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TIME AND THE RIVER

 

-----We have many relationships in our lifetimes. The most meaningful are usually with people, events,and places. This is the tale of a love affair with a place.

 

-----Forty-six years is a long time, yet it seems a blink in memory. Everything about that day seems etched in vivid color. It had been a long dusty day down White Canyon in my jeep. I had to make a pause and hike to the natural bridges in White Canyon. They were hidden in a remote and forgotten corner of Utah and not many people had seen them. There was no telling when or if I would ever return to such an isolated place.

-----Finally, late in the afternoon, the old green jeep ground down the grade to Hite Ferry. The granny gear whined in complaint, as it always did when worked too hard. There, at last, at the bottom of the grade, was the Colorado - the Great Red River of the West. It was my first sight of Glen Canyon. White dust covered my hot, tired body. Every bone seemed to ache, whining like the granny, as I climbed out of the jeep and stood at the river's edge. The sight of water, muddy as it was, reminded my body of its neglect - it was parched with thirst. The dust-encrusted water bag hung from the bumper, and I drank deeply of the mud-flavored water while I watched the swirls of the muddy river flow past me. The joy of water, both in the throat and seen by eye, is such a primordial delight in the desert. Walking up the river's edge, I soon came upon a hidden cove. In moments, my body felt the cooling caress of the brown water of the river. My first time in the canyons of the Colorado was a delight.

-----For the next short weeks, I mapped the geology of Glen Canyon. A new dam was under survey over 150 river miles to the southwest. Soon, my swimming hole and the entire canyon around me would be under the water of a lake. This was the last opportunity to map the geology of a canyon about to be drowned.

-----Can you imagine? An oil company paid me a salary, gave me a per diem and an old green jeep, and said, "Map Glen Canyon." Perhaps, if St. Peter thinks I deserve it, when I cross the Great Divide, I might be given another such break. A job in Paradise! Sure, there were long days of hiking, dry camping, and some hot, dusty days - but that's why I wanted to be a geologist, and this was my first job as a bona fide geologist - my college diploma was two weeks old. We've often heard, that our first job is our best - but this was ridiculous good fortune.

-----Glen Canyon was unique among the canyons of the Southwest. You could float the river in a canoe - with your family. No need for fancy rafts and expensive outfitters for this one - there were no rapids. On a ten-day float, making only twenty or so miles a day, you would have a half-day for hiking - up the most glorious and remarkable side canyons of all the Colorado. Its beauty seemingly overwhelmed even John Wesley Powell, intrepid explorer of the canyons. Listen to the names he gave the side canyons - Music Temple, Lost Eden, Labyrinth, Hidden Passage, Cathedral, Crystal Spring, Forgotten … In a land of incredible beauty, it was unsurpassed for its intimate and accessible splendor.

-----My access into Glen Canyon was by jeep and on foot. There were myriad dirt trails bulldozed by intrepid cat skinners, some of whom lost their lives on the steep slopes. After a summer rain, the dirt tracks were slick as frog's hair. They were searching for yellow cake - uranium ore - in the geologic formations I was also mapping. Formations with names as wild as the country - Moenkopi, Shinarump, Chinle. The little green jeep bounced over and ground along those tracks, rapidly disappearing from disuse. They wandered, seemingly aimless, along the flanks of the river and into the tributary canyons. It was wild, remote wilderness, before the government had learned to designate wilderness.

-----Maps of that time would be unfamiliar to us. Recognizable continents didn't exist. All the land of earth was amassed into one vast megacontinent - Gondwanaland. Our region lay near the western coast, a vast plain of mud, silt, and sand washing off the huge landmass.

----- Another unfamiliarity - if we plugged our lat-long into our GPS back then, we would be nowhere near today's Glen Canyon. We know this because, amazingly, rocks have frozen within them navigation aids - magnetic records of their location. Tiny iron grains orient themselves parallel to Earth's magnetic field when they settle in water. When the sediment solidifies, this orientation is frozen into the rock. Sleuthing these magnetic clues in the rocks of Glen Canyon, geologists have determined where they formed - the Equator! Since those days, they have been aimlessly drifting across the latitudes until they have landed over latitude 37 North, longitude 111 West.

-----Equatorial climes are known for alternating cycles of torrential rainfall and long hot dry seasons. The rocks also contain clues to verify this climate for that ancient time. The red, leached, lateritic soils, and sands of the Niger look like the sediments eroding from the walls of Glen Canyon. Fossilized plants and animals in the Canyon have characteristics similar to those of the Congo. During the rainy season, mud-swollen streams and rivers meandered across the almost level coastal plain of western Gondwanaland. Some of the mud accumulated in swamps and on broad riverine and tidal mud flats. Distant volcanoes erupted fine greenish-white ash that drifted across the flatlands and settled into low areas. Iron minerals in the mud rusted into yellows, tans and reds.

-----There were millions of years of drought as the continent drifted northerly across the Tropics. A desert as parched and wide as the Sahara spread over the lowlands, smothering the muddy plains with drifting sand.

-----Sand dunes towered above the plain and marched with the winds. The sweeping cross-beds, characteristic of sand dunes, are preserved magnificently in the wall of Glen Canyon.

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-----Geologists catalog the ancient times of these rocks by wonderfully phonetic names - Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous. These Periods comprise the Mesozoic Era - Dinosaur Days, to every school kid. Reptiles ruled that ancient landscape. They lived, loved, fought, and died along those streams, swamps, and dunes. Their tracks and bones are enclosed in the walls of Glen Canyon - Reptile Rocks!

-----The relentless effects of erosion expose the fossils of those reptilian monsters today. The rocks of Glen Canyon are tough - they resist erosion, and stand in defiance of wind and rain - but yield they must. The Colorado River patiently slices through the tough rock, using knives of sharp sand grains churned in floodwaters. The river seeks weakness, and finding a fracture, carves downward. Soon, geologically speaking, the river has trapped itself in a canyon and the only way out is down … down … down. Deep, sheer walls rise hundreds of feet above the churning brown waters of the river. This is Glen Canyon!

-----By the end of that summer, I was deeply in love - with the Canyonlands of the Southwest. For the rest of my life, I would hike, float, map, and climb through the canyons of the Colorado and her tributaries. Geology would lure me to distant corners of the globe, enthralling and fascinating me - but my soul rests amongst these canyons.

-----That fall, I began work on my Masters degree. On a Christmas vacation trip to Boston, El and I had the good fortune to meet. Back west, I chose a thesis - of course, in the Colorado canyons. My mapping was a meteor impact crater, now part of Canyonlands National Park.

-----By the end of that mapping summer, El and I were deeply in love. We decided to share our lives. We settled along the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado that joins the Colorado in Glen Canyon. My first full-time job was 'seventh heaven' Re-Found - once again, an oil company gave me a jeep, a salary, a per diem, and said, "map the geology of Southeast Utah."

-----Glen Canyon Dam was under construction, and much of the geology of Glen Canyon was soon to be buried beneath Lake Powell. For almost a year, I mapped and trekked the most incredible piece of desert landscape in North America - the region geologists call the Colorado Plateau. I prowled her secret corners and poked the rocks. The stories preserved in stone were fascinating but the setting of those tales was incredible!

-----We lived in other parts of the country as our careers meandered along their course, but eventually we settled and raised our family near the Colorado. We introduced them, through backpack journeys and float trips, through the river's canyons.

-----But now the river no longer flowed through Glen Canyon. The dam held back the river and flooded Glen Canyon under hundreds of feet of lake.

-----After the waters of Lake Powell drowned Music Temple and Lost Eden, I swore I would never return to that corner of Utah - I didn't think I could bear to see a drowned Glen Canyon. When I read of the beauty of Lake Powell, I could only think, "You don't see but a small piece of the real beauty. What you see is the Sistine Chapel, flooded to within a foot of the ceiling. Or maybe, the Louvre, under the dammed waters of the Seine, with most of the great art below the water."

-----I have backpacked or floated through almost all the Colorado Canyons - ten years leading float trips through Grand Canyon, many trips down the San Juan, Cataract, Desolation, Gray, Stillwater, and Labyrinth Canyons. However, through the years, I never returned to the drowned remnants of my favorite, Glen Canyon. Time, however, has a way of tempering our wounds. Almost twenty years after leaving Glen Canyon for the last time, I was finally persuaded to lead a geological study trip to Lake Powell. However, I had to first get to know the 'new' Glen Canyon. What I had known would be hundreds of feet below my hull. I had to learn the highest parts of the canyon walls that, in the past, I could barely see rising to the skyline. Again, I was paid a salary, given a per diem, and this time, a boat instead of a jeep.

-----I spent a good part of January 1978 exploring Lake Powell. For my first trip back, I didn't want to see folks water-skiing in Glen Canyon - and in winter, I didn't! Alone, camping ashore or on the floor of the open 18-foot runabout, through winter rains and snows, and some snapping cold days, I became re-acquainted with Glen Canyon. I chugged up every side canyon, recognizing little of what I had once known, but soon found that I was enjoying the journey immensely. Perhaps she was no longer the dancing wild young beauty I once knew, but then again, neither was I the ol' river rat. The ol' gal was still a looker, and spirits yet roamed her canyons.

-----El and I first put our Halcyon into fresh water on Lake Powell, when she was one month old. It seemed appropriate. We had a great time exploring the lake together, and shared November rains and snows, and some more snapping cold days. Now, however, we had a warm stove and a secure roof over our heads. No more flapping nylon tents or driftwood cooking fires for morning coffee.

-----I'm writing this in a little canyon up the Escalante River, on Lake Powell, in April 2003. We are enjoying our Halcyon Days together - we shared our 44th anniversary on the lake.

-----There has been a drought in the Southwest, and the lake is down almost one hundred feet. With this lower level, it is not the Glen Canyon of old - nor the Lake Powell I had come to know - but a mixture of the two. More of the art gallery is exposed, but now it is veneered with either a white limey crust or with mud.

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-----We are anchored beneath the towering Rincon Alcove I camped under long ago.

-----A pair of ravens still nest on a ledge in the sandstone. They are my totemic bird, and I croak at them, just as I always do - and they came over to visit, just as they used to do.

-----The faint outline of the Anasazi dwelling can still be seen under the towering overhang of the alcove - the ruin I slept in when still a young man - was it really that long ago?

-----Time and the river flows on. For a brief moment, El and I anchor in the moonlight on the beautiful shore of the flowing river of time.

(04/03)

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