Because Glen Canyon Dam is designed to hold back the Colorado's natural muddy sediments, it flushes clear water into the Grand Canyon. Hungry water, they call it, and it scours away the tiny beaches that are the footholds of canyon life, not to mention essential way-stops for river campers.
A year ago, under Wegner's direction, the bureau unleashed a mini-flood to stir up sand on the river bottom and rebuild some of the beaches. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt proclaimed it a success.
Today Wegner is shocked to see that the new beaches have eroded away.
"I'm astounded," he says.
Without the impoundment of Lake Powell, annual high-water spring floods and low-water autumns will rebuild the beaches permanently, Wegner says.
Also, because Glen Canyon releases water from the bottom of the reservoir, the river runs unnaturally cold. This has altered the kinds of fish and aquatic life that can survive in the canyon. A warmer flow would reverse that and perhaps save some threatened species, Wegner says.
Overall, the wilderness of the Grand Canyon would thus be closer to real wild, and not, as writer Edward Abbey called it, "the domesticated, well-regulated conveyor belt for baloney boats that it is today."
But no one denies that other consequences would be vast, particularly on the houseboaters, fishermen and water skiers who use Lake Powell. All the region's power consumers would pay more. Lake Mead would fill up with silt and become obsolete sooner. And even river runners of the Grand Canyon would suffer because of potentially unnavigable high and low seasonal water flows.
To Wegner and Litton and the other purists, the price is worth paying to set the example for wilderness priorities in the 21st century.
Lava Falls: The Steepest Drop
Day 15: Our emotions are conditioned like the biceps of a weightlifter. Spirits flex, stiffen and release with each rapid. It now seems perfectly ordinary to live by the alternating current of adrenaline and lassitude. Isn't this the way people lived for most of our evolutionary history?
The last of the big ones--and the biggest of all--looms. We arrive at Lava Falls just before lunch. This is the steepest drop in the canyon. More boats flip here than anywhere else. Lava is a maelstrom, and at high water there is no way but straight into the gulp.
Someone has timed how long it takes a boat to go from top to bottom: 13 seconds.
Slam, bounce, roar, slosh. It's over.
The Grand Canyon could not have been engineered more perfectly for river runners. After Lava, the pace winds down. Each day we enjoy more languor. After all, wilderness is not just about space and vista but time. Here we live entirely in the present. There is no concern for yesterday, no worry of tomorrow. Only the river running over rocks.
The temperature has warmed. Runoff from side canyons has turned the river into chocolate. In the afternoon, we look for shade. Most of us have given up tents; we sleep on mats and rub the sand off in the morning.
Spring brings flowers. The ocotillo appear to be bursting into flame with red pyres on the tips of their spindly arms. Prickly pear show off in yellows and purples. Globe mallows and monkey flowers spread wing. Migrating ducks and mountain bluebirds travel the highway of the Colorado.
River days are interspersed with hikes into the amazing and ever different side canyons--the aquamarine calcium waters of Havasu Creek, the windblown waterfall at Deer Creek, the limestone labyrinth of Matkatamiba Canyon. At Elves Chasm, Litton leads a climb up vertical cliffs, holding a sandwich in one hand and inching along with only toeholds overhanging an 80-foot drop.
They say that three days in the Grand Canyon are too many; three weeks not enough. People are talking and writing less in their journals now. They are staring more into the melodramatic cliffs, where nearly 30 cake layers of rock are exposed--a billion years of geologic history sliced open by the river. And they are reflecting.
Harriet Burgess reflects on Martin Litton. She runs the American Land Conservancy in San Francisco and has worked with Litton for more than 20 years.
"I'm just repeating what other people say when I tell you he is my conscience. I feel he tells the truth."
Ote Dale, a 49-year-old boatwoman and artist, reflects on the canyon. "It's my life. This is it, it's my life. It's everything there is to me and has been for 26 years."
She knows the sand beaches where her children were conceived. She points to the rock outcropping where she was married up on the rim. Her friends decorated the altar with flowers in bailing buckets. The Grand Canyon has the power to fix someone in place for a lifetime.
"From the very first moment I came into this canyon," she says, "I knew it was where I belonged."