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 (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?09315000).

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.

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.

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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