When he encountered the Virgin River in 1844, explorer John C. Fremont described it as "the most dreary river I have ever seen."
Indeed, many modern neighbors and passers-by see the red-chocolate stream in much the same light: a tangle of tamarisk and sand, mercurial and muddy, often lost in deep desert canyons and otherwise barely worth noticing.At least that's how Maurice Atkin once perceived it.
"I was born and raised here," said the St. George motel owner, "and I took it all for granted," the parks and the desert as well as the river. The Virgin, he said, "was the end of the world for me as a kid" - a murky, green-fringed swath then well beyond St. George's southeast border.
His great-great-grandfather, William Atkin, helped found a village called Atkinville a few miles to the south in the 1870s. "My dad always told the story of William's son, Bill, watching the river shift," undercutting the planted fields, Atkin said. In anger, the farmer declared to the destructive stream, "Some call you a Virgin, but you're a raging whore to me!"
Or so the family legend goes.
But planners and preservationists see more - much more. And in part to emphasize the river's many roles and great potential, from life-giving water resource to recreational outlet, the Grand Canyon Trust and several partners and volunteers have come up with a way to get people thinking about its links to the towns and cities along its corridor.
They call it "Expedition Virgin River."
The journey, which starts Friday, Sept. 11, entails a 15-day, 154-mile hike down the river, from its headwaters on the Markagunt Plateau, through Zion National Park and such communities as Springdale and St. George, Utah; Little-field, Ariz., and Mesquite, Nev., to the Overton Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mead.
A core troop, limited to a dozen members by national park regulations, will begin the trek; day-hikers and others will come and go. Ceremonies and programs are planned along the way: in Zion; with schoolchildren in Springdale and Littlefield; in Rockville, across the Virgin from the tenuous ghost town of Grafton.
The reasons for such an expedition are many, said program officer Lin Alder, who is also a river biologist, and program assistant Judi Flowers of the Grand Canyon Trust's St. George office.
The modern trekkers "have caught the adventurous spirit of those who came before us," Flowers said. These include the Ana-sazis and other Native Americans, 18th-century Spanish missionary-explorers Escalante and Do-min-guez (they called the river Rio Sulfurio), trailblazer Jedediah Strong Smith (he named it the Adams in 1826, for President John Quincy Adams) and pioneer peacemaker Jacob Hamblin. (The river name that stuck, Virgin, is believed to honor Thomas Virgen, a member of the Smith party who was killed by Indians.)
They hope to witness for themselves the river's scenic variety and to take note of the 360-plus species of wildlife living in and along its course, "and hundreds of plants and insects as well," she said.
There is more history to be found along the river as well - some 2 billion years of Earth's rocky past unfold along the river, noted Alder. And the successes and sacrifices of settlers are represented by the towns they founded and sometimes had to abandon or even move in times of flood.
Finally, "another reason to do this is to write our own page in history," Flowers said. "We don't know of another individual or other individuals who have done this before."
The idea for the expedition, said Bob Owens, a veteran hiker and retired circuit court judge in St. George, came out of a meeting of the trust's advisory board. The Virgin River is a primary focus of the Grand Canyon advocacy group's St. George office, and a trek like this might get people to look at the river as a single, sinuous entity.
Along its course the river passes through a patchwork of jurisdictions, Owens noted - three states, multiple counties, dozens of communities, water districts, the Park Service, the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of this, "often we don't consider the river as a whole, and we felt a need to look at that," he said.
The Virgin - basically free-flowing and undammed, though water is diverted here and there and eventually impounded in an arm of Lake Mead - is regularly cited as being among the nation's most endangered streams. Booming southwestern Utah communities have plans for its water; Las Vegas has turned a greedy eye upon it.
Proposals have been made for new reservoirs and even to build a pipeline to send Utah Colorado River allotments from Lake Powell west to Washington County. This might allow the river to retain more of its own runoff. That would be a good thing, proponents say, for endangered fish like the Virgin River chub and the woundfin minnow - not to mention thirsty Nevada - down the line.
But there is no consensus on the river's uses and fate.
"I think you'd find there's great diversity in thinking about the river," Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council, phrased it diplomatically.
With so many administrative and governmental entities involved, opinions vary widely, from stewardship to development of both the desert-scarce water and the open space along the river's shorelines. Urban encroachment is a real possibility in many places.
When outlining and publishing its goals about a year ago, Hirschi noted, the Economic Development Council included among its objectives the preservation of "critical open spaces . . . that enhance and promote the county's economy, particularly agricultural businesses," and those that contribute to the area's quality of life.
One such effort well under way is St. George's Virgin River Parkway, a system of trails and parks not unlike the Provo-Jordan River Parkway in Utah and Salt Lake counties, and in some ways even more ambitious.
Ironically, the breach of the Quail Creek Dike upstream on Jan. 1, 1989, gave the project a kick-start, said Kent Perkins, the city's Leisure Services director.
"It just wiped out a big chunk, like a 500-year storm," he said. A federal flood mitigation grant helped the city clean up some of the mess - and begin a trailhead in Bloomington. Today walkers, joggers and bikers can travel several miles along the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers on paved, well-marked trails - and by the end of 1999 more than 30 miles of trails will crisscross the city, linking neighborhoods and parks.
In Maurice Atkin's youth the rivers flowed far from the city's center. Today urban and suburban St. George has engulfed the Virgin. Businesses, homes, apartment com-plexes - and the occasional park, as at the confluence of the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers - draw near.
"We want the public to see the river as an amenity," Perkins said. "It's wild and woolly right now, but we want to create public access so we have picnicking and trails and open fields and playing areas."
Several of the Expedition Virgin River hikers hope to go the full distance, descending some 8,500 feet in elevation, mountain meadows to the Overton refuge. Alder, Owens, Atkin and Hirschi plan to be among that number.
"We scheduled this for the lowest time of the annual flow, so we'd have some sandy beaches to walk on," said Owens. But rainy weather could always present a challenge. "We've talked about putting inner tubes on our backpacks to float a ways."
The first part of the journey, through Deep Creek Canyon into the Zion Narrows, is expected to be the toughest. The Deep Creek drain-age was chosen over the more traditional North Fork of the Virgin because it starts higher and actually contributes more to the river's flow. The Virgin's East Fork was out of the question because the Park Service has closed part of it to public use.
Both Owens and Hirschi noted that negotiating the Narrows has been described as being like "walking on greased bowling balls." But currents, quicksand, rocks, holes and the weather will surely offer other surprises all along the route.
Although a marathon runner, Atkin admits that he hasn't tested the river's waters much.
"I'm a Virgin River virgin," he said.
Hirschi, whose family has been in Washington County for five generations, knows the trek will be a challenge, "but I believe it's worth it."
In the 1950s, he said, his mother participated in a horseback journey over Utah Hill - the old U.S. 91 highway route - and up the Virgin River Gorge on the Arizona Strip, then a wild place, now a tight canyon shared and often usurped by I-15.
He envies her that memory - but hopes to have a story of his own to tell, about a 150-mile-plus journey down the Virgin.
"I think the day will come when I'll be talking to someone and they'll say, `Boy, I wish I could go back and walk the river with you,' " Hirschi said. "That's why I'm excited - who knows what the future may bring for the river. Hopefully good things, but who can predict?"