The canoe was upside down, floating toward the river bend. Hoping their paddles weren’t too far behind, two women climbed the river bank. If they cut across the field, they might be able to intercept their belongings downstream. In their sloshing shoes, bulky life vests hindering their movements, they pulled up on the long grasses and small bushes, hurrying while slipping on the loose dirt of the embankment. We looked back down at our canoe, still safely on shore, as our anxiety grew. We double-checked the knots securing our dry bags, pushed our canoes off the beach into the warm Colorado River, and climbed in as our guides had instructed, wondering how already two canoes in our group had overturned.
Ron and I were among the “more experienced” canoers, having last gone out about 35 years ago. Ron had also canoed a few times when he was growing up, and therefore was assigned the captain’s position in back, to shout out commands to me ensuring we stayed afloat. And so we set off, passing yet another overturned canoe, the guides getting everyone back on board. About 100 yards downstream, the other students were gathering around our geology instructor’s boat, grasping the shore grasses, canoes facing upstream as we had been taught, proud to have made it this far. The first wayward canoe was captured successfully.
We own stacks of books collected on our travels, on paleontology, on anthropology and archeology. We read books on local geology on road trips, stopping to look at faults, layering of formations, synclines, and we excitedly recognize these same things when we hike, deriving wonder from the glimpses of tectonic forces. We have learned that Colorado started out as just an outline in the sea 1.75 billion years ago, just an anticipation of where land would eventually be shoved onto the earliest land mass. At that time, our continent consisted of most of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas attached to the better part of Canada. Island arcs periodically slammed into the little continent from various sides, adding more real estate and forming the lowest layer of rocks under the Colorado Plateau. Continents crashed into each other, then broke apart. Life began on our planet. Colorado moved from the equator north, sometimes above water, sometimes not. The Ancestral Rockies rose, then eroded away. All of this was before the dinosaurs. Land smashing into land causes folds in the rocks, and mountains to be raised up. Other rocks collapse. The rocks high up weather, sediments cover up earlier layers of sediments. The segment of Colorado River we would travel on this day, the grand finale to our geology class, showed layering, volcanoes, and who knew what else. We were excited to get going. Mostly.
Once all the canoes were accounted for and fully loaded, we turned into the current and leisurely paddled downstream. We floated for a time, enjoying the warm sunshine, the immensity of deep blue sky, the calm river, all confirming this would be a perfect day. Well, if you weren’t constantly running through the thistles after your boat. The riverbank rose on one side. Our instructor Bob began to talk about igneous rocks, which melted far below us and spewed out into the volcanoes we saw above us.
“These volcanoes are more recent, from the Upper Tertiary, about 5-24 million years old. But look at the cliff face beside the river. You’ll see even more recent sedimentation, from the Quaternary. And those basalts in the distance came from volcanoes within the last 2 million years, about the time the Ice Age first began.”
Up and down went the land. We could envision it building, eroding, building, eroding. Layers upon layers, mashed together. Forces uncommon elsewhere in the universe, thanks to the high temperatures in our planet’s mantle, and proliferation of water above the crust.
Now the guides, far ahead, were motioning to the right. “Back paddle on the right”, Ron decided. We paddled, picking up speed, moving to the river edge while watching for hidden rocks.
Long stretches of the river were placid, gently moving us. A hammock came to mind as a yawn escaped. It was easy to imagine lying down, to give in to the rocking. I forced my eyes back to reality.
Again, the guides motioned to go right and as, one by one, the canoes moved over, we suddenly saw white water. Was this normal? Could you take a canoe through rapids? Those ahead of us were rocking erratically, not appearing in control at all. Surely we would perish. I quickly got to my knees, wedging them in the bow for stability. Waves crashed into my chest, splashing my sunglasses. Barely able to see, I paddled frantically to avoid hitting rocks that appeared suddenly. We bobbed over waves into the next trough trying to keep from turning sideways to the river. Our canoe seemed to be riding lower, and water enveloped my knees.
As suddenly as the rapids had begun, the calm resumed. I could now hear whooping around me. Grinning from having not drowned, I set to bailing the water out using a bottomless plastic vinegar jug. Someone’s jug floated past us, just beyond reach. We pulled over to wait for the rest of our group. Here came Bob The Geologist, capable and alone in his giant canoe that rode high in front just from his meager weight in back. His floppy sun hat was still on straight, his face devoid of emotion. Clearly he had done this before, was unthreatened by the powerful river. Behind him, a couple of canoes struggled, but everyone remained upright. Geology students WERE trainable!
We tied our canoes to the shore as the guides produced tables and coolers we had somehow brought with us. Bob took us up the hill to inspect rocks as our lunch was being prepared. We identified several different types, and attempted to explain the history of this landscape, using our surroundings to gain further insight into the Maroon Formation, the Dakota Sandstone on top of it, the shales deposited in the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. Bob continued his lecture.
“We just passed through ancient sediments from the Triassic, 320-245 million years old, when the Ancestral Rockies rose and eroded. Remember, these were not in any way related to our Rockies today, other than they are generally in the same location. Notice the red and white layer around us, the Morrison Formation. We are in sedimentary rock from before North America was split vertically by the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. This is when dinosaurs dominated the land, 144 million years ago, in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous. So you’ll find their fossils if you start digging.” I remembered the dinosaur footprints seen at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison, could see waves lapping along the Colorado coastline.
“Remember that the Morrison Formation is also called the Maroon Formation on this side of the Rockies, because when they were first studied, geologists didn’t realize they were created in exactly the same way,” Bob added.
Back and forth we moved through formations, through time, again to the Upper Cretaceous, then Upper Tertiary. Great forces under our feet, invisible to our short lifespans, were still moving us upward. Forces around us leveled the peaks again. Time periods so long as to be timeless. Even the Colorado River was a marvel. Starting as a trickle in Rocky Mountain National Park just 50 or 60 miles away, here it was wide enough for swimming. Colorado is not known for big rivers. The Big Thompson can nearly be jumped across in places.
A few veggies and fruit remained after the picnic, the Oreos completely gone, and coolers were being packed back into the canoes. We donned our life vests and carefully took our boat a little way downriver. Holding onto the shore grasses, we waited as others joined us. Before lunch, a couple of student canoes had been rafted to guide canoes to provide reassurance and prevent further flipping over. Among them we found our friends who had flipped early on, who now ambled past looking relaxed. We followed them into the sun, the sky still that deep blue seen at high elevation where the black of outer space is sufficiently close to make a difference. There was a light breeze, refreshing on the warm day and we splashed each other and laughed. The guides navigated us around shallows. Left, right, right again. We raced the other canoes, joked with each other, paddling with confidence.
Ahead the river widened, became shallower. Our canoes had been spread out across the river when suddenly the guides motioned right. As the water quickened, Ron and I discovered we wouldn’t be able to follow their path but would be forced into wilder rapids. It soon became evident that these were substantially more extensive than the ones from the morning. The waves slammed into us, splashes going over our heads. We were chaotically thrown over and through, turned sideways. I strained to see below the whitecaps, searching for rocks, using the paddle to push one direction, then the other, fiercely holding on to it. The ride was rough, we were drenched, focusing on just the next wave, then the next trough. We couldn’t gauge how much more we would have to endure, simply worked one wave at a time. When again the whitecaps subsided, so did the fear. I pondered doing it again. Maybe we would bring our kayaks here next summer, see if the experience could be improved upon. Spray skirt, shallow draft. I set to bailing the water out.
One by one, a few student canoes came through the rapids and parked beside us. We waited. Waited some more. We couldn’t see as far as the top of the rapids, but the bottom was empty. Where did everybody go? We laughed nervously, waiting. Surely we were close to the take out point, another bend or two and we should see the bridge and parking lot. But we obediently waited.
A confusing mass of canoes finally appeared in the lower rapids. There was shouting, boats were too close to each other. People were in the water, being held by those in canoes. Then more people were in the water, having jumped or perhaps fallen out. A guide shouted “feet first” repeatedly, making sure nobody crashed backward into a rock. The mass slowly progressed downriver, an amorphous glob of humanity surrounded by canoes and shrapnel – hats, bailing bottles, a sandal. One side raised up over a wave, nudging the other side, threatening to cover the swimmers. Paddles slapped inexplicably. We saw a canoe surface. It was SUBMERGED? The chaos approached, everybody holding on to an arm, a paddle, a boat, forming a gigantic raft.
We expected a return to normality once the raft emerged from the rapids, a sorting out as people got back into their boats. The raft stopped along the shore. Then it continued, a guide still shouting to keep feet headed downriver. They paused again, then again continued toward us. A couple of canoes disconnected from the raft and joined us. Apparently, the rapids had flooded one of a pair of rafted canoes, threatening to flood the 2nd canoe. A large cooler attached between the benches added extra weight they couldn’t compensate for. As the flooded canoe sunk lower and lower, the students got on the benches as the water rose to their waists, then necks. The canoe scraped bottom and finally broke in half. The swimmers were going to have to walk the rest of the way. The guides retrieved what they could, helped several people to the bank, and we watched them climb to the train tracks paralleling the river.
A quarter mile later, as we pulled the canoes up the hill to the parking lot, the walkers arrived. We found ourselves milling around, nobody wanting to leave. A bond had formed that day. A sense of unity resulted from the unexpected forces of nature. We had arrived that morning, a few hours ago, a few hundred million years ago. We had experienced the strength of the force of water, one of many forces molding the earth. We better understood the massive alluvial fans, which had been pulverized as rock swept from countless canyons in the peaks behind us.
The river, the rocks, the tectonic forces; The sun, clouds and rain. Even the grasses and bushes, flower and bees, fish and mammals – these all worked together, worked on the landscape in a seamless fashion. Feeding each other and from one another. Without knowing they were inextricably linked.
And as we milled around, I understood that was what kept us from dispersing to our cars and our other lives. We sensed that we too somehow were part of the mystery of our little blue marble, floating somewhere on an outer part of one arm of a spiral galaxy, seemingly insignificant but, in the end, of unimaginable value.