Growing up on a cattle ranch in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, I spent many hours operating a haybine. Essentially an oversized lawnmower on steroids, a haybine perches the driver high above tines furiously whisking up stalks of grasses like timothy and brome, leaves of clover, and vast plumes of grass pollen. The sound of machinery belts whirl and groan, and typically a hot August sun beams across your trail of dust. It is the ideal place to focus on water.
From this elevated, noisy seat, your senses become immersed in hay. The smell of cut grasses chokes you. The subtle changes in the whine of the machine relate directly to the thickness and type of grass you are cutting. And the view, roughly 10 feet above the meadow, is a perfect vantage to see where water seeped into the high-mountain roots and where it didn’t. Dry spots stand out like brown beacons in a maze of green life.
Our somewhat antiquated hay-cutting machine boasts a sixteen-foot cutting bar, twirling wire fingers, and large rollers that break the grass stalks to “condition” or dry the hay faster. It is a dangerous machine that you respect. When I lost the tip of my thumb to it as a teenager when the engine wasn’t even running, it earned mine.
But more importantly, despite its clatter and clunkiness, the haybine provides a wondrous tool to witness the laborious hours of a summer’s irrigation. I can see exactly where I (or maybe my brother) missed an irrigation set, or where our gravity-fed sprinkler over-soaked a spot, nurturing less desirable wiregrass to shoot stalks skyward.
With over 300 annual days of sun in Colorado, you can’t depend on the rain to produce hay. And with such a short growing season between frosts, it is difficult to cultivate more protein-rich crops that can compete with those grown in lower climates. So hay, as it is for the majority of western ranchers, is our main crop—to sell and support a modest herd of cattle that we raise as grass-fed and/or finished beef. If measured monetarily, it is not a good business. But if you take stock in any connection to land, wildlife, and open space, it enables one to forget the long hours that ranching entails.
Of course, ranching is not possible without water, especially in the semiarid West. The moisture that reaches our fields starts somewhere above in the 14,000-foot peaks that shroud our Capitol Creek Valley. It starts trickling north in May through a hundred-year-old hand-dug ditch as it descends a few thousand feet through pine, Douglas fir, and aspen tree forests. Once it reaches our fields, the excess seeps back into Capitol or East Sopris Creeks, winds down to the Roaring Fork River, and roughly 30 miles later that water enters the Colorado River. From there it begins its hopeful 1,300-mile march to the Sea of Cortez.
As a boy, I used to wonder how long it would take a drop of water from our ditch to reach the sea. During my morning irrigation chores, I spent hours studying and marveling at the properties of water. I didn’t know exactly where the Colorado River went, but I figured that if water from our ranch escaped the thirsty mouths of livestock and the thirstier sprinklers for croplands and golf courses, it would take a few decades to reach the sea, wherever that was. In my mind, the biggest inhibitor was the lazy current of Lake Powell, that sandstone-colored, glassy sea in the midst of the Utah desert that our family first visited when I was 7.
Some 20 years later our family would float the Grand Canyon. When we returned to Colorado via Las Vegas, I would see firsthand that next great desert sea—Lake Mead. Quickly it occurred to me that my childhood estimate was too short. Despite the power and speed of the 42 major Grand Canyon rapids like Dubendorf, Crystal, and Lava, the capacity of water storage in Lake Mead was so immense, words like “forever” jumped forward when contemplating Colorado snowmelt reaching the sea.
It would take me another 10 years to realize that my “forever” intuition was not far from the mark. The reality is that the snowmelt that still irrigates our family ranch has not reached the sea since 1998, and until conservation and water management habits change, it is unlikely that it will anytime soon.
My new book project, “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict,” started in part as a magazine assignment, but it blossomed into a much greater personal project. For the majority of my adult life (after I accepted the reality that ranching requires additional income to pay the bills), I have worked as a photographer on six continents documenting everything from glaciers on Mount Everest to ancient Saharan cultures that revere water. No matter where one lives, water plays significant roles in human lives—noticed or not. After years of documenting foreign worlds, turning my cameras toward the ongoing western U.S. drought and the Colorado River seemed like an obvious step.
Upon starting this project, the notion of photographing 1,450 miles of river and its tributaries and uses was daunting, not only because of the scope but also because of the abundance of imagery on the Colorado River due to its postcard beauty. I wanted to incorporate a new angle, a fresh perspective. Employing a myriad of views would be critical—on river, underwater, by raft, on foot, the agriculture, wildlife, and urban usage, etc. But how could I make it unique?
Inspired, I suspect, by my many hours operating a haybine and my passion for aviation—which my bush-pilot father instilled—I decided the best vantage of the river was above it. The aerial approach would enable me to see as I do from a haybine—where water reached roots, and where it didn’t.
More importantly, the aerial perspective shows where we as humans have been, how we connect to the earth, and how nature relates to itself. In the two years it took to complete this book, I flew the length of the Colorado River nearly twice with a wonderful collection of pilots ranging from my father and friends to a U.S. border patrol officer, a crop duster, a retired civil engineer, and a large-animal veterinarian. Whether we flew at 200 feet (my favorite elevation) or 2,000 above the river, the perspective of our mighty and ancient western river was always spectacular, awe-inspiring, and humbling.
When I wasn’t above the river, I was in it. On a scorching June day in 2008, a group of childhood friends and I gasped as we clung, delirious, to our capsized raft, bobbing like helpless corks in the chocolate maelstrom of Cataract Canyon. A record snowpack had created the highest spring runoff Cataract had seen in decades. We experienced the power of 50,000 cubic feet per second—a force of nature I don’t necessarily need to experience as intimately again. It flipped our boat like a bottle cap. Despite the record runoff, reservoirs barely rose.
Months later, I would travel south on two separate trips to walk the Colorado’s dry delta with Jon Waterman, the writer of this book, as he finished his mission of paddling the entire length of the river. During long, dehydrated days straining under 80-pound packs we walked across chapped earth. Imagining historic river flows twice the size of what I experienced in Cataract Canyon regularly pouring across the delta in Mexico, an estuary where steamships once navigated, captivated my thoughts. Where once I had pondered the properties and magic of water from the perch of our haybine, now I could only think about the alarming lack of it.
As I finally learned during that trip where the heavily diverted, dammed, recreated, farmed, and litigated Colorado River in fact ends, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps one day snowmelt would still traverse our family’s Colorado ranch and again flow across the cracked earth delta.
Pete McBride is an award winning photographer, writer and visual storyteller whose love of adventure, cultures and the outdoors have taken him on assignment throughout the world to over 60 countries.