River-folk in Academia-land

Colorado River
April 1907. Mud cracks in clay deposited by the Colorado River in Baja California, Mexico. Photo: C.E. Grunsky, U.S. Geological Survey

Before greed, avarice, obsession and sundry other humanly traits got him banished, Sméagol was one of the river-folk populating the Anduin (Great River) landscape of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Then his cousin found a golden ring in the river’s mud. Instead of tossing the damn thing back, the cousin showed it Sméagol, who then killed him and stole it. Eventually the ring was stolen from Sméagol too, and he kept chasing it long after he should’ve just tossed himself in the river for one long last float.

A recent account from a couple of recent Colorado College grads who’d paddled the length of the Colorado River toward the Sea of Cortez has gotten me thinking of Tolkien, hobbits and lords of the ring. The two, Zak Podmore and Will Stauffer-Norris, recounted their trip in Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project 2012 Report Card, which describes student-led studies of the effects of agriculture, climate, environment, diversions, recreation and water laws on the Colorado River basin. The entire effort is well worth a read, though Podmore and Stauffer-Norris definitely get my vote for most bad-ass senior project. (OK, post-grad — but they had to schedule it around Podmore’s Grand Canyon permit, for gawdsake.)

Starting in a snowbank in Wyoming, they paddled or portaged about 1,400 miles of variously human-impacted Rocky Mountain landscape, and four months later they climbed out of an irrigation ditch in Mexico to the bemused stares of some local fishermen (quoting Podmore here, “The fisherman smiled sadly at the confused gringo. ‘El Rio Colorado?’ He shook his head and chuckled. ‘No hay agua en El Rio Colorado.’”). Judging by Stauffer-Norris’ pictures, our hero pair looked only a little hobbit-like after four months of navigating the river’s obstacle course of dams, reservoirs, trip permits, disappearing flows and (Podmore again), “… between the source and the delta, the river also happened to take us through some of the most spectacular canyons in the world … ”

Colorado River
February 2005 Colorado River in Arizona. Photo: USGS

Humanly traits long ago stopped the Colorado from reaching its natural outlet, and the Rockies are no longer populated by simple river and mountain-folk satisfied to leave golden rings lying in the river’s mud, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever again see fresh mud deposits on the delta like the one from 1907 I found among the photographic gems of the USGS library, but the river still flows from the Wind River and Never Summer Mountains, through canyons described, photographed, interpreted and exploited to a fair-the-well. If you live in or below the Rocky Mountains, the reports put out by Colorado College since 2004 are a good resource for deepening your understanding of how our landscape is faring under our decidedly schizophrenic stewardship.

Gollum, illustration credit: Guillermo García-Ruiz Pimentel

“One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” says the inscription on Tolkien’s “One Ring” that led Sméagol to kill, steal, change his name to Gollum and hide inside a mountain until he finally met his end in a volcano, still fighting for the ring. Reading through the findings of this year’s State of the Rockies with “The Lord of the Rings” in mind, I’m tempted to end this little exploration by drawing a parallel to the tragedy of simple hobbits grasping for overweening power — but I haven’t taken time to parse the volumes of academic-speak that would allow me to discourse on the literary merits and demerits of Tolkien’s allegories, so I’m off to float another river.