Due to its challenge, mystery, and utter wild vastness, the Colorado River attracted river runners surprisingly early. Major John Wesley Powell famously navigated the most difficult stretch of the Colorado, from the Green River to the Grand Wash in what is now Lake Mead, in 1869.
The Kolb Brothers floated most of the Colorado from the Wyoming to the Gulf of California in 1911, more than a hundred years ago. More recently, in 1989, Colin Fletcher (of “Complete Walker” fame) rafted the Green-Colorado from its source in the Wind River Range to the Gulf of California, arguably the first person to run the entire Colorado.
Now, it is true that the 1,450 miles of the Colorado boasts scores of the most awesome and intimidating rapids in North America, if not on Earth, but if one is skilled and experienced or guided by one skilled and experienced, you should have no problem, providing you have the time and the groceries.
The 279-mile Grand Canyon section of the Colorado hosts hundreds of rafters every year, both commercial and private, with rarely an injury greater than sunburn. Considering the power and magnitude of the Colorado, the annual death toll is remarkably low, around three.
One of the reasons for this low casualty rate is that everybody, from the National Park Service on down takes the Colorado pretty seriously. Everyone knows what they are doing or is in the care and supervision of someone who does. The River Rangers of the NPS ask questions before granting a permit, which is based on a certain level of skill and experience.
In addition, the Colorado LOOKS forbidding! Brown, sinister water moving between towering, grim, lifeless cliffs. It is a sobering river. You really don’t want to do something stupid.
Finally, the Colorado is quite a ways from large population centers. If you can remove humans from the equation, you will generally have peace, quiet, and a lack of statistics.
Writing in 1858, Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives noted, “It seems intended by Nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”
Now poor Lieutenant Ives has received a great deal of ridicule from those who point out the swarming hordes of Chinese, Japanese, French, German and even the occasional English speaking visitor that attend the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, leaving aside the philosophical implication that God may have set up his very own private vacation retreat away from the demands of running a Universe, Lieutenant Ives was largely correct.
The vast bulk of the visitors to Grand Canyon National Park visit the South Rim overlooks, the gifts shops and the Bright Angel Bar. At no time will they be bothered by the Colorado River. Lieutenant Ives was right.
On The Other Side Of The Country, The Potomac
Now lets take a look at America’s other famous national river, the Potomac. Like most rivers east of the Appalachians, it’s not very long, about 405 miles from its source at Fairfax Stone in West Virginia to its entry into Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, Maryland. However, unlike the Colorado, the Potomac has never been run end-to-end by kayak, canoe or raft. This makes it rather unusual for an eastern river (or any other river for that matter).
Why hasn’t it been run? The main reason had been the Potomac River Gorge, a 15-mile stretch of rapids and de facto wilderness that butts up against Washington, D.C.
The piece de resistance of these rapids is the Great Falls of the Potomac (Actually, a cascade with a 20-foot drop). The Great Falls is sufficient to discourage all but the most persistent of boaters.
“All but the most persistent boaters?” you ask.
In 1975, several kayakers, including NPS Ranger Jim Kirby of Great Falls Park, successfully ran the Great Falls Cascade. Since that time, scores of expert kayakers have negotiated the class V+ rapids. However, at least two have died trying.
“So if the main obstacle has been overcome, why hasn’t someone run the Potomac?” you ask.
Readers may not believe me, but there may be a shortage of lunatics in the U.S. In order to run the Potomac end-to-end, you are going to have to wait for a good snow year. Then, at the peak of the spring melt, you will have to drag or portage your kayak to Fairfax Stone and then shove off while your girlfriend or executor of your will video tapes the event. (One lunatic actually DID get his kayak into a dissolving snowdrift at Fairfax Stone before he relapsed into good judgment and called the thing off!)
The first European to officially inaugurate tourism at the Potomac Gorge and the Great Falls was none other than America’s first real estate promoter, Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame. In the years of 1607-09, this industrious businessman undertook a 3,000-mile inventory of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in a shallop, a shallow draft open sailing barge that could also be powered by oars.
In 1608, Smith and his men sailed up to the fall line where the Potomac Gorge begins and navigation ends just above what is now Washington, D.C. Smith passed Native American villagers who were unaware that they were being “discovered” and reached the impressive Great Falls where the Smith party erected a cross.
The good-natured locals offered the Englishmen lunch and, according to Smith, asked if the Europeans might be interested in a silver mine they had on tap at what is now Quantico, Virginia. (Smith had this developer’s way of padding his reports to far off London in such a way that would keep investment interest alive!)
One is impressed by the accomplishments of the Discoverer of the Potomac, even when one remembers that Garcia Lopez De Cardenas was looking down on the Colorado River from the edge of the Grand Canyon in the year 1540, some 40 years before John Smith was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Native Americans and the wilderness were eliminated in one way or another around the Potomac. Except, that is, for that stubborn nugget of wilderness, the Potomac Gorge, 15 miles of rapids, rocks, islands, and waterfalls, stretching from Chain Bridge downstream to Violette’s lock upstream.
Normally, for wilderness preservation to occur (de facto or otherwise,) the ecosystem should be (A) a long way from population centers (B) comparatively worthless, and (C) preferably both. However, the Potomac Gorge is smack dab in the middle of the 5.8 million Washington, D.C., metro areas.
Preservation DID occur however.
The Maryland side of the Gorge is protected through scenic easements and fee simple ownership by the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park; Great Falls Park.
Another unit of the National Park Service protects the Virginia side. Most of the islands are owned by conservation organizations such as the Potomac Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy, or by private entities that have agreed to leave their islands and standing vegetation intact. (There is an urban legend that the CIA owns an island opposite their headquarters in Langley, Virginia and if you set foot on their island, you will never be heard from again. The truth is a bit more prosaic; the island belongs to the Sycamore Island Club, and yes, a number of CIA employees do belong to the club (you can join too!) but no, you will not be shipped off to a secret prison in Bulgaria if you beach your canoe on Sycamore Island.).
So what happened? How come the Good Guys (us) won?
Part of it was luck, or good fortune. “Worthless” was in the Gorge’s favor. The soil on the islands is much too thin to support vegetation other than the trees and other plant life specialized enough to survive: So, no farmers to contend with.
Best of all, the islands are over washed by enormous floods every three or four years; that eliminates McMansion building by lawyers, lobbyists, politicians and other vermin. The rocks themselves are worthless (save for an improbable and uneconomic gold mine, which has long since ceased operations.)
The other part was the Good Guy himself: Associate Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. You will recall that when the National Park Service planned to fill in the abandoned C & O Canal and turn it into an automobile “parkway,” Justice Douglas wrote a poetic letter of protest to the editor of the Washington Post:… "It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door: A wilderness area where we can commune with God and with Nature, a place not marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns…” (Now it is true that Douglas is implying that you can’t get with Jesus in your Ford or Chevy, but cut him some slack, he’s a known liberal!)
Anyways, Justice Douglas invited the Washington Post editor to hike the canal with him. It became one of the most famous hikes in conservation history. The Good Guys won.
What many are not aware of is that Justice Douglas also helped defeat an agency even more destructive than the National Park Service. That would be the beaver-like Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted to dam the gorge and “regulate” the Potomac to prevent flood.
There would be a dam at the beginning of the Gorge at Little Falls, which would back a reservoir up to Great Falls, and an even bigger dam that would back things up to Harpers Ferry. That would have drowned the islands, the rapids and the canal.
Fortunately, thanks to Douglas and others, the Corps did not get its way.
Later, a similar scenario would play out on the Colorado. The Sierra Club had ceased opposition to the Glen Canyon Dam in the misapprehension that Glen Canyon would be the last request for main stem dam construction on the Colorado.
However, the same day in 1963 that Glen Canyon Dam was closed and Lake Powell began filling, Floyd Domini, the messianic chief of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, announced plans for a 300-foot high dam at Marble Canyon (which was legal as that part of the Colorado was not in a national park). He also proposed a mammoth 700-foot-high dam at Bridge Canyon, which would have eliminated Lava Falls, the most spectacular and dangerous rapids on the Colorado.
While legal, these dams would mean a definite compromise of Grand Canyon National Park. The Sierra Club fought back, stopped both dams and lost its tax-free status in retaliation.
Grand Canyon National Park was nearly doubled in size in 1975 by the addition of Marble Canyon and other potential dam and reservoir areas. Although the park has grown, it may be increasingly difficult to even see the park as the power companies that had planned on clean hydropower from the dams are now making do with the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station that has less than state-of-the-art pollution controls.
We should be able to solve this in a grown-up manner.