Posting has been even lighter than usual as I’ve been on vacation, first in San Francisco, then in Monterey and Carmel, and, climactically, with my son on a five day rafting trip on the Snake River in Idaho.
That last leg of the trip, the rafting, was truly extraordinary. The setting was awe-inspiring, the guides inspired complete confidence – even the food was great, and not just “great for camping.” If you’re interested in doing that sort of thing, I very strongly recommend Row Adventures, the company that led the trip.
While on the river, I honestly didn’t do too much thinking, which was a wonderful relief. Being completely cut off from electronic communication helped, to be sure, and it wasn’t an artificial interdiction, against which I tend to chafe. I was able to relax into a very basic set of rhythms, which is, usually, a pretty tough thing for me to do.
In the wake of the trip, though, I’m trying to educate myself a bit about issues that, as an Easterner, I never much have to think about. I’ve started with Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert, but that’s a bit old and I would love a recommendation that brings the story a bit more up to the present. But even before getting too far into that process of education, I was struck, on reflection, by the complicated political cross-currents of a place like the Snake River.
The river provides water and power for people to live a modern life in a harsh landscape. But the dams, built mostly in the mid-20th century, that capture that water and use it to produce power, have dramatically altered the landscape and the ecology of the region. Meanwhile, one of the biggest growth industries in the region is now tourism – and that tourism depends on the preservation of a natural landscape worth visiting, and an ecology that supports the fish that many of those tourists are coming to catch. It might be that, economically as well as ecologically, it would be beneficial to knock down some of the dams, and let the rivers run wild(er) again. But how would that calculus change if, say, we properly charged for the externalities associated with burning fossil fuels? Might the cheap electricity that once powered huge aluminum smelters once again become too valuable to give up for the sake of the salmon?
Even within the world of recreation, there are interesting cross-currents. Rafting and fishing expeditions bring people from far away to experience a world very distant from their regular life. It’s a pretty special world, but we (for I am emphatically one of them) are truly tourists. How do you weigh our claims on the river against, say, the local family with a vacation home on the river where they keep a jet boat and a pair of jet skis? A rafter has a very different experience of the river than a jet skier – one that the rafter may be inclined to see as more authentic. She is going with the river, using its power, and that of her own muscles; she is not riding noisily roughshod over it. But unless she’s a river guide, she’s a tourist. The jet skier is a local. The river is part of the jet skier’s life. Moreover, the rafter’s experience has a massive logistical scaffolding behind it to get her onto the river in the first place, and, once she’s left it, to return her to civilization. The ugly jet boat, by contrast, is an actual mode of transportation. You can actually use it to get upriver to your vacation home. And, of course, the rafting trip is a pretty expensive proposition. Any hierarchy of values that places the rafting tourist near the top because of its ecological sensitivity or authenticity, is, for better or worse (or both) also an elitist one.
Finally what does it do to a culture when its growth industry is providing an “authentic” experience to far away tourists? This question is posed most starkly in places like Hell’s Canyon, but it’s a question that’s relevant for our whole society, as the whole world continues to shed farmers and factory workers and “service economy” becomes practically equivalent to “economy.”
Ultimately, the experience of wildness that you get from a rafting trip like the one I went on is something of an illusion. A valuable illusion – and a valuable experience, I would certainly argue – but still an illusion. Human beings tamed the river long ago, and cannot, without literally walking away, untame it. The open question is what work we will tame it, and ourselves, to.