Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Lower River

We polish off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the side of the dirt road, then hike down a canyon towards the river, exhausted from walking around all night in Las Vegas.  I pause to lie down and fall asleep for an indeterminate amount of time. I wake up as an ATV screams down the canyon, roars past, doubles back.  The driver yells:
“Is he OK?” gesturing to Zak crumpled in the sand.
“Yeah, we were just hiking and he fell asleep,” I explain unconvincingly.  Four or five other ATVs and a truck pull up. They unsuccessfully try to find a way around the gate to the wilderness area.
“How was the ride down?” I ask.
“Bo-ring!” and he climbs a rock with his machine.
Noise.  After months in some of the most remote places in the Lower 48 I am more sensitive to noise than I have been in my entire life.  The constant stream of air traffic around Las Vegas provides the first realization that the lower river will not be like the upper.  For weeks we paddle alongside roads, railroads, mansions, shacks, powerboats, jet skis, backhoes, RVs, helicopters, airplanes, and everywhere people, people, people.  The cold that protected our solitude up north has driven tens of thousands of people south to the desert, and seeking solace from the arid wasteland that gave them solace from the winter, they congregate along the river.  These snowbirds have formed seasonal RV communities along every stretch of river and reservoir that has a decent enough road down to it.  In places, unbroken lines of houses are reminiscent of canyon walls; we decide that watching the houses go by is almost more entertaining.  It turns out we didn’t have to hike up to Vegas to get a taste of Nevada sin; casinos crowd the river in Laughlin as water taxis ply the shallow, clear stream.  We stash our boats in the bushes and stuff ourselves an all-you-can-eat buffet, then paddle down in the dark to an island surrounded by suburban homes.  As much as the thrum of civilization grates my sensitized senses, the smell of burgers wafting over the river is enough to bring any calorie fiend to his knees.  There’s no point in pretending we’re in the wilderness anymore.
The noise is always there in the background, sometimes the foreground, the sound of the machines civilization has created to make the task of living as efficient as possible.  As I deride the lifestyles of these people who think that taking the muffler off their four-wheeler and screaming around the river beach on a quiet evening is a good idea, a note of hypocrisy slips in.  I’m paddling a machine designed to be efficient, surrounded by specialized, factory produced equipment, eating processed food.  I am not innocent, or even much of a positive example. I just don’t want to take out.  At least, I justify, we aren’t direct contributors to the noise.
One morning we strap the kayaks together, packrafts on top, get in our sleeping bags, drink beer, read, and don’t take a single paddle stroke.  We make it twenty miles before it gets dark, but camping is restricted in the protected Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, so we have to go another fifteen.  We count at least two thousand geese silhouetted against the dusky red mountains. The stars come out and the road stops and for the first time since the Grand Canyon, maybe longer than that, I hear the sound of nothing. No one is camped here, the canal construction has faded, the airplanes are elsewhere, the wind has stopped and the river slides slowly through the reeds.  I lay wide-eyed for a long time, listening to the nothing between beaver splashes.  Orion arcs across the sky and Jupiter sets before I fall asleep.  I wake occasionally when our ungainly raft bumps reeds or the shore, and finally we find a beach to sleep on.  Silence, for now, is a more precious commodity than water.
In the morning we find that what little water we had left has spilled, so breakfast is jerky and Budweiser.  It seems odd that we could run out of water next to a river, but we’re scared of Colorado River water.  We’ve been skeptical about the water quality ever since the chemical plant in Wyoming, but we finally stopped drinking it below the Hoover Dam, downstream of Vegas.  Our fears are confirmed when our friend Helen tells us about the pharmaceutical waste going in Lake Mead from the city.  So we get all our water from spigots in parks, preferring not to think about where that water comes from.  I hope LA and Phoenix have better filtration systems than we do.  And as straws come in, slowly reducing the Colorado to a trickle, we imagine the contamination concentrates, and we avoid touching the water.  Paranoid?  Maybe.  It’s disconcerting that this river that has provided water for drinking, cleaning, and transportation now does only the latter, and the dams make even moving a chore now.
As we pass the Colorado River Aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project, the Gila Irrigation District, Palo Verde Diversion, and All American Canal, the river dwindles in size until twenty miles up from Yuma it’s barely twenty feet across and a few feet deep. The water leaves the river quietly, herded away through fenced-in concrete canals. It’s often hard to tell if there is more or less water when we put in below each dam, but by the time we portage the second-to last dam, Laguna, it’s clear that calling this a river is a stretch.  The cumulative thirst of the Southwest has drained all but the small amount mandated by treaty to flow into Mexico.  Unexpected rapids are formed by riprap.  Cane chokes the straightened, leveed banks.  And finally, at Morelos Dam on the US-Mexican border, the river ends.  Scrutinized by Border Patrol, we float next to the dam, watching the entire flow hang a right and disappear under a grate into the Mexican canal system.  Only seepage leaks out from the base of the dam, providing just enough moisture for a thick stand of tamarisk to obscure the old riverbed.  Upstream, I would shout, “This is the Colorado River!” where it seemed absurd that I could spit across what was formerly one of the mightiest rivers in the world.  Now, we’re silent.

The end of the river- Morelos Dam.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. My tears flow with more volume and intensity. As with all things, there is a beginning and an end.


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