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Life and Death on the Colorado River

“Running Dry” author Jonathan Waterman talks about his struggle with the Colorado River and his mother’s death.

By Jonathan Waterman

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

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Photograph of Pete McBride crossing delta, with fish skeleton deposited by high tide, by Jonathan Waterman.

In the spring of 2007, as I began preparing for a 1,450-mile journey down the Colorado River, my mother began her fight with rectal melanoma. Since 1976, with her support, I lived for long expeditions, partly for the adventure, but mostly to find meaning and hope amid a world that seemed increasingly disenfranchised from the value of wild places. The isolation and challenges of these journeys were all enveloping and gave me an in-depth sense of place, but on the Colorado River I would carry the baggage about my mother all the way to the sea.

That summer of 2007, because the cancer had metastasized, she had a walnut-sized tumor removed from her brain. I spent a couple of days reconnoitering the river’s source at 10,000 feet on La Poudre Pass in my home state of Colorado. There on the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, before the first trickle of water could reach the valley and flow west, a ditch dug more than a century ago sluiced a third of the river east. The “Grand Ditch” is the first of countless diversions we have allowed upon North America’s most precipitous waterway. I channeled my anger into organization and preparation–the essential components of any successful expedition.

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Photograph of a western grebe feeding a subadult on Lower Colorado River by Jonathan Waterman.

When mom fell and injured her hip, my brothers and I had to put her in a nursing home. I showed her the maps for my coming journey. I immersed myself into interviews of water experts, or reading reports and water-related books, including Cadillac Desert, A River No More, and Rivers of Empire. In December, before she stopped talking, my mom licked her lips in an attempt to wet her parched mouth and cheerfully conceded that she too was going on a long journey. As she made the final preparations, we brought her back home to die. Meanwhile, I arranged meetings and side trips that would supplement my own observations during the coming expedition. Life, as mom insisted, must flow onward.

Despite her denials and a long fight, my mother (still known by her tennis partners as “the Steel Magnolia”) left in January, 2008. Her death left me in state of suspended and often wordless animation. To cope, I continued the sort of work she had always encouraged: plunging into my voyage of discovery from source to sea down the Colorado River.

I snowshoed back up to La Poudre Pass, and while carefully standing below the Grand Ditch, I flung her ashes into the snow so that she could accompany me downstream. The next morning I began paddling a three-pound packraft that would accompany me all the way to Mexico. I thought of my mother a lot during the 1,450-mile journey, wondering how her microbial essence could pass through the dams and diversions that disrupt the Colorado River. Like most grieving sons, I contemplated our differences along with all that she had given me. Although I stayed busy–interviewing researchers, rangers, Native Americans, boatmen, and water operators; confronting rapids; dealing with loneliness during 800 miles of paddling in solitude–I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. I fell into brief depressions. But mostly I received an education about the river ecosystem and water as an exploited resource: watching birds, learning about farm irrigation and municipal withdrawals of water, tracking animals, and touring dams.

 

I was surprised and elated to discover that many stretches of the riverine are still intact. Desert bighorn sheep supped from the river’s edge in protected wildlife refuges and national parks. Brilliant stars in the night sky showed how “the American Nile” carves its path through a section of the southwest still largely free of light pollution. I paddled through dozens of recreation areas where boaters fished, motored, partied and celebrated water as if it would never run dry. I found restoration sites where workers had replaced invasive tamarisk with native willows. I photographed (and wrote in my journal about) polluted water, compromised reservoirs and aquifers, and people indifferent to the crisis of a diminishing river. At night, alone in my tent, I contemplated the ups and downs of the complex relationship I had with my mother.

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Photograph of desert bighorn sheep on the river’s edge in the Grand Canyon by Jonathan Waterman.

It took me five months to reach the delta. The river ran dry a couple miles south of the Mexican border in a brown foam of phosphates floating empty water bottles. I spent ten days walking to the sea with my friend Pete McBride. For two days, we paddled south in irrigation canals. In the wastewater of the Rio Hardy tributary, I infected my feet.

Eventually, the Sonoran Desert subsumed the delta in an endless tapestry of cracked mud, surrounded by Sea of Cortez tidal canals that resembled giant dendrites. The microbial remains of my mom–like the pulverized sands from the Rockies and the Grand Canyon that Pete and I stood upon–had stalled 1,420 miles upstream in the depths of Shadow Mountain or Granby Reservoirs.

I traveled the length of the river to write a book and to let readers know not only what remains but what we stand to lose. I used the journey as a retreat to grieve for my mother and ultimately paid tribute to her in the book–Running Dry is a hybrid of river history, adventure, and personal narrative. But I also went for fun and to explore my backyard, to become intimate with the river.

I have spent my adult years taking long wilderness journeys, immersing myself in nature if only to make sense of a world altered by population growth, industry, and the increasingly heavy footprint of humankind. On these expeditions, I often leave home jaded and tired, hoping to return enlightened and energized. More than mastery of the ice ax or paddle, in wild country or riverscapes we can discover new humility, hidden beauty, and unexpected meaning. Out there–where, according to Ecclesiastes: “all the rivers run into the sea”–we can find renewal, inspiration, and a comforting glimpse of eternity. We’re flesh and blood, resigned to our three score and ten, but rivers are the lifeblood of the earth, created long before us, to remain long after we’re gone.

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Photograph of the Grand Ditch, sluicing Colorado River east over La Poudre Pass on the Continental Divide by Jonathan Waterman.

If there’s only one thing I could share with the 30 million people who depend upon the Colorado River, it’s this: If we have the power to wrest a river from the Delta, we also have the responsibility to restore it.

As for what I got out of the trip, I have let go of my mother. But losing our river is a death I cannot abide.

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Read “How to Restore the Colorado River” in Jon’s recent interview at Grist.org He is the author of ten nature/expedition books, including Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. His Colorado River Project was sponsored by a National Geographic Expeditions Council Grant and New Belgium Brewing. This is his third River Notes post with National Geogaphic News Watch.

Read more blog posts by Jonathan Waterman.

Read more about the Colorado Delta on Alexandra Cousteau’s Blue Planet Expedition website. Waterman recently accompanied Cousteau down stretches of the Colorado River.

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Comment

From DJ Jeffery:

This short read brought me to tears.  I am heading out today to find “Running Dry”.  I’m anxious to hear more about Jonathan’s physical and emotional journey.