In an unusually cold June, the sky lets loose water that splatters a rocky dirt, disintegrated Moenkopi, on boat bows and sandaled feet, and a thin fog rests above the river. I look out from beneath a raincoat, hood pulled over my Cubs baseball cap, and feel my hair curl around my ears. Chels jokes about the cold. I shiver then force a smile and joke back that it’s too bad we can’t put up a liquid tent right now. “We gotta embrace the suck!” Travis yells so loud that Little Sean jumps in fright. The rest of us guides chuckle and then quiet into our own thoughts, arms wrapped around ourselves to keep warm as we gather together on my boat. We stare at nothing in particular, feeling a little tired, a little hung-over. I look over to one of the motor rigs, the kind of boat I usually take down river, and envy the faint line of tobacco smoke rising from the motor-well, the boatman careful to keep his freshly rolled cigarette dry. It’s been a year since I’ve smoked and I miss it every single day. One smoke won’t hurt, I think, but then the sound of tires and engines distract me and I momentarily shake off the desire as I look to see which outfitter is arriving. It’s ours. The vans stop next to the boats and we all sit up and make to greet passengers who are clean, donning rain gear and awkward hats, looking a little like REI advertisements. One passenger approaches with his fishing rod and I slowly shake my head and tell him it will be difficult to catch trout below the Paria River because it’s flowing hard into the Colorado, turning it muddy just a mile downstream.
Some trout were introduced to Lake Powell by helicopter back in 1966 by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (now the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife), three years after the Colorado was held behind the Glen Canyon Dam, forcing it to flood side canyons, filling caverns and covering ruins. Maybe trout had managed to slip through the spillways into the river, ravenous for the native fish struggling in their water, now cold and clear. Though really it was Fish and Wildlife who brought the trout to the Lees Ferry, backing vans down to the water and dumping invasives in the river by the hundreds. At least that’s what the old guys tell me.
Trout survive. I mean, those slippery bodied creatures can dominate like a mother-fucker. The Browns have devastated the native populations in Bright Angel Creek, too. Still, I’ll not have one killed cruelly in my presence. Little pisses me off faster than seeing a fisherman toss a trout on the beach to die slow. I’ll make an issue out of it. I’ll hand him a knife. Point out a rock on which to bash the poor thing’s head. The fishermen, for I’ve only seen the men treat creatures this way, don’t like it when I take issue. Sometimes they mock me for it. Sometimes I toss their fish back in the river. I understand that for the sake of the natives the trout have to go. But not unmercifully.
Surprisingly the native Humpback Chub and the Flannelmouth Suckers have held on, despite the cold and predators. Oddly enough, it’s the Fish and Wildlife studies, the fish-kill trips, that saved them. Of course, the chub don’t live throughout the Colorado anymore, instead spawning in the Little Colorado River and living all around the confluence. But the trout and carp, hungry for the natives, stalked the babies. So the waters were shocked and all the species brought to the top. The natives tagged and released, the invasives sent back into the river by way of a massive meat grinder. Even so, some of those invasives still live in the area.
The passenger is dejected when I tell him he’ll have no luck, but he perks up despite the rain. “It’s unusual to get rain this time of year, isn’t it?” he asks. “Yes, but we need whatever water we can get out here in the desert. It’s not exactly pleasant, but I think of it as a good thing.” He smiles, says he’s from California and thinks of it as a good thing, too, but then boards the boat furthest from mine. My boat fills with people from the Midwest, a family of four, all shivering in their ponchos. I secure my bowline, the rain dripping off the brim of my hat, and in the middle of the river a trout breaks through the surface, briefly, then gone.