In the morning as we geared up for our first real day of river travel with packs on, I admit, I was not looking forward to plunging my feet into the Dirty Devil. The day started looking up when the morning sun reached our class circle, warming my bundled body. With thoughts of tar sands, fracking, and renewable energy floating around our minds we left Angel’s Cove, walking towards the river. Mud has been both our medium of travel. It has also been our medium of learning as we explore the geological and cultural histories of this area.
The first foot-to-river contact sent yelps into the air and chills up my legs. As the day continued and the sun warmed the river water I started to really enjoy myself. It turns out, river walking is really a game; there are almost no rules except that the mud must not prevail. With a newbie’s eye, anything looks good enough to step on, but the mud is tricky.
In some places we can see ripple marks along the mud that lies just below the water’s surface. Shallow pools gather here, warmed by the desert sun. Breezes etch their mark along the soft, brown surface until our footprints force them deeper. Walking along through these patches always seems like a great idea, as the heated water warms chilled toes, but as your feet regain feeling, the shallow pools squirt and ooze as they cover your feet in brown.
A safer bet is to seek out muddy zones that are slightly raised above water level. These are easy to see from far away and helpful as a destination goal when crossing the river. Walking across a semi-dry surface is always desirable here in Dirty Devil Canyon. Sometimes the slightly raised mud provides safe passage and other times it sends us back into the water after swallowing our feet. It’s easy to forget that just because we can’t see water, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. After yanking a foot from the mud, the footprint slowly fills with opaque water from below.
My favorite kind of mud can be found in any section of sediment and can take a traveler by surprise. Ripples of mud dissipate like shock waves away from footprints as feet sink rather quickly. It is the closest thing I’ve seen to quicksand and it can be quite fun! A speedy walk across these patches sends waves of water cascading away from each foot. This water is below the mud and is only discovered when stepped on. If you travel too slowly or stop to admire the canyon walls, this jiggly mud will gobble both legs, knees and all. Thankfully, a gravel bottom exists beneath the sediment and, by pushing off gradually, you can set yourself free. Now that our group has learned to recognize these wiggly sink holes, we like to test its limits by dancing or jumping across. The mud may win the game as our feet sink deeper, but it sure is entertaining!
Towards the end of the section we began following an old uranium mining road along the top of the Shinarump Conglomerate rock layer. This road led us high above the river and presented a new and welcomed perspective: an aerial view of the Dirty Devil. We could see slivers of Kayenta sandstone, vast cliffs of Wingate, and the uranium-rich Chinle Formation collectively creating the canyon walls. While looking down at the mud that we had been tromping through for days, I realized a pattern that I hadn’t noticed before. From my perch on the Shinarump I could see the river travel from the outside of one bend, across a straightaway and push against the next cutbank (outside bank). This continued as far as I could see and for as far as the Dirty Devil roams.
The river dumps sediment along the inner banks, forming high mud beds as more and more sediment is collected. Most of these inner bend mud piles are fairly dense and sturdy to walk on. Other collections of sediment dot the riverbed where the current flows more slowly. These piles vary in walking reliability depending on how much mud has gathered together. The less sediment buildup, the more likely we are to sink.
I have found that river walking awakens new muscles and causes miles to go slowly. We are fortunate to make this journey for the sake of education and enjoyment. For the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here one thousand years ago, the Dirty Devil was a means of transportation. Most likely on foot, our ancestors used the river as a reliable water source while trekking to and from other clan villages. One of the benefits of place-based learning is to be able to walk along the same river that past civilizations used as well. I wonder how the Ancestral Puebloans traveled in the Dirty Devil…did their feet (or footwear) get stuck as much as ours do?
We’ve seen old granaries and dwellings lining side canyon alcoves. The past civilizations used the river for drinking, cooking, cleaning and many other daily activities. Further evidence of these past cultures lies in the mud and washes of these canyons. We find chunks of chert that have been chipped away in hopes of forming a successful arrowhead. This must have been a very challenging task since many disregarded pieces remain.
Another example of place-based learning here in the mud of the Dirty Devil is the presence of dinosaur tracks. Just as our feet leave impressions in the jiggly and shallow muds, dinosaurs of 210 million years ago left behind their three-toed prints. These specific ones are known as Grallators. Nearby these tracks, we were able to see the desiccation cracks of ancient mud in the Chinle Formation. These cracks look exactly like those formed in drying, muddy areas today. Due to the process of weathering, this rock layer is returning to mud, the very substance that Grallators stepped in. This concept of using knowledge about the presence to infer similar information about the past is known as uniformitarianism. As we continue observing the present state of this canyon we can learn even more about kits past.
The more time we spend traveling the mud if the Dirty Devil, the more it teaches me about the geological landscape and past cultures that inhabited this area. As water levels change and time alters this canyon, the mud game lives on, and perhaps our footprints will remain for future generations to interpret. Next time you come across a patch of mud, dive in…maybe it has an interesting tale to tell.