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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.

Fritz wandered back into camp two hours later, still skunked. "When I climbed down to that bar, it turned out it wasn’t all that great," he said. "Flat and barren, nowhere for the fish to hide."

I handed him a cup of coffee, then returned to a book I’d brought along. It was an obscure title called Deep Black, by a young adventurer named Robb Magley. In the 1990s, Magley became intrigued by the Black and set out to thru-hike it with a buddy. They went at low water and still risked their lives crossing the cold, powerful river. They lasted three days. "A trip through Black Canyon," Magley concluded, "is no easier today than it was for Torrence and Fellows." Amen, brother.

Fritz and I spent another day with the river. We drank from it, waded in it, cast in vain into it. We watched 25 million cubic feet of water rush by in an hour, heading west, where it would eventually be spread over Arizona golf courses and California croplands. "It’s amazing, isn’t it?" said Fritz. "With all that water, you’d think we could take a little of it without harming anything."

He knew, of course, the precise nature of the harm caused by such thinking.

As it happened, the official thinking about the Gunnison was changing even as we watched the river. The decades-long water war ended a few days after Fritz and I hiked out. The federal government, the farmers, the conservationists, and the state of Colorado reached a settlement that ensures a year-round base flow of 300 cfs, plus annual peak flows during runoff season. The base keeps the fish alive, and the peak flows maintain the whole ecosystem–scouring the sediment deposits, clearing woody debris, and cutting the canyon ever deeper. And making a deafening noise. Because the Black Canyon isn’t the Black Canyon without the roar of the river.

Bruce Barcott did not get a mean case of poison ivy while reporting this story, but Fritz Holleman did.

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