The Great Unconformity

Swimming with suckers in the Grand Canyon.

[by Miles Nolte]

MY HIKE BEGAN AT DAWN on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. By 9 a.m. I stood waiting on the beach at Phantom Ranch for the dozen other members of the crew to arrive with five rafts, three kayaks, two inflatable pack rafts, and nearly 5,000 pounds of gear, food, and beverages. They launched a week before, at Lees Ferry, 90 miles upstream.

The measurable depth of the canyon, more than a vertical mile, can’t compare to the trench the Colorado River has carved in the human imagination. These arid walls and watery depths have been exhaustively explored in science, art, and print. But I entered the canyon with a different question, experientially simple (or so I thought) and metaphorically complex: What about the fish?

“These natives are as impressive, unique, and bizarre as the canyon itself.”

The heat, already formidable at midmorning, and joyful lightness I felt about the coming weeks in the wilderness, compelled me to shed my clothes and immerse my body in a brown, swirling eddy. Standing ankle deep and questioning the wisdom of a headlong surface dive in water so turbid I couldn’t see my toes, I became concerned about my fishing plans. The Little Colorado, which enters the canyon 26 miles upstream from Phantom Ranch and is the primary determinant of water clarity on this float, was running dirty. I dived into the muddy unknown.

The water between Glen Canyon and Lees Ferry is famous among trout fishermen, but I had decided to start my trip downstream of that stretch on the notion that I might cultivate some lesserknown literary soil, even in an area as well tilled as the Grand Canyon. Though fishing below Lees Ferry is seldom discussed, fish populations have been a topic for anglers, scientists, and conservationists for decades. Most fly fishers think of the Grand Canyon as a trout fishery, but trout didn’t live here until a highly controversial engineering project changed the river.

The construction of Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s coincided with the emergence of the Sierra Club and the popularization of an American conservationist ethos. The dam became a parallel symbol, representing both the incredible power of industrial innovation and the consequences such innovation can unleash on natural ecosystems.

Native fish stocks in the Colorado River plummeted. Historically, this basin has the lowest number of native fish species (eight) but the highest percentage of endemic species (75 percent) in North America. These specialists evolved to live in a spectacularly inhospitable place. The dam, however, stabilized flows, dropped temperatures, and trapped most of the silt from the upper reaches of the system. These changes allowed alien trout to survive here but diminished the very qualities of the river that created its original fish. Today, three of the eight native species (Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail chub, and roundtail chub) are gone, and two others (humpback chub and razorback sucker) are listed as endangered.

These natives are as impressive, unique, and bizarre as the canyon itself. The humpback chub, bonytail chub, and razorback sucker all have freakish protrusions on their foreheads and are thought by some researchers to improve hydrodynamics in flood-raging water. My interpretation is that they have a punk rock attitude and choose to sport fleshy Mohawks, but I may be projecting. The Colorado pikeminnow is the largest true minnow in the world, growing over four feet long and weighing up to 80 pounds. Several of these fish species can live more than 40 years.

In general, suckers, chubs, and minnows don’t make magazine covers. Creepy mouthparts aside, most of them appear in Ansel Adams color schemes. These canyon residents, however, could fit in with their Amazonian cousins. They wear bright palettes to match their gaudy headgear, accented with vibrant oranges, yellows, and blues. Visibility is important for fish that need to find spawning partners in murky water—think peacocks or 1970s leisure suits.

Ten days into the trip, I haven’t seen a fish, and water visibility hasn’t exceeded three inches, but I’m not short of entertainment or joy. After dinner, dishes, and a headlamp recitation of 19th-century fairy tales accompanied by guitar, fiddle, and melodica, the members of our group disperse into our own corners of the night to rest. I may or may not be wearing a lime green cape and a banana costume and carrying an oversized flask of bourbon.