Rivers start in the highlands and flow into the oceans. It’s a concept many of us take for granted – an unwavering natural occurrence, a fairly simple phenomenon operated by gravity. But what happens when this process is disrupted?
On Thursday, April 5, Jon Waterman presented an unsettling story of the Colorado River running dry before it reaches the ocean. This imbalance was due to human interference and irrigation. One of the largest consequences is the loss of pristine nature, the principle topic of Waterman’s talk.
Waterman, an adventure writer and environmental conservationist, began his career as a young boy in Massachusetts, hitchhiking to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in his first encounter with climbing in Arctic conditions.
After running away from home and breaking his leg on an ice climbing adventure, his mother punished him by having him walk to school – and yes, it was uphill both ways. Not even this could deter his thirst for discovery. His sense of exploration brought him to Alaska, where he trekked Denali.
Waterman described his first ascent of Denali in February of 1982 as, “desperate, hard work,” including a bout with bronchitis and healing from a sprained ankle. Through this experience, he found self-actualization.
After multiple successful summits, Waterman grew comfortable with the mountain and began aiding in rescues of climbers. Through the years of rescues, he noticed patterns with the climbers in terms of preparedness and decision-making.
From watching the mistakes of others, he learned a vital life lesson: “Self-sufficiency is a virtue.” This sentiment cannot be fully appreciated by college students reliant on smartphones, iPods and laptops.
However, technology was not to be overlooked in the importance of Waterman’s adventures. After proving his agility in the wilderness, Waterman started capturing his adventures through photographs and video.
His films have been distributed by PBS and National Geographic, with an emphasis on nature conservation and exploration.
In addition to being a skilled photographer, Waterman is a BANFF-award winning, self-educated writer. He read as he traveled, and from this, honed his composition skills. Nevertheless, “it’s not enough to simply write a book,” Waterman remarked. “There’s a big machine out there that’s eating our natural resources”.
He described to the audience the animosity he was met with from the “Water Buffalo” – the men and women in the politics of selling water in the southwestern United States. Blaming overpopulation and continuous building of subdivisions in the desert, Waterman outlined the cause of the Colorado River running dry.
“It’s the lifeline to the west,” Waterman said about the Colorado River. The river supplies 35,000,000 people with water and several million acres of grasslands, but over 100 dams block it.
Alaskans struggle with the same debate over the balance between exploiting the last frontier’s natural resources, and preserving them for the next generation.
Waterman noted his motivation for writing and creating films was “for the preservation of wild places,” evolving from spending his life outdoors and experiencing what nature is like when it goes untouched. To fully understand how unaffected nature behaves, Waterman went north, finding his most challenging adventure.
Waterman described his 2,200-mile solo trek across the Artic as one that “sharpened [his] instincts and survival skills, introduced [him] to the remarkable Inuit culture, and gave [him] an opportunity to interact with a lot of wild animals.”
During the trek, Waterman encountered polar bears, grizzly bears, bearded seals, a barrage of mosquitos and herds of migrating elk and muskox. While kayaking through the Alaska Native Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Waterman observed a key aspect of global ecology:
“Nature really does endure when you leave it alone.”