A most complicated man -Dan McCool

Try this:  Put your right hand in your pocket and leave it there all day. Most of us wouldn’t even make it through lunch.   In that condition, would you embark on one of the most hazardous adventures ever conceived?  What kind of man volunteers to fight in America’s bloodiest war, gets horribly maimed, and then decides to spend his life engaged in active, perilous exploration?  And yet, that’s not the most interesting aspect of John Wesley Powell.  What truly intrigues me is the unfathomable complexity of the man.  He had more job titles than anyone in American history:  soldier, scientist, professor, geologist, geographer, anthropologist, sociologist, director, explorer, and my personal favorite; river runner.

It would be easy to idolize the man, and many writers have produced unabashed hagiographies.  But Powell is much too complex for that.  In some ways he truly was a great American. There is no question that he was physically courageous; that’s how he lost his arm and how he ended up dangling off a cliff high above the Colorado River.   He was way ahead of his time in how to conceptualize our relationship to both water and land.  And he was more liberal than his inhumane contemporaries when it came to the relationship between the dominant culture and Native Americans.  He was, in many ways, a visionary.

But he was never able to escape the brutal racist assumptions of his day, and anthropology has unceremoniously dumped all of his writing and ideas.  He was vainglorious, exceedingly ambitious, and never missed an opportunity to toot his own horn. He exaggerated his achievements, sometimes took credit for other people’s work, and could be vindictive and dictatorial.   I’m not sure I’d actually like to go on a river trip with him, based on the journals of the other men on his two trips down the Grand Canyon.  It is probably safe to say that he was a brilliant, iconoclastic, think-outside-the-box SOB.  In other words, a very fascinating guy.

The opportunity to follow his wake down the Green and “Grand” (i.e. Colorado) Rivers will allow us to ponder all these complex facets of Powell and his times in situ.  Thanks to “America’s greatest idea” (the national parks), the landscape of the Grand Canyon is largely the same today as it was when he first gazed up from the river and marveled at that sublime chasm.  And thanks to the Bureau of Reclamation and some of Powell’s other ideas, the river itself is nothing like it was in Powell’s day.  In other words, the history of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River reflect the complexity of Powell; you have to take the good, the bad, and the ugly as one unit.

As we go down the river, I’m going to pretend that Major Powell is sitting on my raft in a chair strapped to the cooler, and we’re going to have a long conversation.  The entire party will join us in this conversation, and we can all ask Powell how we should solve the myriad problems facing the Colorado River Basin.  I think he’ll have some ideas.

30 Days to Launch - Tom Minckley

Sometime in early 2016 Jonathan Bowler and I started talking about John Wesley Powell and the future of the Colorado Basin. Quickly, we saw the opportunity for a project, the 150th Anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s first journey, the Colorado River Exploring Expedition, down the now-named Green and Colorado Rivers. So excited, we drafted a letter to the Secretary of the Interior dated April 25, 2016:

 “May 24, 2019 will be the 150th anniversary of Major John Wesley Powell’s journey into “The Great Unknown,” an event that ultimately led to the formation of the Department of the Interior. Powell’s journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers filled in the Unexplored Territory on our nation’s maps. The expedition lives on in the stories of river users throughout the country, but the greater impact is one that is less discussed. Powell’s inquiry into the limits of development in the arid lands of the West formalized U.S. Science and led to the formation of the United States Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Ethnology (later becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution). Important to this anniversary, the lands mapped by Powell remain in the stewardship of the Department of the Interior 150 years later.”

 “We are hoping to use the anniversary of the first Powell expedition as an avenue to analyze and refocus attention on the potential of western lands as a national trust and the role of the Department of the Interior and other Federal Agencies in Western development, public land planning, and the value of natural sciences.”

 And so the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE) began.

 I sit in my office 30 days before we launch, taking a moment to think of how much we have done and changed in the time since that first letter. From the kernel of an idea, we now have to appreciate all of the support we have for this project. To the private donors, the companies who have donated time and equipment for our expedition: including Aire, Down River Equipment, Ceiba Adventures, Yeti, Cataract Oars, Goal Zero, Big Agnes, Chaco and Chums; and most importantly individuals who helped with permitting and logistics, we give thanks. Additional big thanks to our private, academic, state and federal supporters: University of Wyoming Geography Department, Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, Wyoming Geographic Alliance, University of Wyoming College of Arts and Sciences, and USGS. This project would not be at the cusp of launch without you. 

 We also want to acknowledge the USGS-Youth & Education in Science (YES) Program for their partnership; specifically helping us build a platform for showing how science can be exciting while still providing important information for the management of our national resources.” It is important for future scientist to see how their work is relevant to society’s needs and challenges. We hope SCREE contributes to that narrative.  I do not want to speak for Powell, but I think the Second Director would see the importance of using this point in time in the Arid West to think about the future of the region.

 See you on the river.

Notes from the Grand Canyon Summer 2018 - Patrick Kikut

20180724 1238 Grand Canyon.JPG

This Grand Canyon run was a practice run for our 2019 1000-mile journey.  We scheduled this launch to be on the same exact day we will be entering the canyon in 2019.  After many days of travel, rigging and orientations we pushed off in the rain from Lees Ferry on July 15th.  The water under our orange 16-foot raft was cold, green, and crystal clear… for about a half mile when the silty Paria River slides in alongside the Colorado and in another half mile tumbles over rocks and mixes the clear water to the color of coffee with cream.  Our raft was one in a fleet of 5.  The other boats were 18 footers and carried our crew of 14-16 people.  Later that morning, passing under Navajo bridge it occurred to me that the bridge was a gateway, a last marker and a last motorized access point for the general public.  The Grand Canyon is still a remote location but in no way is the “Great Unknown.”  We were well prepared with river maps providing us exact mileage, numbered ratings (and advise) for running rapids, and designated camp sites.  I felt about as prepared as I could be.  After all this was my 4thriver trip in about 3 years, my bedside table back in Laramie was overflowing with Colorado River books and I had my brother Shane with me for the first 7 days.  I was confident in our oarsman Tom and had my art supplies safely rigged for the trip.  Plenty of food, beer was iced and cold in our new age coolers.  As Arizona folks know, Arizona is no place for anything but the best coolers.    


As we entered Marble Canyon, I was curious (and cautious) in my approach to the famous Grand Canyon rapids.  I was thrilled in anticipation of exploring side canyons, visiting rock art sites, tuning into the everchanging night sky and doing my job of producing field drawings for forthcoming SCREE exhibits.  Shortly into Marble Canyon my intention to keep a written journal intention fell by the wayside.  A major problem for me was attempting to spell out many of the locations.  In that kind of heat, attempting to spell Vishnu Schist and Matkatamiba turned out to be a deal breaker for this writer. 


There were many factors that made it difficult for me to find the time and place to focus, draw, and write even the simplest travel log.  Occasional “half days” were scheduled so Bailey Russel, photographer, and I could be on shore and attempt to compose and produce.  What made working in the Grand Canyon so tough for me was predictable.  Not surprising, it was the combination of the overwhelming scale and intense heat that made it such challenge for me to concentrate let along approach mark making and rendering in in an engaged way.  After hiking to a place to set up to draw, sweat would continue to drip off my brow into my burning eyes, onto my sweat stained glasses and then quickly evaporate after hitting my sketchbook paper.  Working with watercolors in the Canyon was different.  A challenge was actually mixing wet pigments in 110-degree heat with 30 mph wind gusts coming river from the Mojave. Watercolor would actually dry out on my brush before I could apply the paint.  So, I mostly focused on graphite line drawings and limited my use of watercolors.  I made color notes and finished the work in Santa Fe.


Also, a difficulty was the majestic Grand Canyon itself.  I have spent many years avoiding working in unspoiled landscapes.  My preference has been working from the side of the road and in the parking lots behind truck stops and motels… places where I can observe our encroaching culture sprawling out onto the surrounding deserts and prairies.  Along the river, the banks, beaches, and canyon walls are clean and mostly free of visual cultural clutter.  The river and Canyon look much like it has for millions of years thanks to the “leave no trace” policy and the diligence of the Park Service and river runners.  For the past 30 years I have sidestepped these pristine landscapes as I feel like artists like Thomas Moran, and, Albert Bierstadt have successfully depicted these scenes as they romanticized the West and played their part in manifest destiny.  That job has been done (although I am well aware that there are many artists still working with these attractive subjects).  With this in mind, I approached this assignment like a student.  I was simply intending to improve my ability to quickly compose, render the scale, and capture the patinas on the canyon walls along the way.  I found it difficult to find spots that were both comfortable in the heat and provided an interesting composition.  There were a few drawings that turned out well and I would like to translate into oil paintings, but I feel like they don’t capture the intensity of emotions that I felt in the canyon. 


My experience in the Grand Canyon was overwhelming, mixed up and paradoxical.  There were many contrasting elements: dry heat and hypothermal cold water, claustrophobia and expansive spaces, highly interactive social arrangements and loneliness, patience and restlessness, the physical work that goes into the set up and break down camps and being absolutely still with nothing to do but look for hours as we float.  These are hard things to capture in photographs, drawings and paintings.  I came away from that trip realizing a few important things that will help me as I prepare for 2019.  I will not be bringing oil paints and surfaces on the river and will stick to graphite and water media.  I must continue my river research and plan on taking tours of both Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams this January.  Also, I need to better prepare myself to handle the physical and psychological rigors of a 1000-mile river trip.  This semester, I am practicing in a sunrise yoga class and reading about Buddha.  I plan to continue my practice and continue to educate myself in ways to best mentally prepare for our forthcoming trip.   

20180723 1226 Grand Canyon.JPG


Geologists of Jackson Hole SCREE Talk

Dr. Tom Minckley of the University of Wyoming is giving a talk this evening titled, John Wesley Powell and the Reimagination of the Arid West. If your are in Jackson Hole and want to learn more about the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, swing by the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole this evening.  The talk begins at 6 PM. We hope to see you there!  More information below.



The Powell Survey of the 1870s: Art & Science from the Saddle

By John Weisheit


The most excellent professional papers produced by the Powell Survey (1871 to 1879), and formally called the United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, were accomplished more from land-based expeditions, than the famous river expeditions of 1869 and 1871.

The professional papers of the Powell Survey are:

1876 - Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains by John Wesley Powell

1877 - The Geology of the Henry Mountains by Grove K. Gilbert

1879 - Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States by Powell, Gilbert, Dutton and Almon H. Thompson.  

1880 - Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah by Clarence E. Dutton.

1882 - Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, also by Dutton.

The collective work of Powell, Dutton and Gilbert laid the foundation for the earth science we now call geomorphology.

The artwork of the Powell Survey are:

Photos by E. O. Beaman (and others) and photos by John K. Hillers.

Art by William Henry Holmes.

Maps by Almon Thompson and others.

John Strong Newberry (1822-1892) was the most influential mentor of the individuals who became the Powell Survey. Eleven years before Powell completed his river trip, Newberry had already explored the lowermost section of the Colorado River by steamboat, and then by horseback surveyed roughly the bottom of the Grand Canyon at Diamond Creek. Later, Newberry observed the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans near Mesa Verde and reached, by horseback and probably within a few miles, the Confluence in Canyonlands (the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers); all three areas are now national parks. Report on the Exploring Expedition of 1857.

Newberry was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences.  He used his influence with Congress to secure funding for the Powell Survey. Newberry's influence also convinced Congress to consolidate the four national surveys into one entity, the United States Geological Survey(USGS), of which Powell served as it's second director. 

As director of the Ohio Survey, Newberry personally mentored Grove K. Gilbert, who became America's great engine of scientific research. Both Newberry and Gilbert have written professional papers on the igneous intrusive mountains of the Colorado Plateau--the Abajos and the Henry's, respectively.

Click here to read more about the federal surveys before the Civil War.


John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). Without a doubt, no man of the 19th century knew the Colorado Plateau better than Powell. The first chapter in Exploration of the Colorado River of the West testifies to this fact.

The Colorado Plateau geophysical province is divided into six sections, all traveled by Powell on the saddle: the Uinta Basin, Canyonlands, High Plateaus, Grand Canyon, Navajo, and Datil. See Cenozoic Geology of the Colorado Plateau by Charles Hunt (1956).

Powell also had an intimate knowledge of the Colorado River through the geophysical provinces of the Rocky Mountains and the Basin and Range. Generally, in his prepared talks or testimony, Powell framed the river's big picture with his audience via the watershed approach

Grove K. Gilbert (1843-1918). Gilbert defected from the survey of Lt. George Wheeler upon Powell's invitation to attend his. Gilbert was with Wheeler in the autumn of 1871 when that survey rowed/towed boats up the Colorado River to Diamond Creek in Western Grand Canyon, and then left the area by trail on horseback.

Gilbert did this because Powell sincerely intended to produce the highest quality science and literature without wasting time and money. Gilbert understood that this could not happen under Wheeler's direction.

Edwin McKee, considered the father of Grand Canyon geology, viewed Grove K. Gilbert as America's greatest geologist. Few would argue this point: twice Gilbert served as the president of the Geological Society of America. Gilbert was Powell's first choice to serve as his successor in the USGS. The post went to Charles Walcott, another famous Grand Canyon geologist. Gilbert instead preferred to serve as chief geologist for the USGS, where he established the principles of nomenclature and cartography.

His writings are masterpieces interpreting such subjects as igneous intrusive mountains (laccolith), Basin and Range extension, the glacial phenomenon, pluvial lakes (Lake Bonneville), the denudation of the Colorado Plateau, and debris flows. After the death of his wife Fannie (whom he met at a dance in Powell's home) he partnered with Alice Eastwood (whom he met on a Sierra Club excursion). Ms. Eastwood was a botanist who conducted research on the Colorado Plateau before meeting her husband.

Clarence E. Dutton (1841-1912). Powell borrowed Dutton from the U. S. Army where he served as an officer in the Ordinance Corps (weaponry).  His specialty was chemistry and metallurgy, which prepared him for the assignments Powell gave him, namely, igneous extrusive structures (volcanism). Dutton worked on the igneous extrusive structures of western Grand Canyon, western New Mexico, Hawaii and the Cascades (Newberry actually preceeded Dutton in describing the extrusives of the Basin and Range and the Cascades).

His monograph The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District (1882) is highly prized by modern-day book collectors. Dutton's geologic insight was impressive, but his ability as a nature writer was uncanny. Dr. Wallace Stegner did his graduate thesis on the literary work of Dutton and called him "the John Muir of the Colorado Plateau." Stegner's infamous book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West is an outreach of that graduate work.

Almon H. Thompson (1839-1906). Thompson's contribution to the Powell Survey is a story of incredible fortitude, perseverance and unselfishness. He was Powell's cartographer and produced the first accurate map of the Utah Territory. Thompson, from the saddle, discovered the last unknown river of the contiguous United States, the Escalante River. He also was the first known Euro-American to reach the summit of the Henry Mountains, Mt. Ellen, named after his wife and sister of John Wesley Powell. The Henry Mountains were the last mountainous range of the contiguous United States to receive a name, which was gifted to Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian Institute and benefactor of the Powell Survey.

The professional papers of the Powell Survey, though over 130-years old, are very impressive works of science and art, especially Gilbert's monograph on the Henry Mountains. This report also serves as a geological history of the Colorado River and is, actually, the most brilliant investigation I have ever read.

Additional reading:

Great Surveys of the American West, by Richard A. Bartlett

A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell, by Donald Worster.

Grove Karl Gilbert: A Great Engine of Research, by Stephen J. Pyne.

How the Canyon Became Grand, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Notes from the 2017 Upper Colorado River Basin Forum

By Rica Fulton

Innovation, community, and resilience emulated from passionate conversations at this year’s Upper Colorado River Basin Forum (UCRBF) hosted by Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado this past November.  “Stories from the Field” were heard from academics, ranchers, authors, boaters, and scientists. Keynote Speakers Brian Richter and John Fleck delivered hopeful discourses stemming from their books “Chasing Sustainability “and “Water is for Fighting and Other Myths about Water in the West,” respectively. 

I was fortunate enough to present a poster at the Forum stemming from my preliminary thesis work at the University of Wyoming regarding stakeholder collaboration and ecological flow regimes along the Dolores River. Representatives from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and American Whitewater, who both played leading roles in the logistics of the spill this past summer, were kindly willing to give me some fantastic feedback.

Politically, culturally, and environmentally the Colorado River Basin has been massively transformed since the genesis of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The deceitfully simple document designates Lee’s Ferry as the water delivery point between the Upper and Lower Basins as well as lays out the allocation scheme between the seven states (yet notably ignoring the presence of Indian Reserved Rights and Mexico).  Since 1922, an immense number of laws, treaties, and agreements have augmented the Colorado River Compact, creating a complex management framework, to say the least.

Implanting the evolving values of society, climate change, and population growth into the existing framework of Colorado River policy is a rubix-cube of epic hydrologic proportions. Nowadays, the Colorado River is on the brink of a shortage call from the Department of the Interior, and drought contingency planning is on the rise.  State representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico along with Amy Haas the Deputy Executive Director and General Council of the Upper Colorado River Commission provided preliminary state and federal plans for the imminent call from the Secretary of the Interior. While certain aspects of the Commission's plans show a step in the right direction, it is concerning to me to see the states still trying to further develop Colorado River Water, such as the case with Utah's proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. 

Further, the trickle-down impact of persisting drought and population growth could be seen through presentations from NASA climate scientists, climatologists from CU Boulder, and surprisingly,  social scientists from USGS. Conservation efforts require snow scientists, climate science, regional knowledge, policymakers, agriculturalists, soil scientists, water managers, and many other groups working together for a common cause. The outcome at the forum being an interdisciplinary pool of exceptionally passionate water nerds.   

Different scales of water organizations were masterfully represented throughout the Forum, showing different levels of conservation from the Federal level down to irrigation districts and individuals. Culturally, policymakers and agriculturists may have conflicting views as to the uses of water, which has lead to misconceptions about water conservation initiatives.  Federal-level "Demand Management" initiatives and Irrigation District-level conservation efforts sometimes look different in the alfalfa field than they do in a Washington D.C. conference room. That shows the importance of bridging the gap between different scales of water management as well as different values regarding water use moving forward.  

Colossal strides still need to be taken to ensure that the Colorado River Basin will have a viable future. Conversations that occur between different stakeholders in venues such as the one provided by Colorado Mesa University provide a platform for idea- sharing and trust-fostering. I continue to preserve hope that the immense passion evoked by the Colorado River into Westerners will encourage the forthcoming management decisions in the Basin to be thoughtful, humble, and holistic.

Visit http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center/forum/2017-upper-colorado-forum.html to check out the 2017 presentations.