Western Rivers Initiative

We Are the River

May 2019 Western Water Newsletter

It’s true; rivers change everything they touch. That’s why Audubon Rockies offers a river trip on the Colorado River or one of its tributaries every year. There’s simply no substitute for getting out and into the river environment and observing the bird species that critically rely on western rivers.

Loving a river like the Colorado can be complicated with policy. The river means so much to us and the birds it supports, but every drop of water is legally used up. There’s no better way to understand the issues that face a river than by spending time on it. We just returned from an incredible six-day trip on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon. The high snowpack in the basin and a warm April allowed us to experience a glimpse of the unbridled Colorado River. Twenty-five Auduboners gained a personal appreciation for the Green and Colorado Rivers, which will fuel their passion as river advocates.

For a glimpse of what this trip meant to the participants, please enjoy Dave Showalter’s moving account of the trip. Showalter is a professional conservation photographer and friend of Audubon.

—Abby Burk, Western Rivers Regional Program Manager

We Are the River

As the storm subsided, we gradually emerged from our tents. With the sky growing brighter as wind and clouds moved on, we regrouped on the river bank above our fleet of rafts to see a rainbow arching over Mitten Butte and stretching lengthwise over the mighty Colorado. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” someone whispered. Our group stood thunderstruck, deep in Canyonlands National Park, awed by a river gift after a couple of hours of hard rain that would add to the milk chocolate current during spring runoff. It was our first night on the river.

There is an arc to each river trip, a natural progression of becoming a team, flowing at the pace of the river. The rainbow brought us together. In the river arc, it normally takes a few days to settle into both the rhythm of the river and the group dynamic. A number of us are veterans of Audubon Rockies raft trips, now good friends, and we all bonded around that moment under the rainbow.

We had gathered the night before in Moab, where our O.A.R.S. guides Dave and Ernie explained what to expect on the incredible journey ahead. After dreaming river thoughts, boarding buses for the river, fitting personal flotation devices, and meeting the rest of the crew, we were headed downstream. Abby Burk had just told us that the river changes everything it touches and I was wondering how it would change me.

During the first three days we traveled Meander Canyon, a peaceful and winding stretch, even with the river swollen with spring runoff. The Colorado carries so much sediment that it’s been said to be “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” So it is in a year of good snowpack high in the Rocky Mountains, running 30,000 cubic feet per second and rising, brown as chocolate milk.

We walked among Ancestral Puebloan ruins, wildflowers, towers of stone, and stunning geologic layers of time. We camped beneath the Dollhouse in Canyonlands’s Maze District and climbed to the rim before sleeping under a star-studded night sky. We saw Yellow Warblers chirping unseen in the brush, a Peregrine Falcon overhead, Common Mergansers racing downstream, always in a hurry. In all we witnessed forty-some species.

The morning of rafting Cataract Canyon, there was the usual feeling groups get before running big rapids: quiet confidence in the guides, mixed excitement and stoic readiness for the rest of us. Thirty-two miles of big rapids waited patiently around the bend and we would run them all in one day.

Cataract is as advertised: giant drops, relentless rapids, and massive eddies with broken trees spinning in circles. Thanks to our top-notch O.A.R.S guides, we all made it through Cataract just fine. Some of us got more drenched than others, but I can only describe my own experience. It was a purely individual, introspective feeling to witness the mighty river running hard and brown just like it’s supposed to. Chaotic waves came at us from all directions and I watched them from the front row of our dory, a modern version of Martin Litton’s (a Grand Canyon river runner and a longtime conservationist) legendary boat.

There was one moment during the biggest drop when we dove straight into the rapid. A giant wave curled over the top and, for whatever reason, a peaceful calm came over me in the maelstrom. In what felt like slow motion, the crashing wave filled our boat. We were still floating but bailing fast on the other side of the rapid. In that moment, a single thought consumed me: We are the river. Until we get this boat bailed, the river can do whatever it wants, no separation between us and the river…we are the river.

It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in nature, one that will last a lifetime.

The river changes everything it touches, even us.

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