‘Sibley’s Rivers’ should not be taken to imply any kind of ownership of any river, either real (as in ‘real estate’) or managerial or intellectual ownership. I am just a guy who writes about rivers from a variety of perspectives, with a lot of focus on one river: the Colorado River, my ‘home river’ for the past six decades. Ultimately I am more interested in the watersheds that a river runs through than in the river itself – the river, really, being mostly the surface flow of water a watershed cannot figure out how to capture and use. The watershed is where all the action is – the history, the complex hydrology, the mythology...
But now a word about myself, for you to decide whether we share enough for you to give up an occasional hour of your time for a virtual exchange.
I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, in May 1941, to John and Delphine Sibley, both Colorado natives, who relocated to Pennsylvania for an employment opportunity with George in utero. Because I was conceived in Colorado but born in Pennsylvania, I grant myself dual citizenship in both of those very different places.
Franklin was then an industrial, mostly working-class town of 10,000 in the valley of the Allegheny River, which collects its waters from the west slopes of the Allegheny Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain. It is a mark of the difference between the humid East and the arid West to note that the Allegheny River and the Colorado River have roughly equal flows – around 14 million acre-feet of water a year. But the Allegheny basin is 11,700 square miles, while the Colorado basin is 145,000 square miles.
Franklin is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and one of its principal tributaries, French Creek, whose upper tributaries were an easy portage from Lake Erie: thus it became a highway for the French invaders who had a mad vision of laying claim to the Ohio River Basin and Lower Mississippi River, to link their Canadian settlements with their Louisiana settlements, and presumably fill in the middle. The first Euro-American structure in Franklin was a French fort.
The city received most of its growth – and some impressive architecture – in the last half of the 19th century, when Col. Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well a few miles north of Franklin, launching the world on the ‘Petroleum Interval,’ whose end we now contemplate with disbelief and pain. Oil Creek, the chaotic center of that first oil boom, was eight miles upstream from Franklin, but Franklin enjoyed the prosperity too. When the oil industry moved on to Texas around the turn of the century, Franklin kept a few small refineries alive, but also attracted some heavy industry: Joy Manufacturing Company, which revolutionized the coal-mining industry with machinery my father was hired to help design, and a division of Chicago Pneumatic Tools. Thus did my hometown contribute significantly to the development of the fossil fuels that have brought us to something of a cultural Armageddon today.
I graduated from Rocky Grove High School, in a bedroom community adjacent to Franklin, in 1959, and – inspired by the push for scientists and engineers after Russia’s Sputnik One (and also by an attractive high school math teacher) – I entered Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh as a mathematics major. After 2-1/2 years of stumbling and fumbling in advanced math courses, I learned the life lesson that ‘can-do’ will, desire and confidence do not always make up for a lack of innate talent and intuition, and I transferred to the University of Pittsburgh and finished my higher education studying English Literature, a traditional home for romantic lost souls.
I returned to my Colorado roots after graduation, to put in my active duty time as a Reserve Intelligence Officer. I had requested assignment to Ft. Carson, south of Colorado Springs – probably the first time anyone had ever actually requested assignment there. It did not work out well; a somewhat disorderly falling-out over Vietnam resulted in a general discharge from the Army, and I headed for the mountains to ski and disappear from the urban-industrial civilization I had ceased to understand. I found myself – more or less literally – in Crested Butte on the West Slope of the Southern Rockies, high (also frequently literally) in the headwaters of the Colorado River Basin – a fact about which I remained blissfully unaware for an unseemly time.
I had the good luck to land a job on the Ski Patrol of Crested Butte’s struggling young ski resort, and fell in love with the place, which seemed to be about as hapless as I seemed to be. After three years on the Patrol, I invested in a local newspaper, the Crested Butte Chronicle, which I published, edited, and did most of the writing for, for 3-1/2 years. I eventually realized that I wasn’t doing the newspaper to report the news, of which there wasn’t much, but to generate interest locally in things that could or should happen that would be a lot more fun to report – community development basically. A strategy with potential, but I was a terrible businessman; I realized I wanted to write but didn’t want to sell ads or run a newspaper, so sold the newspaper in 1971 and made a commitment to writing – which basically meant a commitment to writing around and between a random career of seasonal jobs and pickup work.
I and my wife Barbara, a wood artist, and our eight-month-old son retreated that winter to a caretaking job for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, four miles by ski beyond the end of the plowed road, to work on our respective disciplines. We did that for four winters, adding a daughter to the family our last year there. We then moved back to civilization, to Gunnison downvalley from Crested Butte, to ‘socialize’ the kids – and ourselves. A move whose wisdom or lack of continues to haunt me.
Barbara and I spent the next two decades-plus continuing to attempt some measure of success with our artistic endeavors, occasionally succeeding briefly, but always with one or the other or both of us engaged in ‘outside work’ to sustain the family. During those Gunnison years, I worked construction seasonally and served on a forest-fire ‘hotshot’ crew. Without ever dropping to the welfare stage, we were living poor; niceties like health insurance were an impossible dream, but we only had two significant health issues, both resolved with negotiations and small payments over time.
In 1978, through a strange set of connections, I got invited to run a small sawmill over in the Crystal Creek valley, a few hundred yards from the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River – an attractive offer because the sawmill owner, a rancher and a true wild man, only wanted to operate it summers and autumns, but had a spare house there we could use year round – perfect for buying writing time.
As a lover of trees and also a lover of a good board from my construction years, running the saw in that mill was the most fully engaging and responsible work I have ever done – learning how to ‘read’ a log, understand its traumas, and get the best possible boards out of it.
Not to brag, but I got good at it, and a lot of people wanted our lumber, so the rancher decided to start running it year round, which eliminated the writing time, so we left and moved down to the ranching town of Crawford in the Smith Fork valley, where it was back to construction work, and a part-time job as librarian for the Crawford Public Library.
And of course still writing. During the 1970s I wrote extensively and intensely for the Mountain Gazette, a regional publication out of Denver that fit my semi-civilized spirit. The end of the winter caretaking experience yielded a four-part series in the Gazette that was subsequently published in book form by a subsidiary of Crown Publishing as Part of a Winter, my first commercially unsuccessful book, which nonetheless continues to have a small but dedicated readership.
Another significant writing achievement in that period was a long essay for Harper’s magazine in 1977, a very dry year for the West in which the driest quadrant by nature, the Colorado River Basin, suffered least. Research for that essay (‘The Desert Empire,’ Oct. 1977) introduced me to the Colorado River, in the headwaters of which I had unconsciously lived for more than a decade; it launched what would appear to be a lifelong engagement. I also wrote articles for High Country News and a number of other random publications as diverse as True West, Technology Illustrated and New Age Journal.
In 1984 we left the West Slope and moved to Ft. Collins, where we both entered Master’s programs to try to make ourselves more marketable, Barbara in Art Education, me in Community and Adult Education, to see if there might not be a career in the kind of community involvements I couldn’t seem to stay out of. The economic stress of those two decades, coupled with the social stress for two kids having to grow up well outside the material propaganda of the television families (remember when Bill Cosby was America’s ideal father?), exhausted Barbara’s and my relationship, and we separated in 1989.
In 1988, at about the lowest point of my life, I got the opportunity to return to the Upper Gunnison River valley, for a one-year appointment at Western State College teaching in a new interdisciplinary program that regular ‘siloed’ faculty wanted nothing to do with. With one foot in the door, I noted that the college was also charged by the state to become more integrated in its region, and I drafted some ideas for that which intrigued college administrators enough to try some of them; I became the college’s first (and thus far only) ‘Director of Special Projects.’
‘Special Projects’ gradually came to include an annual cross-cultural regional Headwaters Conference (now in its 32nd year), an annual Environmental Symposium, the development of a Regional Studies Program (which was quickly folded into the college’s new Environmental Studies major). I also taught half-time, with classes in Journalism, Environmental Studies and an occasional American Literature course.
During this period, I formed a close relationship with Maryo Gard Ewell, an arts administrator for the Colorado Council on the Arts and a friend since the mid-1980s. We married in 2005 when Maryo retired from the Arts Council and moved fulltime to Gunnison. Not one to live in my shadow, she has made herself a vital part of the Gunnison community through, first, the Gunnison Arts Center board, and now as Director of Community Impact for the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley.
In 2002, I inherited the college’s long-standing Colorado Water Workshop as another Special Project, a conference bringing together water leaders from across the West to contemplate and discuss western water issues. Planning these conferences, from a position of relative ignorance – usually around issues I wanted to learn more about – became a basic water education in itself.
I continued to write through the Western period, primarily essays. I wrote regularly for Sandy Fails’ biannual Crested Butte Magazine, and he began writing a regular column for Colorado Central, a monthly ‘headwaters’ journal begun in the mid-1990s by Ed and Martha Quillen of Salida about the Upper Arkansas, Gunnison and Rio Grande watersheds – basically the ‘Headwaters’ region. The revival of the Mountain Gazette by John Fayhee and George Stranahan in 2000 gave me a psychological jolt of inspiration. In 2004 the Gazette printed a collection of my essays, mostly from the Gazette and Colorado Central, under the title Dragons in Paradise. This became my second commercially unsuccessful book, but with a small dedicated readership.
I retired from Western State College in 2007, but continued to be involved in water issues, especially involving the Colorado River. I was a member of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable that participated in the development of the Colorado Water Plan adopted in 2015, an effort to plan for anticipated shortages of water by mid-century. I was also a member of the board of the local Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all the watersheds that flow into Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Also in 2007, Maryo and I began spending our Octobers in Wisconsin, her home state and still somewhat home of her heart. We lucked into the opportunity to rent a largish cabin right on the Lower Wisconsin River – another river, like the Allegheny, essentially built by the glaciers and the Great Lakes phenomenon – its direction was reversed by the Big Ice eons ago. It is now a protected State Natural Area.
In 2010, hearing that the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs wanted to have a history written of their organization’s first 75 years, George put in a successful bid to write that history. Over the course of the next two years I produced a 400-page history, Water Wranglers, chronicling the development of Colorado’s share of the Colorado River. This was well reviewed, but became my third commercially unsuccessful book, with a small but dedicated readership.
When I turned 80 in 2021, I resigned from the Upper Gunnison Conservancy board, believing that when you are 80, life is growing too short to be spent in meetings. I have more writing to do – not because the world necessarily wants it, but because what else would I do? Much of what’s to come here will reflect my ongoing efforts to stimulate regional thinking, dialogue and, I hope, eventually, gods help us, action in the ‘headwaters’ on the climate crisis and its water-related challenges, which have implications reaching far beyond the local region. This website will carry most of that work.
Hope to hear from you – especially when you disagree with something herein!