I felt the river’s heartbeat for the first time when I was seven years old.
I sat in the open cockpit of my first kayak, and with each floundering stroke the water’s subtle pressure rushed through my arms. If I paddled too hard on one side, my sturdy boat would spin off in a lazy circle. If I paddled too little, the river would take control. Steering a kayak, I learned, was a complex dance. But the muddy San Juan River was a forgiving partner.
When I dipped my paddle into the water, the molecules I touched rubbed up against other molecules which bumped against more molecules until, in an instant, I was connected to the snowfields of the highest peaks and the depths of the deepest oceans. In that moment, the river didn’t feel dominated. It felt free and full of life as it gurgled and boiled around me as desert rivers do.
You knew as well as anyone the sheer exhilaration of floating a desert river. You knew what it felt like at the center of the world, where the rustle of cottonwood leaves and the call of unseen birds are just as they should be. So you felt, just as keenly, the pain of what we’ve done to our rivers.
The San Juan dies quietly in a lonely place where the smell of methane and rot is strong in the air. It disappears into the silence of Lake Powell, forever cut off from the Colorado River. I went there, even though you vowed you never would, and was borne along in silence until, with a sudden pang, I realized I could no longer feel the river’s heartbeat against my paddle.
Downstream, the mighty Colorado dies in a sterile irrigation ditch. I went there too. A ten-foot fence of glinting steel prevented me from checking for a pulse, but I could tell the wild river was gone. The feeling of connectivity that enthralled me as a child was gone, too, because I knew then what I didn’t known at age seven: that for sixty years, not a single drop of water that has fallen on the Colorado Plateau has reached the ocean.
You sounded tired when we talked on the phone. We spoke of the things that connected us and the passions we shared and how beast-headed those in charge could be. We spoke about my generation and how we wouldn’t let you down.
But there’s so much fear in me. Fear for the rivers running to a trickle and for the Piñon, the guardian of the desert. Fear for the forests burning through the winter and the ancient glaciers, architects of valleys and mountains that wither away, one by one. Fear for the Heron flying further and further upstream in search of a home. Fear for the mountains, the oceans, and the people who live the effects of our changing climate every day.
When you died, Katie, I was on the reservoir, the place where they buried the river’s heart all those years ago. I saw reflected in the lifeless waters of Lake Powell every monumental challenge my generation faces. We never spoke about it, but I think we both saw our collective survival mirrored in a river’s course. In the death of our rivers so is our failure to live in this world.
After your death, I paddled through the antiseptic stillness that permeates the new Glen Canyon, around bend after bend, gliding through unnerving silence far above the entombed river. But just when the sheer strangeness of that alien world threatened to overwhelm me, a familiar sound reached my ears—the quiet scuffle of water on stone, the music of a desert creek signaling the end of the reservoir’s reach.
I left my boat and slogged through deep muck and brambles of invasive weeds at the reservoir’s edge. I scrambled up-canyon until the tumbleweeds turned to juniper and the markings of the reservoir and humanity’s unquenchable desire to conquer faded away. I inched my way up the sandstone walls of the canyon, wedging my toes into sandy nooks and pressing my bare back the cool stone until I could go no higher.
You signed your last email to me “for the river.” In those three simple words, you showed me where to begin. I’ll fight for our rivers, and in doing so I’ll fight for our deserts and mountains and forests, and for our people. If we are to conquer something that seems unassailable, we must take the first step. Your words have shown me mine.
Thanks, Katie. We’ve got it from here.
For the river,
Taylor Graham is a multimedia storyteller and is currently the Water and Environmental Journalist at the Utah Rivers Council. He is a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, and National Geographic Explorer. As a multimedia storyteller and explorer, Taylor has paddled the 350-mile length of Lake Powell to explore the impact of big dams in the Colorado River Basin, documented the creation of artificial glaciers in the Indian Himalaya, tackled a first descent on one of the Ganges last remaining free-flowing tributaries with a team of Indian whitewater kayakers, and worked with a slum community in Jaipur, Rajasthan to improve access to clean water.