind drop. After scouting, we lined up and ran the cataract one by one. The waves were huge, but smooth, and I paddled hard to drag my plastic boat up the three-metre faces, beaming as I emerged from the maelstrom to join the others in a pool below. "I got a little water in my boat on that one," I noted to a buddy, thinking that the crashing waves had loosened my sprayskirt. He laughed and pointed to the back of my kayak. I had been so nervous before the run that I left the drain plug out.
The Grand Canyon saves the best for last: Lava. Here the Colorado plows over an ancient magma flow and drops 11 metres. Oft touted as the fastest navigable water in North America, the rapid caused nearby ground (and our hearts) to quake.
A flip, a few scares, one big swim, and then we were all through. ABL. Alive below Lava. We celebrated with a huge hot dog roast on a downstream beach.
The big drops behind us, boats smoothly borne by a gentle green snake, all we could do was soak up the magnitude. Despite lying in the heart of the continental U.S., there are no roads and few trails leading to the Canyon's depths - the sense of isolation was every bit as profound as one can expect in the high Arctic or Himalaya. Quiet reflection and neck-bending awe marked the hours. After nearly 18 days, the group was silent (but content) more often than not. We had found in abundance the sense of true escape, one of the rarest of commodities in today's hectic world.
Then it was over. Suddenly Diamond Creek swung into view. We packed the boats and grimy gear into pickups and headed toward Vegas in search of all-you-can-eat buffets. En route, we passed Lake Mead, where seven years of drought had created a gigantic bathtub ring of bleached rock. The largest artificial reservoir in the United States was (and still is) drying up. An hour later, as we wandered the Strip, water was everywhere. Neon signs advertised H2O slides. Motels had multiple pools. And a crowd had gathered to watch the famous Bellagio fountain.