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Know the West

Four women joyride the flood that will revive the Colorado River Delta


The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.

It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.

Alison demonstrates proper brain-eating amoeba risk mitigation technique.

March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver.

Three hours later, Alison and I began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the freeway and the hotel on the rim, while Sarahlee and Laura held down a campsite and explored an island in the middle of the river. The route was a spectacular scramble along sandy wash bottoms and up boulders and ragged fixed lines. Spring-fed ferns and algae wept down the canyon’s walls and an ankle-deep stream of hot water threaded its middle, curling periodically into deep, sand-bagged pools. By the time we had strapped the cornery bulk of the stove to my back, we were congratulating ourselves on the incredible luck of finding this place, and of finding a way to retrieve this key piece of gear. “Winning!” we called out with fist pumps. This battle cry would become our river-trip refrain, but it didn’t much jive with what had been happening down below.

The magic disappearing island of Baja, Nevada.

When we arrived back at the river, we found not a tidy camp, but Laura and Sarahlee stripped from the waist down, wading out of what appeared to be much deeper, much faster water than we had left behind. The beach where we had casually left out a table, food bags and soft cooler had become river, the tree where we had tied our kayaks now well within its current. “I looked over from where I was paddling and the island was GONE!” Laura exclaimed as she and Sarahlee pulled our boats to the new shore. They pantomimed the harrowing process of fishing our gear from eddies and paddling it back upstream; somehow, they got all of it save Sarahlee’s beloved tea mug, a water-tight steel cylinder that’s traveled with her on river expeditions down the Grand Canyon, the Nile, the Futaleufu. But we’d take this, too, we decided. Against all odds, we had lost and regained both our stove and our food. “Winning!” We cried, pumping our fists some more.

And we aimed to keep winning, so we set our first camp far up the sidecanyon. As I filtered drinking water into our bottles that night, dangling my feet from a shelf of rock, the river rose and fell slowly, rhythmically, as if breathing – climbing over my toes, sliding up my shins, curving around my knees, pulling away, and again.

The following night, we were even more careful, setting camp in a sandy depression in a rock outcropping high above the river, which had the added bonus of shielding us from sight and earshot of a dozen or so canoeists camped at the mouth of the new sidecanyon below us. After dinner, we ate cookies on a little spit of basalt, watching with interest as the water began to climb again. First one foot. Then two. We looked over at our kitchen, set on a shelf several vertical feet below our sleeping bags, but still a few vertical feet above the river. Was it high enough? The water fingered its way up the rocks. Three feet now, and still rising in the deepening dark. We shuffled gear, shuffled it again, as the river crept over the small fire ring that had been under our table only an hour before.

Our cozy cubby hole in an outcrop well above the floodwaters.

Four feet, and acrid smoke from a river-swamped campfire flooded our outcropping. We peeked over the rocks to find our neighbors busily moving their tents, tables, chairs, coolers, even their flotilla of canoes, as the water poured slowly up their canyon. Their second campfire suddenly lifted into the air, floating backwards into the willows as they carried it to higher ground in its firepan. The sight was so surreal – a campfire appearing to move under its own power through the dark like a tiny flying saucer aflame – that I let out a guffaw, and several headlamps swiveled our way. We ducked, and Laura punched me in the arm. “You’re a terrible spy!” she hissed.

Later, as we slept in a pig pile beneath the stars, a light appeared from the rocks above us and scanned our faces, startling us blinking back awake. “Is everything okay?” I asked the disembodied light blearily. “Yes, yes,” the older man wearing it said, his glasses glinting weirdly as he informed us that his group had had to move their camp not one, but three times. “Are you staying dry?” he asked, hoping to commiserate. Before we could respond, though, he inexplicably disappeared into our kitchen for a few minutes to survey our setup, then sauntered back and plopped down as if this were a great time to chat: “Have you heard of Minute 319?”

It was an absurdly random thing to ask a group of sleeping women at 11 p.m. Being the argumentative know-it-all that I am, though, I propped up on my elbows, slid on my glasses, and engaged. Why, yes I had, I said, feeling Laura stiffen beside me, likely preparing another punch.

Just last fall, I edited a feature story about Minute 319 by former High Country News contributing editor Matt Jenkins. The landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, finalized in late 2012, is meant to bring life back to the Colorado’s vast delta at the Sea of Cortez. The river is so overallocated, serving more than 35 million people on both sides of the border, that it has rarely reached the ocean over the past 50 years. But it once fed 3,000 square miles of cottonwood- and willow-shaded wetlands, pools and channels that sustained armies of birds and fish. A record flood of water in the epic snowpack year of 1983 revived it for a bit. Minute 319 aims to do the same, with a big pulse of water sent down the river from the very dams that have choked its flow. The simulated flood will hopefully jumpstart the ecosystem, and smaller pulses over the next five years, sustain its recovery.

Could these crazy river conditions be Minute 319? the man wanted to know. Surely the guides would have told us that, I responded, scraping my sleepy mind for a clear recollection of timing, and besides, I thought the flood was in April? Los Angeles had probably just turned on all its lights and hairdryers at once or something. And also, Alison broke in, we’d like to go back to sleep now. Goodnight? Finally taking the hint, he rose hastily and skulked away.

But the water failed to rise that much again for the rest of our blissful trip, even during the electricity frenzy that is Friday night. By the time I had arrived home to Paonia, Colo., that weekend and plugged back into the Interbrain, it was clear that our awkward visitor was right. We had unwittingly drifted atop, been flooded out by, drank from, and swam in one of the most momentous events in recent environmental history. Winning, indeed.

After sending us reeling the previous Wednesday and Thursday, those big pulses of water from Hoover had traveled more than 340 river miles southwest to the Morelos Dam on the international border. And on Sunday, March 23, officials opened the gates and loosed them into Mexico.

Matt Jenkins is on those newly flooding stretches of river as I write, documenting the water’s trickle back into its southerly veins and arteries, the Delta’s slow stretching of limbs back into life. When I called him this week to check in about how he plans to write up his findings for HCN (stay tuned for that next week), I filled him in on our trip mishaps. He laughed, we set a deadline. “Oh hey,” he added as I got ready to hang up, “I’ll keep an eye out for that mug.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman