Loss and Recovery in Dark Canyon

Posted by Taylor Graham on 17th Oct 2017

As a lover of rivers and nature left in its wild and undisturbed state, watching the free-flowing Colorado become a lake was a profoundly sad experience. After eight days floating through Cataract Canyon, one of the most intact stretches of the Colorado, the transition to reservoir came as a shock. First, walls of sediment rise up from the riverbed, until they tower 50-60 feet above the river. These mountains of silt, deposited by the Colorado when the reservoir was full, choke side canyons and fill eddies with swamps of gelatinous goop. Invasive tamarisk and tumbleweeds, thick as barbed wire, drape the shoreline.

A few miles into the transition, the last ripples fade away, the river slows, and the powerful current that crashed through the Big Drops just upstream becomes imperceptible. As the river disappears, methane bubbles break the surface until the air is thick with the smell of decay. The result of decomposing organic matter, the gas was held in sediment by the pressure of the reservoir until the water, and accompanying pressure, receded, allowing the gasses to find their way to the surface.

By evening, an uncharacteristic silence settles over the landscape. The buzz of insects and resounding calls of the birds that feed on them are replaced by the occasional gurgle of a bubble breaking the water’s surface. Gone are the cottonwoods rustling in the evening breeze and the swooping bats chirping across the darkening sky.

On the last night of our Cataract Canyon leg, we camped across from Dark Canyon on hard-packed sediment cleared of tumbleweeds. The section of “river” just below us once hosted one of the steepest rapids on the Colorado Plateau, now buried under some 175 feet of sediment. As I stared up at the stars from my sleeping bag, I felt a supreme sense of loss for the river that our team had come to know so intimately over the past week.

Early the next morning, Micah and I paddled across to the mouth of Dark Canyon. On foot the day before, we had been kept from the canyon proper by waist-deep goop and piles of bristling tumbleweeds. In our kayaks now, we hoped we would be able to travel farther up the inlet and find stable ground to begin our up-canyon hike. As we pushed into the canyon mouth, our paddles disturbed swirling clouds of sediment that darkened the water in our wake. Reaching the end of the inlet, we pulled our kayaks on shore and squelched our way through mud to dry ground.

The beginning of our hike brought more of the same. We thrashed through tamarisk and skirted swampy sections of the old creek bed as we fought our way up canyon. Slowly, a murky trickle of water emerged from the sediment, carving a languorous path as it bore the silt from the canyon bit by bit. As we moved up canyon, willows broke forth along the recovering creek bed, and sandstone, buried for half a century below sediment and water, appeared among the mountains of debris.

About a half-mile up stream from the lake, Micah and I found ourselves in a picturesque desert canyon. At this point, we were still thirty feet below the high water mark, just discernable against the canyon walls by the telltale bathtub ring and line of tamarisk and flotsam that once marked the lake’s edge. Dark Canyon, however, had come back to life. Sounds of the creek rippling over sandstone broke the still morning air and we disturbed a flock of wild turkeys rummaging through the young willow stands.

A waterfall and deep inviting pool greeted us when we finally reached the high water mark. Since the reservoir had retreated, nature had been hard at work scouring away decades of silt and restoring the magnificent canyon to its previous splendor. As Micah and I waded in the clear water, the contrast to our previous night’s camp could not have been more pronounced. All around us life was rebounding, proving that in a landscape as old as time, man-made change can be as transient as the changing seasons.

Posted by Taylor Graham