A Green River journal: Inspired by Ann Zwinger’s Run, River, Run

Val Brenneis

In 1975, the nature writer Ann Zwinger published a book titled Run, River, Run, which chronicled her 730 mile journey from the headwaters of the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River. I brought this book on our trip and it served as a guide to the history of the river and the humans who traveled it. My hardback first edition is now warped with Green River water and gritty with its sand, just the way a river journal should be. The following is my own description of one day on the river.

Monday, June 19th

Waking up at Wild Mountain camp, the first light of the morning illuminates the tawny limestone cliffs of the Madison formation. Protected in curve of the river, we camp on soft sands blown in by the wind. Just upstream a debris fan littered with large boulders slopes down to the river, causing a constriction and a small rapid. Here the water rushes loudly before calmly spreading itself across the bend below. Gnarled juniper trees flank the rocky red walls of the Uinta formation above us. An enormous box elder grows by itself on a small terrace littered with small oval stones, just above the pre-dam floodplain as measured by a line of desert varnish on boulder at the edge of the river. Phragmites, the common reed, and Scirpus, the bulrush, grow near the river, anchoring down these deposits of silky fine sand.

Today we move through history. The flat layers of the Lodore formation, named by John Wesley Powell for the canyon in which it is found, rests on the blocky red rocks of the Uinta Mountain group. Between these two layers of rock, there is a 480 million year gap in the geologic record known as the great unconformity. The top of the Uinta formation, as well as whatever once lay above it, was eroded away before the sandstone and shale of the Lodore were laid down. 480 million years is a longer time than I can imagine, it makes me feel small. Here in Lodore Canyon, two vastly disparate points in earth’s history have been brought together and we float by looking up at these rock walls and back in time.

We approach Steamboat Rock, the awesome 600 foot cliff at the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers. Water ripples in the sun below overhangs, forming ever-changing patterns on the rock walls. A distinct line between the Green’s water and the more turbid water of the Yampa can be distinguished as the rivers flow side by side, retaining their identity several hundred meters past the confluence. We paddle into the wind, rounding the prow of this massive cliff of Weber sandstone. For a moment the river is sheltered from the wind, we hear it instead rushing through the leaves of the cottonwood trees growing in large stands on terraces above us. We round another bend and see again the jagged layers of rock exposed by the Mitten Park fault. Spires and peaks of red rock jut vertically towards the sky. A cold spring seeps out near the base of the fault, ice blue water flows into the silty Green.

We paddle into the wind, entering Whirlpool Canyon where the wind tears upstream around curving red rock walls even as the current rushes down. We make camp on a sand bar with stands of tamarisk and the pale blossoms of the Nuttall’s evening-primrose. It is hot and we are tired from paddling. We jump into the river, it drops off steeply here, and play in the narrow eddy. I swim easily upstream here, then venture out into the current where I am pulled back downstream. I do this over and over again, each time venturing out farther into the current until I’ve worn myself out. The stars come out and the river flows on like blood through my veins. At this very site David Brower and others successfully fought to prevent the building of the proposed Echo Park dam. At this very moment in time, I feel as Ann Zwinger did when she wrote, “the river pours by and I want to go with it”.