Andersen: Waters of life and death |

Andersen: Waters of life and death

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

On June 21, my son and I looked on helplessly as the lifeless body of kayaker Jerry Young drifted with the currents of the Fryingpan River.

Tait and I had enjoyed a father-son mountain-bike ride through a glorious wildflower mosaic on the Hay Park Trail in honor of Father’s Day. We were celebrating with cold beer and nachos on the deck of the Riverside Grill in Basalt.

A woman at a nearby table called our attention to Young’s empty kayak. We stood at the railing and watched it float by.

“That’s not a good sign,” said the woman knowingly, with foreboding in her voice.

Three minutes later, Young’s body came into sight to the shock of everyone on the deck. Cellphones were dialed, and people rushed out to no avail. Fishermen pulled Young out from the eddy at the confluence with the Roaring Fork, at considerable risk to themselves. CPR was administered. Rescue personnel applied a defibrillator.

It was too late. The river had claimed its victim, a beloved man whose friends reflected in subsequent news reports on how safety-conscious he was. Lesson: Flood-stage runoff in mountain rivers is both alluring and deadly.

Still, we celebrate the roiling waters and powerful floods that resupply precious water resources for the seven Western states that depend for sustenance on the Colorado River and its many tributaries. High runoff is a good thing in the parched West, where ample water is a blessing.

Water gives life, and water takes life. There’s a yin-yang balance that ebbs and flows. Too little water is bad, and too much water is bad. Just the right amount is good. On that precarious equation we humans have built our world. No matter how many dams and diversions are installed, the natural play of water dictates the health of our lives and communities.

Aquavit is a potent liquor from Denmark that figured into my life growing up in a Danish household. Aquavit was served as a nationalistic toast at all family dinners. While I was forbidden anything but a small taste, I learned to appreciate the mythos surrounding a traditional liquor that translates as “water of life.”

The rushing rivers we see today reflect only one manifestation of this ubiquitous water of life, which we typically relate to in its liquid form. But water has equal and far greater power in crystalline transformation when water freezes into snow and ice.

Every year, water in the form of snow kills in avalanches an average of half a dozen people in Colorado. Consider the flow of rivers translated as the flow of crystals down a mountain couloir. The same gravity-driven dynamic is at work in both phenomena.

When snow is condensed under enough pressure, glaciers take water to yet another level of force and destruction. They inexorably carve away whole mountains of rock. The upper valleys of the Roaring Fork were sculpted by thousands of feet of frozen water moving slowly, grindingly, toward repose.

When the glaciers finally melted back into water, enormous hydraulic power plowed out the narrow river channels that define our river and creek beds. Their combined flows formed the Grand Canyon. Visit the Grottos on Independence Pass to witness the carving of sinuous channels through solid granite in currents that carry abrasive, grinding stones.

Follow those currents downstream to oceans and seas that cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface with evidence of the biblical flood that launched Noah’s ark and still colors the planet blue. Our bodies are more than 60 percent water, and we feel the tides in our cells.

So-called “superstorms” related to climate change — hurricanes and tornados and blizzards — are created by water in the atmosphere in the form of vapors and mists that hurl lightning and spin vortices of incredible force upon the human experience.

It all comes from water, the same water that gives us life and sustenance and recreational pleasures. The same water that ended the life of Young and reminds us of the power of ancient, limitless forces under whose ultimate authority human agency is diminished, humbled and often destroyed.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at