Colorado River Canoe Trip
Downstream with John Wesley Powell
by Tim McCrerey
The Colorado River of today bears little resemblance to what it was in John Wesley Powell’s day, but it is still beautiful, still awe-inspiring. In 1869, Powell explored parts of the river that were uncharted and widely believed to be unnavigable, and his accounts have inspired adventurers, dreamers, schemers and politicians for the past one and a half centuries.
For the past 20 years, I have made it a habit to return to the river and camp along its banks at least a couple of times a year. The soul-soothing effects have been profound and addictive, although in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to find solitude and peace.
Last July, for example, after driving westward all day across Arizona, I decided to cool off at a deserted public boat ramp on the river. I had no sooner taken off my shirt than an official-looking truck with a spotlight screeched to a halt behind my truck.
"You got a permit?" came a gruff shout from a crew-cut silhouette in the cab of the truck.
"For what?" I asked.
"This is a fee area."
"I need a permit to dunk in the river?"
"That’s right. Anyway, this area is closed after sunset."
"That’s fine with me. All I want to do is cool off and get back on the road."
"Can’t do it. Clear out or I’ll call the sheriff."
"For chrissake, mister! I’ve been coming here most of my life. I’ll be down the road before you can even put the call through!"
I decided to leave when he began writing down my license plate number. I’m still hot!
I think most people will agree that quality time on the river is getting harder to come by. The proliferation of powerboats, personal watercraft and marinas force those who seek the peaceful beauty of the river to go to ever greater lengths to find it. Fortunately, the river is nearly 1500 miles long, and most marina campers boat only a few miles up or down from where they put in. Canoe campers can still spend large parts of each day in relative calm and peace.
Last week, I decided to take a two-day, two-night canoe trip with John Wesley Powell’s The Exploration Of The Colorado River And Its Canyons as my only companion. I don’t advise running the river alone, but as the years go by, I am finding it more difficult to convince my friends to undertake such adventures. I sense that time may be running out for old-fashioned canoeists like me.
Twenty to thirty miles seemed to be about the right length for a trip by myself. Last year, a friend and I made a 50-mile run, but this time, I chose to play it safe and not try for the longer distance.
According to my river maps, a trip from Mayflower Park, just north of Blythe, to Palo Verde Oxbow Camp (both on the California side) should be a leisurely two-day float. I camped downstream at Palo Verde the first night. There I off-loaded my motorcycle from its trailer. It would serve as transportation back to Mayflower Park. I pitched a tent. Next morning, I put my helmet, bike keys, spare clothing and extra provisions inside the tent and headed upstream. At Mayflower Park, I was able to leave my truck and the motorcycle trailer for only the four dollar launch fee, even though I would be gone two days.
Within five minutes of launching, I could see that the trip was going to be worthwhile. Although I had feared that I would see Yamahas and SeaDoos (compared with Powell’s wolves, mountain lions and bighorn sheep), there was hardly a soul on the river, probably because it was mid-week. The canoe rode pretty well, so I was able to let her drift, side-slipping, swirling and eventually running backwards.
The five-mile per hour current and an upstream breeze nudged me over to the Arizona side, where I drifted most of the day. (Arizona seems calmer than California anyway!) I thought of a passage I had read from Powell the night before: "The book is open and I can read as I run." I took his book from my dry bag and began to read with one hand, gripping a paddle in the other so I could trim up the canoe if need be. The irony was comical. Here I was, like Powell, a one-armed man in a rowboat!
"The Major," as he preferred to be addressed, never gets excited, complains nor boasts in the book. He appears reluctant to have even furnished a narrative, preferring to stick to scientific observation. His understated writing style goes well with the personality of the river in this stretch. I have read critics who accuse Powell of being a shameless self-promoter and a bureaucratic hack, but I prefer to think of him as a scientist, adventurer and visionary. He even predicted many of the problems besetting the Southwest and the river today. I believe his humility to be genuine, probably tempered by surviving the loss of his arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and by the awesome immensity and beauty of what he had seen during a lifetime of exploration.
It occurs to me that the real value of trips and vacations is that they allow us to think about life, dream without boundaries, to reinvent ourselves. Powell’s expedition was no doubt a life-defining experience. It put him in the national spotlight. For most of us, however, little junkets such as mine are merely life-refining.
I think I’ll try my hand at a little writing—maybe just let it flow like the river.
I talk constantly, but I am unaware of whether it is internal or external dialogue. Either way, when I say something I like, I write it down. The river has a beautiful voice, and it, too, speaks constantly. I must be fairly unobtrusive. I never seem to interrupt the buzz in the shore bushes as I pass. Only the bullfrogs, with their reassuring primordial grunt-growls seem to notice the passage of the canoe, and within a few seconds, they resume their crooning.
Each snag has the potential to be something else. Once in a while, it is a muskrat or water snake. Even if it is just a snag, it is interesting. The movement of the water reminds me of the passage of time, and it is very easy to lose track of time while drifting. It has been an hour since I last put a paddle in the water, two hours since I’ve seen or heard another boat. I feel like taking a dip if I can find a place.
Along much of the lower Colorado, it is difficult to find a flat, sandy place to beach. Its banks have been altered—cut and reinforced with rock hauled in to control its course. For a canoeist, this is only a minor inconvenience, as it takes only a few inches to draft the boat. A line wrapped around a branch or rock is all that is needed to make fast. There is a white, sandy beach about a mile and a half down on the left, so I make for it. When I get about half a mile away, I am disappointed to see movement. I think that it must be a water skier’s day camp. Never mind. A quick dip and I’ll be gone. As I round the last point I see that the occupants are not water skiers, but turkey vultures. Thank goodness. They don’t flinch as I grind onto the shore. They scarcely notice as I plunge into the cool, clear water 20 feet from them.
No matter how often I take a dip, it is like a baptism or a reorientation. Heading on downstream while still wet makes the journey seem brand new.
Ten minutes later I hear the roar of approaching jet skis. They can be heard long before they come into view. The sound reminds me of a chain saw cutting through virgin forest, perhaps only to see if the saw works. I remembered a passage from Joseph Wood Krutch’s book on the Grand Canyon: "Whatever man does or produces, noise seems to be an unavoidable by-product. Perhaps he can, as he now tends to believe, do anything. But he cannot do it quietly." As the three craft speed by, another Krutch observation comes to mind: "These people are determined to see as little as possible as quickly as possible." It’s just recreation, I guess, but Krutch still has the last word. "…to those incapable of awe, intellectual curiosity, or aesthetic appreciation, ‘recreation’ is the only nonutilitarian activity which has any meaning."
Perhaps I am being too serious, cynical and self-serving. I don’t own the river, and I am not doing it any good, either. The jet skiers stayed well clear of me, then they and their noise are gone. Once the wake subsided, I doubly appreciated the solitude regained, the harmony restored.
A grand old cottonwood on the far shore reminds me that it is time to start looking for a place to camp. Powell had described a similar spot in a passage I had read earlier in the day. At sunset, the day stops beating on you, but then you realize you’re beat. A backwater cut on the left looks promising. I paddle up a calm channel until I come to a nice beach below a little bluff. The only sound is a choir with bullfrogs singing base and birds, soprano.
From the bluff, the river looks wide and calm. The old cottonwood is a dark shadow against a vermilion and gold pallet. The sunset is like a slow motion kaleidoscope, lightening then darkening the mural that is the western sky.
"Pitch the tent, take a dip, sit on your butt."
Those are the orders I give to myself.
As I sit, I feel like I’m still drifting. I think about the ups and downs in my life, but only for a short while. The ageless rhythms of the river smooth my life, every life, into a common flowing stream, powerful, yet calm. Sleep overtakes me.
"GWOK! GWOK!" is the next sound I hear. "Roll out! Roll out!" A gawd awful noisy bird seems to screech. It was five a.m. I never saw him, but I’m glad he woke me up. The eastern sky was just beginning its morning show. I had just enough time for a delicious cup of bad coffee. The channel on the backside of the bluff began to glaze and glow in a wondrous purple-pink tint as the sun slowly ascended over the peaks. To the west, the river resumed its steady siren call. I would go on.
Fifteen minutes out of my backwater camp and I again feel the steady push of the river. The canoe is balanced better today, and I feel good. I ride in the shadows on the Arizona side for the first couple of hours. There is no one else on the river. I also notice the absence of ducks, egrets, and herons. They must be up north where it is cooler. The coots and doves are permanent residents. It is calm, cigar-lighting calm.
Around a wide bend the river shows itself in long view. "This thing is endless!" I think, as my previous day’s voyage suddenly seems puny. "That’s all right. You don’t have to go everywhere, you just have to know that everywhere is still out there."
Then I feel sad -- my little trip is going to end in a few hours. I resolve to enjoy every last bit of it, and to take full advantage of every sublime, sensate moment. I ease the canoe around backwards. The scene is totally different from the one I had just experienced. Mountains appear to move in relation to the river. The view is limitless. I reach both hands under and touch the bottom of the canoe as if it were my own body. "Not far from the truth!" I muse. "You’re not the Emma Dean, but you’re a good little boat."
Other Stories by Tim McCrerey
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