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.”

A Shared Sense of Adventure and Scientific Discovery - Tess Harden

Having grown up in central Indiana, I first crossed the Mississippi River and headed west on a family vacation in 1989. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder looking down at the boats in the churning muddy water as we crossed the wide interstate bridge just north of St Louis. Oh, to be on one of those boats! What an adventure! I had the same feeling several days later when peering over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at the Colorado River thousands of feet below. If I was on a raft, where would I end up? What would I see along the way?

Fast forward 30 years to today where I find myself, a scientist for the USGS, directly benefitting from Powell’s leadership, vision, quest for knowledge and environmentalism from well over a century ago. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I could combine my love for rivers, my sense of adventure, and my passion for science into as rewarding of a career as I have had with the USGS.

I am fortunate enough to be able to join other scientists, artists, and writers on the Colorado for a 2-week segment to re-envision Powell’s first journey. A lot has changed in the intervening years, some of which Powell foresaw. What would he think of the Colorado River now? What would he think of the complex water issues and management of the West? What would he be most proud of? Where can we improve?

At the USGS, I get to conduct paleoflood studies. Paleofloods are large floods that have occurred without being documented in the written or spoken record. We use geological tools to recreate the magnitude and timing of these floods. Knowing the size and frequency of large, rare flood helps to inform us about future hazards. Much of this work has been done on western rivers including the Colorado River. Nestled in various slackwater settings throughout the Colorado River basin are beautifully preserved flood deposits thousands of years old! Of course, I cannot help but ask myself, what if the Colorado River experienced a large flood during Powell’s first expedition? Would he have gone back for a second expedition? How would it have shaped his ideas about the Colorado River and water management in the West? These questions will never be answered, but they sure are fun to think about.

Today is much different than in 1869. However, at least one common theme remains: the sense of excitement, adventure, and scientific discovery in embarking on a trip down the Colorado River.

A Sense of Time – Rick Moscati

Working for the U.S. Geological Survey I get to measure time for a living.  The technical term for a geologic timekeeper is a geochronologist.  Have you ever wondered, as you drove down a mountain road, what the age of the rocks are as they passed by your windshield?  Strange as it seems, I always wonder about this, and as a geochronologist, I get to actually answer this question because — I date rocks.

 My boyhood home was in Niagara Falls, NY.  There's a pretty famous waterfall there, and I've seen it thousands of times.  As you stand next to Niagara Falls, you hear the thunderous roar of cascading water hurtling over the brink and you are covered in fine, cool mist.  Looking to the north, you can see the deep gorge that the river has gouged over time.  It was in these moments of awe, next to the mighty Niagara, that I started to wonder about geologic time.  On visit after visit I thought to myself, "How old are the rocks here?  How long did the river take to carve this gorge?  Why are there marine fossils in the limestone and sandstone of the Niagara gorge, when there isn't an ocean nearby?"

 I am not alone in needing answers to scientific questions.  Many years before I was born, a far more inquisitive and adventurous soul was born in Mt. Morris, NY, just 60 miles as a crow flies from Niagara Falls.  This person was John Wesley Powell.  Powell's early years were filled with various river trips throughout the Midwest, attending multiple colleges, and feeding a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences.  After serving in the Union Army through the Civil War, he turned his attention to the scientific discovery of the American west.

 On May 24, 1869, 150 years ago, Powell and his team started their expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers.  As each mile floated by, Powell was filled with questions, and undoubtedly, many of them revolved around a sense of time.  How long would the trip take?  How old are these rocks?  How long did the river take to carve the labyrinth of these magnificent sandstone canyons?  To be sure, he had far more questions than he had answers.  Powell may not have been able to answer his many questions, but he had the vision to know that over time, those following in the wake of his boats down those same khaki colored rivers, would solve his queries, and at the same time, develop many more questions of their own.

That's what science is.  Asking far more questions than can be answered.  John Wesley Powell was a pivotal cornerstone (pun intended) in the early direction of the USGS as its second Director.  For two weeks on the Colorado River, I will get the humbling opportunity to experience the same camaraderie, emotions, excitement, and wonderment that Powell and his men did 150 years ago.  I will think about time, about Powell's time, my place in time, the vastness of geologic time, and just as Powell probably did, when is dinner time?

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Moran's Path - Erika Osborne

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After several years of making paintings based on Thomas Moran’s trips west, namely with the John Wesley Powell expedition, I am more than excited to be joining such an amazing crew of artists, scientists, writers, geographers, lawyers, educators and the like on an expedition through that same watershed nearly 150 years later. As a Utahan and a Westerner my world has been shaped by John Wesley Powell and, as an artist, Moran’s paintings from that era have become iconic symbols of that very world. All that said, the Colorado river watershed has changed since Powell and Moran. Yet, artifacts of the Manifest Destiny that they helped promote are still visible in every corner. Although the paintings in my Re-Manifesting Destiny series have tackled these issues for the past several years, I have never actually floated the river! This is my chance to really see things as Moran and Powell did. To see what remains of that history, and see what has manifested since then. I truly can’t wait!

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More than Integrated Science... Integrated Scientists - John Parks

Growing up, my father had more than 1,000 books on his shelves and encouraged us to look at them anytime we chose to, even when we were very young. One of the books on his shelves was the Seventh Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to the Secretary of the Interior published in 1888 by John Wesley Powell. In that book were a number of pen and ink drawings that much more resembled black and white photographs, from all corners of the United States.  This book, and others like it from my father’s library, likely guided me down the path of becoming a geographer and finding work with the USGS… an agency dedicated to science.

John Wesley Powell embarked on the Colorado River Exploring Expedition 150 years ago to explore the unknown and provide an understanding of the territory. While much is known today about the basin, it does not mean that we understand everything about it, nor that our scientific investigations are complete. As we settled the west and made use of the water and land, our need to understand our impact on it, and ability to properly manage it, has evolved. Our need to more thoroughly understand the complex relationships in the basin continues more now than ever before.

As I started my 6-day segment from Split Mountain Campground near Jensen UT to the Sand Wash Launch Point downriver from Ouray, I understood the benefit of integrating varying science topics so as to better understand the complex ecosystems and processes found in the Colorado Basin. What I was not considering was the value of integrating the very scientists and educators of wide-ranging backgrounds together to quickly and easily expose those connections, relationships, and qualitative characteristics.

Experiencing the broad and extensive exchange of information between the members of the expedition was inspiring. Discussions flowed from quantitative work on endangered, threatened, and invasive species, bird counts, bat detection, discharge measurements of the Green River, and numerous remotely-sensed datasets to more qualitative topics such as wildlife encounters along the river, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, stunning vistas, and the simple fact that we are permitted to use the river and nearby lands to enjoy and study.

Integrating our scientists with one another, with the public/private sector, with artists, conservationists, and directly with the Colorado Basin serves to help us better understand the complex needs of the basin and provides valuable information that will maintain the Colorado Basin as a beautiful natural resource for us all in the future.  Involving our youth offers them the opportunity to share in that future, much the way my own father did.

Sunset along the Green River, 9 miles upstream from Sand Wash Launch Point (John Parks/USGS)

Sunset along the Green River, 9 miles upstream from Sand Wash Launch Point (John Parks/USGS)

How the unknown has changed - Kathy Conn

My travels to Utah this week were in no way like those of John Wesley Powell in 1869 on his 900-mile journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers. I hopped a 2-hour flight from Seattle to Salt Lake City, with dry bags packed full of UV-resistant, waterproof gear and all my tech necessities to document the journey and stay connected to the outside world. Powell, on the other hand, traveled by train, carried ammunition, and brought scientific equipment including sextants and chronometers in his wooden boats to chart the “Great Unknown,” including a harrowing final stretch through the then unexplored Grand Canyon. His journey provided the first scientific understanding of the topography and natural resource potential of the Colorado Basin, and helped fuel the growth and development of the western U.S. 

Powell immediately understood that the waters of the Green and Colorado Rivers were a valuable and limited natural resource, requiring thoughtful management to support western development. Today, we continue to grapple with the complexities of managing this limited resource utilized by over 40 million people across nine states and Mexico. The waters supply irrigation for agriculture, habitat for endangered species, and drinking water and hydroelectric power for downstream metropolitan areas. The USGS, the nation’s largest non-regulatory earth-science agency, monitors river flows and water quality across the nation, including in the Colorado Basin. Check out our current river conditions as we float down Desolation Canyon to Green River, Utah (

As a Water-Quality Hydrologist for the USGS, I’ll be part of a team measuring and recording the quality of the river water and sediment throughout our journey, to learn more about impacts from natural geology, a changing climate, and human influence. Human activities can change the timing and delivery of water, sediment, and contaminants in river systems. We’ll measure temperature, salinity, sediment, and microplastics. That last one - microplastics - was something Powell did not contend with. It is an emerging issue today - we are trying to understand occurrence of plastics (like fibers from clothing and pieces of degraded bottles) in the environment and impacts on biota, both from the plastic particles themselves and from the contaminants they may carry. The data we collect on this journey will provide new information about the quality of the Green and Colorado Rivers, that may support understanding resource availability, changes in that availability and decision making and management. Powell wrote that one purpose of his trip was “to add a mite to the great sum of human knowledge.” He added much more than a mite, and the learning continues today.