The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green

The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green


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Desolation Canyon is one of the West's wild treasures. Visitors come to study, explore, run the river, and hike a canyon that is deeper at its deepest than the Grand Canyon, better preserved than most of the Colorado River system, and full of eye-catching geology-castellated ridges, dramatic walls, slickrock formations, and lovely beaches. Rafting the river, one may see wild horses, blue herons, bighorn sheep, and possibly a black bear. Signs of previous people include the newsworthy, well-preserved Fremont Indian ruins along Range Creek and rock art panels of Nine Mile Canyon, both Desolation Canyon tributaries. Historic Utes also pecked rock art, including images of graceful horses and lively locomotives, in the upper canyon. Remote and difficult to access, Desolation has a surprisingly lively history. Cattle and sheep herding, moonshine, prospecting, and hideaways brought a surprising number of settlers--ranchers, outlaws, and recluses--to the canyon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874216523
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 04/20/2009
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The River Knows Everything

Desolation Canyon and the Green
By James M. Aton

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2009 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-652-3

Chapter One

Lizard-Gnawed Desert

Natural History

I sit inside a million acres of remote, lizard-gnawed Utah desert. -Ellen Meloy, Raven's Exile

The thing that most strikes you about almost any Colorado Plateau river is the rock-walled canyons. There is nothing else quite like them in the world. In that way-and in many others-Desolation does not disappoint. Geology surrounds you every foot of the way. Desolation boasts steep, dramatic walls. It also contains the largest debris fans and the widest river bottoms in the Colorado system, and it is deeper than parts of the Grand Canyon. Its side-canyon hiking may not hold the kind of jewels found in the Grand Canyon at places like Elves' Chasm or Nautaloid Canyon, but Desolation's drainages offer the most numerous and some of the longest and most varied hikes in the system. You could spend months following the trails of the Tavaputs Fremont Indians, climbing thousands of feet from river to rim. Along the way, you would discover thousands of their houses, rock art panels, and food-storage sites and encounter diverse biotic zones and microenvironments.

Desolation's cottonwoods, box elder trees, and coyote willows line and define the riverbanks like nowhere else in the Colorado River Basin. And even though the alien tree from Eurasia, tamarisk, has invaded the canyon, the natives are holding their own in Desolation's middle reaches. Those ancient cottonwoods offer the river traveler a bit of camping paradise.

Some unique natural features hide in the Green's sediment-laden waters: Desolation's endangered native-fish populations, especially the Colorado pikeminnow. These are the most endemic of any native fish in the United States. Thanks to the free-flowing Yampa River, some of Desolation's native fish are hanging on a little better than elsewhere in the basin, although their future is uncertain. Competition from nonnatives, which comprise 90 percent of the river's fish population, poses the greatest threat.

The populations of birds and mammals around the river are relatively healthy. There are too many species to mention here, but this chapter highlights a few, especially bears, since they keep making headlines in Utah newspapers. Had there been Utah headlines almost two hundred years ago, beavers would most likely have made them. They figured prominently in the fur trappers' story. Other animals are discussed in the last chapter, which details government and tribal efforts to manage and, in some cases, restore wildlife, including coyotes, native fish, bison, and endangered birds such as the southwestern willow flycatcher.


Whether people realize it or not, they come to the canyons for geology. Layer upon layer of sedimentary rock frames every view. Yet few bother to learn even the basics of Tavaputs Plateau geologic history. It is actually a relatively simple history, compared with other regions in the world. Yet geologists are still working out many of the details of the canyon's past, and the definitive story of Desolation's geological history has yet to be told. New research will keep revising the narrative.

Three time periods reveal themselves at the river's edge. The first and longest by far-fifty million years-is represented by the shales, sandstones, and marlstones laid down between ninety and forty million years ago (MYA). Most of those sediments formed from Lake Uinta toward the end of the Eocene epoch; no sediments from forty to two MYA appear in the canyon. The second time period on display is the past two to three million years, during which the Colorado Plateau rose, tipping up toward the southwest. This uplift allowed the Green and Colorado and their tributary rivers to carve Desolation and the other dramatic canyons of the plateau. The third time period is the recent past, characterized by debris flows surging out of side canyons, incising the river, and creating alluvial bottoms and rapids. River runners experience this current phase with their bodies as they splash through rapids.

Traveling south down the river-the saw that cut the canyons-means traveling back in geological time. The earliest period of Desolation's geologic history thus appears at the downstream end at Swasey's Rapid. Because of the Colorado Plateau's tipping, you must actually head upstream to follow the chronological story of exposed rocks in the canyon. All of Desolation's rocks are sedimentary, deposited from ancient seas, lakes, and rivers, and a river trip descends through their beds as it proceeds downstream.

The oldest beds were left by an ocean called the Mancos Sea. This sea alternately retreated and advanced, flooding much of North America. It extended from the Northwest into Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, parts of New Mexico, Texas, and even farther. Its western border lapped against mountains in western Utah: the Sevier orogenic belt. Remnants of this 105-million-year-old range still stretch the length of the state from Cache County to Iron County. Its sediments drained eastward into the Mancos Sea. Later, those sandstones and shales extended farther into the retreating sea, although only intermittently. After ten million years, as the sea retreated, coastal floodplains and swamps formed at the eastern edge of the Sevier belt and western edge of the Mancos Sea. Those swamps became the coal beds visible in Gray Canyon.

The various layers of that shoreline comprise most of the walls in Gray Canyon, from Three Fords Rapid to Swasey's. Some were marine shelf deposits, some marine shoreline and tidal-flat sediments, some coastal-plain sands, and some alluvial-plain deposits. The entire twenty-million-year period bespeaks a long, fluctuating shoreline. No ice existed on the planet then. Sea levels were much higher than now. The coastline of the Sevier belt looked eastward to an opposite shore in the Appalachian Mountains. This was the world that the dinosaurs saw when the Chicxulub meteor slammed the planet off the coast of the Yucatan about sixty-five MYA. That meteor and the drastic climate changes it brought probably wiped out the dinosaurs. The seaway retreated to the south, leaving behind in eastern Utah some of the greatest dinosaur remains. Most of those are found south and north of Desolation, however.

About sixty-five MYA, Utah gradually changed from a marine to a terrestrial world. This boundary reveals itself dramatically at the end of Desolation Canyon and the beginning of Gray. As you row out of the tail waves of Three Fords Rapid, you enter the older marine environment of the Cretaceous. Behind you lies the younger terrestrial world of mountains, rivers, and lakes.

That terrestrial world of the Green River area featured a series of freshwater, inland lakes lasting from sixty-five to thirty-eight MYA. These lakes-the Flagstaff, North Horn, and especially Lake Uinta-drained the mountains that already stood in the west, the Sevier orogenic belt, and others rising to the north, south, and east. Called the Laramide orogeny, this mountain building was the biggest event in the recent geological history of the Intermountain West. It included the Uinta Mountains rising in the north, the San Rafael Swell mounding up in the southwest, the Monument Uplift to the south, and the Rocky Mountains emerging in the east.

All of these highlands drained into Lake Uinta, where they deposited the sediments of the North Horn, Flagstaff , Green River, Colton, and Uinta Formations. These are the predominant layers encountered heading upstream from the end of Desolation Canyon at Three Fords Rapid to Willow Creek. In the thickest layers-the Green River and Colton (or Wasatch) Formations-the rocks tell of long periods of Lake Uinta fluctuating between lake and shoreline deposits. The lake covered a very large area but was relatively shallow: less than one hundred feet. Fossils of "turtles, fish, crocodiles, birds, mollusks, ostracods, algae, a myriad of insects and larvae, and plants" appear in the various sediments of sandstone, marlstone, siltstone, and shale.

Eventually, around thirty-eight MYA, the surrounding highlands sent down even more floods of coarse, clastic materials that filled Lake Uinta. These now-cemented sediments of the Uinta Formation appear near the beginning of Desolation Canyon at Willow Creek. The U.S. Geological Survey's W. B. Cashion describes the stream deposits of the Uinta Formation as a "classic collecting ground" for Eocene fossil vertebrates.

As the stream and lake deposits were buried and compacted by overlaid sediments, the silts, sands, and shales became petrified. The considerable organic material in those sediments metamorphosed into copper and various types of hydrocarbons. This has proved particularly important for the economy-and environment-of the area today. The Uinta and Green River Formations are hydrocarbon rich with oil, Gilsonite, gas, oil shale, coal, and bituminous sandstone (or tar sand). The first three, especially oil and gas, are currently being extracted. As subsequent chapters reveal, copper and particularly hydrocarbon extraction have produced considerable wealth and jobs in an otherwise economically depressed region. Gilsonite mining also led the federal government in the late nineteenth century to boot the native Utes off the reservation land it had just given them a few years earlier. Gas and oil drilling currently threatens the riverine environment and cultural resources of the area.

No sediments from subsequent geologic epochs appear in Desolation Canyon until the Pleistocene, two MYA. Before about twelve MYA, there had been two Green Rivers. The Upper Green had meandered southeastward toward the Platte River system, following a continental divide that ran along the Uinta range. The Lower Green had drained the south end of that range and divide, more or less in its present course. Thus, cutting the Tavaputs Plateau had already begun in some small measure in the early Miocene, or twenty MYA. A tectonic collapse, or graben movement, of the eastern end of the Uinta Range in the middle to late Miocene created Brown's Park. The low-lying area began to fill to become the park. Also during that time, the Continental Divide shift ed eastward as a result of continuing Laramide orogeny and folding of the continental crust. But as the dean of Utah geologists, William Lee Stokes, and others have noted, there is much conjecture about all of this and little hard evidence.

Headward erosion by Lower Green River tributaries eventually allowed it to capture the Upper Green (see illustration). This doubled the drainage size of the Green and Colorado River systems. As Stokes states, "The stage was set for drastic changes along the entire system." 10 Geologists debate what happened next. Recent work by USU geologist Joel L. Pederson suggests that the pre-Grand Canyon Green and Colorado were curving around the Kaibab Uplift and flowing toward the Great Basin in the Muddy Creek area of present-day Nevada. There are other theories as well. Nonetheless, by Pleistocene times, two MYA, the system was angling toward the Pacific (the Sea of Cortez) via the Grand Canyon. Thus, Desolation and the other canyons of the Colorado Plateau have all formed relatively recently.

During the last two million years, the river became a dynamic agent of erosion. This ice-age river looked more like Alaska's current rivers. Think of big ice sheets in the mountains funneling down massive amounts of water, all pinched into a narrow canyon. The big gravel bars sitting high on Desolation's river bottoms attest to the size and power of a Pleistocene Green River. As the climate warmed during the past ten thousand years, however, grand flows and massive erosion tapered off. Both canyon-cutting processes continue but at a much-reduced rate.

Deposition and erosion, then, constituted the first two long periods of Desolation's geological history. The third or present period, a subset of the second, is happening as we watch: debris flows and rapids. The first thing an observant river runner notices is the way the character of the canyon and its rapids changes along the course of the river. This reflects the geologic layers that are passed through. Geomorphologists have divided Desolation and Gray Canyons into five reaches or sections.

In the first reach, from Willow Creek to Jack Creek, the river flows through lake-edge deposits of the Green River Formation. These shales, marlstones, and sandstones are easily eroded, and the cliff lines slope back gently to the edges of a wide alluvial valley. The gradient of the river is very low in this section, debris fans are few, and the channel is wide and shallow. Slow water has allowed tamarisks to colonize and dominate the banks. At low flows, these forty-eight miles feel more like lake than a river.

In the second reach, below Jack Creek, the river changes to a high-gradient stream impacted by debris fans. Here the Colton and the Green River Formations are intertongued, evidencing a fluctuating Lake Uinta shoreline during the Tertiary. The Colton sandstones are harder and less erodable; the resulting canyon is more confined with numerous, low-angle debris fans that create small riffles.

The third reach, between Wild Horse Canyon and Rock Creek, features the hard sandstones of the Colton Formation, a higher gradient, abundant debris fans, and more small rapids. The alluvial valley in this reach is narrower than it was above.

The next reach begins near the end of Desolation Canyon. There the Colton Formation gives way to the stepped layers of the Book Cliffs. These are the siltstones and shales of the Flagstaff and North Horn Formations. The debris fans are larger, as are the rapids; the two largest, Wire Fence and Three Fords, greet river runners at this boundary point. In these middle three sections between Jack Creek and Three Fords Rapid, the steeper gradients produce more rapids and allow the growth of more cottonwoods than in the reaches above and below this section.

The final reach in Gray Canyon is a narrowly confined valley, formed by the sandstone members of the Mancos Sea. Cliff s rise vertically from the river. Debris fans are steep and narrow, the rapids are small, and the eddies below them are large.

The alluvium that occurs along the river, as in most drainages around the Colorado Plateau, was deposited by large Pleistocene flows of sometimes up to one million cubic feet per second (cfs). Compare that to high flows of a hundred thousand cfs during the Holocene (or present epoch). Most of the dunes throughout the canyons, though, result from aeolian winds. Little of this Pleistocene history, however, has been systematically studied. The Holocene, beginning ten thousand years ago, has. Some unusual trends have manifested themselves during the past five hundred years in particular.

From the 1500s until the late 1850s, the region experienced a "little ice age," resulting in a cooler, wetter climate. This meant larger flows, bigger debris fans, and more scoured beaches. Between 1891 and 1904, a severe drought hit the Southwest, but from 1909 to 1920, the wettest conditions of the historic period prevailed. Since the 1920s, probably because of global warming, the climate has dried considerably, and average temperatures have risen, with some fluctuations. Overall, the river channel had narrowed 5 percent by the 1950s. Further channel narrowing occurred after the late 1950s, but it was enhanced by a different kind of human agency-Flaming Gorge Dam-and will be discussed in chapter five. All this channel narrowing has increased the riparian woody vegetation.

At the mouths of its side canyons, Desolation has the largest debris fans in the entire Colorado River system. Their size correlates to the substantial width of the canyon. The fans in Desolation average 70,000 square meters (83,000 square yards) compared to an average of 17,000 square meters (20,000 square yards) in Lodore and 12,000 square meters (14,000 square yards) in the Grand Canyon. The largest, at Joe Hutch Creek, measures 476,000 square meters (569,000 square yards), more than twice the size of the next largest at Trail Canyon. (Continues...)

Excerpted from The River Knows Everything by James M. Aton Copyright © 2009 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1 Lizard-Gnawed Desert: Natural History....................13
Trees and Other Riparian Vegetation....................21
Native Fish....................27
Black Bears....................30
2 Walls of Rock Art: Unfolding the Native Story....................37
Clovis and Archaic....................39
3 Exploration: From Exploitation to Recreation....................65
Fur Trapping....................66
Recreation and Profit....................86
4 Bunchgrass and Water: Settlement, 1880 to 1950....................101
Outlaws and Ranchers....................103
Utes, Ferrymen, and Moonshiners....................124
Mining and Dams....................142
5 Governing a Wild River: 1950 to the Present....................151
Agencies and Laws....................152
Dams and Native Fish....................154
Animals, Endangered and Protected....................163
River Running, River Management, and Cultural Resources....................175
Epilogue: The Shape of the River....................187
Illustration Sources....................239

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