In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell led the first recorded passage of white men through the Grand Canyon. Plunging into the unknown in small wooden boats to measure and map one of the last uncharted spots in the American West, the expedition team was ill-equipped to face the ferocity of the canyon’s creator—the formidable Colorado River. Powell wrote: “We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we are but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”
Today we know that the Grand Canyon is 277 river-miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. Much has changed since Powell’s expedition 150 years ago—most notably the damming of the Colorado River both downstream of the canyon by the Hoover Dam in the 1930s and upstream by the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. What hasn’t changed is the sheer awe and mystery that the canyon evokes for anyone lucky enough to experience it by floating the Colorado River. Photographer Tom Blagden has captured this powerful and unique perspective in his new book, The Grand Canyon: Unseen Beauty: Running the Colorado River (Rizzoli, 2019).
“Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most iconic parks in the country, and yet most people never see the river that created it,” says Blagden.
Of the 6 million people who visit the park every year, only 20,000—less than 1 percent—run the river. Since the early 2000s, Blagden has made 14 river trips through the Grand Canyon, photographing a wide breadth of subjects, including stunning landscapes, seldom-seen wildlife and the culture of the boatmen who live and breathe the river. He says that while every trip is a different experience, each one serves up a big dose of humility.
“Seeing the Grand Canyon from the river forces you to disconnect from the world as you know it, live in the moment and forget who you are,” says Blagden. “You’re slapped in the face with freezing water, hanging on for dear life through the rapids and totally engaged physically, intellectually and spiritually. It’s a wake-up call that we aren’t the masters of the universe.”
Blagden’s book release in 2019 coincides with the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s a time to celebrate and also call attention to the issues facing the park and surrounding region. Invasive plant species and introduced trout that outcompete the native fish—impacts largely caused by the Glen Canyon Dam—are altering the ecology of the Grand Canyon. Development schemes, including a proposed tramway from rim to river for 10,000 visitors a day, as well as a huge resort complex just outside the park, are constant threats. Currently, the dammed Colorado River irrigates, powers and quenches the thirst of seven states servicing some 36 million people in cities including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Denver. With continued growth fueling demand for more water, and the sources of that water diminishing, the stage is set for potential disaster. In addition, nearby uranium mines have contaminated both the aquifer and Native Americans who drink the water, as well as some of the underground springs that provide critical oases for wildlife in the Grand Canyon. Other threats include air and noise pollution, and the impacts of a changing climate.
“The forces that have shaped the Grand Canyon have gone on for eons, and yet in our modern context we’re threatening that natural timeline with water use, climate change and development,” says Blagden. “We float the river at its mercy, but its fate is up to us.”
For his part, Blagden is collaborating with the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park dedicated to protecting and enhancing the park. His book raises awareness of both the magnificence of the park as well as the threats to it. He believes that there is tremendous value in experiencing a place that transports us outside of our normal lives. A place with deep beauty, mystery and the potential to transform us in profound ways.
“If any place can do that for us, it’s the Grand Canyon,” says Blagden.