‘Downriver’ is a paddling adventure tale with a message

The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado River that rolls through parts of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. The water it carries is sought after for irrigation, energy, municipal and recreational purposes; it’s also a beautiful paddle.

In 2016, environmental journalist and former rafting guide Heather Hansman paddled from her Wyoming headwaters clear down to Utah, to better understand the river itself, struggles over water use across the West, and to experience the joy of reuniting with long-distance paddling. The book she wrote about her experience,Down the River: Into the Future of Water in the West,’ is a story of water conservation, an exploration of how the green is managed and mismanaged, and of course, a page-turning adventure tale. Talking to farmers, anglers and paddlers, Hansman learns how the river can mean different things to different people, many of whom love it for entirely different reasons.

It’s a well-told story and a great read, weighty and thought-provoking while remaining light-hearted and drenched in fun. Hansman shared an excerpt with AJ, published below.

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The river moves backwards through time here, cut in progressively younger rock. Lodore’s canyon is deep and dark red at first. It is alive with the waxy green of box shelves along the benches and a brighter, sharper tamarisk along the shore. Powell called the canyon a dark portal when he first saw it, from his camp the night before he and his men paddled through.

Flaming Gorge is still releasing full flows to prevent the reservoir from overtopping the dam so the water is high and we move quickly into the gorge despite the fierce headwind. The first big rapid, Winnie’s, is washed out and torn by water surges, barely even there. Rivers change as the flow varies, which can be challenging for the guides, especially in sections like these that they may only see a few times a year. When we stop to scout Disaster Falls, my guide for the day, Bob Brennan, tells me he’s never been down the river at this level before. From the upstream eddy where we pull our boats across, I can see a mushroom wave cascading down a foaming slope and hear the river thundering through the canyon below. We hike a thin, foot-strewn path downstream to get a better look. Once we’re alongside, the rapids are grinding and violent, with a foam of diagonal waves pushing against pressure holes and spitting spray. The guides are on edge. Kerry Jones and Bob point and mumble to each other, trace the tongues of the waves with their fingers and predict where the water will push their boats. Jamie Moulton, who is a Grand Canyon guide for most of the year, bites his nails and stares hard.

I am not naturally patient, but I can watch water move for a long time. Fluid dynamics are the same in any river – rocks form eddies, holes and waves, depending on flow and constriction – but each river, at different water levels, pulses and reacts in different ways. Standing on the shore at Disaster, watching the river rise and crash through waves, I feel a familiar tightening in my chest.

I know athletes – mainly skiers and runners – who visualize their events and imagine themselves taking every turn to prepare. Scouting whitewater is the same kind of meditation and projection, but it’s more visceral because you can see the muscle of the river and all the ways it can destroy you. From the bank, it is just as easy to visualize what can go wrong as what can go right.

River racing done right is all grace and ease, a few clean strokes here or there, minimal time spent fighting the current. But in big water there are a million ways to miss your mark and find yourself pulling against the waves and struggling hard. We had passed an Outward Bound group of scrappy teenagers and cool guides going back upstream while we went down to scout, and they started running through the falls as we stood on the bank. Their tour guide rides the tongue of the current to the edge of a hole and then gracefully and powerfully pulls back from it, running along the edge with no wasted movement.

Powell lost a boat at Disaster Falls, as did fur trapper William Ashley, who came through the canyon in 1825 looking for beaver. Much of the history of recreational river running flowed out of their explorations on this stretch. In the 1930s, before the dam went in and before inflatable boats like the rafts we’re in now were invented, the early wild men paddled wooden boats through the rapids of the Green—first to prove they could drive it, then to explore it and then make money by bringing customers into the canyons. In the early 1950s, Vernal-born carpenter Bus Hatch, known for his drinking habits and disregard for his own physical safety, began running The Green through Lodore’s gates in wooden boats with names such as What’s next and So what. He modeled them on Galloway-style boats, the first designed to be rowed backwards, which were named after their designer, Nathaniel Galloway. Bus learned about Galloway boats after he helped Nathaniel’s son Parley jump bail in the Uinta County Jail. But Bus was more of an opportunist than a criminal, and after gaining some recognition for taking friends boating, he realized that strangers would pay him to take them down the river.

Recreational river racing grew in parallel with both the explosion of dam construction across the West and a growing interest in environmental protection. The industry changed after World War II when sailors realized they could recycle military pontoon boats. The new rubber rafts were cheaper and more resilient than the Galloway-style boats and could hold more people and equipment. In 1953, Bus Hatch was granted the first National Park Service river concession permit in the country and allowed to run commercial tours through Dinosaur National Monument. In the mid-1950s, he took hundreds of people through the canyons of the Green and explored rivers in Idaho and Arizona. Other businesses popped up in Vernal after that, and Buss’ son Don eventually took over the Hatch operations in Utah. The river still feels wild and lonely now, but there are guidebooks, tourists’ GoPro videos on YouTube, and a sense that we are following the trail of others. I envy the way the early paddlers explored these canyons. The history and myths of people like Bus make me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t a part of. I feel like I missed out on the best, most untamed days of river racing.

I’m partly jealous because I know how wild I felt when I started sailing. In May, my first summer on the river, my mom put me in a rafting company parking lot with a PFD, backpack, and tent and told me to call at the end of the season. I didn’t have a car or a cell phone. I was eighteen and had been in a raft once. I spent the next week in training, running the icy 12-mile stretch of rapids below the Kennebec River’s Harris Station Dam as many times as I could, learning to turn boats, how to find downstream vees, and how to draw and pry rafts in queue. I slept with my soaked bottom layers in the sleeping bag, hoping they would dry out overnight. In the morning, the other student guides and I ran our frozen wetsuits under a hose to make them pliable enough to pull in. I learned that rapids smell like the rock they run through: cool granite or mineral sandstone. I loved the calculated risk of it, the subtleties of sliding through the bubble line at the top of an eddy, and the guts of rolling over the top of a wave train. I became obsessed with pushing myself into bigger, more complicated rapids because it made me feel empowered. Once, on my day off, I jumped into the river at the dam with a boogie board to see what the river would do to my body, instead of a boat.

When I moved to Colorado after college, in my pared-down, modern version of manifest destiny, I spent summers pushing boats on both sides of the Continental Divide. I worked on the Eagle and the upper Colorado, which ferries water toward the Pacific, and the Arkansas, which flows east out of the Rockies toward the plains. I had started rafting because I had an irritated, unbridled desire to be outside, but I was drawn in because of the charge and the community—the slow-rolling way that being on the river bonds you to people. After I fell in love with paddling, I began to learn about the multi-threaded controversies about water use and all the non-obvious ways rivers are important. Guiding tourists was my line. To me, the world of commercial river running, although it sometimes feels contrived, is an important part of access to the river.

Here at Lodore, this sense of value is clearly felt when we slip into the daily routine. Coffee and breakfast, reloading the boats, the first glimpse of water on the face. Lunch, and any pain from paddling, then beer and books on the beach at night. Everyone begins to open up because they have time and space. The teenager Thomas Griffith sits next to me by the fire and tells me that he might want to be a writer one day. Sometimes we just sit sun-drenched and don’t talk, sipping Tecates and eating cheese.

Reprinted with permission from ‘Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West’ by Heather Hansman, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by Heather Hansman. All rights reserved.

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