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 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.
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.
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 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.