Powell laid the groundwork- Jaime Delano

I am a geologist and primarily study earthquakes and how tectonic deformation influences the landscape. These fields were poorly understood to Powell and other scientists at the time. Plate tectonic theory had not been proposed, so observations of mountain building, faults, earthquakes, and deformed surfaces existed largely without a broader context. However, the initial observations of scientists like Powell, and the push to establish the USGS, laid the groundwork for ideas to come.

Powell recognized the importance of field work, observation, and reconnaissance, which are important aspects to the science we do today. Powell also saw the importance of accurate maps and topographic data, and the need for and integrated topographic survey. Though modern geology uses many new techniques to evaluate the landscape, like high resolution imagery from lidar, satellites, and photography, the skeletons of these advances lie with early scientific pioneers like Powell.

                Some of my recent and ongoing work in the New Madrid seismic zone has highlighted the importance of historical information in understanding past earthquakes and other important events. This new fascination with how science and history interconnect is one reason why I’m excited to be a part of this Powell 150 expedition. I also don’t often get to cross paths with so many other organizations and agencies with such a broad range of expertise, and I’m looking forward to engaging with the larger community. In the last few years working at the USGS, I’ve come to recognize the important of communicating science to all audiences and making research fully accessible. I hope that this trip can provide new ideas for how to reach a broader audience with USGS research and maintain public interest and involvement.

J. W. Powell also recognized the need and importance for centralized, government-funded science. He understood that individual institutions and societies played an important role, but they could not replace the vast resources and reach government research provided. These questions about the role of government in science continue today, but the last 100+ years has shown what central motivation and funding, such as through the NSF, can contribute. As a USGS scientist, I hope to see the positive results of science in the public interest for many decades to come.

Delano pic.jpg

Time traveling down the Green River- Graham Lederer

Studying geology is like traveling through time. Journeying down the Green River, its course carved into the cliff-forming strata on either bank, eroding ever deeper into the past, my sense of distinct human and geological timescales fades away. Moving forward with the flow that will ultimately lead to the confluence with the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon, we slide through the layers of deep time recorded in the rocks. Past swirls into the present as the water spirals around our paddles. All that matters is the fleeting moment at hand.

I imagine John Wesley Powell, leading the first major expedition on this river 150 years ago, must have thought similarly. In 1869, however, the vastness of geologic time had yet to be measured. The radiometric dating methods that allow scientists to calculate absolute ages of rocks and minerals had not been discovered and the theory of plate tectonics would not be embraced until nearly a century later. Powell’s observations are remarkable and his understanding of natural processes and landscapes allowed him to piece together the geologic history of the region using the relative position of rocks, structures, and contacts. Field geologists use these same relationships to produce geologic maps today.

Powell was only 35 years of age when he first journeyed down the Green and Colorado rivers by boat, but his writings express a lifetime worth of experience. What drove him to explore? Scientific discovery of the unknown? The allure of beauty obscured by each sinuous bend ahead? A desire to fill in the blank spaces of the map? Perhaps some of the same reasons that draw us, a group of scientists, outdoors enthusiasts, and artists to recreate his voyage today.

The setting sun casts long shadows over the face of the Uinta Mountains as we make our way to our camp at the foot of Split Mountain within the boundaries of Dinosaur National Monument, named for the abundant fossils found nearby. I locate our position on the geologic map and notice the quarry in the steeply dipping Jurassic and Creataceous beds. (I wonder if some of the fossils discovered here will be on display at the new dinosaur exhibit opening at the National Museum of Natural History, my favorite Smithsonian back in Washington, D.C.) The map pattern reveals that Split Mountain defines an arch-shaped anticline, with older rocks exposed in the core of the range, and younger rocks on the flanks. The rich blue and purple colors on the map indicate the presence of older rocks nestled deeper within the mountains upstream. In fact, the river spans nearly a billion years as it slices through the Uinta Mountains, exposing Proterozoic through Mesozoic rocks. The record is discontinuous and punctuated by unconformities, where erosion had erased the depositional history, tectonic forces have tilted the older sediments, and new deposits have been laid down on top. For example, the K-T boundary, where an iridium-rich layer of clay and ejecta from a meteorite impact mark the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, is not exposed. Tomorrow, as we start our first day on the river, our rafts will cross an unconformity out of the Cretaceous and into the Tertiary sediments of the Uinta basin, without a trace of the past geologic catastrophe, one of the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

The water is cold. The gaging station downriver at Jensen measures 50 degrees F. The winter snow melt feeds into the Green as it emerges from the mountains and carves its way into the Uinta basin. Here, the course meanders as it cuts into Quaternary alluvium and Tertiary sediments deposited by a lake that filled this valley when the climate was colder and wetter. The distance from the point we enter the river at Split Mountain to where we will depart measures 50 miles as the crow flies. But, because of the meandering course, there are 100 river miles to cover to reach Sand Wash. The meanders are spectacular, such as the nearly 180 degree curve at Horseshoe Bend. Where the river has downcut into the soft underlying basin sediments, the meanders become entrenched by steep cliff walls on both sides. The river gradient through the Uinta basin is subdued, with no rapids or knickpoints, averaging only a few feet per mile. With a total elevation drop of over 6,000 feet from Green RIver, Wyoming to the Gulf of California, the Uinta basin is one of the gentlest stretches of river Powell and his pals would have enjoyed. Powell’s profile of the Green and Colorado Rivers from his 1875 report shows this quite well. It is amazing how accurate his barometric measurements of altitude were for the time.

Over the next few days, we’ll paddle by historic mining claims, where prospectors searched for placer gold deposited by the Green River as it eroded the mountains upstream. We’ll see oil derricks, where petroleum and natural gas are produced from the Uinta basin lake sediments such as the Green RIver Formation, and farmland on areas marked irrigable on Powell’s map of Utah. Passing through the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, we may observe birds with bands to track migration patterns. The legacy of the scientific agency that Powell helped to establish is present everywhere, even the geographic names on the maps. A century and a half after his initial voyage, the mission he shaped as Director of the USGS continues into the future.


Connecting to ourselves and our community - Ben Capelin

The waterways of the Colorado River Basin are the craniosacral fluid of the Southwest. They are the lifeblood around which all things in this part of the world exist and are replenished. As a Colorado native, I grew up acutely aware of the delicate edge between use and exploitation of rivers in this vital watershed. The vice of population, climate change, and resource management continues to tighten around the arid southwest and I cannot help but to be cognizant of these hurdles and what they hold for us. The challenges ahead are vast, but so is our potential for solutions. I feel grateful that there are great minds and great hearts on this adventure who are dedicated to a sustainable future.

 I am grateful to be part of this expedition as it forges through a new political and climatic terrain as it attempts to re-imagine the future of our rivers. I grew up working in outdoor education in the Four Corners with youth from around the world. This work gave me an appreciation for how profoundly--and how necessarily--it can connect a person to themselves, others, and their community. As mainstream culture drags us closer to our screens, these rivers become increasingly important as they run the risk of becoming increasingly underappreciated. As a guide, it is important for me to do what I can to vouchsafe the protection of these landscapes of latent transformation for coming generations. I am enlivened and inspired to be part of a journey that seeks to cultivate in the rhetoric surrounding the Colorado River Basin a more profound spiritual, physical, and cultural health.

JWP and Me - Bill Burton

As a USGS geologic mapper, I owe my career to John Wesley Powell.  His vision of a scientific approach to surveying and developing the arid West, inspired by the 1869 Expedition and subsequent ones, led him to the halls of Congress where, a decade later, he used skillful political maneuvering to create the U.S. Geological Survey.  Powell envisioned the geologic maps that would be produced, with the formations having easily distinguishable colors and labeled with diagrammatic characters, just like today’s maps.  He also understood that geology could not be properly done without a topographic survey, and he fought to have the two activities under one agency.  Today, all U.S. geologic mappers begin their work with a USGS topographic map.

I am also indebted to the Major for his liberal interpretation of the language of the original appropriations bill establishing the U.S. Geological Survey, which was intended for just the public lands of the West but not did not explicitly so state; because of this loophole, Powell extended the reach of the Survey east of the Mississippi and into the Appalachians, where I have spent my career.

Now I come West, to take the same journey that Powell and his men took 150 years ago and that has led to so many other discoveries, to see and examine the same vistas that they saw, through modern eyes that have been trained by the institution he created so long ago


A perspective on flat waters of the Green River – Mitchell Eaton

Our group joins the expedition downstream from Echo Park, a district within Dinosaur National Monument at the tail end of Lodore Canyon.  It was a welcomed resting site for Powell and his team in 1869 after they experienced a demoralizing fire that resulted in the loss of critical expedition supplies.  Although designated in 1938 as part of the National Monument, Echo Park and Split Mountain were selected by the Bureau of Reclamation for a pair of dams that would have flooded large sections of the Monument.  Public opposition by the Sierra Club, other NGOs, and the National Park Service resulted in Reclamation abandoning the Echo Park dam project.  The conflict ended, in part, through compromise - the conservation organizations agreed to not oppose the construction of a larger dam 450 miles downstream in a little-known canyon that was not protected by a park or monument.  Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, just 15 miles upstream from the start of the Grand Canyon, thus began in 1956. 

We enter a section of the Green River as it leaves the soaring red rock canyons of Split Mountain.  For the next 5 days, we will float a stretch of the river characterized by flat water, wide meanders and sand bars as it bends through lower-lying agricultural valleys.  We will take out at Sand Wash, just prior to where the river enters remote Desolation Canyon.  Contrasting with other parts of the Colorado Basin that are more evocative of western wilderness and the grandeur of canyon country, this stretch is not commonly included in the commercial rafting circuit.  For more than 100 miles, we won’t experience any of the thrills of white water or the rush of the current as the river is forced through narrow canyons lined with steep cliffs.  Here, the Green River takes on a more utilitarian character.  At the turn of the 20th Century, this area was full of gold miners and placer pits.  Today, it supports agricultural production and produces mineral wealth in the form of petroleum and natural gas.

Although thrilled at being invited to take part in this expedition, I was slightly disappointed when I first learned about my assigned section.  Like most Coloradans, I have a fairly narrow definition of rafting on the Colorado Plateau.  Urging myself to reflect a bit deeper, I also have a reasonable understanding of the diverse values placed on natural resources in the arid West.  Juxtaposed to the somewhat elitist status of premiere white water and gold medal trout fisheries, this stretch is, at its heart, a working-class river.  Thrill-seeking boaters are one of dozens of constituents having a stake in the bounty of these rivers.  Water from the Colorado Basin nourishes habitat for endemic and endangered species, irrigates crops, provides drinking water and hydropower to western cities, and supports fossil fuel production, while the canyons themselves serve as center-points of creation for several Native American tribes.  Because of these varied and often conflicting interests, and due to a large human population relying on this limited resource, the Colorado Basin watersheds are among the most heavily managed anywhere on earth. 

John Wesley Powell understood these competing values very well 150 years ago.  His supporters in the US Congress were hopeful that Powell would return from his expeditions with confirmation that engineered water projects could turn the American west into a lush, verdant landscape capable of supporting new pioneers and industry on a massive scale.  Powell had no illusions regarding the ability of these watersheds to prop up such an ambitious green future and quickly dispelled congress of such unrealistic notions.  Recognizing there would be fierce competition for a limited potential, Major Powell had a prescient grasp on the battles and trade-offs that would ensue over management of the rivers during the next 150 years.  He also understood that decisions on managing these watersheds should be deliberate and balanced by the needs of multiple ‘great industries’, and be supported by robust and transparent science.  My work with the USGS has attempted to uphold these principles by working with stakeholders and managers to understand their values and needs before deciding what science will best serve in their decision-making process.  Given this perspective, witnessing these interests at work while floating the section between Split Mountain and Sand Wash is, in fact, very apropos.

Mitchell Eaton, USGS, with Paper Powell as he prepares to enter the expedition at Split Mountain

Mitchell Eaton, USGS, with Paper Powell as he prepares to enter the expedition at Split Mountain

Entering the Gates of Lodore

Rachel St. John & Louis Warren*

June, 1 2019 

We are joining the expedition at the Gates of Lodore. In his report of the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, John Wesley Powell conjured this romantic recollection of his first night in the Canyon of Lodore on June 8, 1869, almost exactly 150 years ago:

At night, we camp on the right bank, on a little shelving rock, between the river and the foot of the cliff; and with night comes gloom into these great depths.

After supper, we sit by our camp fire, made of drift wood caught by the rocks, and tell stories of wild life; for the men have seen such in the mountains, or on the plains, and on the battle fields of the South. It is late before we spread our blankets on the beach.

Lying down, we look up through the canon, and see that only a little of the blue heaven appears overhead a crescent of blue sky, with two or three constellations peering down upon us.

I do not sleep for some time, as the excitement of the day has not worn off. Soon I see a bright star, that appears to rest on the very verge of the cliff overhead to the east. Slowly it seems to float from its resting place on the rock over the canon. At first, it appeared like a jewel set on the brink of the cliff; but, as it moves out from the rock, I almost wonder that it does not fall. In fact, it does seem to descend in a gentle curve, as though the bright sky in which the stars are set was spread across the canon, resting on either wall, and swayed down by its own weight. The stars appear to be in the canon. I soon discover that it is the bright star Vega, so it occurs to me to designate this part of the wall as the “Cliff of the Harp.”[1]

This scene captivated us with its description of the romance and beauty of camping under the stars after an exciting day on the river—an experience that we anticipate soon enjoying ourselves. But it also caught our attention because this is the first time in his report that Powell mentioned camping gear—specifically a blanket.

  In the weeks before the trip, we had returned to Powell’s report to see what he had had to say about the clothes and gear he and his men carried on their 1869 expedition. Amidst the rich descriptions of geology and landscape and the harrowing accounts of running rapids and struggling to survive, our interest in gear might seem somewhat trivial and surprising. But it was a topic that seemed increasingly relevant as we began the final preparations for our departure. Although the real work of planning has been (thankfully!) in the hands of the expedition leaders and the crew, even those of us who have been recruited to contribute historical insight have been thinking about and planning for the expedition for almost two years now. Our early work focused on research and writing—visiting archives at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the Huntington Library in San Marino and re-reading Powell’s writings and some of the many histories written about him. But with the expedition drawing close, we had had to focus on the practical side of things, accumulating sleeping bags and pads, warm wool socks and beanies, lightweight rain gear, and waterproof dry-bags in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and bright colors until our living room floor resembled the parking lot at an annual REI sale.


Surveying our gear and double-checking our to-bring list, we couldn’t help reflecting on how differently—and more efficiently—equipped we are than Powell and his men. The last one hundred and fifty year have witnessed a revolution in camping gear and outdoor-wear and we are without a doubt its beneficiaries. The key has been, to quote that famous line from “The Graduate,” “plastics.” Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists and manufacturers have developed a wide array of petroleum-based synthetic materials that we now rely on to make outdoor gear that is waterproof, breathable, and light. We’re each packing two sets of breathable, fast-drying long underwear made from Capilene®—Patagonia’s trademarked polyester blend.[2] We have waterproof rain jackets made from Gore-Tex®—a fabric made from stretched polytetrafluoroethylene invented by Wilbert L. and Robert W. Gore in 1969—and hats that look like straw but are made of OmniShade® material that have UPF 50 ultraviolet light protection to protect us from the sun.[3] The leak-proof dry bags that will ensure that our clothes, bedding, and books are dry after a day in the rapids are made of TobaTex.[4] We will sleep snugly in light-weight sleeping bags insulated with SpiraFil™ LT polyester fibers.[5]


By contrast, Powell and the other 1869 expedition members largely relied on wool to keep themselves warm, leather to protect their bodies, and heavy rubber or canvas, perhaps oiled or waxed, to shed water from the river and rain. Although neither Powell nor his men, who provided their own clothes and camping gear, left a complete list of the clothes and camping gear that they packed, scattered references in the expedition’s records reveal that they set out with blankets and rubber ponchos along with the pants, shirts, underclothes, shoes, and hats which would have been standard at the time.[6] We can also get a sense of what they might have carried from the 1877 book How to Camp Out written by John M. Gould. A Civil War veteran (like Powell and some other members of the expedition), Gould’s ideas about camp life were shaped by his wartime experience. Gould insisted that campers “must take a rubber blanket or a light rubber coat,—something that will surely shed water, and keep out the dampness of the earth when slept on.” [7] He also recommended “a woollen blanket,—a good stout one, rather than the light or flimsy one that you may think of taking,” noting that by sewing a light lining on it that a camper could create something like what we know as a sleeping bag or insulate the blanket by laying “what spare clothing you have, and your day-clothes, between the lining and blanket, when the night is very cold.”[8]  

Although we don’t know if any of Powell’s men sewed themselves lined blankets, we do know that they had blankets. As noted above, Powell first mentioned blankets when recounting his first night camping in the Canyon of Lodore. One hopes that Powell slept well, for the next day, on June 9, 1869, the expedition entered what they would later name Upper Disaster Falls. In one of the most harrowing incidents of the expedition, the “No Name,” along with three men and valuable provisions, was swept over the rapids and broken in two against a rock. Although they were able to rescue the Howland brothers and Frank Goodman, the “No Name” and most of its provisions were a loss.[9]

A month later blankets appeared again. On July 11, the expedition encountered another rapid in which another boat was swamped, throwing Powell “some distance into the water.”[10] While the men and the boat made it through unscathed, Powell reported that:

Our rolls of blankets, two guns, and a barometer were in the open compartment of the boat, and, when it went over, these were thrown out. The guns and barometer are lost, but I succeeded in catching one of the rolls of blankets, as it drifted by, when we were swimming to shore; the other two are lost, and sometimes hereafter we may sleep cold.[11]

By August 17, the situation had become dire. “The little canvas we have is rotten and useless;” Powell recorded, “the rubber ponchos, with which we started from Green River City, have all been lost; more than half the party is without hats, and not one of us has an entire suit of clothes, and we have not a blanket apiece.”[12]

As we embark on our own leg of the journey, we certainly anticipate that our gear will stand up better and be less liable to loss under the conditions of our 21st-century expedition. Moreover, we’ll be able to enjoy many more comforts along the way. Light-weight camp cots and inflatable sleeping pads and pillows will make for a comfortable night’s sleep after our days on the river. We’re also bringing collapsible wine glasses and an insulated wine bag that the abstemious Powell might have frowned upon. Of course, that didn’t stop his men either. Although Powell had prohibited alcohol his men smuggled a keg of whiskey onto the “No Name.”[13] It was one of the few things that they were able to recover from the wreck in the Canyon of Lodore. And, after that disaster, even Powell was forced to admit that although they had “taken it aboard, unknown to me,” “now I am glad they did, for they think it will do them good, as they are drenched every day by the melting snow, which runs down from the summits of the Rocky Mountains.”[14] We’ll be sure to raise a glass to Powell and the other members of the expedition as we gaze up to see the stars appear in that crescent of blue sky beyond the canyon’s walls, snugly swaddled in Capilene® and SpiraFil™.


*    The authors want to thank Rachel S. Gross, Phoebe S.K. Young, and Annie Gilbert Coleman who are in the process of writing books about the history of outdoor clothing and gear, camping, and outdoor guides respectively and who provided helpful suggestions for this blog post.

[1] John W. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1875), 23. Available online at https://pubs.usgs.gov/unnumbered/70039238/report.pdf

[2] https://www.patagonia.com/capilene-polyester-baselayer.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gore-Tex; https://www.rei.com/product/878990/columbia-global-adventure-packable-hat

[4] https://www.nrs.com/product/55010.02/nrs-110l-bills-bag-dry-bag

[5] https://www.rei.com/product/107472/marmot-trestles-0-sleeping-bag

[6] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 89.

[7] John M. Gould, How to Camp Out (1877), 16. Available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17575/17575-h/17575-h.htm

[8] Gould, How to Camp Out, 19

[9] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 24-26.

[10] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 48.

[11] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 49.

[12] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 89.

[13] Powell reported that it was a “three gallon keg,” but Sumner estimated it at 10 gallons. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 26. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 167; Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1964), 65.

[14] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 26.

Preparations – Melissa Lombard

Hi all, I’m Melissa Lombard from the New Hampshire office of the New England Water Science Center at the USGS.  As I write this, it is about two weeks out from when I will be joining the SCREE group at Flaming Gorge Dam.  I have been doing all sorts of things to get ready for this trip and I really can’t wait to be out there and on the river!  As I’m gathering the gear that I’ll be bringing, I can’t help but think about how John Wesley Powell and his crew might have prepared for their trip into the “Great Unknown”.  They had boats made in Chicago which were transported via train to Green River, Wyoming.  They also assembled tons (literally tons) of food, which primarily consisted of flour, beans, and bacon.  Apparently, their bacon was not in the best condition, but they still ate it and quickly tired of it.  Maybe after several months of eating bacon, I would tire of it as well but I’m hoping we have some bacon on our trip.  Powell and his men could not refuel their provisions along the way so had to bring everything with them from the start.  This is one contrast to our trip 150 years later, where there are plenty of opportunities for the crew to acquire more provisions along the way including change outs of the crew.

The things that I am most looking forward to on my trip are having the opportunity to spend so much time in the outdoors and meeting my fellow crew members.It’s been a very gray and rainy spring here in New Hampshire so I’m really hoping for plenty of blue skies while I’m on the river.I’m sure it’s been a gargantuan task to plan this whole expedition, so a big THANK YOU to everyone who has made this possible!

Thoughts on My Job Description SCREE Lead Artist -- Patrick Kikut

Steamboat Rock, Dinosaur National Monument

Steamboat Rock, Dinosaur National Monument

One chilly afternoon in the Spring of 2016 Tom Minckley asked if he could stop by on his way home from campus.  I said sure and soon he was at the door.  I offered him a beer and we sat down in front of a fire.  Tom quickly got to the point of the visit and asked me serve as the lead artist for SCREE.  I asked if he had his permits lined up (he didn’t).  He said he did, and I agreed to sign on.  At that point, I had read Wallace Stenger’s’ Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, and was interested in Powell, but had no river experience.  Tom wasn’t concerned about that.  He knew I can handle rough water and can swim.  I asked Tom why he wanted me on board.  He thought I would be a good fit as we share a similar critical approach to landscape and an interest in Art History.  Also, he appreciated my paintings as I often take a geographical approach to my subjects.  He saw that often I am depicting overlooked landscapes.  Landscapes that seem to in a tidal zone (or eddy) between our encroaching culture and nature- between place and space.

 This opportunity with SCREE is both exciting and daunting.  To help me prepare for the trip I feel I need to give myself a kind of job description.  For the last 3 years the promise of this river trip has fueled my research into the art and history surrounding the Colorado River Basin, Powell, and Manifest Destiny.  I have spent countless hours tracking down the delicate and confident field drawings of Thomas Moran to try to gain some understanding of his approach.  Moran and Powell had a lasting impact on how we think of the West.  Moran’s oil paintings and engravings of the Canyon country were critical in flipping Powell’s “great unknown” from an uncharted space into a familiar place.

 Working on the shoulders of Powell and Moran gives me an understanding of how we got to 2019 and help me think about the future of the West.  My challenge is to find content in a landscape that is, for the most part, unspoiled, raw and in a natural state.  Of course, the numerous dams control the seasonal flows so there is little wash out happening in the canyons. The “leave no trace” policy leaves us a landscape that feels to me like it is in a bubble or frozen in time.  Most of the land along the river is the kind of protected land that I have spent my 30 years avoiding in my depictions of the West.  My belief being, Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Fredrick Church, and many others did an excellent job of depicting the pre-Manifest Destiny landscape (and natural resources) of North America.  That job has been done and it was done really well.  With that in mind, I have committed my efforts toward the less protected lands.  The interaction between our encroaching culture and the realities of nature is fascinating to me.  I often set up and sketch on the outskirts of town, behind a truck stop, and on the side of the highway while travelers blow by on their way to embrace our pristine National Parks.  The canyons will offer me the chance to face the land in a way that is not all that different than what Powell and Moran experienced.  The reservoirs will offer a chance to see what we have made of the sacrificed land under the water.   

 Thinking about the future is a difficult thing to do.  Painting it is even harder.  At this point, I can humbly hope that my work can serve future artists.  I hope that the inspiration that I have gleaned from Moran’s sketches can be carried through to the next generation of artists.  SCREE will have drones, Go Pros on helmets, digital cameras, video, and sound recording devices.  Which leaves me wondering, will there even be a future artist that will choose to use graphite and watercolors?  But, I expect there will be.  After all, I’m using materials that are not that different from the famed Barrier Canyon Style artists whose paintings are 10,000 years old and can be seen today on the canyon walls.  I suppose future river trips will carry sketchbooks, journals, pencils, watercolors, harmonicas and acoustic guitars.  These materials will continue to be attractive to artists that are committed to making direct marks of expression.  I hope to play some defense for drawing and painting in a world that is becoming increasingly saturated with landscape images that are digitally manipulated into idyllic screen saver perfection.

Motivation for Science - Janis LeMaster

Today, on the day of the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River Exploring Expedition, I think back on his main motives for such an incredible and daring pursuit. Powell was determined to further our knowledge and understanding of the then uncharted Green and Colorado rivers. He had limited funding from the government, formed a group completely untrained in navigating river rapids, and had only one arm. The odds were stacked against him, but he held a strong passion and belief in the importance of science and did his best to collect valuable information and data, no matter what challenges the rivers threw at him. Later in life, he brought these same ideals to the U.S. Geological Survey, as the second director.

I have a lot of admiration for Powell. I grew up with the sound of rushing water in my ears and the feeling of grass between my toes. I have always wanted to understand more about the world around me, and as I got older, that desire translated into a strong love and appreciation for science. I knew that I wanted those feelings to be reflected in my career, and I have been able to do that with the USGS. My work as a hydrologic technician often involves collecting data in a variety of different situations, whether it is the day-to-day routine of monitoring water conditions or having to collect information about the powerful effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes. No matter the circumstances, I am often faced with challenges and unforeseen problems that I must do my best to work through to get the best data that I can. After all, the information that I and other scientists collect can potentially go a long way toward helping inform the decisions that shape our future. The stakes that Powell faced were much higher than my own, especially since he did not have the benefits of modern technology and safety. But Powell was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and determined to conduct the best work possible, no matter the trial. It is something that is reflected in the high standards that I, and the people I work with, hold ourselves to.  It is a quality that is a core part of the USGS, and will no doubt remain so in the years to come.

Janis LeMaster over the Green River near Expedition Island, May 23, 2019

Janis LeMaster over the Green River near Expedition Island, May 23, 2019

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.