River Sociology


   Being a First Timer, a Dude, in Grand Canyon, is an innocent enough occupation. Especially on a river trip. Grand Canyon, no matter how many times that person has been on a river, no matter how many rivers they have ever been on, is startling, overpowering, wondrous in the Colorado’s passage through it.

   Next, as best I can tell, comes the fact that everybody hails from someplace. Everybody has a frame of reference, some prior experience to draw from, a story to tell. But: nobody ever came from such a huge, mystic and primal place as Grand Canyon. No. Never. Hence, there is no frame of reference—none whatsoever—for those first encountering Grand Canyon. Immediately everything is foreign, surreal, a huge blast of primal color, each step tenuous without escape or rest, nothing but excitement or nightmare or the grating edge of both, most of it barely comprehensible, with the balance absolutely mindboggling.

   That is why there is such confusion on a Grand Canyon river trip! That is why the River Experience is, oftimes, so dumbfounding to the uninitiated. That is why newcomers, over the course of the first few days, are unable to fully comprehend the vast, sometimes terrible landforms and logistics laid waste before them. That is my theory as a boatman.

   Not to worry. Old Pro’s, boatmen for instance, are, themselves, prone to exhibit heavy confusion in this same regard. This is especially true when dehydration, with all its devious mind-set-behavioral-affect weirdnesses, sets in after a hard, hot, day guiding a boat through huge rapids. Further note that Old Pro’s guard against dehydration much as Alexander would tend Bucephalas prior to fierce battle: you give Bucephalas water, lots of water, and you don’t ride too hard for too long. Yes. Among the few, the brave, and, the mighty, dehydration is to be challenged, conquered, busted to smithereens every time, at all costs. Charrgggeeee.......

   But, hey, it happens. That is the reality of Grand Canyon. That is why, no matter who you are, Boatman or Dude, you can get lost there.

   Caught completely unawares he, or she, perhaps both parties under study, will speak before thinking. Sometimes it is instructive to observe these goings-on. There is something to be learned in everything; occasionally, multiple lessons present themselves.

   I herein submit a detailed analysis of one such situation. Everybody gets into the act and nobody looks too good in the end. But, anyway...

   From the days when upstream hydro releases were entirely radical and Grand Canyon beaches were slipping away fast, comes this story. Of a particular September morning our group floated past the abandoned damsite at River Mile 40. There, the 20 people on my boat engaged in an involved discussion about snowpacks and reservoirs. We focused on dams and water releases designed to meet electrical demands. We touched on the legal requirements of interstate compact agreements, Acts of Congress and, after finding a decomposing sandbar, which was not difficult to do, spent 10 minutes on ‘beach erosion in Grand Canyon.’

   At the time I said something like, “Folks, what we have here is man-made erosion caused by 10’-15’ ‘tides’ frothing downstream from Glen Canyon Dam. Every damned day Glen Canyon manufactures electricity with water. When nearby Planet Earth needs it, the penstocks are opened-up and Glen Canyon’s turbines are, one after another, brought on line. Downstream, no matter where you are, the river rises and falls washing our sandbars away, a grain at a time, grain by grain, beach by beach. That means we’re loosing our beaches. I’d like you to write your congressman...”

   Everyone was reverentially silent. It was, I figured, a profound moment in their lives, full of stark, cosmic realizations, dramatic leaps in mental processes. I imagined them returning home enraged, there to toss half their wanton electric appliances into the trash. They would think hard the next time they fired-up their electric toothbrush or hairdryer or whatever; hopefully they would never use the whatever-it-was ever again. Better still they would, each and every one of them, get off the grid, convert to solar power, composting toilets, a dedicated recycling program, the works. Yeah! Go get ‘em, guys.

   Later it was dinnertime. And, there we were: 74-Mile camp, river right, the place I call THE Snake Pit, second day of a 7-day trip, everybody deep into their pork chops and mashed potatoes and fresh garden salad and cobbler with whipped cream. Full moon; rising, warbling river; lovely—absolutely gorgeous—evening, alpenglow, all-that-stuff. WOW!!

   This next part is difficult to tell. It begins with a passenger’s question:

   Does the full moon influence the canyon’s tides?

   And ends with the coup de graux, the Trip Leader’s rejoinder. Kindly recall this response as issuing from the partially dehydrated, mostly deranged, end of the season and I-am-crazy-mind-of-a-river guide:

   NO! Those are caused by the dam, GODDAMNIT!!...er....Glen Canyon..uh...DAM??......upSTREAM(quick pointing)...its..its...uh...water—
YEAH!!(giggles)..uh..(scratches forehead)...

   Both of em’ just about flat-footed as could be. So it goes.

Shane Murphy