The Glen Canyon in my Life

Witnessing the deep beauty and then untimely destruction of the Glen Canyon of the Colorado River transformed my life. All the canyons of the Colorado Plateau are special, but none were as insanely beautiful as was the Glen. Witnessing as a young adult one of the most beautiful living places in the world become a dead body of water made me mad, so mad that I decided to become an economist, go inside the Church of Economics, and challenge its priesthood. I would have preferred to be a natural scientist, but our economy, economic beliefs, and choice of economic theory was the problem driving the destruction of the beautiful West I loved.

My life has been a confluence of many unlikely people and opportunities. Coming to know the Glen Canyon provides an example. First, our family knew the family of Lou (A. Louis) Elliott and wife Claire and their children Joanne, Bob, Linda, and Jim. Second, as Lou took river running increasingly seriously, I was able to participate in the process from 1959 through 1985. I started at 15 washing pots and was rowing a raft before I turned all of 16 in August. Third, I turned out to be adept at quietly working with people while keeping the multiple details of running a river, helping fix equipment and getting the right stuff was in the right place at the right time, working with a team to run rivers and prepare meals together, in short helping keep everything flowing together. And so, I quickly became a head boatman and then a trip leader. Fourth, Lou decided I could lead the river trips he organized or accepted to run on behalf of the Sierra Club in the Glen Canyon starting in the Spring of 1962. I was in the second half of my freshman year at UC Berkeley, struggling with the relevance of second-year calculus and the immense indifference of the university compared to the beauty of the song of a simple little Canyon wren and the grandeur of the Glen.

The confluence of unlikely events continued in the Glen. David Brower with his youngest son John joined the first trip of that summer and our forty-year friendship began. On that trip too was Walter (Toppy) Edwards, a photographer with the National Geographic Society. On the next trip was Daniel B. Luten, lecturer in geography at UC Berkeley who introduced me to geography, Carl Sauer, Clarence Glacken, and others. I felt most at home in geography but learning what was wrong with economics gave me purpose. Another unlikely person to raft the Glen that June was Hans Albert Einstein, oldest son of Albert, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Berkeley. Meanwhile, David Brower and Toppy Edwards set me up to run an extra, longer, and smaller private trip through Glen in July with David’s family and Phil Hyde and wife Ardis. At 18 going on 19, I was functional, appreciated, learning in the field, and being deeply moved. Back in Berkeley I was just an insignificant grain of sand in the university’s great machine.

Morning after morning I soulfully absorbed the glory of the sun appearing on the tops of the vertical cliffs and then slowly moving down, lighting the full, stunning wall. Each evening, the sun calmingly moved back up the wall to end the day. Exploring the numerous side canyons, with beautiful midday light on their walls, was always a spectacular adventure. Meandering side streams sensuously carved through 800 feet of soft sandstones, cutting graceful, twisting meandering chasms. Some were up to a hundred feet wide at their base, and these were full of life, from large cottonwood trees to tiny baby toads hopping over moist sand. Others were narrower, and there were short slot canyons off the side canyons. June through July, Canyon wrens echoed their descending song off vertical walls.

Our large flat rafts, propelled by outboard motors, carried large groups of people, 30-70 at a time. The motors were noisy, but we moved along fast enough so that we were maximizing our time on beaches and in quiet side canyons. I helped hundreds of people see a place they would not otherwise have been able to see. Our rafts, however, were not appropriate for getting people into the especially spectacular narrow slot canyons in the lower reaches of the Glen. And intimate exploring with large numbers of people was not possible. I remember approaching Labyrinth Canyon with the big raft of people, wishing I were in a small party with kayaks, and then sadly moving on. In this sense, I missed some of the best canyons. On the other hand, I had the joy of seeing many people getting out into the more easily accessible canyons, still 800 feet deep. Back on the Berkeley campus, I was in close contact with Phil Pennington, a graduate student a dozen years older than me studying materials science, who was leading trip after trip with small numbers of kayakers into the best slot canyons. He made a famous slide show of the beautiful trips he led, a show that was eventually made into a Sierra Club movie. More than 40 of my transparencies went into this Sierra Club version of his show. Through Phil and his wife Keturah I had a strong sense of the canyons I had missed.

The Bureau of Reclamation completed the dam and closed the gates in January 1963, backing the river up into the wonderous canyons it had carved over millennia. That spring and summer, I guided groups on the not yet flooded mainstem and its side canyons. I periodically returned to witness and mourn the disaster through 1967. In my early years of river running, I had also boated the Feather River in California, North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho, and Upper Columbia and Canoe Rivers in British Columbia and Alberta before they were destroyed by dams, but the loss of the Glen affected me by far the most deeply, transforming my life.