The first man to explore the Grand Canyon didn’t think much of it. If only he could see it now.

In 1858, Lieutenant Ives took a 50 ft. steel steamboat, christened the Explorer, and steamed up the Colorado River.

The journey was difficult and the poor Explorer kept running aground, but eventually Lieutenant Ives made it into the Grand Canyon.

He explored the area on foot and eventually commented, “This region can only be approached from the South, and after entering it there is nothing to do but to leave. Ours has been the first, and no doubt the last party of whites, to visit this profitless locality.”

Well, Lieutenant Ives couldn’t have known that years later over 4 million people would be visiting his profitless locality each year.

The Grand Canyon warps physical dimensions. The early Spanish explorers looked down from its rim and initially guessed the Colorado River was but a stream easily jumped across. They sent scouts down to find passage and the scouts returned complaining that what seemed like simple obstacles from above turned out to be 500-foot buttes and cliffs up close.

Sound falls away forever at the canyon. Speak and your voice flutters over the chasm and then disappears over the edge, disappearing into millions of years.

The South Rim, the most visited part, is at 7000 feet in elevation. The North Rim is at 8000 feet elevation. The river itself is over a mile below. The whole gorge is over 277 miles long and the width varies from eight to sixteen miles. Inside are other canyons that branch out from the main canyon. Any number of these canyons is awe-inspiring by themselves.

There are mountains inside the Grand Canyon that rival many of the mountains in the eastern United States. In fact, you could set the highest point east of the Mississippi, Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, into the Grand Canyon and have no more than a thousand feet or so stick up above the North Rim.

The sheer volume of the canyon is mind-boggling. Sometime ago, Marilyn vos Savant, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Highest IQ,” theorized that even with the 125 million tons of landfill waste generated yearly in the U.S., it would take over 25 thousand years to fill the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is the result of a bulge in the Colorado Plateau. Over millions of years the plateau kept uplifting and the river kept cutting. The canyon formed over the last 6 million years, but the range in age of the exposed rock is from 260 million years to 1.8 billion years. Scientists who study this geographical wonder keep coming up with different creation theories.

The best description, if it is at all possible to describe the Grand Canyon, came from John Wesley Powell. He called it, “a great canyon of multiple canyons, a thousand Yosemites, filled with vast amphitheaters, chambers, gables, and spires, all of it coursed through by a wild and mighty river.”

There is an ongoing debate over how best to manage the Grand Canyon. Because of the Glen Canyon Dam, the natural ecology of the river is being affected.

Dams have a unique effect on river water. Normally, a river like the Colorado will experience seasonal water temperatures from near freezing to 80 degrees. A large dam such as the Glen Canyon Dam, however, releases downstream water from 200 feet beneath the surface of the huge lake it holds back.

This water is a constant 47 degrees. Fish species, conditioned over thousands of years to seasonal temperature fluctuations, have their reproductive cycles disrupted. Four out of the eight native fish of the Grand Canyon have disappeared for this reason.

The dam has also eliminated the seasonal flooding that used to occur, and now foreign plant and animal species, such as the salt cedar and trout, have adapted to the canyon. These foreign species are crowding out the native plants and fish that still survive.

The river itself is suffering from bank depletion since much of the sand and silt normally carried downstream now backs up behind the dam. River otters and muskrats have also disappeared.

Over $200 million has been spent studying the problem, with no single answer appeasing the various groups involved. Meanwhile, studies suggest the canyon is going through significant changes that may not be reversible.

As a footnote to history, the poor steamship Explorer ended up buried in the mud of the Colorado delta, where it was found and identified in 1931.

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