LITTLE COLORADO RIVER

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The turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River (lower right of photo) meets the green Colorado River (center), framed by the Tapeats Sandstone (bottom), sloping Bright Angel Shale, and Muav Limestone rock layers. The distinct color of the Little Colorado River is a product of calcium carbonate and copper sulfate minerals in the water.

Photo: National Park Service

Many modern day journeys down the Colorado River start (or put-in using river runner lingo) at Lee’s Ferry also known as Mile 0. As river parties bump, bob, and heave and hurl downstream the river miles add up. In a world of varying water flows, erosional forces strong enough to tumble raft-size boulders from nearby canyons forming pulse-quickening rapids, and daily fluctuations in temperatures from sweaty hot to shivering cold, change is no stranger to the Grand Canyon. River runners can count on one thing, though. It’s hard to get lost on a river, a one-way street of water. So, they and the hydrogeologists, ecologists, biologists, and geomorpholoigsts who monitor the river corridor use a simple mile system akin to highway mileage markers to note the river’s 277-mile path through Grand Canyon National Park.

At river mile 61.7 the Little Colorado River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, marks the terminus of Marble Canyon and the beginning of the central Grand Canyon. The tragic airline collision of 1956 occurred near this confluence.

When the Little Colorado River (LCR) is not in flood stage, this milky blue stream contrasts dramatically with the green-brown waters of the larger Colorado River. The confluence is more than just water moving downhill. It is a crossroads of nature, history, and culture.

Tucked into a small cliff of Tapeats Sandstone on the south side of the Little Colorado River, there is a small stone cabin. Part cliff (back wall and part of the ceiling) part human construction, the stone “cabin” that Ben Beamer occupied starting in 1890 was a hybrid structure that took the Ancient Puebloan ruin that he found near the confluence of the Little Colorado River and Colorado River and then remodeled to suit his needs.

Beamer, like many early Grand Canyon miners, sought gold and silver deposits but found copper and asbestos more plentiful. Indeed, asbestos mined from the Grand Canyon was an important resource for its day. Used as a fire retardant, for example, it was used in theater curtains across the United States and as far away as London (Anderson 2008).

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Beamer’s cabin tucked into the cliff near the Little Colorado River (seen during low water) in 1955. Although off limits to hikers and river rafters, Ben Beamer’s cabin may still be seen today along the south bank of the Little Colorado River.

Photo: Cline Library, NAU.PH.97.46.47.9

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This plow, found near cabin at the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River may have been used by Ben Beamer to farm near his homestead. (1932 image)

Photo: Cline Library, NAU.PH.95.48.654

Beamer prospected for mineral deposits along the cliffs and side canyons of the river corridor and, following in the footsteps of Ancient Puebloan predecessors, pursued some small scale farming along the bench adjacent to his cabin. Compared to other parts of the Grand Canyon, only a handful of prospectors and miners set up claims in the southeast section of the canyon, an area where pioneers were kept at bay by meager mineral deposits, a lack of European-American settlement, and a deeply entrenched, active Hopi-Navajo cultural sphere. Mormon settlers shifted this human matrix in the southeast canyon as they moved from Utah into the canyon and downstream from Lees Ferry while non-Mormon miners and ranchers shifted northward into the area by the 1870s (Anderson 1998, 53-55).

Beamer may not have had a large impact on mining claims in the Grand Canyon; however he did help to create a lasting trail network in this vicinity. Beamer hammered a trail out of the coarse grained Tapeats Sandstone that follows closely along the southeast side of the Colorado River connecting his cabin to Palisades Creek and then on to Tanner Trail. The trail became part of a larger network of trails known as “Horsethief trail” since it was frequently used by more nefarious canyon residents who stole their four-legged freight from south rim outposts then drove them down the canyon along the Tanner and Beamer trails, re-branding the animals while in transit. They repeated their trade network in the opposite direction after emerging from the canyon on the northern side near the Arizona Strip where they sold the animals to Mormon pioneers then collected new horses from their unsuspecting recent customers to drive into the canyon and sell on the southern side. The trail is still in use today.

Of all the sensations that you may associate with the Grand Canyon, taste is probably not one of them. But salt is an important part of Grand Canyon’s natural and cultural history. Hopi peoples actively sought out and transported salt from what later became known as the Hopi Salt Trail along this stretch of the Colorado River near the confluence with the Little Colorado River. The salts are clues to the geologic history embedded in the Grand Canyon. Tapeats Sandstone cliffs—200 feet thick in some sections—are marked by white deposits of salt, the dried deposits of the Tapeats Sea from 550 million years ago. Hopis sought out this valuable addition to their diet found deep in the canyon’s depths. One of the Hopis' sacred sites—the Sipapu—is located nearby the confluence as well.

The confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers is also a rare habitat for endangered fish species. After the completion of Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River environment changed dramatically. One of the indicators of this change is the cool green water that now flows out of the dam; a marked difference from the warm silt laden waters that were a hallmark of the Colorado River from Powell’s historic voyage until the dam was opened in 1965.

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The turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River (foreground) mark the way along the hike to the Hopi sacred site known as the Sipapu. (1971-1974)

Photo: Cline Library, NAU.PH.2004.8.2.31e.18

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Prior to the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, the humpback chub, a native fish to the Colorado River system, lived throughout the Colorado River system in Arizona and Utah. However, this species was added to the endangered species list in 1967, after the completion of Glen Canyon Dam. The largest remnant population of humpback chub now survives near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado River.

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

The change in the river also created an opportunity for many exotic species that could not have survived in the river before the dam. Exotic fish species such as trout, catfish, carp and minnow compete with native species for food and habitat and at times eat the young native fish species such as humpback chub (AZ Fish and Game; Carothers and Brown 1991, 93-97).

Grand Canyon pioneers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb recorded the earliest written description of the humpback chub in 1911 while they camped near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado River:

“Then Emery discovered what it was. On the opposite side of the pool the fins and tails of numerous fish could be seen above the water. The striking of their tails has caused [sic] the noise we had heard. The “bony tail” were spawning….The Colorado is full of them; so are the many other muddy streams of the Southwest. They seldom exceed 16 inches in length, and are silvery white in color. With a small flat head somewhat like a pike, the body swells behind it to a large hump. (quoted in Carothers and Brown 1991, 93).

Managing native and exotic species in the Grand Canyon is a full time job for the National Park Service. It is a complex task that has changed as ecological theory and knowledge has evolved and now requires the cooperation of several agencies including the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Park Service once stocked game fish such as rainbow and brook trout in the Colorado River at Grand Canyon National Park, although this practice has been phased out and relocated to Lake Mead. One goal of the contemporary fishery management program is the protection of native fish species to increase their numbers. Although the cool brilliant blue waters of the Little Colorado River may look inviting, they are off limits to swimming and boating from March to November and off limits to fishing (since 1978) all times of the year to protect the native humpback chub. (Carothers and Brown 1991, 93-97).


written by yolonda youngs


References:

  • Anderson, Michael. 1998. Living at the edge: Explorers, exploiters and settlers of the Grand Canyon region. Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon Association.
  • Arizona Fish and Wildlife Service. “Preserving Humpback Chub from Extinction”
    Available at: http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/research_PreserveHumpback.shtml
  • Carothers, S. and Brown, B. 1991. The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon:
  • Natural History and Human Change. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
  • Martin, T. and Whitis, D. 2007. Guide to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon: Lees Ferry to South Cove. Third Edition. Vishnu Temple Press, Flagstaff, Arizona.
  • Whitney, S. 1982. A Field Guide to the Grand Canyon. New York: Quill.