narrating the contemporary waterscape

How do we make sense of the modern waterscape -- a hybrid of human and natural infrastructures?  And what methods are effective for narrating and explaining humans' cumulative impacts on river systems?  Here, Colorado School of Mines students Caleb Ring and JoJo Clark join me in a comparison of two Colorado River expedition stories penned more than 140 years apart: one written by the famous scientist-explorer John Wesley Powell in 1869, and another filmed by two Colorado College students in 2012.  Check out Caleb & JoJo's story map and personal essay reflection below.  (For a direct link to the story map in ArcGIS, click here.)

on water stories 

by Joanna (JoJo) Clark 

The Colorado River is as vast as it is multifaceted. While it is a means of entertainment for some and an aesthetic marvel for others, it is a source of sustenance for us all. Ultimately, we all have a relationship with water — the fuel we drink to stay alive. However, only a few have traced its journey, especially all the way from source to sea. Two such journeys down the Colorado are illustrated in the accompanying Story Map. They interweave and deviate in ways that parallel the course of a river itself. A third, metaphorical, journey with the river manifests itself here, in the very research of water narratives.

My nuanced relationship with water began at a young age. Eager to uphold the Clark family legacy, I embraced competitive swimming and my subsequent tom-girl identity long before I effectively articulated complete sentences. I felt so comfortable and connected to water, this shapeless yet powerful element that conformed to its container. By age eight, I was an indefatigable member of the Golden Marlins swim team, consistently winning statewide events. I got cocky; I had mastered water. I was the protagonist of my own hero’s journey — one that ran up and down a 25-meter Front Range swimming pool filled with Colorado River water.

When John Wesley Powell ventured down the Colorado from Green River, Wyoming to the foot of the Grand Canyon in 1869, he had no space for cocky ideations. His objective was survival, and his goal was knowledge acquisition. The river was his means, his fear, and at rare moments, his muse. It was dangerous yet beautiful. Its ominous unknowns shaped the questions he asked. Could he survey the canyons of the upper Colorado by boat, or would the river do him in first? Over a century later, a two eager Colorado College students, Will Stauffer-Norris and Zak Podmore, similarly traced the river, harking back to Powell’s original journey and extending it further to the river’s terminus at the Sea of Cortez. Their questions, however, were informed by a grinding and protracted water crisis — would there even be enough water in the river to buoy them from source to sea? Between the two journeys, many decades and hydrologic engineering triumphs had transformed the Colorado from an ominous muse to a beautiful victim. That transformation determined two very distinct adventures.

My obsession with H2O continued to underscore my adolescence and eventual transition into adulthood. By my freshmen year of college at the Colorado School of Mines, I could properly rationalize my irrational connection to water and rivers. I admired water’s adaptability because it paralleled my own. Just at the Colorado River has assumed multiple identities through time, I craft personas based on my environment. After years of mindless gazing into my own town’s signature river, I channeled my curiosity into academia.  Before long, I signed up to collaborate on the analysis of Colorado River stories displayed here in map form.  The questions our research group asked were informed by our own histories and ideas of the river. They framed our research trajectory, including its unknowns.

The obstacles John Wesley Powell addressed were invariably tied to his original conception of the river as an unpredictable yet vital vessel for exploration. Menacing rapids repeatedly risked his mission. His quest, cloaked in uncertainty, was intensified and dramatized by a constant food scarcity. Many years later, the Colorado College students, Will and Zak, experienced tribulations directly related to their framing of the river as a simultaneous victim and sanctuary. They internalized the threats to the Colorado as their own. Dams and reservoirs, rather than rapids, were their greatest obstacles. Upon paddling across Lake Mead to the colossal Hoover Dam, the students felt “mediocre rage.” Man-made infrastructure interrupted and inhibited their adventure.

Just as the river, pooled in reservoirs, challenged our protagonists’ downstream progress, water sporadically became an obstacle in my own journey. At one particularly important swim meet, I was determined to show off my liquid storage skills to my best friend Nina. In between our events, I chugged a massive quantity of yellow green crack cocaine — Gatorade. As I lunged forward and backward on a rickety old swing, I cradled my two liters of liquid sugar. I was the boss of everyone. When it came time for my race, the 200 meter I.M., I felt amazing. The Gatorade raced through my body, shooting light through all my nerve endings — a symphony of sugar. As I swam butterfly, I was propelled high into the air like a fish jumping aggressively as it suffocates. By the time I got to the breaststroke, my body began to break down. I gradually lost the ability to breathe. As I bobbed up and down, catching air between strokes, I tried to convey my pain to my cheering mother at the end of the lane. When I lifted my head out of the water to breathe, I placed my hand aggressively around my neck to symbolize chocking. This understandably caused drama amongst the spectators. Eventually, I was aggressively pulled out of the water by a frantic mother. As I ran to the bathroom, I left a trail of tiny water droplets behind me. Upon arriving to the ceramic oasis, I threw up everywhere. It was humbling. I had not mastered water; I was at its mercy.

John Wesley Powell and his crew were not under the influence of high fructose corn syrup. Yet, they were still humbled by the sporadic personality fluctuations of the Colorado. The river turned from a passive vessel to a tyrant, prompting three of his crew to abandon the journey at Separation Rapid. While the river was either an active agent or impediment throughout Powell’s journey, it adopted a more passive role in Will and Zak’s documentary. Its absence, rather than its presence, proved more remarkable. The Colorado College students were at the mercy of an unidentifiable, industrial, and dried river upon reaching the Mexican border. Their journey, too, ended early and unexpectedly due to the character of the Colorado.

Just as I had my mother to save me from the water, the Colorado College students had help along their travels. Friends and family joined them throughout their expedition, replenishing food supplies and providing moral support. They relied upon modern infrastructure throughout their expedition. In many ways, their cultural context propelled their journey forward. For Powell, the river itself served as an occasional aid. He had little outside resources relative to those pervasive in Will and Zak’s quest. Once again, the river assumed a variety of roles between the two narratives and the two time periods. It was the same body of water, but yet entirely different.  

This year marks my senior year of college at a masochistic engineering school, and water still captivates and humbles me. When my research collaborator, Caleb, and I began our intellectual journey down the river eight months ago, my experience with the Colorado was egocentric. As we paddled with Powell and our Colorado College peers, my own perspective of the river morphed. As I began to more thoroughly understand the multifaceted nature of the Colorado, I realized yet another fundamental character trait of water. Water is a mirror. When we gaze into the river before us, we each see a piece of ourselves.  It is a reflection of us.