In Praise of Wild Rides on Wild Rivers

October, 2015

 As autumn turns to a much-hoped for wet winter, North Coast residents will begin to dream of sunnier days and imagine the next big adventure.  Surely as long as people have come to river shores, they have used them for transportation, sources of food, inspiration and recreation. So important are rivers to life, people have established sacred connections with flowing waters in cultures around the world. 

Photographer and river guide, John Blaustein, has had an inspiring personal connection to one of America’s most iconic rivers, the Colorado, through one of the most spectacular landscapes, the Grand Canyon, since the 1970’s. The photos in his book, The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey are stunning, while the accompanying journal entries by the late Monkeywrencher, Edward Abbey, will make you laugh and wish you were in the canyon. 

Blaustein escaped his city upbringing and headed to the Grand Canyon. Though inexperienced, he was generously taken in by legendary river guide and conservationist, Martin Litton.  (See Kin to the Earth in the Feb/Mar 2015 issue of EcoNews for Blaustein’s iconic portrait of Litton).  In Blaustein’s first year on the river, the 23-year old anthropology graduate went from cook to guide and forged a lifelong friendship with Litton and the Grand Canyon.  

Blaustein found another passion that year as well. He began to take photos, first in black and white but moving to stunning color photographs. When visitors approach the rim of the Grand Canyon, that geologic chasm for the first time, they frequently say, “Pictures can’t capture this!” Blaustein’s images come as close as a human can get. His book is full of photos of sunlit canyon walls, gut-wrenching images of small boats upended by muddy brown rapids and the intricate ecosystem hidden deep in the canyon. 

If you have had the luck to hike into the canyon or, better yet, run the river in a boat, The Hidden Canyon will take you back. If you have never been, the book will inspire those adventure plans.  Blaustein’s photographs set the tone for passages from Edward Abbey, who Blaustein knew. Abbey, in turn, quotes from the 1869 journals of the first person to float the entire Grand Canyon, John Wesley Powell, regarding the same points 100 years later. The result is a book that uses mixed forms of art to bring the place to life. Top that off with a preface by the photographer, an introduction by the late Martin Litton, and a new afterward by Kevin Fedarko (author of the much-acclaimed The Emerald Mile) and you have a classic work that still makes the heart race; hence the demand  for a new, Third Edition. 

If the book inspires you to a new river adventure, you do not need head to Arizona and Utah. Thanks to forward thinking conservationists here in Northern California, many of our rivers have been protected—including all or parts of the Klamath, Salmon, Smith, Trinity and Eel Rivers—under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation that created a system to keep our rivers wild. You can maneuver your own kayak or raft; on some rivers, like the Trinity, you can explore its wild nature with a raft company guide. 

The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, however, is an excellent example of the limits of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. In spite of the strong connections people have with the Grand Canyon and the river that winds through it, political squabbles and never-ending plans for development have prevented its inclusion as Wild and Scenic. Look at Blaustein’s pictures and the reader gets a sense of the insanity of those politics. 

Similarly, the work is not done here closer to home. Again, this summer, we read of the fish diseases caused by warm water behind dams on the Klamath and the demands to release more water to save the fish and those who rely on them.  Some beautiful stretches of waterways—such as Canyon Creek in the Trinity Alps Wilderness area and Redwood Creek, which flows through Redwood National and State Parks—do not have this important layer of protection.  Local communities hope to change that oversight. 

In the meantime, check out Blaustein’s newest edition to his now-classic river book. Fulfill a vicarious raft trip in your own living room, let it excite you about your next adventure, or inspire a friend with the book as a gift.  




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