“What I love most about rivers is: you can’t step in the same river twice.” Pocahontas, from the 1995 animated movie of the same name.
One who knows living river systems that ebb and flow in time is Brian Kinnear. He might not have sung the same words captured in the song Just Around the River Bend in the Disney movie classic, but he understood those sentiments, which stem from the Greek thinker Heraclitus.
Kinnear studied the Gunnison River in the mid-1960s; its flows, its power, and its feral and boundless nature. California-born, he studied fisheries at Humboldt State University, and worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Alaska was still an unrefined frontier in those years. He and his partner, researching fish in the bush, were out of provisions as the supply plane was delayed. Reduced to wild blueberries and pancake batter, he gained a new appreciation for nutrition when the plane landed with a new load of Spam.
While fulfilling a graduate assistantship at Colorado State University, he saw a bulletin board flyer announcing a National Park Service study at Black Canyon.
Undaunted by Black Canyon’s remoteness, Kinnear landed the study and moved into a trailer on the South Rim. The monument was fairly undeveloped in 1965; there was no phone or electricity. Even more, he had to hike regularly from rim to river to check on his sampling stations, studying river flows and changes, and he conducted a survey of fish species.
I enjoyed visiting with him earlier this summer, comparing river notes, knowing the river he knew has changed from the river I know. That spring Gunnison flooded at 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), a large torrent, but tapered back in June.
He was on his own. The solitude was abundant. “This was high living,” he said of the freedom he felt in the canyon. River habitat and species gradually became known as the summer advanced. Plants were pushed back from the shore in those days, river flora has changed, and water temperature fluctuated.
Streams meandering through the meadows above the town of Gunnison warmed during the day. Those warmer waters didn’t reach the middle portions of Black Canyon until night. The thermal inversion was important as one of the fish species he found relied on that change.
Kinnear recorded eight types of fish among the seven stations along the 14 miles of river. They varied from trout to suckers to dace. But in one location, he found the bonytail chub. An ancient species (goes back well before the carving of Black Canyon), little was known of this fish at the time, and only a little more is known today.
They are predators who prefer to feed at night, growing to almost 2 feet in length. Considered an elegant swimmer (the Latin name for them is Gila elegans – “handsome in water”) they are a smaller fish competing with much larger fish in the same rivers.
Like a paleontologist searching for living fossils, Kinnear found that the presence of these chubs, in their breeding colors, added a fierce element to the living river. The species had muscled in on a piece of aquatic territory in a tough riverine neighborhood among larger fish “ruling the roost.”
Kinnear took on an added challenge that fall. The river flow declined to 130 cfs. He and ranger Bill Hoy made a through-canyon trip starting at East Portal. Few people have taken on this challenge; perhaps as many as 50 since 1900 have taken this perilous trip without kayaks.
It isn’t for everyone, but he was enriched by the adventure, soaking it up “like a dry sponge soaks up water.” The gates on Blue Mesa Dam closed the following year. He and Hoy were the last to have experienced the completely undisciplined Gunnison River.
Rivers and the life within are always changing. Even now, when I step into the Gunnison it is different than when Kinnear did some 55 years ago. With or without the dams there would be a different feel, a different sense of the life force. But today it almost feels safe, regulated, and secure.
It appears that we’ve given up some of that wild world. The chubs and other species are certainly gone, but there could be a lesson for us today. Chubs and the Gunnison can remind us that the more sheltered and safe we make our world, the less untamed and free our lives become.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.