Questioning Answers, strengthening humbleness and other gifts of the desert stream
by Jen Jackson
This story originally ran on MountainGazette.com in 2011. We republished it here and featured it in our Sunday email. Subscribe to the newsletter here.
As we prepare to leave for our first-ever float of the Grand Canyon, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with rivers. For one who grew up next to Oregon’s iconic Rogue River, worked alongside the Snake in Jackson, and who now lives on the shores of the mighty Colorado, I have little river experience. One Westwater trip and a rush along the Price River at flood-stage, two long flat-water floats on the Green, and three Daily runs on the Colorado (two of which were on an air mattress) are the sum total of my notable river outings. Sad, I know.
Though the rivers most talked about have always been out my backdoor, it has never been with them that I’ve built relationships. Chalk it up to a lack of gear or gear-laden loved ones. Instead, it’s been the ephemeral, fickle and fiendishly flashing waterways that have held my heart in their changeable currents. The adrenaline-laced beauty of these streams lies not in their rapids but in their rapidly changing demeanor. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and I lay my heart at their feet, even as the hidden predator’s fangs are revealed in flash flood debris 10 feet above my head.
Though I want to build big-river relationships — and what better chance than on the Grand? — it is thus far the inglorious stream that has been my companion. And I do not regret it.
One such creek near Moab only flows with snowmelt and strategically placed monsoon showers. Forget calendar dates and the whims of groundhogs; the canyon is my almanac. Spring is officially here when I’m able to float supine in a deep pothole, circling with the gentle current, watching the canyon walls spin above my head. Summer arrives when desiccated algae replaces the meandering stream. A new configuration of sand and driftwood against canyon walls announces monsoon season. This is where I come to set my internal clock and place question marks where I have always assumed there to be periods.
Then there is a bit of Eden west of here — a clear, spring-fed creek overhung with box elders and ponderosa — constrained to a 1,000-foot-deep defile, surrounded by harshest, driest desert. Every small bank and bench is colonized by poison ivy. Heaven and hell coexist in a space as narrow as 15 feet. There is no better — or worse — place to be, depending on the time of year and the placement of your feet or tent.
This spring, we attempted an 80-mile float on a small desert stream that we found to be aptly named. Unfortunately, it disregarded the notice that all rivers in Utah were flooding at the time. Instead of a float, it was a push-pull-tugging at about 60 cfs. The trip was a sun-scorched, wind-and-sand-chafed, rain-soaked, oh-my-God-our-dog-is-foaming-at-the-mouth misery. We performed 10-hour marches each day through ankle-deep water and knee-deep quicksand, towing our gear the entire way. There was no idyllic floating or exploration of tantalizing side canyons. There was nothing more than the monotonous and enduring rhythm of right-splash!-left-splash! on down the stream.
A powerful monsoon pushed these same river flows to an incomprehensible 35,000 cfs a few years ago. As the water level dropped during our trip — despite the intermittent showers we endured — we stared wistfully at enormous cottonwood trunks still balanced on rock ledges 20 feet above the canyon floor, gently placed there by the once-upon-a-time wall of water.
The day we exited the canyon, the river came up to a runable level … and stayed there for three months.
I have never admired a canyon so much.
And I can’t wait to return, to do it all over again, to be reminded of how much is beyond my control and my knowing, to let the gods once again giggle at my ignorance.
But these are all flirtatious trifles compared to my true love, my heart-home, a river that I have slept near countless nights, one whose flows recently jumped from one cfs to 1,000 in 15 minutes. Sometimes in looking at all the leaps and valleys of the blue line on the river data graph during monsoon season, I wonder if a map of my heartbeats would chart a similar course. Perhaps silt from this stream flows through my veins.
While this is a river I’ve gone to for solace, healing, hope and a sense of home, it does not offer comfort in a traditional sense. I’ve found the upper section dry when I’ve been in need of water. I’ve been stranded on the opposite bank from camp when a flash flood pushed through on a clear and starry night. I camped for a week with unrelenting 90-degree temperatures in the canyon only to have a wall-to-wall, 100-year flood follow my exit out of the drainage. I’ve sunk to mid-thigh in quicksand, and I’ve had that same sand ruin two water filters. And I’ve loved every minute because they’ve all acted as counterpoint to other, more sublime moments: early-morning tea under Orion’s watchful eye, the salmon-colored glow of sunrise bleeding down sandstone walls, canyon wren song in the air and turkey feathers on the ground, drinking centuries-old water seeping from the canyon wall amongst ferns and box elders and wild mint. My love affair with this place includes the catastrophes and the kindnesses in equal measure.
As we prepare for 18 days on the Grand, I wonder what kind of relationship I will develop with the canyon. It is a river with so many admirers and managers. Where will my hopes, intentions and affections fit in? I know there will be plenty of chances on this trip for the gods to find amusement in my foibles, but beyond the 22 seconds I will spend in the likes of Lava or Crystal, I am most anticipating the moments that often go untold — whether it be communion with constellations or quicksand — when life’s great questions emerge from encounters with the unexpected.