The Common Ground of Rivers

PUBLISHED: National Geographic’s Water Currents blog 12.20.16


photo West Howland

words by Chandra Brown / photos by West Howland

 I work summers in the Grand Canyon. This is the ultimate goal for a lot of career river guides; it’s what some consider the best guiding job in the world. I know I’m lucky. In the Grand Canyon, we take people rafting for fifteen days at a time. We try to hide from the summer sun. We tell stories of ancient things, and our own journeys become new stories.

Clients sometimes ask why we row heavy oar boats instead of running trips on motorized rigs. The motor guides make more money, as they can do twice as many trips in a season. Their boats carry more clients and they cover the 225 miles of river in half the time that we do in our oar boats.

Isn’t it obvious? I ask. Those motors talk over the Canyon.


photo West Howland

People also ask about the dams.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado would be different without its dams. The water would be warmer with more suspended sediment. Familiar rapids would be at times flooded, disappeared, washed out by the high water, and at other times impassable for lack of flow. The river would be unpredictable and recreational river running and hiking in the Grand Canyon would perhaps never have become what is today – a thriving $26 billion dollar industry. Also, if damming the Colorado had been left off of the Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-twentieth century to-do list, the River might still reach its delta. The four critically endangered species of warm-water fish endemic to the Canyon might live to see the next decade.

North Americans are connected by the water of the Colorado. It flows through us when we eat the crops it irrigates or the stock that drinks it in; when we splash in its mountain headwaters; when we run through a sprinkler in an anomalous desert green-grass lawn; when we turn on the faucet to our great Western cities’ fountains, drinking water, showers, and gardens. And everyone who floats through the Grand Canyon is connected by a transformative experience, the experience of traveling an occluded capillary in the continent’s struggling vascular system. The Colorado River is held back, controlled, managed, and owned, and yet, for all that manipulation, the water is still powerful and wild. All it takes is a moment or a day in the heart of the Grand Canyon, in the maw of the rapids of the Inner Gorge, to suffer or savor an undeniable truth: the wild spirit of water will not be subdued by humankind. The Colorado’s ecosystems, flood cycles, and intricate sandstone canyons have drowned beneath the impounded river, but the water itself, at its essence, is still very much alive.


photo West Howland

Rivers lend themselves to superlatives.

The most scared I’ve ever been is on a river. Also: the coldest, the hottest, the most awed, most challenged, most exhausted, and the happiest.

I’ve welcomed more wild, far-from-home, sand-in-hair, frost-on-cheek mornings alongside rivers than on mountains, beaches, or trails combined.

My best friends and greatest loves have come from the river world. I’ve felt more connected to people on river trips than in any city, school, project, or party. For me, companionship and trust feel more essential and primitively charged on the river than anywhere else.

Food tastes better. Sleep slumbers deeper.

Dreams flow into and between wakeful moments, tributaries to a big river fed by the magic of our human reality and by magic itself.

I feel more on the river.

I am comforted by the reality that rivers flow in one direction: indecision and hesitation have no place on a river. When you go to the water you let go of control, you succumb to gravity, and you allow the river to carry you away. You merge with the current and with history, with decisions and consequences and the power of ancient forces.

There’s common ground in rivers.

Rivers connect ecosystems, societies, families, memories, stories, and our collective pasts to our global future.

The water teaches, connects, quenches, cools, and washes away the arbitrary order, the illusions of priority and importance. The river reduces us to what matters.