September 3, 2014

Wilderness in the Water

This summer, as the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approached, I was reminded of a trip I did a couple years ago when an interesting aspect of wilderness first occurred to me.
Much of the time people associate Wilderness with the cold hard ground, something that is easily quantifiable in acres. My years have taught me that Wilderness is not only the landscape or the wildlife, or the constellations of a dark sky. To me, Wilderness is the sum of the way with which wild things relate to each other. If our civilization removes a species, or dams a river then a critical link in Wilderness is gone and the land is not as wild as it once was. 
When a river swells with highwater in the spring it is usually due to snowmelt running out of the mountains. This melt water, hurried along by gravity, soon turns to a torrent gathering what ever is in its way; trees, bison, houses, the very earth itself, everything, tearing downhill like a wild beast. The dam builders would say it’s "out of control". I would say this is the way it's supposed to happen, but all too often in our day and age this annual wildness of the rivers is tamed by the placement of dams.

Where we are tonight the river roars and foams like a wild beast
George Bradley - June 11, 1869

The Flaming Gorge dam on the Green River is a long ways upstream of Desolation Canyon. Far enough, actually, that the Green has a good chance of gathering it's steam again, with some help, before it flows into Desolation Canyon. The "help" of which I speak is that of the Yampa River. The Yampa is not dammed, or damned, however you choose to look at it, therefore, the wildness of the Yampa water is intact, and tearing downhill like a wild beast, when it collides with the Green at Echo Park.
The wildness that the Yampa gives the water in the Green is a very special thing about the Green River in Desolation Canyon. The river water is wilderness. 

I floated a ranger patrol trip on the Green River through Desolation Canyon in June of 2011 at ~50,000cfs. I thought the character of the river was fascinating in several ways. The current was very fast and filled Desolation Canyon from bank to bank and then some. When there were eddies they were nothing I wanted to be associated with. Most had aggressive eddy fences and were full of the surging weight of fifty foot long trees. There was wilderness in the water, and it made me shake with nervous anxiety, but it made me smile too. There were eddies within eddies that made trying to read the water a unique chore. Occasionally I would get an oar violently snatched out of my hand. Some of the eddy fences, like at Dripping Springs, were 6 or 8 feet high and easily big enough to flip a 16’ raft. I didn't think things were washed out, as I've heard in the past the river gets at high water. Waves were not as numerous, but when they were there they were big ocean looking swells followed by building and breaking wave trains, with awful eddies full of debris on each side. Some of the biggest rocks in the river corridor such as at Moonwater, Joe Hutch Creek, Wirefence, and Jacks Rock, usually way out of the water, were submerged, creating terrible looking hydraulic holes as big as a greyhound bus lying on it's side. I noticed that while camping below rapids, and watching the river, it appeared that the water piled up in the middle of the river, below the rapid, like there was too much of it to flow downstream at one time.

As I spend years in Desolation Canyon it has begun to occur to me that my work to provide for the continued wild character of this place has become reciprocal. The river and the canyon bring me much joy. This trip, while I slept on shore, I could feel the vibration of the river, through the earth. It seemed to me that the river was having fun, like it was experiencing much joy. The water in the river was in the full colorful regalia, of its undammed wildness. The river was muddy, full of debris, and proud. I sat like a spectator at a rare sighting, because it was, and watched the river go by and I was proud of its wildness!


  1. Mick wrote: "The water in the river was in the full colorful regalia, of its undammed wildness. The river was muddy, full of debris, and proud. I watched the river go by and I was proud of its wildness."
    Some look to our natural resources with a utilitarian mind: What can be produced from this? What wealth can be had? Gold, furs, oil, gas...The 50th year of the Wilderness Act ought to remind us that there are special places where "wildness" is the end in itself, that it exists to give us that place where we can go to escape production, seeking of wealth, and enjoy the place for its own sake. I love it when my grand daughter chucks rocks in the river, laughs, and turns to run and find more. Such a simple act and a good purpose of flowing water. Mr. T

  2. Mick - you captured it about as best as can be done.... I was there!