Major John Wesley Powell knew that he would face adversity when he launched his boat from Green River, Wyoming in 1869 on the first manned expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers through the Grand Canyon. Powell’s party overcame many obstacles—capsized boats, lightning storms, and runaway crewmembers, but at least the one-armed Civil War veteran found moving water to carry him downstream.
Missoula journalists Josh Mahan and Jen Sauer and environmentalist Mike Roselle set out on Aug. 27 to recreate Major John Wesley Powell’s a 1,023 mile journey. The difference between their journey and Major Powell’s expedition is about 270 miles—miles of motionless water that is. Today, the rafters must row the entire length of all the reservoirs that were created by dams built in the 1950s and ’60s. In the process, they hope to raise awareness of the harm dams cause to the canyon-country rivers. They expect to finish the trip at the South Cove of Lake Mead on Nov. 15.
“Lake Powell took us 11 days to row across, which was 150 miles of flat water—reservoir water— with zero current, and it was probably one of the most arduous tasks I’ve ever partaken in,” said Mahan in an interview conducted by satellite phone from just below the Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell. “Every stroke was a stroke in protest.”
Mahan and crew hope their expedition will serve as a catalyst to return Glen Canyon to its free-flowing natural state and that their updates on the expedition’s website—downtheriver.org—will spur environmentalists into action.
Mahan says that Glen Canyon Dam damages the Colorado River ecosystem by disrupting fish and wildlife migrations and causing an enormous backup of silts, creating a “chocolate milk” river that harms native vegetation.
“You guys are lucky in Missoula where you are seeing one of the first real reclamations of a river and a dam in the country, and it’s really special,” Mahan says, referring to the Milltown Dam and the Clark Fork River. “And there is going to be more coming down the pipe, and hopefully Glen Canyon is going to be one of those in the next 10 to 20 years.”