The Canyons

A moulin is a hole carved into a glacier by running water. As snow on the surface melts, it creates little rivers along the top of the ice. Eventually these streams find cracks that lead into the heart of the glacier, and as the water pours into the crack it widens out the opening until it is rounded and smooth. You can stand on the edge of a moulin and look down into a thirsty darkness endlessly swallowing water.

Over a much longer time scale, exactly the same thing has happened in the rocks of southern Utah. As water has rushed through the canyons in streams and floods over millenia it has sculpted the soft sandstone in the same manner that it sculpts the ice on glaciers. The conditions for this to happen in the desert are pretty unique, but this is what has carved the famous slot canyons that look and feel so improbable to those who pass through their labyrinthine channels. Long ago, running water found cracks in the rock and poured into them, slowly grinding away the surface so that now you can stand on the edge of certain canyons and peer into inky darkness over curved edges that look almost like petrified glaciers.

It’s into one of these slot canyons that we descend now, the five of us who have come to make a running film. Dean Leslie and Jared Paisley, of The African Attachment, labor under huge packs full of camera equipment. Ben Phillips lopes ahead on guide duty, scouting out the slot we want to film, while Rickey Gates and I, the talent, stroll easily through the canyon that here is quite wide and gentle. We meander through the sandy wash that twists and turns and grows ever deeper as the dark red walls climb above our heads. There are many layers of rock in the walls above us, their various features creating a haphazard jumble of corners and ledges and giant blocks that seem barely stuck to the wall. As the canyon grows deeper it also grows narrower, and several times we pass under tree trunks some 50 feet long and at least three feet in diameter which have been jammed between the walls 10 or 15 feet up by floods of truly incredible ferocity. Indeed, the detritus of past floods is everywhere, in the form of great logs and boulders and even animal bones. We weave through and over these as we head into the canyon.

Many miles farther down this canyon–much farther than we intend to go–the walls open out again into the upper end of Glen Canyon. The strange complexity of this landscape is almost wild enough to make one believe that the huge amount of water in Lake Powell might be natural–surely stranger things than a big lake have occurred in this desert world that seems somehow beyond the normal laws of physics. But the truth shows by the whine of the motorboats which zip continuously over the turquoise waters, shattering the dry stillness. The lake was constructed by man.

Many miles in the other direction, up on the high plateaus of juniper and pinyon pine where this immense canyon begins as a gentle depression, cows wander by the thousands. This is prime rangeland in central Utah, and the cattle spend the whole summer in this vast wilderness. During that time they graze, and then poop. They poop a lot, and then inevitably storms come and dump a bunch of rain onto the dry, poop-covered hillsides. This rain washes into the shallow depression that eventually leads to our canyon, and it brings a rather extraordinary amount of poop with it. The poop water floods through our canyon for a while and then slows and stops, leaving puddles of thick brown water in the places where sand, rock, or logs have created pools. And now here we are, walking down an ever-narrowing canyon, and we soon find our way blocked by one such pool.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this, because the film we’re here to make is about canyoneering and packrafting. We’re actually looking for water to raft on. I guess none of us expected it to be so… poopy. Besides, this is just a small puddle that spans the canyon and extends no more than 20 feet across, whereas we need a slot canyon with water that goes several hundred feet for our movie. This puddle is just a barrier. Ben, as our guide, selflessly and without hesitation wades into the water and across the pool to ferry loads, and we cringe as we watch him go chin deep. There’s a smell. None of the rest of us want anything to do with what Ben’s doing, so we’re delighted to find that the water is no more than knee deep along one side. We march over to him and he watches us and sighs.

We continue on down the canyon, and in time we reach the slot that we want to film. The water level is lower than expected; perhaps a log jam burst somewhere downstream. So we must climb down through the rocky moulins until we finally reach the water level. Here the canyon walls are less than my arm span in breadth, and I can comfortably perch my back against one wall, feet on the other, and look up through the trippy wavy canyon walls to the thin strip of blue sky far above. This is a July day in the desert, but the canyon is chill. Dean, Jared, and Ben put on wetsuits. Rickey and I shiver.

The movie we’re making will attempt to show the experience of two friends adventuring in the desert. This is Dean’s project, and I trust him to make a good film–he has been the director of many if not most of Salomon’s best running films over the past several years. He tells me that he wants to show people doing something different, exploring a new kind of adventure, a new way to travel, a different way to conceive of mountain running. This is much more than racing, he tells me. This is the spirit of the outdoor world, its values of wildness and discovery made tangible.

Just a few days before, we were in one of the motorboats down on Lake Powell, cruising around in search of places to shoot. They were plentiful, as of course they would be in a place like Lake Powell, which is gorgeous and desolate and characteristic of everything the Colorado Plateau has meant to people. It’s a wilderness shaped to peoples’ whims. This film is supposed to be a different way to realize this wilderness, a mostly wordless evocation of the experience of being alive in such a world. Yet I wonder at the means we’re taking to make Dean’s vision a reality. Rickey and I are actors in this representation, but we’re being portrayed as ourselves, as “famous runners” having an adventure we never really had. We spend lots of time setting up shots that look pretty, and very little time truly adventuring. Fiction is a wonderful way to tell something true, but I’m afraid the resulting film may try to convey this as something that actually happened.

An experience is a hard thing to describe. When something powerful happens I want to understand it, package it, convey it to other people who might find value in my lessons. An unavoidable part of me wants to gain notoriety through my experiences, and I use them materialistically–trying to amass as many as possible so that I can prove my life is worth something. But many powerful experiences–be they the warm pressure of a first kiss or the simple vastness of the desert–are boundless. They come from somewhere far beyond me and cannot be sectioned off and sold but merely described as best as possible and pointed toward. Stories like this are hard to tell, but they are worth telling. This is what Dean wants to do here. It’s ambitious, but he understands these things better than I do, I think.

My problem with this movie is that I can’t tell if I am here to tell a story of something meaningful or to sell a product. There is something of the perversion of glacial effects in rock, or of large bodies of water in the desert, in making an outdoor film. Something false and unnatural, yet not necessarily corrupt. In a world where we walk under trees and through the bedrock, who’s to say which way is up, or backwards, or right? I have no adequate words for what I feel about this. It has something to do with telling stories and sharing experiences and being honest with myself and the world. The shapes of these canyons are improbable, but they are natural. Lake Powell may be a construction, but there was water here before the dam too, if quite a bit less. There’s a balance to be struck between sharing powerful experiences and trying to fabricate them.

But we have no revelations here. We’re simply a group of guys swimming and boating through some smelly water in a narrow canyon. As Rickey and I inflate our boats and set off along the canyon, we pass by a dead bird floating in the water. Its yellow feathers are bedraggled and its legs are so skinny.

“Maybe that’ll be the next popular cocktail,” says Rickey as he passes the bird. “They’ll start putting dead birds in people’s drinks.”

I laugh a long time at this, and it feels good. Despite my worries and frustrations, I can’t avoid the fact that it feels good to laugh and to be with friends. Whatever this story turns out to be, at least I get to spend a week in a beautiful place laughing at everything Rickey says. I may be boating through poop water, but at least it’s in a beautiful place. And I can still fantasize about a day when this place will have clean water again.

“Um, excuse me waiter?” Rickey’s voice floats up from behind me. “I’m sorry, but there’s a dead bird in my drink…”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you visited canyon country on the Colorado Plateau? What did you find there?
  • For you, does documenting an experience in the natural world change it in some way? Do you ever feel torn between having an experience and recording it so that others can experience it, too?