Grand Canyon: Bigger Than Life

A new IMAX film captures the experience of rafting the Grand Canyon while illustrating the threats facing this fragile landscape.


By Scott Kirkwood


The Grand Canyon is one of the icons of the National Park System, and the Colorado River, which flows through it, is also a chief source of water for much of the country. Unfortunately, a growing demand for food and water and a severe drought in recent years have taken a toll on the river, leaving an impact on the canyon. And things aren’t expected to improve anytime soon. A February report issued by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography calculates a 10 percent chance that Lake Mead will run dry in six years and a 50 percent chance it will be gone by 2021, unless some serious changes take place. To address these serious issues, director Greg MacGillivray arranged for environmental activist Robert Kennedy and anthropologist Wade Davis to raft down the Colorado with their daughters in a journey that was captured by IMAX cameras. “Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk” debuted in New York and Washington in March, and will open in other cities this spring. National Parks editor-in-chief Scott Kirkwood spoke with MacGillivray, Kennedy, and Davis about this stunning film, which tells a crucial story about a changing ecosystem.

NP: What led you to participate in the film?

GM: I have a unique situation in that my company produces IMAX films that have been pretty successful, and that’s given me a chance to do films that I care about. I have a mission to do ten films about water conservation—seawater and fresh water—and it became apparent to me about four years ago that as the world water crisis continues to grow, this issue is going to become more and more important. But people don’t want to see movies that just depress them, so I realized I had to tell a story. We picked the Colorado River because it flows through the Grand Canyon and as you go down through the layers of the canyon, the river itself tells an interesting story.

RK: The chance to do whitewater rafting on the gold-medal whitewater river in the world was a big draw for me. I hadn’t been in the Grand Canyon since I was a child and I floated the Colorado with my father, so that alone was enough to get me to participate. And I had the opportunity to do it with my daughter just before she went off to college, while spreading a message about water conservation to 15 to 25 million people.

NP: What’s so special about rivers?

RK: I spent so much time in rivers when I was growing up. We had a creek near our house where I spent every spare moment turning over rocks, finding salamanders and catching fish…Rivers are the most important feature of any terrestrial land mass because the river not only defines the geology, but it also defines the biology—dictating what lives there, what plants will grow, and what animals can function. Rivers also dictate the culture of a watershed. You couldn’t have had a Mark Twain without the Mississippi. You couldn’t have had a Jack London with out the Columbia and the Yukon. You couldn’t have had a Washington Irving without the Hudson, or F. Scott Fitzgerald without Long Island Sound. Rivers define where our cities are—they dictate every essential aspect of the human community, so to me they’re fascinating, friendly, amazing places, and I just them love them.

NP: What was it like experiencing the trip with the Indian guide, Shana Watahomigie?

WD: To me, being with Shana was everything. One of the things about our culture is we always see a landscape and immediately think about how we can change it, but Native Americans believe that these places are sacred. The Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai… their ideology is in direct contrast to those who settled the West. The Mormon ideology, for instance, was all about finding their own Zion, and transforming the land, finding an impossible desert landscape where they could work miracles. But if you look at the Grand Canyon from space, you see the reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, but you still don’t see anything green. So after compromising all these rivers, we haven’t actually created Zion, and that’s exactly what John Wesley Powell warned us about when he first rafted the river so many years ago. The Havasupai Indians and so many other tribes have been in North America for such a long time compared to our culture, and its industrial obsession that has lasted for 250 years now. Shana told me at one point, “When all this is gone, we will still be here, gardening, planting our corn” and I think she’s probably right.

RK: Whitewater gives you the opportunity to challenge nature, to wrestle with it in its most primal atomistic form without destroying it, and that experience connects us to the 10,000 generations of human beings who lived before there were laptops, who were struggling with nature for their daily survival. Shana’s people lived in that river valley for thousands of years, and to be connected to their experience was an important feature of the trip. It’s an experience that connects us to the divine. God talks to us through many vectors, through each other, through organized religion, through music, art, and literature, but nowhere with such clarity and texture, force, grace, and joy as through creation. We don’t know Michelangelo by reading his biography, we know him by looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and we know our creator best by immersing ourselves in creation.

NP: What do you hope people will do after seeing this film?

RK: I hope they walk away with the understanding that

we’re not just protecting nature for the fish and the birds; we’re protecting it for our own sake, because we recognize it’s the infrastructure of our communities. If we want to provide our children with the same opportunities for dignity and enrichment and prosperity and health that our parents gave us, we’ve got to start by protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the rivers and public parks and landscapes that connect us to our past, and that ultimately are the source of our values and virtues as people. Our nation’s single most iconic monument is the Grand Canyon, and the fact that we’ve turned it into a plumbing conduit between two of the biggest reservoirs in the West is an insult to our nation in the name of short term profits. People need to walk away with an understanding that this is something we own and it’s being absolutely and hideously misused.

GM: The point of the film is to get people to look at the glass of water in front of them or take a shower and think about where that water is coming from.

WD: If we’re going to do anything about the subject of water conservation in our lives, we need to recognize that we’ll never change the impact we have on nature until we start looking at the architecture of our own lives. Every time you want to look at your ecological footprint, you should ask yourself: Why are we eating strawberries in December? If you go to a grocery store anywhere in North American between November and March, there’s a 90 percent chance that any food you’re eating comes from the Colorado River. We all drink from the Colorado River every day of our lives. All of our winter vegetables like squash, zucchini, our fruits, our herbs, every carrot—it all comes from this one source. Talk about the fragility of civilization… What would happen to America without the Colorado River?

This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue.

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