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 A blue boat glides into the sunset on the Colorado River
Gleb Tagirov

What canoeing the Colorado River taught me about myself, climate change, and my son's future

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the April 21, 2022 edition of the Fifth Street Newsletter, and the June-July 2022 print issue of Desert Companion.

THE GUIDE watches me knife the cold Colorado River with my oar. Knifing the water is a violent way to describe this peaceful interaction. But knifing invokes the image of what he needs me to do. I plunge the broad tip of the oar into the river. In unison with my son, who is at the bow, I push past the oar’s buoyancy and the water’s resistance. Working together, we should place the gunwale first, then the bow in the direction of Hoover Dam. This performance is done out of sheer vanity — to show the guide that we know what we are doing. So, of course, we veer into a circle near pylons with signs saying, “Do not enter.”

“You’re in the wrong spot!” the guide yells over the voices of day kayakers coming up from Willow Beach. Perhaps he senses the obviousness of his statement. He clarifies: “Your son should be in the back of the canoe.”

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My son beams with validation. He’s been saying he should be at the stern since we lugged the 70-lb canoe from the dirt parking lot. At 13 years old, his upper body strength already surpasses mine. It doesn’t matter that I am conditioned from years working in professional kitchens and lifting 50-pound sacks of food across my shoulders.

We are out on the river in late March. Though the river seems higher than the last time I was here, I know the Colorado River system is already operating at a deficit. Scientists forecast a 10- to 30-percent additional reduction in flow by 2050. There seems to be little time left to guide my son into adulthood, particularly on matters of our responsibility to the planet. He’s grown up in a time where billionaires talk of colonizing nearby planets, perhaps as a Plan B to ours. He’s seen me place order after Amazon order of stuff I will use a few times and forget about. Still, I need my son to have a connection to nature, even if I do not exemplify the behavior. And especially to the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the Mountain West.

I think I am late to do this. I only started thinking of my role in climate change during the pandemic, when we were holed up in our houses. The Colorado River saved our sanity during the first few months, when we would watch the pandemic death scroll on the nightly news and there were more arguments than togetherness. That should have caused us to cherish our time, but instead, it made everything irritating. The direction one person placed spoons in the dishwasher sparked a huge argument. But the magnificence of the Colorado River squashed those arguments. We didn’t have a kumbaya moment where the kids listened and my husband started picking up his socks from the bedroom floor. The river just reaffirmed for us the power and beauty of nature and how responsible we are for keeping it that way.

I worry my son, a city kid, will view nature as a philosophical adventure without ever recognizing our responsibility to it. People view rivers as salves that heal, nourish, and inspire. But the Colorado River is actual life. It’s the main supplier of drinking water to 40 million people in seven states, 30 tribal nations, and Mexico. The river enables us to eat because it irrigates 5 million acres of farm and ranch lands. It is possible that, in a few years, we will have to curtail much of our water use in Las Vegas.

On April 18th, the conservation nonprofit group American Rivers published a report on the 10 most imperiled rivers in North America. Topping the list is the Colorado. Outdated water management, hotter temperatures, a prolonged drought caused by climate change, and the overallocation of limited water supplies have caused the river to flow at historically low levels. Brad Udall, a senior scientist at the Colorado Water Institute says in the report that what we are facing now is the permanent warming and drying of the American Southwest.

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“Scientists have a new term for this, called aridification. What we are seeing here is anything but normal, because normal implies predictability, and unfortunately, we don’t have predictability — climate change has ‘change’ in it for a reason.”

If you doubt him, then believe your eyes. The ring marks in Lake Powell and around Lake Mead bear witness to this climate catastrophe.

The guide is satisfied we’ve synced our paddling and are back on track. He goes off to help another straggler. My son and I paddle along, passing ducks and grebes diving for food. This is only my second time in a canoe and my son’s first. It’s a bonding trip, though I didn’t sell it as such when I asked my son if he wanted to go. Instead, I asked if he wanted to see nuclear-looking green water near Emerald Cove.

Previously, I had canoed from the base of Hoover Dam to Willow Beach. Unbothered, bighorn sheep greeted my canoe group from above the boulders. We filled our caps with the cold water and poured it over our heads to keep cool in the above-100-degree heat. This was 2016, a year after the Animas River ingested 300 million gallons of toxic wastewater from a defunct mine in southwestern Colorado. The heavy-metal stew spread to rivers in Arizona and Utah. Parts of the Colorado River near Lake Powell turned a freakish orange-yellow. Even though I knew this when I was in the water, I felt like it would sort itself out, like the ozone layer or acid rain. But it hadn’t sorted itself out. I just grew inured to any news about it. I do not want this for my son.

I first encountered the Colorado River in a children’s book about a girl who wanted to raft the river from its start in the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California and into the Pacific Ocean. Later, Christopher McCandless, the subject of the movie and book, Into the Wild, would go on to use the river to cross into Mexico undetected. McCandless was the well-to-do kid with a bright future ahead of him who opted out of society to live a solitary life. He later died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. My 13-year-old son mostly tunes out my voice. He tells me I don’t get things and that we don’t have much in common. I wonder if I feel the same as McCandless’ mother did. Still, I believe it’s not too late to pass on my newfound and urgent value.

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My son and I are each lost in our own thoughts as we navigate toward the queue of kayaks and canoes leading into Emerald Cove. Along the way, I point out what I think are fault lines set deep into the rock face. A light breeze comes off the water. The pale desert sky stretches out above us. I marvel aloud at the high scalers, the men who drilled into the canyon while suspended on ropes to build the Hoover Dam. My son shrugs. I don’t know if he is listening or feigning interest.

Because the guide is nearby, watching, I make sure my oar strikes the surface of the water at the same time as my son’s to keep us near the cave. It took us the time of two full-length podcasts to reach the cove. We will probably stay for a few minutes. That’s how long the line is to get in and get a picture for the Gram. For a few leaden moments, I feel the opposite of calm. My son may never experience this river as I have in the last decade.

But what do I know? His is a generation that can stretch their thinking to actually inhabiting Mars. They’ve lived through a pandemic and figured out online school. They’ve bonded together over pivotal times in history. I plan to do my part. Who knows — if we strike at the problem with the same intensity and at the same time, we ought to turn this ship around.