The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Way of the Mountain #188

Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and the sculptors of mountains. Where I live, on the cusp between the jagged peaks of the Southern Rockies and the mesa tops of the Colorado Plateau, winter is finally relinquishing its hold and mud season still in force. Soon we will have our brief warmth, after bouts of storms and possibly even late snows.

Sometimes it seems like we live in a world of two seasons in Colorado — winter and summer, and what’s between them is a no-person’s-land where anything can happen — hot sun, cold snow, driving rain. Here’s a selection of short poems for this season between seasons.

— Art Goodtimes
Maverick Draw

Mazurka

Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.

During which, Dream Queen,
what did you achieve?

I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.

— Anne Valley-Fox
Santa Fe

Common Sense #14

People who hold themselves
with the grace of a cat
do not fear the jump
from one platform
to the other

— David Patton
St. Louis

Jail Bait

Legs forming a perfect four,
bare shoulder leaning
into the side of the shore’s
ramshackle tackle shop.

Hook, line…

Johnny rsvp’d twice
before lock up.

— Kierstin Bridger
Ridgway

Envy 2

I envy the dirty and alive,
the sleeping tired
Who rise to no care
but to get out there
And ride snow water dirt
Lungs pounding and tight,
cursing and vivid.

— Bryan Shuman
Laramie

Anabasis

In spite of my
skinned knees

I pull myself up
square my shoulders

and keep on
going.

— Nancy Davenport
Menlo Park

On The Road

The gray swirls of its coat
still startling in the daylight,
the wildcat’s
guts spill across the Sumatran highway
and confirm its determination
in this jungle
to survive.

— James Penha
New Verse News
Jakarta

The Raindrops

Play the aspen leaves
Like piano keys.
They do not recite; they write.
And they recall nothing.
Bathe me
In symphony.
I am shattered; I am mended.
And this is my religion.

— Erin Duggin
Leadville

 

 

Forgetting in a landscape of memory

The Cabin

The Cabin

Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.

We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.

But he refused to leave.

Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.

The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.

I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.

Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.

In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.

Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.

The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.

However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.

Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.

Rivers of Cameroon

Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.

— MJF

The Chari

1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.

2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.

3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.

The Lobé

1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.

2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.

3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.

4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.

5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.

6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.

7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.

8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.

The Ebogo

1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.

2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.

3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.

Mountain Media: Books #187

“The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” by Dick Dorworth

The Straight Course

Nowadays, the average person will have approximately five to seven careers. Less limited than previous generations, the choices for careers are endless and, with that, finding the “right path” can be daunting, overwhelming and demoralizing. Which is why long-time MG senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s latest book, “The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” is so relevant 50 years after the events he describes. The ’60s were unsettled and challenging for the country and the world of skiing. Despite pressure to ski within a certain style, politics that could make any patriot of ski dissent and challenges with injuries and his personal life, Dick held strong to what he knew skiing did for his life and how it filled it with more meaning than if he gave up when his path appeared blocked. “More important was the hard (and hard earned) knowledge of something not right.” By staying true to his heart and path, he accomplished incredible achievements in speed skiing. Dick’s honesty about looking within to find that truth and, once found, never letting go, offers new generations a way to find direction through the confusion. After all, “a company job is not necessarily the best thing a man can do with the time in his life.” Time might be better spent skiing over 100kph down a fast, unrelenting speed track. “The Straight Course” is a fascinating look into the history of a pivotal time in skiing, while offering wisdom for finding our own way through the world. $15.95, westerneyepress.com

 “Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs,” by Fred Beckey

Beckeys favorite climbs

Besides starring in the world’s most hideous climbing outfit (on p. 209), I spent two weeks with The Fred on three of these routes (Prodigal Son, Touchstone Wall and Crimson Chrysalis) while he was working on this book in 1996-98. His goal was to climb every route in this “guidebook,” a feat I’m pretty certain no climbing guidebook author has ever achieved; Fred didn’t quite either. But “guidebook” might not be the right term for this publication, which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s the size of a small table (13.2 x 9.4 x 1.3 inches) and weighs 5.2 pounds. It looks and feels like a coffee-table book, but when you read it, it describes climbs, with topos and photos and other basic information — yet, you wouldn’t stuff it in your pack and head out. In short, it’s a guidebook inside and a coffee-table book outside. So, to appreciate this book, you have to look at what’s in it. “Beckey’s 100 Favorite Climbs” (there are actually more than 100 — 29 of which were Fred firsts) is a catalogue from the jam-stuffed brain of the most knowledgeable, experienced and well-traveled climber in American history. Fred introduces readers to peaks like Ironman in the Adamant Range, Oubliette in the Ramparts and Golden Klattasine in the Coast Range. These aren’t peaks on the tongues of your typical Western U.S. climber — hell, I had no clue something like Gimli Peak existed until I started reading this book. This book is a mind-opener. It’ll make you realize why you started climbing to begin with, and that there’s a whole lot more to see out there than what you originally thought. After waiting 16 years, I am not disappointed. $79.95, patagonia.com

“The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington,” edited by Rees Hughes, Corey Lewis

Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

This is not a guidebook, but rather a collection of writings about the Oregon and Washington stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (there’s a companion volume for California). This means that the book is short on maps and “just-the-facts” information about flora and fauna, but large on firsthand experiences of folks who’ve trod the iconic trail. There’s blissfully little poetic navel gazing and plenty in the way of good stories about any aspect of the PCT experience you can imagine. Jogging the entire 2,600 miles. Figuring out/being given your “trail name.” Journeying with goats, children or painful injuries. Getting lost and being rescued. Hiking at night, or alone, or through the ash fall of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Coming face-to-face with bears, lynx, huge toads, heart attacks and hypothermia. And always, through all three sections of the book — “Forests Forever” (Oregon), “Lava, Moss and Lichens” (Southern Washington) and “The Great White North” (The North Cascades) — folks suffer through chronic sogginess and all manner of precipitation, particularly toward the end, when hikers are racing Pacific storms and Old Man Winter to the Canadian border. The book itself might not change your life, but some of the essays within probably will, and, if nothing else, you’ll be inspired to shake off that dusty pack and seek out some adventure of your own. $19.95, mountaineersbooks.org


 

Letters #187

Envelope
Envelope: Zephyr

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

Jen Jackson Rocks!

Editor, I loved Jen Jackson’s piece on Moab (“When in Doubt, Pee on the fire,” MG #183). It really captured the spark that makes living here great despite being inundated by goobs most of the year.

Thx,

Bruce Dissel

Moab, UT

Sgt. Mike Rocks!

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Long-time reader, first-time writer here. Thank you for Mountain Notebook Dateline: Afghanistan. It’s the best thing I’ve read in years.

And to Sgt. Mike, how about this: Thank you for telling the truth. It may be the greatest service of all. Godspeed, Sergeant.

Sincerely,

Bennett Pollack

Gypsum, CO

Struck by thunder, premonition and synchronicity

John: In reference to your “The Bright White Light” (Smoke Signals, MG #181). For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been having what might have been a premonition. Out on this ranch in the San Juans by myself, I have a lot of time to think, and a lot of fence to fix, so much that I can’t always get it done before the afternoon storms of this summer monsoon. One thought repeatedly produced by the constant banter of my subconscious has been: what would it be like to be struck by lightning? If not fatal, would it be enlightening? Spiritual awakening has been described as like being struck by lightning, but it has also been said to be an interminable process. Enlightenment hasn’t come to me yet, through prayers for it or through meditation, so I had wondered if getting struck by lightning might actually bring a sort of enlightenment with it. Apparently not.

Lately I’ve been reading about synchronicity in James Redfield’s “The Celestine Vision.” Premonitions and strange coincidences, like thinking of an old friend and then running into him or her for the first time in years, are at the basis of this idea of synchronicity, important in Redfield’s philosophy and literature as well as that of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Until now, I’ve been thinking that I’ve never experienced synchronicity, except for possibly a few occasions, nothing that could not be otherwise explained. Of course, it can always be explained — like being in the right place at the wrong time.

I had also been thinking about my friend Mark Volt, a kind of old-timer on the Gore Range. He is full of odd and funny sayings, mostly of uncertain origin, often of vague meaning and usually inspiring rolled eyes. Like “struck by thunder.”

The first of the rain was falling. I was standing next to a temporary electric fence of polywire, which is a kind of string with fine wire woven through it, an essential tool to manage the distribution of livestock grazing here in the High Country. It wasn’t electrified; I had built it and just hooked it up to a more permanent electric fence of high-tensile wire. I don’t think I was touching it, but I couldn’t have been more than a few inches from it.

The boom was not much short of deafening. For a moment, everything was black — except for a line of white, maybe slightly greenish-yellow, light where the polywire had been. Is that what the deer in the headlights sees? I was on the ground, half lying, half sitting, fully stunned. I have been shocked by electric fence before, and this was many orders of magnitude beyond that. Struck by thunder, indeed. I saw the thin, charred remains of the polywire on the ground next to me. My legs and feet hurt, but I couldn’t move them for the first 10 seconds or so. Then I could crawl. After maybe 30 seconds, I could stand on shaky legs and tingling feet. I willed myself to walk. At this point, I figured I was probably going to be alright. I got on the four-wheeler and rode it back down to the road.

My right thigh still hurt, and, for a while, so did my right shoulder and upper arm. Sitting on a log, I pulled off my right boot and sock and checked my tingling foot. No uglier than usual. I pulled down my pants and looked at my thigh. There was a light red mottling there, at the height of the polywire, and extending in a line down to my lower leg. It did not look or feel like a burn; the pain was more like muscle soreness.

Back on the four-wheeler, I raced the rain back down the mile or two to my truck. I lost. It came down hard, stinging my face and soaking through my light rain jacket. Shivering and dripping, I climbed into my truck, started the engine and turned on the heat and defroster. I drove off with the tailgate down, all manner of ranching equipment sliding out the back of the bed on the steep road. After gathering the tools and 50-pound salt blocks, and throwing the pry bar and spool of fence wire back in as quickly as possible, I drove into camp.

I started a fire in my cabin and heated water for matte and hot chocolate (the spicy kind with chile powder). I peeled off my wet shirt and jeans, pulled on dry ones. I realized there was a ringing, or a high-pitched electric hum in my left ear.

I sat by the fire, going over it again in my mind: the boom, the darkness, the white streak: struck by thunder. As the shock wore off, I considered that I may not be enlightened, but my earlier wondering might have been a premonition. If I weren’t such a skeptic, I would say this is a striking example of synchronicity. The thought gives me chills, but of course that could just be because I’m cold.

Matt Barnes

Storm on Willow Pass

John: Your lightning story was electrifying, a bolt of brilliance. Here’s a contribution.

Willow Basin is a gentle place, a hidden place. We are camped on the tundra above Willow Lake. We sip red wine from a plastic juice bottle before lighting the stove to boil water for pasta. We just sit on our pads and look at each other. In two years, we’ll be married, but we don’t know that yet, don’t even suspect it.

After a spaghetti dinner, we take a walk along a grassy bench, holding hands. Each of us makes a silent pledge that will not be translated into words for many months. There is no need to articulate the impulses of our hearts. We are content to have our bond unspoken, not wanting to formalize the undefined, the wonderful. This wild place invites freedom from words, from definitions, from spoken formality.

There is a flock of sheep grazing a mile or so down the valley. We hear their faint voices on the wind. We are happy to share the basin with them and their shepherd. As darkness brings us back to camp, we see the flicker of his fire, but we don’t return it. The stars are our fire. We huddle together in our own warmth. The flowers have closed their petals. The surface of the lake has turned flat and metallic. She leans her back against my chest and I fold my arms around her.

Later, we trade positions and I feel her warmth move into me. Her hands soothe my shoulders where the heavy frame pack gnawed. Muscles and skin respond to her touch, and I’m aware of a deeper feeling that her touch awakens. Our bed is soft that night on the spongy tundra that contours to tired hips and shoulders.

The morning dawns with gathering clouds, their undersides dark and glowering. Pancakes with maple syrup and sausage complement strong coffee with evaporated milk from a tin. We break down camp and hurriedly pack. Drizzle patters across the basin beneath a wisp of cloud that sweeps past. Behind it, to the west, dark clouds line up portentously, like a squadron of dirigibles.

“Wish we had another day,” she says wistfully.

“I wish we had a week, a month, a year.”

Envelope
Envelope: L. Wilson Hailey ID

A deep roll of thunder echoes across the basin. We sling on our packs and are soon panting up the switchbacks leading to the pass. The lake is slate gray and corrugated by wind. The shepherd’s camp is deserted; the sheep have moved down into the timber. A distinct black line marks the storm’s leading edge, with drifts of rain trailing behind. The storm moves over the basin and crosses the lake.

At the pass, we drop packs and pull on rain jackets. She takes the lead on the descent into the narrow valley while I pause a moment to face what’s moving in on the strengthening wind. There’s excitement in the latent power and dark fury menacing overhead. I feel my mood shifting like the weather. I regret returning to that other world where my soul can become deadened with disquiet and sorrow. The echoes of that world seem to emanate from the deep reverberations of thunder rolling over me, rattling my rib cage.

I hurry after her as the storm breaks. We’re hit by rounds of hail machine-gunned from a pitch-black sky. The hail pings off our packs and stings our legs. A lightning flash arcs like a missile, crashing onto the ridge above us. Half a second later, a sharp report splits the air. We make a dash for the sheltering trees, skip-jogging down the trail, ignoring the weight of our packs. The hail changes to rain and the rain turns heavy and drenching.

Heads down, rain running off the hoods of our jackets, we splash through foaming puddles. The trail becomes a rivulet of rainwater where pellets of hail gather in the eddies, a white crest against the muddy flow. Salvos of lightning strike the ridges on both sides. Concurrent flashes create a strobe effect. The thunder is continuous, a deep, sonorous booming. The air smells of rain-washed mountains, a bouquet of spruce pitch blended with grasses, sedges, flowers, the redolence of the earth itself. There is no sweeter smell.

I no longer hear her footsteps, so I stop and turn. She is a dozen yards behind, walking placidly down the trail in her wet and shining blue jacket, the hood shrouding her face. On one side of the trail is a yellow-green willow thicket, the leaves glimmering with raindrops. On the other is a spray of neon pink fireweed standing head-high and nodding under the rainfall. The ridges are misty with torn clouds ripped from the dark storm that still glowers overhead.

She looks up and smiles, and I am suddenly taken by how lovely she is in the pouring rain, how beautiful among the bright flowers. There are droplets of water on her cheeks and a sparkling light in her eyes. Perhaps we are seeing each other for the first time under this cloud of rain and fire. Here is our moment, our place in time. There is no reason to rush back to the known world, so we stand in the rain and let it wash over us.

Paul Andersen,

Aspen

Editor’s note: Paul Andersen is an author and columnist for the Aspen Times. This vignette is excerpted from his fiction collection of short stories, “Moonlight Over Pearl.”

North by Northwest

Hey Fayhee: In reference to your story, “North by Northwest” (Smoke Signals, MG #182): I do indeed remember where I was on 9/11 … in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area in northern Idaho. I was on a solitary backpack trip, which I have done often since my first backpacking trip with my father in 1972, near where I grew up in Colorado.

On Saturday, September 8, I arrived in Boise and rented a car and headed to Stanley, Idaho. I planned a five-day excursion just west of town and headed into the wilderness on Sunday afternoon. I did not run into any one during that time, the weather was great, and I was invigorated by the time I had spent in the woods, alone. On Thursday morning, I reached my car and went into Stanley to fill up my gas tank at the Stanley Lodge.

While my car was filling up I went into the little store connected to the lodge and asked the clerk (a young tattooed, pierced man) who had won the Monday Night Football New York Giants/Denver Broncos game, I being a lifelong Broncos fan. He looked at me like I was from Mars. I blew him off and, while I was pouring a cup of coffee, I looked up at the TV that was in the corner. On the screen was the image of the second plane going into the World Trade Center. I thought it was a trailer for a new movie. I asked the clerk, “What new movie is this?” He just looked at me with a blank stare and asked, “Where have you been?” I told him I had been backpacking since Sunday. That was when he told me what had happened. An older gentleman soon came in and talked with the clerk, while I was sitting in a chair in stunned silence. The gentleman came over and told me that I was perhaps the only person in America who had not known what happened, and sat with me for four hours as I watched in horror.

On my drive back to Boise, where I would be stranded for days, I thought that I had should of stayed in the woods, forever, instead of reentering an uncivilized civilization.

Dan Ellier Chapman

North by Northwest #2

Hello John: September 9, 2001, I started a job with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps — their three-week “Fall Crew,” which found me camping and doing trail work in the Green Mountains. We set up camp that evening, only a mile or so in from the Mt. Worcester trailhead. Monday was spent learning the basics of trail maintenance, camping and the general dynamics of living and working with a new group of people.

Tuesday, September 11, we started our day by continuing to improve the worn-out lower section of the trail. It was a wonderful, sunny, warm, perfect late-summer Vermont day. There were no hikers early that morning, which did not seem out of place, considering we only saw a few on Monday.

As I was busily digging a new water bar mid-morning, a solitary hiker came by. All I remember is: He was an older man and seemed a bit odd. I think all he said to me was: “a plane flew into the World Trade Center” and kept hiking. He told each of my co-workers this fact and hiked on. We discussed this man, wondering if he was mentally stable, after he passed. I thought maybe he was telling us about a movie.

Our solitary hiker came back from the peak and told us the same thing. This time, he spoke to us longer and told us that a jet had flown into one of the towers and he decided to seek refuge in the woods, only to find a hapless, un-informed trail crew. None of us saw the indelible images that most of the rest of the nation saw. None of us knew about the mass hysteria that was taking over the nation at the time. None of us knew the enormity of the destruction of that day. We just went back to working on our trail.

Early afternoon, the supervisor from headquarters came out. He confirmed what our solitary hiker had told us, added the towers had fallen and a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I don’t think he knew about the fourth plane in Pennsylvania. All we knew about the attackers was they were “terrorists,” whoever that was. Speaking for myself, the history of the situation still had not registered with me. The only electronic media available to us was the radio in the van, back at the trailhead.

We decided to hike to the top of Mt. Worcester, seeking the same refuge as our talisman. Mt. Worcester is only about 3,000 feet tall, but a hard slog straight up through the forest and over large granite blocks at top. None of us registered that there were no planes over our peak. We took in the sights of the Green Mountains turning into fall and lay around on the sun-warmed boulders until it was time to go back for dinner.

After dinner, we hiked out to the van to use the crew cell phone and call our loved ones. We listened to the radio in the van while each person was outside on the phone. We finally, definitely, learned what happened that morning. When I got a hold of my parents, all we discussed was the road trip I had just taken from New Mexico to Moab, Jackson, West Yellowstone and on to Vermont. There was no mention of the attacks, other than my Mom asking: “Do you know what happened today?” Which I answered in the affirmative.

Wednesday, we went back to work as usual. We certainly discussed the attacks and how they might affect each of us, with most of the crew calling the northeast home. We saw more hikers on Wednesday, all of them escaping to the woods to get away from what we would later lean was incessant televised carnage. Most of them talked with us and asked if we knew about the attacks.

We went back to the van later that week to listen to W. speak to the country. In my life, that has to have been one of the few Presidential speeches I have ever completely listened to. We again called our parents and I actually discussed the attacks and bin Laden with them.

Saturday, the 15th, found us moving our camp and stopping in Montpelier to do our laundry. Even though it is a small town, only about 8,000 residents, it had always seemed busy to me. That day, it was almost deserted. The laundry attendant told us the owner of the laundromat was from Lebanon and with the intense xenophobia that had taken hold, even in bucolic Vermont, had been out of sight since Tuesday.

Four days after the attacks, we still had not seen the television images that everyone else saw. By that point, the over-saturation of the media was beginning to slow, though we might have seen one image on CNN. We did get a hold of some newspapers, but again, four days later, they did not have all the images that certainly everyone saw in their Wednesday morning paper. I knew what had happened, how many were missing or dead and who the attacks were attributed to, but I am not sure if everything had soaked in by then. Ten years later, I have seen maybe an hour total of the televised insanity of that day because I was busily ensconced in the mountains, digging a water bar.

Adam Throckmorton 

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.