The Final Forty Miles of the Grand Canyon – an American Tragedy


Everyone agrees that there is one, and only one, Grand Canyon. It is probably also agreed that the Grand Canyon is the world’s greatest natural wonder. And I would bet that it is the most instantly recognizable land form in the world. Nothing compares to it – no mountain range, no coral reef, no ice cap, no tropical forest, no volcano. Nothing compares to it.

Rainbow and Desert View Tower, from Cape Royal on the North Rim, October 2010

Rainbow and Desert View Tower, from Cape Royal on the North Rim, October 2010

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Sunrise view to the east, from the South Rim. Vishnu Temple is seen in the distance. 1966

You would think, then, that we, the American people – the stewards of this most inspiring and remarkable place – would see to it that no harm came to the Grand Canyon. But harm has come to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long. It is cut through an uplifted area known as the Colorado Plateau. Both the Grand Canyon and the portion of the Colorado Plateau proximate to it end at the abrupt escarpment of the west-facing Grand Wash Cliffs. Beyond this line of demarcation, the Colorado River runs out into the low deserts of Arizona, Nevada and California, ultimately to join the Sea of Cortez. Or, I should say, did run out into the low deserts of Arizona, Nevada and California, prior to the construction of Hoover Dam. And, I should add that the Colorado River no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez, except when (as was the case in 2014, and who knows when, if ever, again) water otherwise intended for agricultural use is released into the dry river bed. Hoover Dam was built at a point on the Colorado River 68.5 miles downstream of the end of the Grand Canyon. When full, the reservoir backed up by Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) is 112 miles long. Do the math. When the lake is full it backs up – way up – into the Grand Canyon. When last full, it backed up to around Mile 236 – that’s 41 miles into the Grand Canyon.

There is only one road that reaches the banks of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. It is the unpaved Diamond Creek road, and reaches the river at Mile 225. One drives in the bed of Diamond Creek for the last few miles of the trip. The road is located on the Hualapai Indian reservation, and is maintained by the tribe, who charge a toll for its use.

Diamond Creek take-out, on the Hualapai reservation

Diamond Creek take-out, on the Hualapai reservation

During the years that Lake Mead was at or close to capacity, one had to carefully consider where to end a Grand Canyon river trip. One could end it at Diamond Creek, at Mile 225, and miss the final 52 miles of the Canyon, or “go to the lake”. Going to the lake meant that one would have to deal with transiting many miles of dead water, to get to the first available take-out, at Pearce Ferry. How best to do that? It was a choice between drifting on the ever-weakening current until it stopped completely, followed by rowing; or carrying an outboard motor with you on the entire trip; or having a power boat meet you up the lake and tow you out. The first option was often accompanied by the “night float”, and this was how we did it in 1979. We detected the slackening of current somewhere close below Mile 236. At one moment, we were running rapids, and at the next, we found ourselves floating along on a strangely altered river. The current was slowing, the river widening and the rapids had disappeared. As night approached, we tied the rafts together, prepared supper, and slept on the rafts as they drifted down the dark canyon. The crew took shifts at the oars to keep us in the main current. We did 8 miles that night, and awoke upon a large body of water, perhaps as much as a mile wide. The lake stretched from one cliff-bound shore to the other. It was outlandish – the transformation of a river, river corridor and river canyon (the Grand Canyon!) into an ugly and stagnant over-sized bathtub. Then we untied and began to row. 17 miles later we rounded a bend and saw the Pearce Ferry boat ramp, and knew it was over. And I was over with going to the lake. Never again, I vowed.

Drowning the final forty miles of the Colorado River and river corridor in the Grand Canyon was a crime that can never be set right. Incredible hubris and the lure of the almighty buck led to the damming of the Colorado (and so many other rivers), at a time when the sky was the limit. But nature is now imposing limits. A 15 year drought has emptied Lake Mead to 38% of its full capacity, and the lake level is at its lowest since the initial filling of the lake. The City of Las Vegas is hurriedly drilling a new, lower, water out-take at the dam, as its current out-takes may soon go high and dry. How does this new circumstance affect the final forty miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon? First of all, as the lake empties, it’s upstream limit is retreating toward the dam. As of this writing, the upper end of the lake has retreated to Mile 294.5. Thus, 58 miles of river have been “liberated”. Second, the sediment load deposited by the Colorado into the upper reaches of Lake Mead is now seeing the light of day.

The retreat of the lake provided an opportunity to revisit those final forty miles of the Grand Canyon. In September of 2008, we embarked on a Grand Canyon river trip that would take us to South Cove, at Mile 297 (on the lake), 20 miles beyond the end of the Canyon. We would have good current as far as the end of Iceberg Canyon, Mile 293, after which we would row two miles to a campsite on the lake, and, in the morning, be met by a powerboat that would assist us the rest of the way to South Cove. Why South Cove? It was the closest takeout available below the Canyon. How about Pearce Ferry, where we took out in 1979? Here, the plot “thickens”, and it has to do with the silting-in of the upper lake. Lake Mead had, in places, attained some width, and one such place was the large bay that contained the Pearce Ferry take-out. Now, that “bay” had been converted to a mile-wide silt flat covered with a jungle of the invasive shrub tamarisk. The Pearce Ferry take-out was, therefore, unavailable, and the next take-out downstream was South Cove, 16 miles farther on.

The Grand Wash Cliffs and the riverbank, in the vicinity of the old Pearce ferry take-out

The Grand Wash Cliffs and the riverbank, near the old Pearce ferry take-out, Mile 280.5. The opposite shore shows the depth of the silt deposits here, and the vegetation that covers the silt flat. Fall 2008

So, this is what the “liberation” of the river resulted in – a wasteland of heavily-vegetated silt flats below the Canyon and, upstream in the Canyon, a bathtub ring, the placement of impenetrable vegetated silt flats at the mouths of side canyons and a river corridor that now consists mainly of vertical silt banks and the entombment of the rapids in silt. This was little improvement, if at all, over the lake.

236 Mile Rapid, the last rapid. All the rapids beyond this point were buried in silt

Upstream view at 236 Mile Rapid. All the rapids downstream of this point were buried in silt. One can see the bathtub ring beyond the dory (the upstream boat), on the dark cliffs, evidence of prior inundation.

The aisle below Separation Canyon. This was the site of a rapid that caused 3 members of the Powell party to separate from the group and hike out. They were never seen again.

Downstream view below Separation Canyon shows the heightening bathtub ring. Separation Canyon, Mile 239.8, is the site of what was an intimidating rapid that caused 3 members of the Powell party (the first to run the Canyon) to separate from the group and hike out. They were never heard from again.

The mouth of Spenser Canyon, Mile 246.3, with a cliff of lava opposite. The former rapid was called Lava Cliff Rapid, and may have been the hardest rapid on the river

The mouth of Spencer Canyon, Mile 246.3, with a cliff of lava opposite. The rapid located here was called Lava Cliff Rapid, and may have been the hardest rapid on the river.

Silt bank at Mile 254, downstream view

Silt bank at Mile 254, downstream view

The silted-in mouth of Dry Canyon, Fall 2007

The silted-in mouth of Burnt Spring Canyon, Mile 259.8

The two-phase destruction of the final forty miles of the Colorado River and corridor, first by drowning and next by entombment in silt, is the paramount, but not sole, insult this part of the Canyon has suffered. In the 1950s, a tramway was built from the south rim of the Canyon, at Mile 266.8, to provide access to the so-called Bat Cave, to recover bat guano. The mine and tramway operated for about 10 years, and, later, the cable was cut by an Air Force jet that was flying within the canyon. The original machinery was not removed, and is still very evident on the north side of the river. I saw the dropped cable (also not removed)  sticking out of a silt bank on the south side of the river in 2008. Recently, the mine road was re-purposed for the construction and operation of the Skywalk. This is another Hualapai Tribe venture – in my opinion, a silly Disney-esque “attraction” that lures the gullible from Las Vegas. It is a parabolic glass walkway cantilevered out from the rim of a side canyon that affords a view of the main canyon. I’ve viewed it from the river, and that’s as much of the Skywalk as I need to see. But that’s not all. Next, the Hualapai Tribe constructed helipads and floating boat docks along a half-mile stretch of riverbank downstream of Quartermaster Canyon, at Miles 262.2 and 262.7. Other helipads extend upstream to above Mile 260. At last count, there were as many as 1000 helicopter flights per day during the peak season. Try to imagine the noise created by squadrons of helicopters landing and taking off in quick succession, within the confines of the canyon. You can’t. It is reminiscent of scenes from “Apocalypse Now”, but so much louder. And the docks? Some helicopter passengers are treated to a 15 minute ride on the Colorado River in pontoon boats. They motor upstream for a few minutes and then drift back to the docks. There is no way to put a good face on it – this is heavy-duty industrial tourism at its worst, and it, along with the items mentioned above, are the ruination of the final forty miles of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

The first helicopters showed up at Mile 259. This was one of a group of 5. Fall 2012

We first heard, then saw, helicopters at Mile 259. This was one of a group of 5.

More helicopters at Quartermaster Canyon, Mile 260.3. Fall 2012

More helicopters at Quartermaster Canyon, Mile 260.3

More helicopters, boat docks and pontoon boats, Mile 262. Fall 2012

Yet more helicopters, with boat docks and pontoon boats, Mile 262

Loading up, with what appears to be a clientele of exclusively Japanese

Loading up, with what appears to be an exclusively Asian clientele

 

Off for their 15 minute boat ride. Fall 2012

Off for their 15 minute boat ride.

The Skywalk

The Skywalk, Mile 265.5.

The upper station of the guano tramway. Fall 2012

The upper terminal of the guano tramway, Mile 266.8

The guano works. Fall 2012

The guano works, Mile 266.8, north side of river.

Collapsing silt bank, Mile 271. Fall 2012

Collapsing silt bank, Mile 271

View downstream at Mile 271. Fall 2012.

View downstream at Mile 271. Vertical silt banks line both sides of the river.

Upstream view, Mile 275. Fall 2012

Upstream view as we’re leaving the Canyon, Mile 275. Vertical silt banks line both sides of the river.

Only one unusual river feature provided us some amusement in the otherwise bleak landscape of silt banks. As the lake retreated and the river ran out onto the silt flats, the river took a course through those flats different from before. It could not “find” (recover) its original channel, which was, of course, filled with silt somewhere below. It’s new course took it over a ridge of rock, forming a new rapid. This rapid is located not far below the old Pearce Ferry site and is called Pearce Ferry Rapid. In 2008, we enjoyed running that rapid, but the continued retreat of the lake and subsequent erosion of the river bed immediately below the rapid has now turned it into an unrunnable monster.

Pearce Ferry Rapid. Fall 2008

Pearce Ferry Rapid. Fall 2008

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Pearce Ferry Rapid. Fall 2008.

Enter the Hualapai Tribe again, who run commercial trips on this section of river, starting at Diamond Creek. The appearance of Pearce Ferry Rapid put such a serious crimp in their river running activity that they felt the need to extend the pre-existing Pearce Ferry road across the intervening silt flats to the riverside, at a point just above the rapid, and construct there a take-out. It cost about $1 million. We used this new take-out for our 2012 trip.

The Pearce Ferry take-out that was available to us in 2012, but not in 2008.

The Pearce Ferry take-out. It was available to us in 2012, but not in 2008.

Should I get another opportunity to run the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, I will be conflicted as to which take-out to use – Diamond Creek or Pearce Ferry. Because of my distaste for what the Lower Canyon has become, I’d prefer Diamond Creek. But … as of this writing, the Hualapai Tribe is charging river runners exorbitant fees for the use of the Diamond Creek take-out and road – about $1000/average size trip. So, it has become a question of choosing the lesser of the two evils, whichever it may turn out to be.

While the Diamond Creek road, the Skywalk and the helipads are on the Hualapai reservation, the boat docks at Quartermaster Canyon are not within their reservation, which goes only to the high-water mark on the south bank of the river. Without first asking for or receiving the permission of the National Park Service (NPS), the Hualapai Tribe installed the boat docks and stairways within Grand Canyon National Park. While that was acknowledged to me in a letter from the Park Superintendent, the NPS has yet to do anything about it.

The transition from brown water to green water at the end of current, in Lake Mead, Mile 294. This transition point has now moved down lake about a mile since then. We crossed such a transition point in 1979, at approximately Mile 248, when the lake was backed up into the Grand Canyon

The transition from brown water to green water at the end of current, in Lake Mead, Mile 294, Fall 2008. This transition point has moved down lake about a half mile or more since then. We crossed a similar transition point in 1979, at approximately Mile 248, when the lake was backed up into the Grand Canyon.

These Hualapai Tribe money-making ventures could well have served as the inspiration behind the Navajo Nation’s proposed “Escalade Tramway” project, to be located in Marble Canyon. The eastern half of Marble Canyon (the uppermost 61 miles of the Grand Canyon) is located on the Navajo Nation. Until just recently, no development plans had been put forth by the Navajos for that part of their reservation. Now, in conjunction with a non-Indian developer, politically-powerful elements of the Navajo Nation are proposing the installation of a tramway that would stretch from the eastern rim of the Canyon to the banks of the Colorado River, at an especially scenic spot, the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, at Mile 61.7. The lower terminal of the tramway would abut Grand Canyon National Park, and would forever degrade the scenic and wilderness values of this portion of the Park. Before leaving this subject, I should note that many Navajos oppose this project, and our hopes rest with them.

Upstream view of the Colorado River at the confluence of the Little Colorado River (just behind)

Upstream view of the Colorado River at the confluence of the Little Colorado River (just behind the camera), Mile 61.7. The lower terminal of the tramway would be located above the high-water mark (the western boundary of the reservation), just a few yards to the right of this beach. The lower terminal would be accompanied by a restaurant and boardwalk.

The confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, Mile 61.7. Turquoise is the normal color of the Little Colorado River.

The confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, Mile 61.7, seen from the approximate location of the tramway lower terminal. Turquoise is the usual color of the Little Colorado River.

What does the Grand Canyon deserve? The 1975 Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act addressed this question. The purpose of the Act was stated as follows: “Provides for the recognition of the entire Grand Canyon as a natural feature of national and international significance.” (emphasis added), and the Act: “Authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to enter into cooperative agreements with other Federal, State, and local public departments and agencies and with interested Indian tribes to provide for the protection and interpretation of the Grand Canyon in its entirety.” (emphasis added). Can the intention of the Act be misunderstood? No, it is clear as glass.

I propose that the Secretary of the Interior:

1. order that Lake Mead never again be allowed to back-up into the Grand Canyon. The Pearce Ferry take-out will be designated as the lake’s furthest upstream limit.
In time (but not that I expect, ever, to see it), the accumulated silt deposits will erode away.
2. enter into negotiations with the Navajo Nation aimed at the preservation of Marble Canyon. The Escalade project will be forgotten, and the Tribe will propose no other mechanized intrusions into Marble Canyon.
3. enter into negotiations with the Hualapai Tribe aimed at ending their helicopter activity within the Grand Canyon, and will order the NPS to shut down the illegal use of stairways and boat docks at Mile 262.2 and 262.7.
4. enter into negotiations with the Hualapai Tribe aimed at the removal of the Skywalk.
5. order the removal of the guano mining machinery located at Mile 266.8.
6. aggressively pursue the designation of the Inner Canyon of the Grand Canyon (with a few exceptions) as Wilderness.

To the greatest degree possible, I wish to see the inner Grand Canyon restored to a pristine state, to remain unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations and forever protected by the Wilderness Act from mechanized intrusions. It is the Grand Canyon. It deserves nothing less.

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1
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4 Responses to The Final Forty Miles of the Grand Canyon – an American Tragedy

  1. Christian says:

    I share many of the author’s concerns but think it is a shame he advocates removing the guano mining machinery. Those are historic ruins that not only add to the scenery and interest of the canyon, but allow us to understand past uses of the land. Why not also take out and throw away the ruins of bass camp, the Bridge Canyon camp, the bundy jars, or even the Nankoweap granaries for that matter? Would the author also have supported the immolation of historic cabins at Diamond Creek by the vandals that destroyed them decades ago?

    Human history has always been a part of Grand Canyon, and it’s worth preserving and remembering. I hope other canyon lovers will be able to differentiate between this kind of preservation and industrial tourism landscape changes.

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  2. believesteve says:

    Christian well articulates a good point. If a consensus were to develop that the guano mine was of significant historic interest, I would withdraw my item #5 (above).

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  3. Steve Thompson says:

    Wow. Great article. Something you never mentioned is the fact that all the silt is working its way toward the face of Hoover Dam. Also how thick is the sediment at Pearce Ferry? As in what was original elevation of Colorado river bed to present day silt flat elevation.

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    • believesteve says:

      Good points! I don’t know how thick the sediments are at Pearce Ferry. The altitude of the former channel bed should be easy to research. Otherwise, one would have to get an altitude reading of the current stream bed depth, however one goes about doing so (?). Thanks.

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