August 13, 2019...Day 12 Post-SCREE! - Jessica Flock

Our Sesquicentennial Colorado Exploring Expedition ended on August 1, 2019 at the approximate confluence of the Virgin River and Colorado River on Lake Mead. Five of us got dropped off at South Cove on July 31 in anticipation of being picked up by Aksi and Rene Kikut in a 26’ pontoon boat to make the run down lake to the Virgin River. Shortly after our compatriots left we enjoyed a July monsoon that moved through the area and waited for our ride. Photo Credit: Patrick Kikut (lead artist), Ben Kraushaar, Jessica Flock, David Jones and Tom Minckley (Project Leader) waiting on the dock at South Cove.

Since August 1, we’ve spent 12 days above the rim sorting/cleaning gear & boats, reminiscing about life on the boats, exploring photos/videos of the expedition and considering many notions about what is next. We collected a large amount of scientific data, photographs, stories and memories which we look forward to sharing with you in the next many months at conferences, presentations and online.

We’ve spent many hours reflecting upon the three years of planning, the great number of people, organizations and businesses who have supported us in this endeavor, the incredible people we met, landscapes we floated through and the future of the Colorado River Basin. We are incredibly grateful to all of you! Thank you!

Hope to see you in Flagstaff, AZ on Monday, Sept. 9 at the Biennial Conference of Science and Management.

150 years ago today, John Wesley Powell and his men entered “the Great Unknown.” August 13, 1869..."We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been re-sifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled; the few pounds of dried apples have been re-shrunken to their normal bulk. The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage: they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage.

We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders.

We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well ! we may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly." (p.247, "The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Tributaries)

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Reflection on Powell’s connections with Alaska - Dee Williams

Joining SCREE from the great state of Alaska, I am naturally energized by the explicit interest within the Powell 150 Expedition to expand the visioning exercise in a way that promotes sustainability beyond the Colorado River basin and to frame the commemoration in the broader context of resource management challenges that face all the Western states.

I spent some time during our 6 day float through the 186 miles of the Glen Canyon reservoir thinking about relevant nexus points between Powell and Alaska, and came up with a few that might interest other people. First, I am aware there is a peak in Southeast Alaska that is named after Powell. That’s not too exciting, but worth a mention. Second, it is interesting to consider that coincident with the date of Powell’s launch from the Green River in 1869, William Seward was still actively struggling to justify his recent acquisition of the Alaska Territory in 1867. He visited Sitka, just as Powell launched his historic expedition, to declare that the spectacular landscape was rich in natural resources and “marine treasures”. In other words, both Powell in the Colorado Plateau and Seward in Alaska had to constantly fight the dominant view of the period that the unfamiliar land under exploration out West was a useless wasteland. They both knew that exploration and accurate mapping would provide the necessary turning point in the American struggle to comprehend the expansive continent.

Third, Powell had direct connections with William Healey Dall – a prominent scientist of his day who explored interior Alaska and famously identified numerous new species, including the Dall sheep, the Dall porpoise, and about 10 different mollusks that bear his name. In 1877 Powell published through his work at Smithsonian an article by Dall in the series Contributions to North American Ethnology. Dall was also a member of the Cosmos Club, founded by Powell in Washington DC, and was later directly hired by Powell to work with the USGS from 1884-1925. But the more interesting point is that Dall published a book in 1870 entitled Alaska and Its Resources, in which he (like Powell in the Colorado Basin) took the contrarian position that Alaska was not ripe for large scale development. Rather, Dall promoted the Powell perspective of “sober realism”, an analytic perspective by which a few key intellectuals of the period deliberately sidestepped the blind jingoism of the moment and attempted to find the proper balance between “over exploitation” and “under exploitation” of frontier resources. Dall argued in the wake of Powell that the situation in Alaska, like the arid lands of the West, was more conducive to collectivist effort than to small family farm pioneering. Since Powell, the West has been locked in a constant series of fierce debates over the proper balance of resource management, with Alaska simply the latest state in the Union to struggle with the awesome responsibility to finally “get the proper balance right”. That debate has found prominent lingering echoes in the public lands of the far North.

Fourth, perhaps the most substantive connection between Powell and Alaska lies in the legacy he created around science collaboration for decision making. The more I learn about Powell, the more fair it strikes me to credit him with pioneering the concept of what has come to be known as “stakeholder engagement”. Though the term was not yet coined until the 1960s, it was Powell who championed the timely emphasis that proper stewardship of resources required scientific knowledge mixed with broad public education and adaptive institutional outcomes. Powell repeatedly argued that the new conditions of the West demanded new institutions that properly reflected public interest. He labored in many ways to help America better understand the West through a deliberate transition from fable to fact. In the process, he substantially changed American ideas of what government ought to do and how it should work to achieve its proper role. He is often credited as the original sponsor of “science for the public welfare” (although the use of that term by Wallace Stegner and others does not generally reflect the perspective of Native Americans and their particular interests).

In 1890 Powell expanded his vision of stakeholder engagement in journal articles and in testimony before Congress and state legislatures. Powell argued that each watershed within each basin should be surveyed and opened to settlers as a single integrated unit. Topographic awareness should be followed by new arrangements of governance and responsibility that would allow each resident to obtain both knowledge and opportunity to influence the making of the rules of resource management. In this regard, my favorite Powell quotes are taken from his essay Institutions for the Arid Lands, published in Century Magazine, 1890, volume 40. “Hard is the heart, dull is the mind, and weak is the will of [those] who do not strive to secure wise institutions for the developing world of America.”… “The people are intelligent, industrious, enterprising, and wide awake to their own interest. On this wide globe and in all the centuries of human history there has never before been such a people. Their love of liberty is unbounded, their obedience to law unparalleled, and their reverence for justice profound. Everyman is a freeman king with power to rule himself, and they must be trusted with their own interests.” These are stirring words that remind us even today to trust in democracy, and to pursue within our institutions an adaptive management strategy for a truly dynamic society.

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Mapmaking by Powell and the USGS - David Nail

In the summer of 1980 I was a junior at Missouri State University taking my geology field camp course, and during that trip I purchased J.W. Powell’s The Exploration of the Colorado River and it Canyons. Now, 39 years later, I have the exciting privilege to be a member of the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE).  SCREE divided the route down the Green and Colorado rivers into multiple segments to allow for the exchange of USGS and other SCREE participants to get on and off the expedition. My segment started where the Colorado River became Lake Powell, the section through Glen Canyon.

 I help create maps at the USGS. Early in my USGS career I produced topographic maps using photogrammetric equipment and information from field personnel including their annotations on photographs, finished with my own manual scribing on mylar. Much has changed in topo-map production in the last 30 years of my career; mapmaking today involves high-tech equipment to gather data, and computing power to integrate it all. In fact, the USGS has been producing a digital USTopo ( at the rate of approximately 18,000 24K scale (7.5 minute) maps for the conterminous US every year since 2010, with complete coverage achieved in 2012. USTopo’s are on a three-year production cycle that continues to update full coverage of the lower 48 every three years.

Although digital map production and the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have changed how we create and interact with maps, some things haven’t changed. Topographic and geologic maps, in addition to the basemap layers upon which these maps are produced (i.e. hydrography, elevation, lithology, etc.) are still immensely important to the science community, to public policy, to recreationists, and to many other users. We still have a need to understand the landscape, the natural resources contained therein, the people, and the interconnectedness among all these disciplines.  This was Powell’s vision and desire during his 1869 exploration, that it be “developed into a survey, embracing the geography, geology, ethnography, and natural history of the country…” As the sole science agency for DOI (, the USGS continues in the tradition of J.W. Powell’s vision by serving the public as a multidisciplinary agency.

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How science can help us find our "place" in the world - Nicholas Hammond

Imagine you just moved to a new city. Maybe you got a new job, or perhaps you just needed a fresh start.  You are brand new to the area and all that surrounds you is unfamiliar. This new city and its buildings, parks, roads, and people are a neutral space, lacking value and definition. It will take weeks, months, and even years of living here for you to gain familiarity with these surroundings. In the process, the “space” that surrounds you will gradually, but inexorably, transition into a “place.” Knowledge adds value. Fast forward a year, and the corner store a block from your house is no longer just another façade, but a familiar place where you like to stop for a cold beverage after work and have a chat with your friend Charlie who works behind the counter. As you continue to live in a place, your knowledge of its features and inhabitants will grow; your roots will grow deeper as your connection to it is bolstered by the lessons that it has taught you, which become assimilated into your worldview and ingrained into your habits. After years of occupying the same place, you will eventually develop a familiarity and love for it that motivates you to make it better, to give back to this place which has given you so much, because you are a part of it and it is a part of you.

In a similar fashion, scientific knowledge about our environment – about its geologic history, ecosystems past and present, and the hydrologic networks that shape and sustain it – not only teaches us how to better manage our occupation of this “space,” but also aids in the establishment of the Earth as a “place” in our minds and in our hearts. This may have been part of what Powell was intimating when he described the canyons of the Colorado River basin as “… a book of revelations in the rock-leaved Bible of geology.” There is no better place than the Colorado River basin (and in my experience, the Uinta basin) to look millions of years of geologic history in the eyes, while also witnessing a snapshot of this procession frozen in time. Not only does it provide a wonderful canvas for the imagination to paint pictures of past oceans transgressing and regressing, strange organisms evolving and going extinct, and landscapes shifting under the influences of tectonics and erosion, but it also sets a great stage for pronghorn antelope, lazuli buntings, and sandhill cranes to put on a show amidst the regal cottonwood trees. It provides a refuge for hundreds of migratory bird species and a home to the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow. At the heart of it all is the Green River, ever-present and ever-changing. Juxtaposed onto this scene are some human additions – lumbering pump-jacks summoning oil from the bowels of the earth, center-pivot irrigation systems which magically enable alfalfa to grow in the desert, and a cadre of six inflatable rafts carrying scientists and adventurers in John Wesley Powell’s paddle-strokes.

150 years ago, John Wesley Powell set in motion the process of accumulating knowledge on this region of the arid West. Today, as we emulate Powell’s journeys, it would be prudent of us to reflect upon what our current relationship with this place is, both in terms of knowledge and connectivity. Since Powell’s time, the Colorado River basin has seen many changes. The U.S. Geological Survey has been collecting hydrologic data here for over 100 years, recording some of these changes. We have accumulated a lot of knowledge and devised ingenuous ways to use this knowledge to our benefit and the land’s benefit, but do we see this environment through the lens of “place” or “space?” It is my hope that we can all become more excited about science as a means to not only inform policies, regulations, and best management practices, but also as a way of developing a deeper connection to a place and engendering a sense of stewardship toward it. Through honoring John Wesley Powell’s legacy, we can enable people across the country to appreciate the Colorado River basin as a place with value. Because, after all, there’s most likely a little bit of Colorado River water in all of us.

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Exploring Grand Canyon and making connections - Heather Kerkering

Aloha.  I am the only USGS employee joining from the Hawaiian Islands, where I am the Science Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center (PI CASC).  While most of my life and career has focused on ocean and coastal science, I strongly connect to John Powell’s drive to explore and discover through both adventure and science. Like Powell, I have allowed my passions to drive my career and have led a few expeditions on the way, as well. I grew up by the James River in Virginia, an area and a river that played an incredibly influential role in our nation’s history. It wasn’t until I saw an aerial image in a National Geographic magazine of fog rolling into Monterey Bay toward the Aquarium that I decided to focus on ocean science, move West, and work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Of course, sailing, surfing, and ocean swimming were key to that decision. I ended up working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a decade before moving out to the islands.  It felt good to accomplish that dream. Along my path, I spent a few years serving as an expedition guide and educator for trips throughout the U.S. and the world. I have been out on 40+ day expeditions in the wilderness, but this will be my longest river trip.

Now with PI CASC, I sit at the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa surrounded by beautiful scenery and an incredible mix of culture, innovation, and inspirational people. Along with the beauty come many challenges, specifically environmental challenges.  As a member of the Expedition, I hope to make connections between the cultural and environmental importance of the Pacific region and the Canyon region.  How can climate science in the Pacific region relate to or advance science in the Canyon? Or vice-versa? What cultural and climatic impacts are these regions experiencing that are similar, and how can we learn from each other?

I feel so honored to be selected for the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition.  It thrills me to think about the adrenaline rush of the rapids and the knowledge I will gain from the eclectic mix of participants, from scientists to artists and writers.  I know we will have many adventures, important conversations, and an incredible story to tell.  I look forward to collecting data for USGS and applying our scientific observations to the Canyon story. Although I will miss my family for the two-week period, dozens of people have told me that my river section is “life changing.” I am psyched to be part of the celebration that will take place when we raft into the final destination, Lake Mead. 

To experience what we are working to understand - Katie Walton-Day

I have been working at USGS for over 30 years.  Most of my career has been spent understanding the effects of abandoned mine lands on water.   How can we locate the biggest sources of metals to streams to help land management agencies target sites for cleanup?  What were metal concentrations in streams prior to mining? How much of the metal signature we see in streams today is caused by mining, and how much is there naturally, because a clue to the metal richness existed in a stream before it was mined? This work has allowed me to walk and sample streams all over the western USA in search of answers.  Most recently, I have been working to understand the effects of uranium mining in areas around the Grand Canyon. Most of this mining occurred on the Arizona Strip, in the area between the Grand Canyon and the Utah/Arizona border, though some mines are on the South Rim area. My field work in the last 5 years has occurred up on these high desert plateaus.  I am not walking streams, I am walking the desert and sampling soil. Streams mostly flow only during rain storms.

The SCREE/Powell 150 expedition allows me a wonderful chance to finally experience the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the river that receives input from streams that drain the uranium-rich areas.  It is a unique opportunity to see the river from many scientific points of view, but also from artistic and cultural lenses that are represented by all the participants in the expedition. I look forward to better understanding the depth and breadth of natural, cultural, and scientific resources that abound in the canyon.  As I hike out the Bright Angel Trail from Phantom Ranch, I will doubtless marvel at all I have seen and experienced the last 5 days, and be thankful for the water on my back and a strong hiking partner!

What would Powell think - David Jones

As an artist involved with the SCREE project, what I am most interested in is looking at the West through the lens of how it has actually been shaped over the last 150 years versus the original vision of explorers such as John Wesley Powell. I am interested the stark contrast between Manifest Destiny and how it romanticized the American West as a wild new frontier compared to the place that it actually became.  John Wesley Powell had a good understanding at the time of his expedition that things such as water and land use were very important to shaping and maintaining the American West as a sustainable place in regards to resources.  However, I have always been curious what he would think about the West as it is now.  I wonder how he would receive things such as Indian Reservations, the Glen Canyon Dam, the White Sands Proving Grounds, the countless oil and gas well pads that dot the landscape, or the interstate system.  What would they have to say about our current land use polices versus proposed changes to our land use policies under our current administration?  I have been fascinated with the Western landscape and all that it contains, both the natural and the man-made since I first came to Wyoming in 2003.  I was always familiar with the artist’s role in helping to shape the concept of Manifest Destiny in the 1800’s but this took on a new perspective for me after having seen the west for the first time.  I do not plan to have few if any questions answered at the end of this trip as much as I plan to have more questions to ask.  I have always thought that good art always provides more questions than it does answers and so I look forward to embracing a much more pointed curiosity about the West as both place and space at the end of this expedition. 

 One project I do hope to complete on my leg of the river trip is build temporary dioramas from an ammo can full of miniature props along the way and then photograph them.  This has been a part of my studio practice now for some time and I look forward to interacting with the landscape within the Grand Canyon. 

Actionable science across boundaries - Dee Williams

I am thrilled to join this commemorative 150 expedition with USGS from the Great State of Alaska, where the themes of wild adventure, spectacular Nature, scientific discovery, indigenous knowledge, and sustainable development all converge on a near daily basis in my work to evoke the momentous legacy of John Wesley Powell. Ironically, my first chore with the raft team involved delivery of refreshing ICE to the sweltering crew at the confluence of the Dirty Devil and Colorado rivers. I hope to explore many more interesting associations between Powell's career and Alaska in the days ahead. 

Despite coming from far away, I feel a close affinity to the mission of this trip and the visioning exercise that it seeks to promote. By training, I am an environmental anthropologist, currently serving as Deputy Regional Director in Anchorage, beginning my third year with USGS. As an ethnographer and social scientist, my career trajectory--like Powell--has focused on promoting actionable science across disciplinary, institutional, and cultural boundaries. 

Although I love whitewater, I am excited to join the expedition in this particular stretch through the serene and majestic waters of Glen Canyon. Here the original expedition saw their first Moqui ruins on the cliffs, with evidence of cut away stairs. Powell described the tranquility of the region with musical an "interlude for a pastoral flute". But by the end of the Glen Canyon stretch, with low supplies of food, rancid bacon, ragged clothing, lost equipment, and mental exhaustion, the crew became frustrated with Powell's science measurements and began “rumblings of rebellion with hints of mutiny”. It was then, as the crew passed Glen Canyon into the depths of the Grand Canyon, Powell famously wrote in his diary, “we have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things" (217 miles remained). 

The sheer bravery of that moment is inspiring even today. ...What puts the "ape" in apricot...what have they got that I ain't got? ... I, for one, am very glad that we are not attempting any sort of re-enactment of the original expedition, but rather a careful reflection on the past as an opportunity to re-envision the future of stewardship for our precious natural resources. 

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Lake Powell is a human institution. What should become of it? - Jason Anthony Robison

University of Wyoming College of Law

 Lake Powell is a human institution. What should become of it?

“On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument-shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.

In this way, John Wesley Powell named “Glen Canyon” during the 1869 Colorado River Exploring Expedition. Then a century passed. The dam that would submerge the “curious ensemble of wonderful features” came to appropriate the name given the canyon by Powell, while the reservoir impounded by that dam would assume Powell’s own. 

       With the 1869 Expedition’s sesquicentennial, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the concepts of vision and place. Human beings possess an exceptional ability to imagine what we wish our lives to be, individually and collectively, and then to realize (or at least attempt to realize) those visions in material form. That is the lens through which I’ve come to see the Colorado River Basin as a place: the Navajo Nation and 28 other Indian reservations, Grand Canyon National Park and a host of related federal lands, and a plumbing system that is the most extensive in North America, including Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell as integral pieces of that system—Colorado River Compact insurance policy plus cash-register dam rolled into one. All of these things were once just ideas in somebody’s head.

       So many visions of the Colorado River Basin have been about conquest, although more innocuous terms are used to stomach it. The mid-nineteenth century—particularly, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—marks the front end of this pattern in U.S. history. But it can be traced at least three centuries prior to the Coronado Expedition’s search for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold—the first occasion on which Europeans saw the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Regardless of precisely where the starting point may be set, the song remains the same: human beings have developed and relied on hierarchical ethics to rationalize this, that, and the other thing in their interactions with fellow humans and other parts of nature. No doubt nuances vary by context; there’s always more to the story. But as I continue to spend time with this place, something historian Patty Limerick has written reverberates: “[t]he history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.”

       The blunt truth of the term “conquest” is unsettling. And I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling this way. Yet the term’s truth provides fertile soil. How do we move beyond conquest? How do we build a post-conquest Colorado River Basin? I would like to be part of this project, and to inhabit such a place, or at least to lay groundwork for my children and their progeny to do so. I suppose part of this process involves seeing and owning our past, particularly stories we have told, and continue to tell, ourselves to justify our actions and existence. It can be painful to come to know ourselves in this way, but nothing really changes without such work. Another piece seems to entail realizing we are never alone, but rather embedded in layers of community that span space and time. We are interconnected with other human beings and parts of nature—indeed, these connections are the richest source of human happiness. Our ethics should be shaped by the reality of interconnection. It should foster an “ethic of place” as it has been called. And there are still other virtues that come into play, collectively and individually, in this vein: patience, humility, and perseverance. If transcending engrained habits of the heart and mind associated with conquest isn’t something that demands these virtues, I don’t know what is.

For whatever they’re worth, I share these thoughts while floating above Powell’s “Glen Canyon.”