Nine reasons why a river is good for the soul

  • Views of the Colorado River: Cataract Canyon

    courtesy of Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons and National Park Service
  • Ancestral Puebloan granary

    courtesy of Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons and National Park Service
  • Cliff in Canyonlands that shows (from top to bottom) Kayenta, Wingate, Chinle and Moenkopi formations

    courtesy of Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons and National Park Service
  • Ancestral Puebloan handprints

    courtesy of Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons and National Park Service
  • Closeup of Organ Rock shale

    courtesy of Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons and National Park Service

SILT. Healthy particles of silt are suspended in the river, buffed off eons of Wingate sandstone and the debris of flash floods fire-hosing through twisted arroyos. These tiny particles of soil, mud, stone, trees and bones scour our skin as we float in the slow, warm current of the river. We drift in silence, particles ourselves in the immense canyon, scarcely able to imagine what lies ahead.

SAND. We set up temporary evening homes on wide, sugary beaches. Winds have carved the sand into dunes, which bake in elegant windrows. I can’t help myself, and walk along the top edge of a dune, marring the smooth surface. Beneath my toes, rivulets of sand tumble over the edge and fan out in deltas of repose. In days, maybe hours, none of my marks will remain, and the sand will continue its lazy abrasion and sculpting, eventually blowing into the river, into another river runner’s ear.

COMPANIONS. We’re drunk with the serenity of it all, the seven of us — my wife of 14 years, my good friend and his 17-year-old daughter, a woman from Grand Junction, and our two male guides. The guides are typical river rats, young, glazed dark brown from the sun, competent in all things wild. My wife likes them both because they’re irreverent, funny and built of raw sinew, and because they live in shorts and sandals almost year-round. My wife doesn’t tell me this, but it doesn’t matter because the guides are busy trying not to watch the 17-year-old too much.

RUINS. We tie the boats up, make our way along a narrow path through dense stands of tamarisk to visit an ancient granary made by Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, out of mud and rock. The granary is small, maybe four feet across and five feet high, its rough semicircular wall set into the cliff face. Fingerprints are obvious where wet mud was pressed into cracks hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, and I can scarcely believe I’m looking at impressions made by the original builders — signatures, really, of skilled artisans and desert dwellers who left here for reasons still not completely understood.

In the baking heat of the afternoon, trying to wrap my mind around a culture that thrived with simple tools, I hear a power boat roaring up the river. The whine echoes for many minutes, and I swear I can smell the stink of gas, even from this distance. Instead of complaining about the noise, I complain about tamarisk, a tree that was introduced into the region decades ago from Mediterranean countries, and now has taken over almost every drainage in the Southwest to the detriment of native flora and fauna.

"But you know," one of the guides says from behind the smoke of his unfiltered cigarette, "tammy has actually helped keep people out of some of the ruins along the river." The tamarisk is so hard to walk through, and even harder to see through, that some of the ruins and rock art are protected from curious boaters and artifact hunters. I chew on this new information on the way back to the boats. I truly wanted to hate this weed.

RAPIDS. Oh, yes. The river is running very low, but we still find roiling water in Cataract Canyon, just below the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers.

"Don’t steer," I remind my wife, who’s paddling in the bow of the kayak. "I’m not," she shouts, just as a wall of water rises up, grabs our pitiful craft and hurls it skyward. We paddle furiously, sometimes hitting rocks or nothing at all, and in moments we’re through the rapid, soaked but smiling. I twirl my paddle like a helicopter blade, then we smack tips together high in the air in celebration.

More exuberant water follows, but at Big Drop Rapids, close by Teapot Canyon, we scout the river and decide to run the rapids in the bigger boat. It’s the best choice, but still, once we’re safely through, I look back and wonder what it would have been like in the kayak, dropping into huge troughs and driving over billowing, standing waves, barely able to hold on to the paddle. Maybe another time, another life, when the river is higher.

NAMES. We’re walking upriver, tiny specks in the canyon, on a jaunt to see what there is to see. I lift my eyes and the canyon walls rearrange my psyche, the limestone, sandstone, shale, chert and siltstone piled in dizzying cliffs to form the Honaker Trail Formation, above which is the Cedar Mesa Sandstone, which is below the Organ Rock Shale, which anchors the Moenkopi Formation — all of which comprises only half the height of the canyon. Curtains of desert varnish stand out high on the walls, a lustrous patina streaking the rock, a festival of black, brown, tan and orange minerals, as alive as I am but infinitely more interesting.

TIME. The guides are lounging down by the boats, probably telling lies to each other. They’re both holding tall plastic cups of concoctions that make them happier than they already are. I team up with my buddy to beat them in horseshoes, sand flying everywhere. Toward the end of the game, I don’t even know I made a ringer until the men on the other end excavate the shoe, digging as carefully as archaeologists.

None of us has a watch, so time takes its proper place on the margins of reality. Evening moves down the cliffs and the river seems a bit louder, as if our ears are tuning more sharply to the landscape to make up for what we can’t see. We settle comfortably into earnest conversations that condemn mining industries as we pass around various silt-free cold liquids in aluminum cans, fetched from big plastic coolers within arm’s reach. The night collapses peacefully around us.

RUBBLE. "I’m going to say this just once," I tell my buddy, my best friend of many years. "Then please smack me if you hear it ever again." We’re immersed in the murky, mild Colorado, can’t keep out of it, and all I can see of him is a grin and a chin, his lovely, ferociously smart daughter within earshot. With my feet I touch the bottom of the river, then nothing, then touch, then nothing.

"The Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell are the greatest travesties humans have visited upon the Southwest, maybe the planet," I proclaim. I almost run aground on a sand bar, then roll free. "To think of the hundreds of miles of landscape just like this buried under a reservoir, under tons of silt, under the stink of powerboats…" I sputter to a halt in the face of the stupefying ugliness awaiting us down the river.

My friend is silent. He has a different take on things such as huge dams on formerly free-ranging rivers. He appreciates the landscape differently, no matter how altered, because soon nobody will be around to see any of it.

"This is all just temporary," he finally says. I think his eyes are closed behind his sunglasses. "In geologic time, nothing humans do really matters."

"Yeah, just think," I say, rolling onto my back to watch the canyons recede behind us. "Polished stumps of concrete instead of a dam. What great rapids they’ll make."

STARS. For our bed, during our nights on the river, I help my wife put a tarp on the sand. We lie down and sleep, using clothes for pillows. In the middle of the night, I wake up and can’t remember what day of the week it is. The moon’s thin sliver hides behind rimrock, and stars are layered beyond reasoning. Bats work the balmy night air, nailing moths and other insects, and for some reason I want to feel the radar they use. I want to grasp the concept of geologic time, to work it into a form I can see.

Instead, I run warm sand through my fingers, thinking about scorpions and the rough touch of rock while the water sings on downriver. I won’t be able to leave here, not tomorrow, not yet, not ever.

Paul Miller is a writer, editor, outdoor freak and curmudgeon-in-residence in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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