Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On first seeing the Colorado River Basin

From John Wesley Powell's journey through the Grand Canyon, leading a team of the first people to go down the Colorado River in boats:

The upper two-thirds of the basin rises from four to eight thousand feet above the level of the sea. This high region, on the east, north, and west, is set with ranges of snow-clad mountains, attaining an altitude above the sea varying from eight to fourteen thousand feet. All winter long, on its monutain-crested rim, snow falls, filling the gorges, half burying the forests, and covering the crags and peaks with a mantle woven by the winds from the waves of the sea -- a mantle of snow. When the summer-sun comes, this snow melts, and tumbles down the mountain-sides in millions of cascades. Ten million cascade brooks unite to form ten thousand torrent creeks; ten thousand torrent creeks united to form a hundred rivers beset with cataracts; a hundred roaring rivers unite to form the Colorado, which rolls, a mad, turbid stream, into the Gulf of California

My battered copy of this book, which I bought for 25 cents from a box in front of a small used-bookstore, is one of the geographilic books I can just lie around and read bits of, over and over again.

John Wesley Powell , with one arm, with food supplies that got wet and moldy over the weeks, with boats and crew gradually wearing out and falling apart, or leaving the party, made it, more than once, from one end of the Colorado to the other, and wrote richly about what he saw there.

Of course, then we submerged many of his cataracts and fern-lined canyons with the reservoir that bears his name.

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