The River that Defines the West | Bobby Perkins

The River that Defines the West

The Green River, from its source at Peak Lake in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming to its delta in the Sea of Cortez of Mexico, is around 1,900 miles long. This is a trip that would take only a few hours to fly, or a few days to drive, even though it spans almost an entire country. But from 30,000 feet in the air, or from the confines of a car window, how much of that country can you really appreciate? For us, it was not just the source or the sea that we wanted to see, it was everything in between. This is the river that defines the West: it is rugged, indifferent, and yet utterly stunning, from the depths of the canyons it carves to the desolation of the deserts it makes verdant. It has been a river coveted by some of the greatest explorers of the American west, and one that has since been tamed as the US government sought to quench the thirst of millions that have made the west their home. We took our time and got to know the river and its many faces, spending 144 days floating through its friendliest riffles, its most bittersweet reservoirs, and its most captivating vistas.

There were sections that were mind-numbing and tedious, weeks that were piercingly cold, and days on the river that turned into nights as our arms turned into lead. There were arches and pillars along the canyon rims, intricate rock art hinting at the mysteries of the past, steep walls in the land of famed canyons, a confluence of two rivers as the Green merged with the mighty Colorado, inconvenient snowstorms, and even more inconvenient reservoirs that drowned lost canyons. We boated entire months without a glimpse of the outside world that existed above the cliffs and the river. There were more views and more stories than possible to recount.

Once we floated past the final walls of the Grand Canyon, the lower section of the Colorado River proved to be an intriguing place – a desert river at heart, warped by mans’ hands into something we knew was unnatural yet still held beauty. It’s an oasis for vacationers in their RV’s and mansions escaping the cold of northern winters; it’s a series of reservoirs that, in the summer, offer up hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of precious water to evaporation; it’s a haven for the speedboaters and river rats that use the river as a playground; it’s managed by massive dams and canals that siphon water hundreds of miles to quench thirsty, irrigated crops and entire metropolises. It’s a used river, overtaxed and tamed. We continued south towards Mexico, where this diminished force eventually dried up. Our final push to the ocean was meant to be on foot, slogging through a dry delta that once teemed with life and held up a vibrant local economy. We witnessed the core of the western water crisis and we know it is far from over.

This river cannot comprehend international borders, and yet it has been forced to fulfill the needs of not one, but two nations, neighbors and competitors when it comes to the waters of this river. As we crossed into foreign territory, time dragged on and we paddled 60 miles of canals with over 20 portages and then lugged gallons of water across the Sonoran desert. But we found the ocean after five days in Mexico. We paddled canals that ran through small villages and passed miles and miles of verdant fields, given life by the channeled waters of the Colorado River. We floated these manmade routes that followed the ancient riverbed, experiencing the modern river at work. The faces we met were surprised, then excited to see us, cheering, waving, and chatting with us. And then the canals dried up and we were on foot once again, seeking the sea as we once sought the source. We found the ocean in a large inlet that opened to the Sea of Cortez, and then found our way to a rustic seaside village where we ate the best shrimp tacos of our lives.

Many people have asked us, “why?” It is a question that we have never really understood. If you had the opportunity to do a trip like this, how could you say no?

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”- Teddy Roosevelt.