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.