In river writer Zak Podmore’s new book “Confluence: Navigating the personal and political on rivers of the new West,” Edward Abbey meets John Muir meets Thoreau, with a little of expedition paddler Ben Stookesberry thrown in.
That sums up this look at the river landscape of the American West through the eyes of Podmore, an accomplished Utah-based paddler, writer, film producer, and editor who covers conservation issues and Utah politics.
An editor-at-large for Canoe & Kayak, Podmore casts his gaze and pen to the rivers that have shaped his life, and their plight in today’s world. From paddling the Grand and Class V Little Colorado to riding the river’s rare pulse into the Sea of Cortez, Podmore examines everything there is about the importance of preserving the rivers of the American West and what they mean to our culture — all while diving into his own life issues as well, including his mother’s death from lung cancer.
“The publication of Confluence marks the arrival of an important new voice in the West,” says David Gessner, author of All the Wild that Remains.
The story in a nutshell:
In the wake of his mother’s death, author and paddler Podmore sets out on a series of wilderness river adventures through the Southwestern canyon country where he was raised. The book takes the reader through some of the most iconic landscapes in the American West — Grand Canyon, Big Bend, the delta of the Colorado River. From the seat of a kayak, Podmore explores contemporary conservation issues through a lively first-person travelogue that’s steeped in questions of environmental ethics.
While surviving a flash flood on the Little Colorado, he reflects on how wilderness is shaped by our philosophical definitions of space. A whitewater kayak trip through the largest dam removal project in history (on Washington’s Elwha River) leads to a confrontation with Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism. Podmore also paddles down a rare release of water into the Colorado River in Mexico, investigates of uranium tailings on Ute Mountain Ute lands near the San Juan River, and a draws on the writing of Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, and Hannah Arendt to interrogate our treatment of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande.
At turns hair-raising and contemplative, Confluence provides a unique perspective on what Western waterways can offer in the twenty-first century — all while posing questions about our collective responsibility to wilderness rivers and to each other.
A quick Q&A with Podmore:
Fill us in on the subtitle — what’s the “personal” and what’s the “political”?
When I began writing the first essay four years ago, I did not expect to include anything too personal. My mother had just passed away from lung cancer, and I was trying, more than anything, to distance myself from that loss by reporting on environmental issues and desert rivers. As the book progressed, however, I realized that project was itself an homage to my mother who, along with my dad, brought me down the canyons of the Green, Colorado, San Juan, and Dolores rivers year after year as I was growing up. She steeped me in the beauty of the Colorado Plateau and taught me to appreciate what is still a centerpoint of my life—flowing water in the redrock desert. Slowly, her story began to intertwine with the stories I was writing about dam removals, restoration efforts in the Colorado River delta, the battle against tourist developments in the Grand Canyon, Trump’s immigration policies, and the battle against uranium on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeast Utah. The book still isn’t exactly a memoir, but my mother is present on every page—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.
You describe tourism and outdoor recreation as incredibly resource-intensive. Can you elaborate?
While I do not have anything against recreation, I think that more needs to be done to interrogate the idea that recreation economies are the best alternative to extractive economies. We need to think about landscapes as more than just playgrounds for the privileged to practice their expensive sports. That said, I want everything I write to be a celebration of public lands and the opportunities for free exploration they provide, even as they serve as preserves for biodiversity and cultural antiquities.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the water; has this challenged your own perception of rivers? Have you found that people have common misconceptions about wilderness rivers?
There’s a lingering belief that wilderness rivers are somehow a world apart from the civilization beyond their canyon walls. Our demands for water in the country’s driest region; our tendency to dam, divert, and dry up our streams; our history of poisoning water through industrial activity and the looming threat of climate change—all of this, I believe, needs to be taken into account alongside descriptions of canyon alcoves hanging with columbines or Canada geese honking overhead.
—Zak Podmore is the editor of the Canyon Echo: A Journal of Southeast Utah. He has written for Outside, Sierra, High Country News, Four Corners Free Press, High Desert Journal, and the Huffington Post. His films have been selected for the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, and the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, and his magazine writing won a 2018 Folio Eddie Award.