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Footprints Needed: Colorado’s Undiscovered Black Canyon

Descend into Colorado's Black Canyon and explore a park that has everything–life-list scenery, challenging terrain, a revitalized river–except hikers.

Despite the modest distance and elevation change (the route drops 1,330 feet over 3.4 miles), Red Rock Canyon is slow going. But by late afternoon, the low foothills at the canyon’s head had given way to towering thousand-foot walls. Fritz and I turned a corner and entered the main cut of the Black. We paused to take it in. The sinking sun threw the canyon into sharp relief. Upriver, the cliffs seemed to fade and shift as the light caught, and then fled, different fins of rock. It was like looking upon a lost Albert Bierstadt painting.

The Gunny ran mighty indeed. It boiled and frothed and roared like a liquid freight train. Its milky green water swallowed bankside trees. It crashed into cliffs and spun into whirlpools. This was the Gunnison River in full flood, a sight not seen for more than a decade. I looked upstream and saw the river spread wall to wall. Downstream, it cliffed out after 50 yards. The opposite bank looked hikeable, but reaching it required a swim that would deep-six Michael Phelps. We had to shout to be heard over the 80-decibel roar.

We made camp in a meadow clearing, and dashed to the river to try our luck with the fish. Fritz tied on a Vegas showgirl of a fly–"Gotta give ‘em something to see!" he shouted–and cast into the churning river. Overhead, white-throated swifts performed acrobatic sorties, nabbing bugs in midair. Our rods bounced with what might have been trout strikes, but it was tough to know for sure. The river ran so high and fast that the water itself pulled like a lunker.

As dusk fell, we made our way empty-handed back to camp. Fritz put on coffee, and we talked about Western water wars over the sound of the rapids. "We’re sitting here listening to the roar of the river," Fritz told me as darkness enfolded the canyon, "but that phrase–roar of the river–is actually a growing legal concept. River towns in Colorado build kayak courses to attract adventure tourists, and the sound and feel of the river running high is part of the attraction. In the Grand Canyon, they’ve battled over sightseeing flights, which detract from the sound quality of the inner canyon and the experience of people floating the Colorado River."

The battle over the Black began in 1933, when President Herbert Hoover, on his last full day in office, established the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. Nobody thought much about the river until 1956, when Congress authorized the construction of three dams upstream of the canyon. "When they proposed the dams, Congress said they’d always keep a little water flowing through the canyon to keep the fish alive," Fritz told me. "They figured 100 cfs would do the trick." That’s a stream you’d feel comfortable letting a 6-year-old splash in.

But 100 cfs didn’t do the trick. Three species of trout–brown, rainbow, and cutthroat, the Gunnison’s only native species–flourished in the river, and you needed 300 cfs to keep the fish healthy. And the trout didn’t just need more water; they needed a dynamic river. The Gunnison’s spring floods transported sediment, renewed the cycle of vegetation, and served as a spawning cue for fish. That pattern stopped around 1965, when the first of the three dams was completed. In 1971, the federal government sued to establish a water right for what was then the Black Canyon National Monument. Thus began a 37-year fight to get more water flowing through the Canyon.

"Are you kidding me?" I said to Fritz. "Thirty-seven years?"

"Water rights adjudications can drag on," Fritz said. "The need to solve them doesn’t become apparent until someone makes a strong bid for the water."

That bid came from the booming suburbs around Denver, which needed water for new lawns and toilets in the 1990s. The flow through the Black Canyon took on added significance in 1999, when Congress upgraded the monument to a national park. The whole thing came to a head in January 2001. President Clinton, looking to shore up his environmental legacy, made an effort to seasonally triple the Gunnison River’s protected base flow (to 300 cfs) and guarantee that the runoff would roar through the canyon every spring.

The incoming Bush Administration promptly reversed the order and cut a deal with Colorado officials to scale back the Gunnison’s allotment. Environmental groups sued. "The deal didn’t give the park a water right," said Bart Miller, a lawyer with Western Resource Advocates, a regional environmental group. "It gave it a water wish." In 2006, a federal judge agreed and declared the Bush agreement illegal. The warring factions spent the next two years trying to craft a compromise. We turned in and drifted off to sleep, the roar of the river echoing off the canyon walls and into our ears.

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