Day 62 to Day 66. Entering the Dam(n) Country

It is great to take a real shower and sleep in a real bed. And there is laundromat to finally wash my clothes in something other than the silty water of the Colorado River. And then there is Izzy, and she is the best part of all this. I had known I would like her when we first met at Pearce Ferry. She is a shining advocate of this river and although she sometimes struggles with the seeming hopelessness of it all, she is putting in a lot of effort to preserving the Black Canyon. It is my upcoming section and probably the last little bit of wilderness the Colorado River has left on my journey downstream.

I stay with Izzy for three days. She makes a survival bracelet for me, which is an awesome idea of storing a couple of meters of actually strong rope on my wrist. Who knows, I may need that sometime ;-). I also get to do some interviews in the area and take a tour of the Hoover Dam.

On Day 65 I finally launch again, right below the scary walls of Hoover Dam. What a massive construction of concrete, where I feel the river should be flowing freely instead. Of course, I understand all the benefits that come with the dam. The energy, the safety from flood water, the lake for recreation. But I can’t help having become a friend and advocate for the nature of this river itself and a dam just doesn’t belong to it. Looking up into the gaping black spillways at the bottom of the concrete wall I feel lost in my Kayak. This time it is not in that positive way of losing myself in nature, but instead I feel weak and insignificant in the face of this monster of human ingenuity.

I turn away from the dam, facing the nose of my kayak downstream and I dig the blades into the blue green cold water. After a few strong strokes I am beginning to feel better. The view into the Black Canyon ahead is beautiful and I am full of warm memories. Izzy has become another dear friend to me on this journey and I am not only grateful for her never ending support, but also her kind and humorous way.

I only have 15 miles to cover within the next two days. A short distance, when compared to some other days I have done. But I am glad to take it easy and to enjoy some of the side hikes in this Canyon, and to chill on some of the beaches in the midday heat.

It is shocking, however, that whenever I pull over I find so much trash and my first trash bag is full after only half a day. It’s not only the kind of trash that is blown in from other places, but there are quite a few fireplaces on the rivers edge, with burnt plastic in it, and rocks holding down more trash. Mostly beer cans of the brand „Natural Light“ (I later find that seems to be the asshole trash peoples favorite brand) and „Coors“. It makes me so angry. The problem are usually not the Kayakers, as they tend to travel in a more respectful fashion and simply by being on the river in the slow pace, they get a chance to understand its worth. It is day hikers, who come in from parking lots and are too lazy to carry their trash back out with them. Some of them may not know there is no one to pick up after them as they are used to city clean ups. I also want to yell at the countless passing motorboats. The longer I am down here the more trash I find, and the more rage I develop towards the ignorant fishermen and numb city idiots who blast their ridiculous horsepower boats past me, creating big wakes, without having any sense of this environment around them. This is supposed to be a protected stretch, titled a „National Recreation Area“. I am beginning to understand that if „recreation“ is in the title, that is apparently more important than preservation. It is a brutal way of using this scenery as a Disneyland for a pretend outdoor experience. As if this land belonged to them, as if anyone had a right to use it as a dumpster. I can not believe that the National Park Service could not do more to protect this land. More education, more restrictions on motorized traffic. Why are there not enough signs put up at the trailheads, telling the hikers about how to behave down there? This beautiful place is going to shit, if nothing is done about it. But is seems the governmental priorities are clear here. I understood that, when I interviewed Christie Vanover, the Public Affairs Officer at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is a part of the National Park Service. Asking her what the main concern was with the sinking water levels, she said they were worried about the costs of having to extend the concrete landing docks for the motorboats that run the lake… Priorities are stated. I don’t even know what else to say to that.

Well, clearly, this is where the “Dam(n) Country” begins: a succession of one Dam and Waterpower site after the other, endless irrigation straws drawing more and more water from this once mighty river. Paired with an excessive recreational use (which means mostly motorized boats and such) this will be challenging for my mind, that is still somewhat stuck in the calm and majestic space of the Grand Canyon.

I soon stop in a little cove to make up some writing, and then I hike up Boyscout Canyon a little ways, wading through some of the natural hot springs and picking up more trash. When I reach my camp at Cranes Nest Wash early in the evening, I decide to hike up into the drainage. A bighorn sheep seems to follow me around on the cliff to my right. Whenever I look up, he stops and stares at me. When I raise my camera, he disappears behind a rock. There is a very warm wind blowing until past sunset and I can feel the heat of the desert through my ground pad when I lay down.

The night is comfortable and so warm, I sleep mostly on top of my sleeping bag. I wake up with the first light and enjoy a long Yoga session in the silence. I know that soon the sounds of boats, people yelling and helicopters will come back, so I value the early silence even more.

I start paddling late and take an extended brake at the historic Gauging Station. I hike along the Catwalk built for the gauger and enjoy the view down to the river, which is now dotted with many bright colored Kayaks. People call out to each other, no silence is left at all and even the ducks seem irritated by the noise. After a big group is done taking pictures I paddle into the Emerald Cove backwards. It is a very pretty sight: the arch of rock and the clear blue water below. But I am not staying long, as I still want to visit the Fish Hatchery down the river.

There I meet Giovanni, the fish biologist at the site. Izzy has told me to look out for him when I got there. He takes time to explain their work to me. His passion for fish, especially for the endangered Razorback Sucker is evident, the moment he starts talking. I love meeting people who are as excited about their work as he is. He tells me that the Razorback Sucker has stopped evolving four million years ago, so it is actually a prehistoric creature with some fascinating physical features. It used to be just fine in this river, until the Dam was built and changed the rivers temperature and level completely. Ever since then, the general habitat and ecosystem of this species, among others, has disappeared. In addition, non native species were introduced, that do some serious damage. Most prevalent is the quagga mussel, that came in on boats that had been on other waters without being cleaned after. But also the different types of fish that were introduced here only so fishermen had what they wanted to fish for.

What Gio and his colleagues do, is to collect the larvae of the Razorback Suckers and other endangered fish at their spawning sites, where their chance of survival is very low. They then raise them here at the Hatchery. 8000 bigger and healthy naturally local fish are put out into the river by them every year. Now, what is absolutely absurd, is the fact that at this same Hatchery, that is funded by the US-Congress, one of the non-native indirect predators of the endangered Razorback Suckers is being grown too. And again, merely for the fishermen, because they want their rainbow trout. Another aspect of this „National Recreation“ that obviously goes against its own habitat, as if wanting to destroy it in the first place. Sport fishing is such an important business here, that a lot of money is being spent to feed into this stupid vicious circle. It is just frustrating.

As Gio guides me through the facilities at the Willow Beach Fish Hatchery, he tells me that he has dedicated his career to the conservation of „these guys”. “They belong here” he says, proudly standing next to a raceway full of semi-grown Razorback Suckers. He looks at them as if they were all his children. When I ask him, what makes the Razorback Suckers special to him, he sighs and thinks. Then he says it is the morphology that they have developed over this long period of time. After a pause he chuckles “and look how cute they are“. Gio spends his free time diving with his girlfriend at the spawning places where the Razorback Suckers are „getting jiggy with it“ and watching the full grown impressive fish in their natural habitat.

When I head back to my boat in the dusk, to paddle downstream to camp, I stop short before stepping on a medium sized curled rattle snake at the side of the lake. It is wiggling it’s entire body energetically and is standing up tall, rattling my way like crazy. I am startled, as I hadn’t seen one up this close so far, and I slowly take some steps back. The snake obviously wants nothing to do with me and rushes off into the same bushes I have tied my boat in. „Hm“ I say out loud, not knowing what my smartest next move would be. I hike though the water and then tug at the bowline, before untying it,as if to tell the rattler that this is me wanting my boat back from its current home. I admit, I am relieved as I glide into the sunset lit water unharmed.

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