Floating down the river…. A wild. Western, desert river. Ed Abbey has written about it, ole J.W. Powell pioneered it, and last month I found myself as a living part of the human story of these rivers. Through the canyons of Desolation, Gray, Stillwater, then the torrential Cataract; human stories run deep here, like those of plants and animals found along the way. We drove from Prescott north, the country growing more sparse, drier, and grey. A long dirt road, through what could have been called Desolation Flats, led us to the river. Oil shale rigs lumbered on either side, out in the pastures, like skeletons from ancient Pleistocene mega fauna still trying to suck a little bit of life from the now barren landscape. The layer of shale we were driving upon told of a wetter time, when life was not so disparate and dry here. Green plants laid down to die in rich swampy muds millennia ago, giving the gift (or plague) of fossil fuels to humans.
After one flat tire and plenty of dust, we pulled into Sand Wash -- our river put in and welcome mat for what was to be our floating home and classroom for the next 21 days. A wild, roaming band of horses on the Ute Reservation side of the river watched us depart and our expedition began. Our route was similar to but shorter than the one John Wesely Powell took over 150 years earlier. Thanks to those who came before us and their trial and error, we no longer use wooden dories or bring only bacon, flour, and coffee down the river. Our yellow rafts stick out like a box of crayons in the wilderness, and even the 18 foot oar boat is dwarfed by immense canyon walls. Calm, refreshing water eases us into the canyon, soon to be whitewater around the next bend. A trip down the river begins…
We meet other river parties along our route, all of whom are in disbelief when we tell them we are on a college course. Yes, we do have books with us, and we do find time to study.
We soon fall into the rhythm of the river. We rise with the sun or at the call of hot brew!, eat a hot breakfast, then rig the boats in comfortable efficiency. On the water from 9 to 5, our days are filled with floating class discussions, lots of laughs and absurd stories, stops for rapid scouts, and adrenaline surges as we dance through whitewater.
There are calm times too, times of quiet wonderment and reflective thoughts. We are orchestrated into silence by the water blue wings of Great Blue Heron, whose wings are the arms of a composer, directing our chatter into the clean end to a joyful symphony. Herons accompany us down the river, in a great game of catch-up in which we never prevail. We watch their ancient dinosaur-like body as we approach, each time whispering stay stay stay. Before we are too close our screamingly yellow alien boats cause alarm in the bird. The long neck lengthens, and the huge delicate body takes off down river. Could we be continually chasing one individual down the length of the Green? Our apologies for your strife, dear heron.