Rafting the mighty Colorado
Recreating in and exploring rivers can transform the way we relate to water and make decisions regarding its management. The water in which we swim, bathe, fish, and paddle becomes part of our stories, central to our understanding of the world and our sense of place within it.
My own relationship with water has been shaped by the many days I’ve spent rafting wild rivers with my family. One especially formative river trip took us down the Colorado River, through the infamous Grand Canyon of the American Southwest. We spent 21 days floating most of the canyon’s 277 miles in oar-powered rafts, braving the rapids and camping along the banks. The river is a natural wonder - to capture its awe in writing would be no small feat.
The Colorado River has been cutting deeper and deeper into ancient layers of rock as the plateau it winds through continues its slow uplift. The canyon itself is fairly young - having been carved within the last 6 million years - but as you float your way through the canyon you watch the ages rise up around you, from the colorful sedimentary rock layers in the canyon’s “stair-step” walls all the way down to the truly ancient Vishnu basement rocks formed nearly 1,8 billion years ago. You pass reminders of the short but rich history shared between the river and humanity - cliff dwellings nestled high in the canyon wall and petroglyphs along the sheer faces of small tributary slot canyons.
The mighty Colorado has been and remains the lifeblood of entire societies, their mythologies, and livelihoods. In fact, the human history of the Grand Canyon area is understood to stretch back nearly 10,500 years. Today the river continues to inspire artists and adventurers from around the world. As author Katy Klingsporn puts it: “The immensity of Whitewater, infinite night sky, chorus of cicadas, towering rock walls, layers of geologic time, bizarre shapes of plant life and remarkable places — the hanging gardens and tiny waterfalls and slot canyons you will discover — it all adds up to a potent lesson in the vast beauty and intelligence of nature, and our small place in the grand scheme of things.”
On a rafting trip, your life shifts: the river becomes the epicenter of all you do. In the Grand Canyon, where the canyon rim high above you becomes your horizon, the river is more than that - it is your entire world. Emerging on the other side of such a journey, you take this feeling with you. You leave with a new reverence for water, its power, and its role as a driver of life on our planet.
Despite the Grand Canyon’s recognition as one of the planet’s great natural wonders, the river coursing through its depths faces a battery of threats and has been listed as one of the world’s 10 most threatened rivers. It is so heavily drawn from to satiate agricultural and urban water demand that its flows famously no longer reach the sea. Uranium mining risks contamination of water sources and irresponsible developments could threaten the ecological, cultural, and scenic values of the canyon. While river recreation can be at odds with other interests and often comes with an ecological cost of its own, I believe that the sense of connection and humility that it can inspire has an important role to play in reimagining our collective relationship to water.