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Shattering the Solitude

10.09.2006 | ENVIRONMENT

My brain rejected the image relayed by my eyes. We had just entered Blue Canyon on the Lower Salmon River, bounced through the first set of roller coaster rapids, and were quietly drifting through a calm stretch with acoustics and beauty that match any cathedral on the planet. And like entering a cathedral, people lowered their voices to a whisper -- if they spoke at all. As we rounded the bend approaching our favorite, secret camp, I glimpsed the rotor blades of a helicopter before the image disappeared behind an outcrop. Like a dog that sniffs the air to verify what she sees, I listened for a sound that might confirm what I knew I couldn't have seen.

Yet, seconds later, as the beach came into full view, so did the helicopter. The only time I'd ever been on a trip where our special camp was already occupied wasn't even another river party but a group of five in a helicopter. Moments after we floated by to find another place to camp, the pilot fired it up, filling the canyon with the whine of the engine and shattering the silence with the wop wop wop of the rotor blades.

On another occasion, I was guiding a co-ed group of high school students from Santa Monica, California, on a five-day canoe trip through Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. The kids were so involved in social interactions that they seemed oblivious to the surroundings. The chatter began the moment they awoke and didn't cease until the last one fell asleep at night.

On day two we stopped at Trin Alcove to hike to an amphitheater. Weary of the incessant talking, I lingered behind. I had issued myself a challenge. I pulled out my recorder -- the flute-like instrument, not the electronic kind for playing tapes -- and played Beethoven's Ode to Joy. I paused to listen. Then, I played another song. Now, the voices were muted and they seemed to be trying to figure out where the music was coming from. One more song and without any prompting, a couple of dozen high school kids fell absolutely silent. For another 15 minutes I played with lengthy pauses between songs and heard only silence from the alcove.

As the kids began to file back down the canyon, speaking in hushed tones, many of them still had no idea where the music originated until they saw me holding my recorder. One boy who had probably never been beyond the constant din of urban motor vehicle traffic in his life walked up, reached out to me and said, "I just want to shake your hand. That's the most incredible thing I've ever heard."

The last night of the trip, each kid took a turn describing his or her experiences the past four days. Some of them spoke with more eloquence, wisdom, and insight than I've ever heard in 30 seasons of guiding river trips in Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and the Grand Canyon.

The same boy who shook my hand at Trin Alcove spoke about how profoundly moved he was by the incredible silence of the canyons and the music that seemed to emanate from the canyon walls. He spoke about how violated he felt by the noise of a solitary motorcycle roaring up and down a dirt road paralleling the river as we floated between Hey Joe and Spring Canyons. He could see himself riding such a motorcycle at home in the city, proclaiming to everyone within earshot how "cool" he was. Now, the irritating whine of one motorcycle echoing off the canyon walls drove him to anger bordering on rage. He likened it to listening to a chainsaw in a cathedral.

As we parted ways at the end of the trip, it was my turn to shake his hand for his profound commentary. Yet, what he said that night was not a rare reaction to the incredible silence of the canyons. It's a common refrain. Others may not state it so eloquently, but for almost 30 years, I've heard people speak as frequently about the sounds as they do of the stunning scenery. Many are amazed when they can hear a conversation one-quarter mile away. And, they express their dismay when motorcycles, ATVs, jet boats, and helicopters shatter the solitude.

My adopted state of Utah was one of the first to recognize and protect its citizens from the harmful effects of second hand cigarette smoke with the Clean Indoor Air Act. Similarly, the harmful effects of "second hand" noise are well known and well documented. Noise increases stress, which contributes to hypertension and a host of related maladies. The healing effects of soothing sounds are also well documented. Medical studies show that patients who listen to soothing music immediately prior to surgery recover faster and better than those who receive the same pre-operative care without music. Students who listen to classical music before an exam score better than those in a control group.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of sound. Movie producers literally set the tone for a movie with the sound track. Simply by changing the background music, the same scene can be light-hearted, dramatic, or suspenseful. Nearly everyone recognizes the irritation of a dog that won't stop barking, a screaming baby in a movie theater, or the racket from machinery of a nearby construction zone. We expect to leave those nuisances behind when we venture into the backcountry.

It's good public policy and plain common sense that activities that create the greatest public nuisance and health hazard face the greatest restrictions. Smoking is prohibited in work place environments, restaurants, airports, enclosed public places, and even some outdoor public places for these reasons. Cities, campgrounds, and other public places regulate noise. Congress even passed a law restricting overflights of the Grand Canyon to protect the "natural quiet." One of the most common reasons people call the police is to complain about a noisy neighbor.

I've never heard anyone complain about the appearance of a helicopter flying overhead in the Grand Canyon. Sometimes with an almost detached amusement, people comment about how out of place a jet boat looks crammed with a couple of dozen people whisking past on the Snake River. But, the one thing that universally irritates everyone, the one thing that only a deaf person can ignore, is the crescendo of noise that drowns out the sounds of birds and cicadas and gurgling water until it fades into the distance and the sounds of the canyon return to fill the void.

At any given time in mid-summer, a couple of dozen groups comprised of several hundred people might be floating the Lower Salmon River, separated from each other by days and miles and scarcely aware of each other's presence, sometimes even floating past another group in camp unnoticed. By contrast, a single jet boat with just a couple of people can roar past and leave behind its unwelcome audio imprint upon literally hundreds of people within a matter of hours.

Whenever federal land management agencies raise the possibility of restricting motorized use, whether it's overflights in the Grand Canyon, snowmobiles in Yellowstone, jet boats in Hell's Canyon, or off-road vehicles just about anywhere, groups representing these motorized users make almost as much noise in the halls of the land management agencies as they do in the backcountry. Invariably, they argue for shared "multiple" use, equal access for everyone, and claim to bring economic benefits to surrounding communities. These arguments are appealing because they are clear and simple.

One acre of an interstate highway can handle about 30 to 40 strictly regulated cars. By contrast, an acre of bike lane can accommodate hundreds of attentive bicyclists, and an acre of sidewalk can handle more than a couple thousand wandering pedestrians. Whether in the city or in the backcountry, the faster someone moves, the more space they "occupy." Where it's unregulated, motorized use literally drives away non-motorized use as the few expel the many, and the concept of multiple-use allows the achievement of the lowest common denominator.

Ironically, the failure to restrict motorized use probably has a greater negative economic impact on surrounding communities. When California banned smoking in bars, bar owners anticipated significant loss of business, but found that business actually increased. Just as responsible smokers can appreciate smoke-free environments as much as non-smokers, responsible motorized boat and vehicle operators appreciate places where they can enjoy quiet and solitude.

We can build more cathedrals, but as the late Dave Brower commented, we can't make another Stanislaus River or another Grand Canyon. We ought to treat these places with at least the same respect and reverence that we treat a cathedral.

About the Author
Pete Gross lives in Moab, Utah where he seeks quiet and solitude in the surrounding canyon country with his border collie/lab mix who tries to teach him to quiet the noise in his head.
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