Archive | Outdoors RSS feed for this section
Goldwater, Bower and the disastrous damming of the Colorado River
How two bitter opponents came to a meeting of the minds on water in the West.
The Colorado River runs below Glen Canyon Dam. (Los Angeles Times / February 6, 2005)
By Paul VanDevelderJanuary 10, 2014
As all eyes in the West look to the courts, the skies and the Colorado River for relief from 14 years of drought, it might be useful to remember the battles waged by two titans of the 20th century who played leading roles in the drama that led to the current mess.
The first protagonist was Arizona’s favorite son, Sen. Barry Goldwater. His nemesis was the fearless environmental crusader, David Brower, a founder of the Sierra Club known to those who loved him as The Archdruid. Early in their parallel careers, these two men were fierce adversaries over water projects across the Southwest. By the end of their lives, however, the tables had turned in the most unpredictable of ways.
During the boom years for damming American rivers, no politician was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Goldwater. He was the Bureau of Reclamation’s best friend in Congress whenever the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects such as the Glen Canyon Dam.
While Goldwater and the reclamation bureau were enjoying a golden age for water projects, Brower battled to stop many of Goldwater’s pet endeavors. Most notably, Brower led an unsuccessful national campaign to stop Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell in northern Arizona. Brower called his defeat on Glen Canyon “the darkest day of my life” and vowed it would never happen again. It didn’t.
Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. In 1997, PBS aired the documentary “Cadillac Desert,” based on Marc Reisner’s book of the same name. In the third of four episodes, Goldwater and Reisner discussed the adjudication of the Colorado River, and the silver-haired paragon of American conservatism revealed a remarkable change of heart. Looking out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, he asked Reisner a pair of rhetorical questions that clearly pained him: “What have we done to this beautiful desert, to our wild rivers? All that dam building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”
A few months later, I had lunch with Brower and asked him what he made of Goldwater’s change of heart. Brower was then in his late 80s but just as fierce as ever, if not more so. He cackled with an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called him! And he answered, and I said, ‘Barry, this is David Brower; what do you say we do the right thing: help me take out Glen Canyon Dam.'”
The Archdruid looked at me, eyes twinkling with green fire. “He said he would; he said that was a grand idea. Then he died a few months later.”
And Brower died not long after that.
In many respects, trouble with the Colorado began long before Goldwater and Brower fought over Glen Canyon. The trouble with the Colorado, and any other river, for that matter, is that nothing in nature is static. Flow rates, based on historical data, are inevitably flawed. When the Colorado’s water was divvied up between the states and Indian tribes in the 1960s, the math was based on hydrologic fictions. The river’s annual flow was overestimated by millions of acre-feet, and taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not change that by one drop. The nation had fully invested in the vain belief that we could dam its way out of aridity and drought, and it had built up the desert based on that faith.
Nevertheless, taking out Glen Canyon Dam would make a resounding statement. It would say: Wild rivers rock. It would say: “We should have left well enough alone; we should have listened to John Wesley Powell and limited settlement on arid lands.”
We’ll never see the likes again of Goldwater, Brower and their cohort. Guys like Floyd Dominy and Edward Abbey were men of a time, of an America that no longer exists. We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the Indian wars and reverse-engineer the outcomes to create a legacy with less shame, less betrayal, less destructive exploitation. We’re stuck with what we’ve constructed, just as we’re stuck with a long history of terrible water management.
The Colorado River has always been a special case. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, and climate modeling suggests things are likely to get worse. Ironically, the first state in line to lose water from diminishing reserves is Arizona. Suddenly, those 280 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area, not to mention tens of thousands of swimming pools, look kind of ridiculous. And don’t look now, but guess who’s first in line for the water that would otherwise water those golf courses?
The tribes. Dozens of them: the Fort Mojaves, the Shoshones, the Chemehuevi and Quechan, the Hopi and Navajo, et al. Where water flows between a rock and a dry place, tribes get first dibs.
Karma, it seems, is very patient, and it has its own funny way of asking, “What in the world were we thinking?”
22 Absolutely Essential Diagrams You Need For Camping
From survival to s’mores, here’s everything you need to know to ensure a flawless camping trip. posted on June 17, 2013 at 2:27pm EDT
1. How to Build a Campfire
2. Tent Tips
3. Everything You Need to Know About the Technicality of S’mores
4. How to Estimate Remaining Daylight with Your Hand
5. Snacks to Pack
6. What You Can Do to Repel Mosquitoes
7. How to Sleep Warm
8. How to Survive Hypothermia
9. Backpacker’s Checklist
10. How to Rig a Tarp
11. How to Get Your Dutch Oven to the Right Temperature
You can very easily adapt recipes you can make in a kitchen oven to an outdoor dutch oven.
12. How to Identify Animal Tracks
13. Know Your Stargazing Events This Summer
14. 10 Easy Fire Starters
15. Kayak Camping Checklist
16. A Guide to Hammock Camping
17. Guide to Spider Bites
18. Checklist for Car Camping
19. How to Make Shelters in Survival Situations Using Nature
20. How to React to a Wildlife Encounter
21. Tarp Tips
22. Know Your Poisonous Plants
Meet Jack English, a 93-year-old legend who lives in a cabin isolated deep in the Ventana Wilderness.
While on a hunting trip he learned that an old homestead in the Ventana Wilderness was being put up for auction by the estate of a childless heiress. He put a bid on the property and won. On the land he built a small cabin using materials from the land and milling trees by hand. When his wife passed away, Jack effectively left “society” and moved to the cabin full time.
Deaf, blind AT hiker gets help in Bethel
From left are Appalachian Trail hiker and special service provider Roni Lepore of New Jersey, AT hiker Roger Poulin of Winthrop, and hikers Paul Austin, Molly Siegel of Bethel and Samantha Southam of Bethel. Lepore and Poulin, who are both deaf, were helped through Mahoosuc Notch in Riley and Grafton townships by local hikers.
Alison Aloisio, Sun Media Wire
Oxford Hills |
Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 11:52 am
BETHEL — A deaf and nearly blind hiker is nearing the end of his 2,185-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and several Bethel residents have been helping him out as he approaches his goal.
Roger Poulin of Winthrop was born with Usher Syndrome, which affects vision and hearing and causes problems with balance. He is blind in one eye and has only tunnel vision in the other.
He set out on his journey more than three years ago, accompanied by Roni Lepore of New Jersey, who serves as what is known as a special service provider.
Like Poulin, Lepore is deaf. They met in 2007 at the Helen Keller National Center in New York while attending a Deaf-Blind Interpreters Training Seminar.
Poulin told Lepore about his dream to hike the AT, and he also said he needed a special service provider to go with him. Poulin said he wanted to do the hike in part to show others who are deaf-blind that the dual disability doesn’t have to stop them from taking on challenges. Lepore, a hiker herself, agreed to go along.
After doing a lot of research and taking camping classes, the two were prepared for their adventure — and for however long it took them to complete it.
Poulin used trekking poles to help him with his balance, as well as arm and shin guards, safety glasses, gloves and a helmet. Climbing over all the rocks, roots and other obstacles on the trail resulted in frequent falls, and he often ran into low-hanging tree branches.
He communicated with Lepore using American Sign Language. The two went by the trail names “Adventurous Cane” (Poulin) and “Rambling Shamrock.”
Along the way, Poulin said Aug. 30, they met many hikers who were amazed at his progress. It was slower than what he had first anticipated, however.
“At first, I thought that I could complete it in six to eight months, perhaps nine months” like blind hiker Bill Irwin, author of “Blind Courage,” Poulin said. “When I began hiking from the Springer Mountain (Georgia), I became frustrated so quickly when I realized that I couldn’t keep up with other hikers and hikers passing me most of the time. I had to change my entire view of the hiking world … I do not have to force myself to fit with the ‘mold’ of normal and sighted hikers’ ability.
“I reframed my thinking by focusing on my needs, well-being, and safety to hike. If I need more time to get through, it is OK. It was not easy in the beginning. Over time, it became easier on me to accept that I hike on my own terms — Deaf Blind Time. I give all what I can do to get through in one piece, then I am contented that I know that I do my best to continue with hiking and be patient to reach my dream. I didn’t expect that it would take more than two years, but if it takes four years to do it, then it is OK with me.”
When the pair arrived in Maine in June, the going got tougher.
Poulin described his experience in an interview at Bethel Outdoor Adventures, where Jeff and Patti Parsons and Molly Siegel have been among local outdoorspeople providing them with lodging and assistance.
“Maine is very challenging to hike compared to other states that I hiked in,” said Poulin, who signed his description to Lepore, who in turn typed it out on a laptop computer. “On the trail, there are many exposed roots, large-sized boulders, muddy/bog/boreal fields, steep to climb down especially wet and slippery rock/trail.
“Prior to the White Mountains and Maine, my daily average of miles to hike was between 12 to 15 miles a day. Upon my entrance into the White Mountains and beyond, my daily average dropped to 5 miles a day. By encountering this challenging terrain on the trail, I work hard to negotiate and get through. My body works very hard and I get pretty exhausted by end of day. The weight of my backpack creates another challenge for me to go over the challenging terrain as well due to my balance issue.
“When I first came to Bethel Outdoor Adventure in June, I met Jeffrey and Pattie Parsons. I asked them to shuttle us to the Grafton Notch State Park. My original plan was to hike 95 miles from Grafton Notch State Park to Route 27 in Stratton — around 10 days of hiking.
“I met them again a few weeks later, in July, to inquire where we can find a store to replace my broken bicycle helmet. Somehow, it led us to discuss my AT hiking plans with Jeff and Pattie and all of us got involved to get some help from the Bethel Outdoor Adventure with my hiking challenges.”
Poulin’s original timetable fell by the wayside.
“I had to exit in Andover when I experienced severe case of heartburn and dizzy vision,” he said. “I didn’t expect the terrain to be that daunting. I had to get off the trail to get some rest,” he said. “We had to change my hiking plans several times” and finally completed the section Aug. 28.
Poulin got some extra guidance from Siegel and others through the Mahoosuc Notch.
“From Grafton going south, it goes through the Mahoosuc Notch,” Poulin said. “It required special hiking plans since my SSP didn’t feel comfortable going in without support person(s). The blind hiker, Bulldog, in 2010, went through that area and it took him 9.5 hours to get through 1.1 miles of Mahoosuc Notch. With Operation MNOB (Mahoosuc Notch Or Bust) comprised of three hikers (Molly Siegel, Sam Southam and Paul Austin), we were able to get through without major incident within 4.5 hours.”
Siegel had helped Poulin and Lepore earlier with a re-supply hike. For the Mahoosuc hike, she and the others hiked two miles north on the trail and met the pair headed south.
“Roni let him know if there were dangers,” Siegel said. “We didn’t have to do that much. We took some of their gear.”
To warn Poulin of potential danger, such as a hole, Lepore would tap on one of Poulin’s poles to get his attention and then sign a warning.
Siegel said she enjoyed the unique circumstance of hiking along without a steady chatter among the group, which provided more opportunity to take in the natural surroundings.
She also said she was impressed “at how aware (Poulin) is of his surroundings, how well he uses his poles, and what a good system he and Lepore have to make it all work.”
Poulin and Lepore left Bethel on Saturday for the last leg of the hike — 114.5 miles from Route 15 in Monson to the summit of Mt. Katahdin, via the 100-Mile Wilderness.
Poulin was asked what he would do when he finishes his journey.
“People have been asking of me to write a book sharing my experiences of the past three years,” he said. “To be frank with you, all I think about is taking one thing at a time — to reach the northern terminus of Mount Katahdin. Once I conquer the Mount Katahdin, then I can start thinking about how to share my experience with the world. The reason for that is that I sustained an injury to my rib cage that forced me off the trail last July (2012) and ended my hiking season. Therefore, I want to focus on my ‘last haul.’”
He said he’s grateful for the help he has received while in the Bethel region.
“These folks at the Bethel Outdoor Adventure are like my family!” he said. “I feel very welcome and being part of the community. These people make efforts to communicate with me in any way they are able to via paper/pen, smartphone, laptop, email, gesture, etc. I am a lucky man meeting the Parsons and folks of the Bethel Outdoor Adventure and Bethel. They make an impact on my hiking experience by giving me some support. I may never know how much progress I might have made otherwise in Maine if not for them.”
To follow Poulin and Lepore’s progress on their final leg, see their blog.
Long, but simply INCREDIBLE.
The video alone was enough to give me chills and make we want to yell and cheer them on (30 years later).
Cliff’s Notes: Glen Canyon dam stops up the Colorado river upon its completion, forever changing the dynamic of the Grand Canyon. A couple decades later a record snowfall and melt put incredible amounts of water into the river and nearly topped the dam – they had to release water as fast as possible. Three crazy guys in a wooden dory decided to launch in the middle of the night and ride the river ran hard and fast – as it had for 6 millions years. Drama, excitement, craziness galore… they set a record. They were the fastest boat (motor or oar powered) to ever run that stretch of canyon.
Rocketing Into the Grand Canyon’s Great Unknown
Three whitewater guides, one wooden dory, and the Colorado River, swollen by record snowmelt and raging with a fury that boatmen hadn’t seen since the days of John Wesley Powell. From Kevin Fedarko’s epic new book, The Emerald Mile, the incredible story of the fastest, wildest trip ever attempted through the Grand Canyon.
By: Kevin Fedarko
IF YOU EVER take a guided river trip through the Grand Canyon, your guides are likely to tell you the story of Kenton Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve “Wren” Reynolds. These men are legends in the tight-knit fraternity of canyon boatmen, largely because of an adventure they embarked on in late June of 1983, when they defied common sense and the National Park Service and set off, at night, to attempt a record-breaking speed run down the Colorado River in a 17-foot wooden dory called the Emerald Mile.
Their starting point was the usual spot for Grand Canyon launches: Lees Ferry, a put-in 15 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam that’s marked as mile zero on river maps. The finish line was at mile 277: the Grand Wash Cliffs, near the entrance to Lake Mead. To get from A to Z, they figured, would require roughly two nights and days of furious rowing. That is, assuming they lived through it, since they were making their bid when conditions on the Colorado—especially at one notorious choke point deep inside the canyon—were almost as wild as they’d been in 1869, the year John Wesley Powell led a team that completed the first harrowing canyon passage on the then undammed Colorado.
That spring and summer, the river was especially furious, unpredictable, and deadly. Massive, rapid snowmelt from an epic western winter was straining the capacity of Glen Canyon’s mammoth concrete arch dam, completed in 1966, which regulated the flow of water into the Grand Canyon. By early June, Glen was holding back the runoff from 108,000 square miles, a region that included four western states. Failure of the dam’s enormous spillway tunnels was a serious possibility; to prevent it, federal officials took a series of extraordinary measures, at one point increasing the release of water to 92,000 cubic feet per second, the biggest torrent the canyon had seen in 25 years. But the runoff was something else, too: a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience, in the most direct and visceral way imaginable, the ancestral majesty of what was once the wildest river in America.
The central figure in this escapade was Grua, a 33-year-old boatman who worked for the revered founder of Grand Canyon Dories, Martin Litton. Grua, who died in 2002 at 52, was the ultimate river rat, a compact, supremely fit man with an eccentric streak that was balanced by an encyclopedic knowledge of the mysterious physics of the Colorado’s notorious rapids. Before his death, he gave a series of interviews to a friend and fellow guide named Lew Steiger, who was able to record Grua’s memories of the speed run and his impressions of the men he rowed with.
Grua’s partners in the venture were Reynolds, 33, a superb oarsman who was known for his precision and power, and Petschek, 49, who’d participated in the Emerald Mile’s maiden run in 1971 and then helped salvage the boat’s carcass after it was badly damaged in a river mishap six years later.
The men had all the requisite skills, but they lacked crucial pieces of information, since they skirted authority to make their run. They didn’t know that several guided groups (still on the river as the floodwaters rose) had been slammed by the hydraulics; only 12 hours before their 11 P.M. launch on June 25, at an infamous rapid called Crystal, a rafting party was torn apart, with one fatality. They didn’t know that the Park Service had helicoptered in a ranger to stand watch above Crystal, forcing boatmen to pull over before carefully picking their way past it. In short, they didn’t know that what they had in mind was borderline suicidal. And if they had known? They probably would have gone anyway.
A FEW MILES past Lees Ferry, as Grua rowed through the canyon’s tamer early stretches, he paused at the end of every third or fourth stroke to glance over his shoulder and peer downstream, looking for the blur of whiteness that would herald a rapid. Wherever moonlight made it down to the river, he could discern the glimmer of wave tops. But in the long, canyon-obstructed reaches where everything went black, he was forced to rely on what he could feel—the subtle vibrations that the river sent through the wooden oar shafts into his fingers and hands, and from there to the places where his deeper knowledge resided. As he felt his way downstream, the river’s contours scrolled along the surface of his mind.
At the same time, Petschek and Wren were relying on a different set of sensory impressions to do their job, the crucial task of high-siding. Drawing on their innate feel for river hydraulics, which they could sense by cocking their ears and gripping the gunwales, they braced for the oncoming waves with a subtle lean of the shoulders or, when necessary, an explosive thrust of their torsos to maintain the boat’s equilibrium.
This work unfolded in wordless harmony. The plan was to row backward through calmer sections to maximize speed, but to push through the bigger rapids bow-first. Every 20 minutes the crew swapped roles, with each oarsman rowing furiously until he neared exhaustion. When his energy began to ebb, he would call for a breather, leaping toward the stern or the bow while his replacement scrambled into the oar station. The order of rowing—first Grua, then Petschek, then Wren—remained more or less the same, with each boatman circling the decks from cockpit to stern to bow as the dory raced downstream.
Combined, the men had more than 40 years of experience on the Colorado. Without that, they wouldn’t have stood a chance of completing the speed run, but even so, they knew they faced a monumental challenge. In the first hour of the trip, each began to understand that the river they were riding was something entirely new, a realization that was sobering and strange but also deeply thrilling.
For more than 20 years, the guides of the Grand Canyon had lived and worked on a diminished river, constrained by a dam that most of them believed should never have been built. But with this flood, time had unexpectedly been reversed, and the past—for a brief and intoxicating moment—had become the present. To contend with these challenges in the middle of the night, without pausing to scout before entering a rapid, all while rowing harder and faster than they ever had in their lives, would bring them closer than any living boatmen to experiencing America’s greatest river in its natural state. This was the Old Man himself, unbound, a thing of monstrous and terrible beauty. To be swept into the Colorado’s embrace, to race over its ancient bedrock, to surrender themselves to the fantastic and melancholy essence of its fleeting wildness, was something to marvel at. This was the river that had flowed through the dreams of John Wesley Powell. And like Powell and his crew more than a hundred years earlier, Grua, Petschek, and Wren were rocketing into the Great Unknown.
AS THE EMERALD MILE blazed downstream, what the men noticed first was how much had disappeared. In the upper stretch of the canyon, virtually every major river feature—the keeper holes, the crashing waves, the braided ribbons of current twisting upon themselves beneath the surface—had been washed out by the massive discharge from the dam. They found themselves considering the possibility that the speed run might be less arduous than they had initially feared.
Was this going to be a cinch? Grua wondered.
The answer arrived shortly after 1 A.M. as they entered a ten-mile necklace of nine chain-linked rapids known as the Roaring Twenties and encountered the first of the bizarre hydraulics that would plague them for the rest of the trip. The eddy fences were massive, and the standing waves—which were supposed to be stationary—were milling around on the river’s surface like a herd of coyote-spooked cattle, shifting position and angle without warning, colliding or collapsing on themselves with thunderous explosions. Trying to feel past these obstacles on the fly was alien and surreal.
At Twenty-One Mile Rapid, they had to dodge a series of moving whirlpools, huge and glistening in the dark. At Twenty-Four-and-One-Half, most of the current was flinging itself directly into the side of a limestone cliff on the right side of the river. Just to the left of that, the water formed three separate eddies, ovals inside ovals like the eye of a cat.
The Emerald Mile was batted about like a cork. Each time it rose and fell to meet another swell, the bottom slapped down with a harsh crack that reverberated through her chines and gunwales. The blows also rattled the white-knuckled crew, who were now wrestling with their biggest fear—that an exceptionally violent hit would fling one of them overboard and whisk him downstream in the dark.
Petschek, always meticulous, had anticipated this possibility and had brought new flashlights for each man to wear around his neck. But that wouldn’t do much good in a section like the Roaring Twenties, where the current was so fast and the turbulence so confusing.
Around 2:15, they punched through the last of the Twenties and entered the Redwall, a section of 360-million-year-old vertical limestone cliffs whose landmarks, lost in darkness, flashed past almost faster than they could register. On the right, at mile 32, was Vasey’s Paradise, where a lovely water-fall burst from the side of a cliff and cascaded through a hanging garden of ferns and flowers. A mile downriver on the left lay Redwall Cavern, a sand-floored amphitheater so vast that Powell had estimated—incorrectly—that 50,000 people could fit inside it. Several miles farther downstream was the site where the Bureau of Reclamation had drilled test bores for the first of two Grand Canyon dams that environmentalists had blocked in the late 1960s.
These were some of the most interesting spots in the upper canyon, places no dory trip would ever fail to stop. The Emerald Mile blew past them all.
AS THE NIGHT wore on, the flat-out rowing and ceaseless high-siding took a toll. By 4:10 A.M., as the men passed Saddle Canyon, a tributary at mile 47, the fatigue was showing in their hands. When a rower was relieved, his fingers would refuse to uncurl, forcing him to slide his fists off the ends of the handles, his fingers still forming an O. As he settled into the stern and peered downstream, he would straighten them one by one, gently massaging them back to life.
In their oarsmanship, all three men were evenly matched. But as the night wore on, Petschek and Wren found themselves reliant on Grua to assess the rapids that lay ahead. For years, Grua had been making careful notes, anticipating what floodwater would do along each bend and curve. As they moved downstream, he called out the invisible mile markers and features one by one, with uncanny accuracy. “Astonishing, man,” Petschek would remember years later, shaking his head. “He’d never run that water before, but Kenton had done it in his mind.”
Around 4:45, Grua warned that they were nearing the top of Nankoweap, one of the longest rapids in the canyon, which now featured a series of heavy laterals—angular, rolling waves that crashed together at the center of the river. As they powered through this crosshatched section of current, they sensed a subtle change in the night. The bottom of the canyon was still bathed in darkness, but the narrow ribbon of sky framed by the walls had begun to lighten, shifting from black to violet, and the rimrock was visible.
For the next hour, they raced through the false dawn while the river, wide and broad through here, swung sinuously from side to side. At mile 60, they entered a new layer of rock, the brown and coarse-grained Tapeats sandstone, and passed the confluence point where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River entered from the left. Just before 6:15, as they were approaching Chuar, a rapid at mile 65.5, the first rays of sunlight angled over the rim and lit the upper bands on the eastward-facing cliffs like the inside of a cantaloupe.
“Ah, thank God,” Wren said to himself. “We made it through the night.”
THIRTY-TWO MILES above one of the worst rapids of the trip—Crystal, at mile 98—the men were able to see things that had been invisible in the dark. The eddies were full of flotsam, mainly shattered tree branches and battered bits of driftwood. They also began to catch sight of other river expeditions, most still onshore with their boats tied up. The only people awake in these camps were boatmen on kitchen duty, boiling water for coffee. As the team whipped past, the boatmen stared, wondering what a lone dory was doing on the river at this time of the morning.
Around 7:20, the crew reached mile 76 and prepared to enter Hance, a long, jumbled stretch of standing waves studded with boulders and ledges. They had no intention of stopping to scout it, so they had only a few seconds to take stock and realize that a run through the center was out of the question. Grua, at the oars, decided to bear right and try to ride out a wave train that canyon boatmen normally were careful to avoid. With flawlessly timed high-siding from Petschek and Wren, they flew over the rollers without a hitch, but the size of the waves left them stunned.
At the bottom of Hance, the walls on either side of the river closed up and the morning sunshine was abruptly cut off. Here, the Colorado narrowed dramatically as the river entered Upper Granite Gorge, the canyon’s sub-basement. As the cliffs tilted toward dead vertical, it felt as if a set of stone gates had slammed shut behind them.
Squeezed to less than half its width upstream, the current began pushing against itself, and as the turbulence increased, so did the river’s power. The water seethed and churned, folding back and detonating. Now brute force was required to execute pivots that had been performed upstream with little more than a deft flick of an oar blade. The smallest mistake would flip the boat in a heartbeat.
The size of these haystacks was shocking: some were almost 20 feet from trough to crest, dimensions found on the open ocean. The wave faces were rapidly changing -direction, shifting from left to right and back again, forcing Grua to make furious corrections to meet them squarely:
BAM!—a strike from the left—wham—a blow from the right—with two more ahead, no chance of correcting for both, and a third looming in the middle just downstream—wham—BAM!
The dory reeled—it was about to go sideways and broach—but Petschek and Wren hurled their weight to the right, then left, then again to the right. Up the face of one wave, into the trough of the next. Curlers were coming over the bow from both sides, drenching the men in sheets that were heavy, green, and painfully cold.
Grua rode the rooster tail of current between the final pocket of waves, neatly threading them—but now a 20-foot whirlpool loomed into view. He corrected again—cranking sharply, pulling with his right oar while pushing on the left—and the dory snapped around on a hot dime, spinning 180 degrees. Then Grua leaned far forward, dug his blades into the water, and exploded, pulling on both oars, spearing the boat between the vortex and the eddy fence. And—whoosh—they were through, bobbing in the heaves of the spent rapid.
And so it went. They slammed through the rapids in the upper gorge—Sockdolager and Grapevine and Eighty-Three Mile—then made it past Zoroaster and Eighty-Five Mile and into Pipe Creek and the Devil’s Spittoon. It was intense and brutal and exhausting. But by God they were truly flying.
AS GRUA AND HIS companions approached the top of Crystal Rapid, Park Service Ranger John Thomas found himself wrestling with a tangle of conflicting impulses.
Word of the Emerald Mile’s illicit departure had been reported to a ranger at Lees Ferry, but by the time the news had reached the South Rim, Thomas was already aboard a helicopter and clattering into the canyon, under orders to flag down boats and warn them that the only way to get past Crystal was by hugging the shallow water on the far right shoreline. When the dory materialized, he knew nothing about the speed run. But Thomas was a boatman, too, and the instant he spotted the Emerald Mile the dominoes tipped over in his mind. Nearly 30 years later, he laughed about it. “I knew exactly who it was,” he said, “and what they were doing.”
Thomas’s time on the river had overlapped with the golden age of guiding, the period in which visitation had skyrocketed from a handful of eccentrics like Martin Litton to tens of thousands of river tourists. He was old enough to remember the freedom that had prevailed back then, when a man could launch a boat and disappear downriver without having to ask permission or wait in line. Like everyone who had known the Colorado during that era, Thomas mourned its passing.
Officially, of course, he couldn’t condone the men’s actions. This piece of performance art that Grua was trying to pull off was dangerous, irresponsible, and just plain wrong. In addition to undermining the authority of the Park Service and dishonoring the tragedy that had taken place at Crystal, Grua’s stunt was an insult to the people at the Glen Canyon Dam, who were desperately trying to prevent Lake Powell from blowing a gasket.
But as he stood and watched the Emerald Mile complete its approach, Thomas had to acknowledge the tremors of admiration and envy pulsating through his body. Yes, this was scandalous and deplorable and unforgivably dumb, but he also knew that a speed run under these conditions took ferocious courage and a shining sense of vision—and that, as such, it was glorious.
Thomas had no interest in telling the crew of the Emerald Mile that they had to pull over, so instead he did this: he walked away, pretending not to see. Without looking back, he turned from the river and started climbing a hill to a rock terrace above the rapid to watch the run unfold.
AS THOMAS ENACTED his charade, Grua was busy focusing on a ritual, a silent liturgy performed only at the top of the biggest hellbenders on the Colorado. Every boatman has one, and although the details vary, the basic outline, even today, is more or less the same.
First, you cup a hand in the river and run the water over the back of your neck and face to reduce the cold shock of what’s coming. Then you spit into your palms and twirl your oar blades to confirm that they’re rotating smoothly in the locks. Finally, you settle into silence and begin talking yourself into a mental space where you prepare for the threshold moment—the point where the world drops away, the jitters subside, and a cool resolve seizes the tissues of your chest and belly.
Grua drew several deep breaths and rolled his shoulders. He cast a quick glance toward the shore to gauge his speed, then snapped his gaze back to the current line, bending his mind to the task ahead.
Listen. Stare. Breathe.
Just beyond the bow post, he could see where the river dropped off. Past that line, erratic bursts of spray were being hurled into the air by invisible waves.
And now he waited for it. At the top of every rapid, a moment comes when the topography of the whitewater reveals itself. This happens in an instant; there is no preamble. One second you’re approaching a flat horizon line, the next, what lies beyond is visible in all its fury. That final flash comes like a slap in the face, the sting amplified by the knowledge that the choices you’ve made—your angle, your timing, your speed—are now irrevocably set.
As Grua approached this point of no return, he processed a few last-second details. A slice of calmer water was sluicing past the right-hand shoreline—he could see that now. But that water was too shallow for a wooden boat, studded with half-submerged boulders and laced with broken tree limbs that stuck out like punji sticks.
“Do you think I should cut right?” Grua shouted over his shoulder, looking for confirmation from Petschek.
“You don’t have a chance of doing it,” Petschek called back. “Keep her straight!”
The men braced as the current seized the hull and slung them toward the biggest mess of whitewater that any Grand Canyon boatman had ever seen.
From the shore, Thomas had a full view of the scene, and as he watched he was overcome by a sense of dread. Grua’s route would take them straight into the main hole. What the hell are you guys thinking? he wondered. Why are you all the way out there?
Then it hit him: Grua didn’t know what had taken place at Crystal during the previous 36 hours, so he had no idea of the horror show in store for anyone who failed to avoid the center and pick through the safer line on the right. All Thomas could do was stand there, exclaiming to himself, No, no, no!
PETSCHEK WOULD never forget what he saw as the Emerald Mile slid into Crystal’s maw and he got his first glimpse of the thing that rose beyond the hole.
“I remember looking downstream over the rest of the boat, and there it was, a wall of -water, absolutely vertical, that extended almost clear across the river,” he said. “Between two and three stories high, I think. Just a white wall of boiling water.”
The wall’s bottom face featured a texture of water that rivermen call glass. Smooth and unblemished, it rose cleanly for almost 30 feet, and inside its whiteness there was an aspect of deep green. But the top wasn’t glassy. It was enraged and seething—a churning fury created by the wave’s breaking apex.
To the men in the dory, it seemed as if the entire river was trying to surge over that wall, falling back on itself to create an endless, recycling grinder. It was like a psychotic animal, a leviathan attempting to eat its own entrails.
There was no turning away from this monster, and as they slid into its lair, Grua found himself marveling at the terrifying splendor. “It wasn’t a regular hole,” he later told his friend Lew Steiger. “It was perfection in a hole.” Thomas watched as the dory bulldozed into the trough and began clawing toward the crest. He could see Grua leaning forward, arms extended, the shafts of his oars cambering under the strain. And he saw this, too: the man at the front of the boat, who was wearing a blue life vest, was doing something illogical, an act that seemed to fly in the face of the most basic survival instincts.
With the dory now tilted almost straight to the sky, that man’s best option—his only option, really—was to crawl into the front footwell, using it like a foxhole. If he curled into a tight ball, he might be able to shield himself from the cannonade of water that was about to erupt over the bow.
The man was Wren, and he did just the opposite. Springing from his seat and lunging forward, he seized the gunwales on either side of the bow, anchoring himself to the front hatch so that his torso and head extended far out over the bow post. With his hooked nose and hawkish face, he was now jutting off the front of the Emerald Mile like a chrome-plated swan on the hood of a runaway tractor-trailer.
Wren’s primary hope was that his shift in body weight might somehow help drive the boat through the top of the water wall. But he was also trying to tap into something that transcended ordinary physics. Perhaps when the river gods saw him perched out there, they might fathom just how badly he wanted and needed the dory to get through Crystal. It was an act of supplication, a plea that the river would condescend to allow this little boat to surf through the chaos on the shining fortitude of her own righteousness.
As the Emerald Mile reached the top of the wave, it simultaneously corkscrewed and fell back on itself—an end-over-end reverse flip with a twist. Thomas could see the three boatmen clinging like terror-stricken cats to the decking as the dory performed these dual rotations, a macabre ballet that he would later describe as a pirouette.
For Grua, Petschek, and Wren, getting tossed was brutal and blunt. “The flip was instantaneous—there was nothing rhythmic or graceful or easy about it at all—it was just boom,” said Petschek, who was summarily dumped into the river.
Grua was holding his oars as tight as he could. As the boat toppled, they flew from his hands, and he followed Petschek into the current. But the worst punishment was reserved for Wren.
The river was now handling the Emerald Mile like a 17-foot-long battering ram, and the force of the entire boat, all 400 pounds of her, was concentrated in the bow post. As the dory tipped and spun, the bow post shot out of the water with astonishing speed and drove itself into Wren’s face, smashing directly into his glabella, the part of the skull that sits between the eyebrows just above the top of the nose.
Then, like Petschek and Grua, he too was gone.
IN THE RIVER, each man was at the mercy of the same hydrodynamics—the savage turbulence and wrenching crosscurrents—that had dismantled a three-ton motorized rafting rig 24 hours earlier.
Grua got off easiest. He felt himself pulled down hard and twirled like a baton, but the current soon lost interest and spat him to the surface. When he blinked the water from his eyes, he saw that he was floating less than an arm’s length from his upside-down boat. Seizing the lifeline around the gunwale, he turned toward the sound of wet gurgles and spotted Petschek bobbing 20 feet downstream.
Petschek had been pulled a little deeper, but the river had released its grip after a few seconds, permitting him to flounder toward the surface. A few hard strokes were enough to put him within reach of Grua’s extended foot and grab on. At that moment, their priority was to right the dory, get her oars into the water, and lever her into Thank God Eddy, the last place to pull in before the current swept them into Tuna, the next rapid below Crystal. There was no time for discussion, but none was needed. Both men knew the drill, a laborious process of trying to turn the boat over using muscle, dexterity, and a flip line designed to help lever it upright.
Neither could see Wren, who was still in serious danger—wounded and battling the crosscurrents a yard below the surface. His first move was to run his hand across his forehead and hold it in front of his face to see if there was any blood. “What a stupid thing to do!” he would say later. “I’m three feet underwater and I’m wiping my head to see if it’s bleeding. Of course I didn’t see any blood. And then I just got sucked down deep.”
Going deep in the Grand Canyon is a horrifying ordeal, an involuntary trip to the absolute bottom of the bottom. It’s a poorly understood place—mysterious and frightening, where the topography and hydraulics can vary so radically, even within the space of a few yards, that no two visits are ever the same. Among those who’ve been dragged into that realm and permitted to return, some say it’s terribly still, a watery version of being locked inside a sarcophagus. Others describe currents so vicious that it feels like being caught in a cement mixer. A few report an eerie hissing sound, created by suspended particles of sediment as they sluice downstream. If the canyon has a symphonic requiem, this is it.
Whatever the case, almost everyone undergoes the same sequence of abuse. First, painful pressure builds in your inner ears, similar to what scuba divers suffer, and it gets worse as you’re pulled deeper. Next comes the cold—water temperature in the river is usually around 53 degrees, and it gets even chillier as you descend. But the scariest thing is watching the light vanish as the water color changes from foamy white to bright blue to deep emerald, then to absolute black.
Wren’s plan, following accepted wisdom, was to ball up while waiting for the current to release him. But after several seconds he was running out of air, and now he began a long and desperate crawl toward what he hoped was the surface.
At first he swam in darkness, but as his strength drained, he started to see signs of light—faint and tremulous and far above. He kept swimming, his arms and legs like dead weights. Finally, several seconds past the point where he thought he couldn’t muster another stroke, his head broke the surface and he drew a ragged, gasping breath of air.
When he cleared his eyes, he could see that he was in the middle of the river, racing downstream. Off to the right, he caught a glimpse of the dory, upside down, with Grua and Petschek clinging to the sides.
“OK,” Wren told himself, “get to the boat—get to the boat.”
But the current seized him and he disappeared again, pulled down for what he was certain would be the final time.
WREN’S SECOND dunking wasn’t as long as the first, but that hardly mattered. -Depleted, he was still reeling from the bow-post strike. When he flailed to the surface and caught his next breath, he had only one thought. “I just started swimming,” he said. “I don’t even know if I knew which direction I was going in.” He seemed to be making no progress—
he was barely able to go through the motions of dog paddling, and his life jacket was impeding what little progress he made.
Wren was swept past Thank God Eddy, and now the only remaining point of sanctuary was a tiny indentation in the cliffs just downriver. Somehow he made it, mustering an effort that let him paddle into the little pocket, where he wallowed through the shallows and draped himself over a boulder, convinced he would collapse and drown if he attempted to make the final steps to shore. When he wiped the blood from his eyes, he looked upstream and saw his companions standing on the bottom of the dory, which had been swept into Thank God Eddy, heaving on the lines and trying, without success, to right her.
Please right the boat, he pleaded to himself. I don’t want to get back in that water! Please, please, please.
After several failed attempts, Grua and Petschek glanced downstream, caught sight of Wren, and glared. The meaning was unmistakable: What the hell are you doing? Get out here. We need your help!
Wren groaned and slithered off the rock, slid into the water, and started swimming.
When he reached the dory, Grua and Petschek hauled him out, and together the three of them hauled away until the bottom slowly flipped. After they clambered back aboard, they took a moment to collect themselves, taking stock of what had happened.
Chunks of the bow post and stern were missing. Their cooler was blown open, and they realized that the entire eddy was strewn with floating trash.
Some of it belonged to the canyon—driftwood and twigs and trembling little atolls of brown foam. But there were other objects, too—soggy sandwiches, bobbing pieces of fruit, and a sodden lump that turned out to be Grua’s wallet. The covered storage hatch at the front of the boat had blown open, and most of their gear had been hurled overboard. They scooped items into the boat as fast as they could. In the midst of this, something else appeared—something hulking and huge that emerged like a breaching whale.
A gray 37-foot motor rig was plowing into the eddy so fast that it nearly smeared them against the rocks on the shoreline. In the stern was a boatman with his hand on the throttle, and he was almost as surprised as they were.
“Wow, I’m glad I didn’t hit you, man,” shouted the boatman. “I’m sorry, but I have to make this eddy—and if I was you I’d get outta here, because in about two more seconds, another guy is pulling in right behind me, and he isn’t nearly as good at this as I am.” With Wren and Grua continuing to snatch up pieces of fruit, Petschek scrambled into the cockpit, seized the oars, and pulled toward the eddy line. He had just broken through into the main current when something even worse than a giant motor rig materialized. Over the roar of the river, they heard a dull thuk-thuk-thuk and looked up to see an orange-and-white helicopter hovering directly overhead. It was the Park Service.
WHEN THE Emerald Mile flipped and disappeared, Thomas had immediately reached for his two-way radio. His signal was picked up by one of the repeaters on the South Rim, bounced to the dispatcher’s office in the park’s Emergency Services Building, then relayed directly to Thomas’s boss, Curt Sauer. When Sauer learned that a lone dory had been involved in an accident at Crystal, he knew it was Grua. Fearing that an evacuation might be necessary, Thomas summoned Helo 210, which at the time was flying above Phantom Ranch, only a few minutes away, to conduct a sweep and find out if any of the boatmen were injured or dead.
When the chopper reached Thank God Eddy and hovered over the dory, Thomas spoke to the pilot by radio.
“You see the boat?”
“Is it right side up? What’s going on?”
“How many people in it?”
“Do they have oars in the water?”
“Yeah, they have oars in the water.”
Thomas was relieved. The Park Service wasn’t going to need to stage an evacuation. But the wheels of law enforcement had now been set in motion. Sooner or later, Thomas knew, there would be a reckoning—a development that, at the moment, was only one of several big problems besetting the Emerald Mile.
AS HELO 210 BANKED away, Petschek pulled the boat into a small eddy just above Tuna Rapid, and Grua tied them off to some rocks. They needed a time-out to collect themselves and make some decisions. Grua applied a butterfly bandage to Wren’s forehead and then set about doctoring the dory with a roll of duct tape from the repair kit.
The situation was grim. Most of their food was either lost or soaked, along with their spare clothing. The Park Service obviously had a bead on where they were and what they were doing. Grua and Petschek were exhausted and almost as badly beaten up as the dory itself. Worst of all, one of their oarsmen had just been cut down. As the biggest and strongest member of the crew, Wren was absolutely critical to the venture; now he was dazed, concussed, and bleeding like a stuck pig.
They were barely a third of the way into this venture, with 179 miles still to go—a stretch that included the rest of the Inner Granite Gorge and another three dozen rapids, including Lava Falls, the biggest of them all. And in another ten hours, they’d confront their second sleepless night of rowing in the dark. “At that point, we were very demoralized—I mean, extremely so,” Petschek said. “We were so beat up. I remember just wanting to get out of there. To not even be there.”
Sitting in the boat, all three men acknowledged that the only remotely sane option was to haul the Emerald Mile out of the water, hike up to the rim, and limp home. No one in the river community would think any less of them for having been whipped by Crystal.
They looked at one another, each man seeking confirmation that his own instinct was shared.
Screw that, they agreed, and then started back downstream.
1. Gangkhar Puensum, 7570 meters
2. Muchu Chhish, 7543 meters
3. Kabru North Summit, 7394 meters
4. Labuche Kang III, 7250 meters
5. Karjiang, 7221 meters
6. Tongshanjiabu, 7207 meters
The Highest Unclimbed Mountains In The World
In August 2011, Americans Steve Swenson, Freddie Wilkinson, and Mark Richey reached the summit of 7518-meter Saser Kangri II, then the second-highest unclimbed peak in the world. The Saser Kangri II climb left only three of the world’s highest 100 mountains left to await first ascents — but the big mountains of the world are far from climbed out. Plenty of big, scary summits remain, some named, some unnamed, some too close to neighboring summits to catch the attention of mountaineers.
Here are just the really tall ones — maybe illegal, maybe too dangerous, maybe never tried, and one that’s hardly even been seen:
1. Gangkhar Puensum, 7570 meters
Unless Bhutan changes its mind about mountaineering, Gangkhar Puensum, above, is likely to stay the world’s highest unclimbed mountain for a long time. Bhutan banned climbing on mountains higher than 6000 meters in 1994 respect to local spiritual beliefs, and then banned mountain climbing completely in 2003. A Japanese team climbing nearby in 1998 claimed that the summit of Gangkhar Puensem actually lies on the border of Tibet and Bhutan, which would be news to the Bhutan government.
2. Muchu Chhish, 7543 meters
The six summits of Batura in the Western Karakoram form a 35-kilometer ridge, all of which is above 6100 meters. One of the peaks, Muchu Chhish, has never been climbed, and has only been attempted once, by a Spanish team in 1999. A team won a Shipton-Tilman grant for an expedition in 2011, but it was canceled because of a health issue in the months leading up to the trip. The route to the summit likely involves a long, committing traverse above 7000 meters.
3. Kabru North Summit, 7394 meters
The Kabru Massif sits in the Himalaya on the India-Nepal border, south of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Kabru’s lower south summit was climbed 77 years ago, solo, by Conrad Cooke, but the higher northern summit is still unclimbed. Avalanches forced a 2004 Serbian expedition to retreat.
4. Labuche Kang III, 7250 meters
The main summit of this Tibetan peak, at 7367 meters, was climbed by a Japanese team in 1987 and it remains the only successful summit. American alpinist Joe Puryear was killed on an attempt on the peak in 2010. The east peak of the massif, Labuche Kang III, has never been climbed, or attempted.
5. Karjiang, 7221 meters
The most recent attempt to climb Karjian was in 2001, when a Dutch group aiming for the summit encountered bad weather and turned their sights to the 6820-meter Karjian III, which they summited. Terrain near Karjiang’s summit is extremely technical, and there is a high risk of avalanches. Joe Puryear and David Gottlieb were awarded a grant to attempt Karjiang in 2010, but failed to secure the permit, so they headed to Labuche Kang instead.
6. Tongshanjiabu, 7207 meters
Almost no information is known about this peak on the disputed border between Tibet and Bhutan. A Korean team climbed a nearby peak and mentioned Tongshanjiabu in their trip report in the 2003 Japanese Alpine News, and that mention and a single photo is all that’s publicly known about the mountain.
Pete’s site is here: http://petemcbride.com/
I saw this via the Banff Mountain Film Festival last year and it’s stuck with me ever since… thought some might enjoy it. I definitely think it needs more exposure.
It’s not Russian dashcam footage or anything else of such high prestige, but it’s pretty decent.
- Best Short Film – Banff Mountain Film Festival
- Grand Prize – 5Point Film Festival
- Activism Award – Adventure Film Festival
- Best Documentary – ClearWater Festival
- Best Environmental Film – Frozen Film Festival
Pete’s site is here: http://petemcbride.com/
“For 6 million years the Colorado River ran to the sea. Since 1998 it has not.”
Pete McBride grew up on a ranch in Western Colorado, a child of the Colorado River. After a life spent visiting other countries to tell stories as a National Geographic photojournalist, in 2008 Pete decided to follow the water from his family’s ranch to see where it ends up. This is the story of Pete’s journey, and a story about the lifeblood of the American West
Chasing Water to the End of The Colorado River
by david frey new west on May 3, 2011
From the rim of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River below seemed both meek and mighty. It looked like a tiny band of water barely visible below millions of years of rock, but it was this river, blasting through fierce rapids with dirt and debris, that carved through a mile of rock like a diamond saw.
This is the Colorado River in its finest moments. River runners know it as a death-defying series of rapids, but even this whitewater is only a fraction of the hydraulics that once raged through the canyon, in the days before Lake Powell tamed it.
In its grim less spectacular moments the Colorado is not a river at all. It is an unremarkable trickle through concrete canals, and then, not even that. Just a dry riverbed that delivers not even a drop to the sea.
“It looks like the end of the line,” says photographer Pete McBride, as he and his companion, author Jonathan Waterman, find their canoes lodged in a foamy brown muck. “It looks like the garbage disposal at the end of the river.”
The two document the river from its source, high in the upper reaches of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, to the Sea of Cortez, where it’s supposed to end up, in the book The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict. McBride also documents the river in a talk, and in the 18-minute documentary Chasing Water, which premiered recently at the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado., a fest that seeks to inspire adventure and instill environmental consciousness.
By kayak, airplane, and ultimately by foot, McBride explores the storied river from end to end. Growing up on a ranch in nearby Snowmass, Colorado, McBride says he used to wonder how long it would take for the water flowing through their irrigation ditch to reach the sea.
The answer: it doesn’t. Not since 1998 anyway. Tapped by farmers, ranchers, cities and towns, the Colorado River dies an early death.
“I started to see the river as an orphan stretched into the desert,” says McBride, narrating a journey in Chasing Water that carried him from the fields where he grew up to the streets of Las Vegas to California’s Imperial Valley.
McBride’s images, both in the book and in the film tell a powerful tale of the West’s greatest river. In Utah, they capture a wild river carving S-curves through the desert before it runs up against Glen Canyon Dam, where years of drought is causing Lake Powell to shrink. In Arizona, the shockingly straight lines of canals carry water to Los Angeles.
It’s hard to find a more gripping image, though, than the scene which begins the film: feet in flip-flops trundling over the cracked, dry earth where the Colorado River, “the American Nile,” as McBride calls it, is supposed to reach the sea.
Even in the Grand Canyon, the river ebbs and surges not with its natural rhythms, but with the output of Glen Canyon Dam set to match Phoenix’s need for air conditioning. The Colorado River, McBride comes to see, may be less an American Nile than it is a 1,500-mile piece of plumbing.
We made it all the way to the beach on the right, but couldn’t get around to the arch. Due to another climbing trip up near Boca de la Sierra we couldn’t time the tides right
At the southernmost point of the Baja Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez there’s a rock formation called “The Arch.” There’s no point in sitting still in the world so last week we decided to see how close we could get without having to take a boat.
Starting on the Pacific side headed to Land’s End. This is just beyond Grand Solmar .
I should probably make it known that there is no swimming to where we tried to get. These waves are a bitch. We watched some crash so hard the spray went at least 2/3 of the way up this formation
Up and over
And on to Divorce Beach. Still on the Pacific side and definitely no swimming here.
Here’s a friend giving some perspective on the size of the rocks
To get from Divorce Beach to Lover’s beach there’s a trek across open sand. (The footprints are from people who got there by boat)
Then you get to this point on Lover’s Beach which is on Bahia San Lucas
And if you look close there’s a way through…
And on the other side you’re all alone on a tiny beach
We almost made it. Through the cut on the right is Divorce Beach on the other side and Lover’s Beach on the near side. The hole in the rock is in that point left of center.
We made it all the way to the beach on the right, but couldn’t get around to the arch. Due to another climbing trip up near Boca de la Sierra we couldn’t time the tides right
I’ve never actually seen the water as low as it is in this pic… supposedly it only happens every 4-6 years
And after all that we had to reverse it
To get back to the Pacific
How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago
160 years ago a giant sequoia in California was cut down, becoming the inspiration for the national park system
Tourists inspecting the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The ‘Mother of the Forest’, without its bark, can be seen in the background. Image: LoC
Today marks the 160th anniversary of a seminal, but largely forgotten moment in the history of the conservation movement.
On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.
A section of the bark from the “Mammoth Tree”, as newspapers soon described it, had already been removed and was sent to San Francisco to be put on display. The species had only been “discovered” (local Native American tribes such as the Miwok had known of the trees for centuries) that spring by a hunter who stumbled upon the pristine grove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada whilst chasing an injured bear. Word of the discovery quickly spread.
In the age of PT Barnum‘s freak shows, the speculators, mostly gold miners, had sensed a commercial opportunity. The section of bark – re-erected using scaffold, with a piano inside to entertain paying visitors – would later be sent to Broadway in New York, as would the bark from a second tree felled a year later. The bark of the “Mother of the Forest” – as the second tree was named – would even go on to be displayed at London’s Crystal Palace causing great excitement and wonder in Victorian England before it was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. (The bark of the original mammoth tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in New York in 1855. A fitting end, perhaps, as fire plays such a crucial role in the life cycle of giant sequoias.)
The fame of the trees was such that a hotel was quickly built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, tea dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk. (This page has a wonderful range of images of the Mammoth Tree and the Mother of the Forest.)
The remarkable, engaging story of these two doomed trees is too detailed to be told here, but what is worth recalling on this anniversary is the reaction their destruction caused in the media at the time – and its subsequent effect on some progressive politicians a decade later when they cited their felling and exploitation as an inspiration to establish what later came to be known as the US national park system.
Tourist walking by ‘The Father of The Forest” in Calaveras Grove, California c.1880s. Photograph: Alamy
Was the outrage expressed by some in the popular media of the day evidence of the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness in the US? It would be wrong to assess such statements without noting the historical context of that age – a time of the “manifest destiny” when nature was viewed as a God-given resource for Mankind to exploit – but it is also hard to ignore the clear outrage and bemusement among some commentators that such magnificent natural specimens had been brutalised in this way.
According to Gary D Lowe, a local historian, author and “Big Tree” aficionado, the first-known negative commentary came a month before the tree was felled. An article in the Sonora Herald, a local newspaper, reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, “is about stripping off the bark”. The report went on: “This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated.”
On 27 June, 1853 – the same day the tree finally fell – a report in San Francisco’s Placer Times and Transcript also noted an article, again in the Sonora Herald, expressing regret that Captain Hanford was preparing for a “portion of the mammoth tree” to be sent to New York.
“Amator” [Latin for “friend”] is dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest “growing” exponent.
However, the same report also goes on to say that the stripping of the tree’s bark is “characteristic of California enterprise” and that Hanford’s efforts to exhibit the bark in New York will allow “millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity”. So any sadness at the tree’s demise was counteracted by the boost to local pride.
Two people standing on the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photograph: Jeff Compasso/Alamy
But these were reports in local newspapers with little influence outside the communities they served. A far more significant report came that autumn when Maturin M Ballou, the Boston-based editor of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, one of the most widely read magazines of the day, printed an illustration of the “largest tree yet discovered in the world” on 1 October, 1853. The accompanying text said:
To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!…But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.
Five months later, on 11 March, 1854, Ballou printed a further remark in his magazine:
A tree of such gigantic proportions as well might excite the wonder and curiosity of the world. Although the destruction of such a magnificent object was an act of vandalism not to be forgiven, yet the desecration has been committed, and it is useless now to reiterate our vain regrets.
However, the ripples of outrage took a further year – and the stripping of the Mother of the Forest – to really gain traction. Then came this editorial in the New York Herald, dated 17 December, 1855:
The finest, the most beautiful and symmetrical of these trees, (though not the largest) has been cut down…From this beginning, unless the Goths and Vandals are arrested in their work, the destruction of the incomparable forest will probably go on till the last vestige of it is destroyed. In this view, the point that we make is, that the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. We say that Congress should interpose, upon the presumption that these trees are public property, are on the public lands of California, and because Congress has already interposed to protect the public live oak forests of Florida from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil. Let it be the law that this…Mammoth Grove shall stand.
The next notable article was printed in the March 1859 issue (pdf) of Hutchings’ California Magazine. It was also later reprinted the following year in the popular tourist guide, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California:
In our estimation, it was a sacrilegious act; although it is possible, that the exhibition of the bark, among the unbelievers of the eastern part of our continent, and of Europe, may have convinced all the “Thomases” living, that we have great facts in California, that must be believed, sooner or later. This is the only palliating consideration with us for this act of desecration.
And then, in 1864, came the culminating moment when John Conness, the senator from California, rose in Congress to make a speech urging his colleagues to pass a bill that would see the now nationally famous Yosemite Valley and its neighbouring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa secured and protected “inalienable forever”. In making his case, he directly referenced the fate of the felled trees at Calaveras just over a decade earlier:
From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World’s Fair that was held in London some years since…The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood.
The bill passed and the “Yosemite grant” paved the way for the first official national park being established at Yellowstone in 1872. Celebrated conservationists such as John Muir would all later visit the stump of the original “mammoth tree” to reflect on both its fate and influence. However, the grove of sequoias at Calaveras – where the story of the US conservation movement arguably began – did not become a state park until 1931 following a decades-long fight to see off the desires of lumber companies.
Today, the trees are now safe from the “Goths and Vandals”, but not, alas, some of the side-effects of modern civilization: urban ozone, climate change, uncontrolled frequent fires, to name but a few.
Over 100 people stand atop of and around a logged giant sequoia tree, Calaveras County, California, 1917. Photograph: A. R. Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis