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Protect Our Parks

Confluence – A Musical Journey Along the Colorado River

The Infamous Flapjack Affair, an indie-folk band of four Oxford grads, journeyed on the Colorado River through national parks, making music as they went.

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Four Musicians Set Out to Bring Awareness to the Environment through Music

A confluence is the convergence of two rivers or streams into one. It is also, fittingly, the name of the environmental project taken on by the band, Infamous Flapjack Affair.

The band, which was formed while its members were graduate students at Oxford University, went on a three-week-long tour in the fall of 2016 to national parks along the Colorado River Basin. Filling canyons and forests with the sound of their music, the band hopes to call attention to the environmental issues impacting the Colorado River.

Starting at the Grand Canyon band members Benjamin Barron, David Carel, James Mitchell and Sara Noyce traveled along the Colorado River to the headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, stopping at other parks in Utah and Colorado along the way.

“By the time we had all graduated, it was the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service,” says Barron, the banjoist and vocalist for Infamous Flapjack Affair. “We were all moving out into the world and looking for ways to both keep the band active and take a crack at making more than just music.”

The resulting project was the confluence of music and environmental activism. The park tour was filmed and will be edited into a documentary by National Park Experience. The Colorado River Basin, a complex water system with many stakeholders, was the element around which their project revolved.

The Colorado River is a Critical Water Source

“Depending on how you count them, there are 11 to 16 national park units that rely on the Colorado River system, and we really struggle to make that case in a way that inspires action,” says Vanessa Mazal, Colorado program manager for National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the band’s nonprofit partner.

The Infamouse Flapjack Affair band making music at Shoshone Point in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Dana Romanoff
The Infamouse Flapjack Affair band making music at Shoshone Point in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Dana Romanoff

NPCA’s role in the Confluence project has involved framing the issues around the Colorado River and helping steer the band towards important issues to investigate.

The Colorado River Basin sustains more than 33 million people across seven different states and Mexico, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. It is regulated under the ‘Law of the River,’ a collection of laws and contracts that allocates the use of the river’s water. However, some argue the ‘Law of the River’ is outdated, unsustainable, and demands more than what the river can supply.

The hope is that the Confluence documentary will inspire conversation on these issues.

“The Colorado River is often referred to as one of the most endangered rivers in the world because of the way that life in the American Southwest has been built over the last many, many decades,” says David Carel, mandolinist and guitarist. “Demands on that water supply have already grown astronomically and will continue to.”

The disproportion between supply and demand is a result of population growth and climate change, argues the Environmental Defense Fund. More people living in the West means increased demand for water from the Colorado River, and as climate change causes a hotter and drier West, water flow in the Colorado River Basin decreases, the organization says.

The Dam Ecosystem

The Infamous Flapjack Affair band playing at the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo by Amy Marquis
The Infamous Flapjack Affair band playing at the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo by Amy Marquis

In addition to concerns about the quantity of water in the Colorado River, the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams that bookend the river upstream and downstream of the Grand Canyon have proved damaging to Grand Canyon National Park’s river ecosystem.

“The band started at the Grand Canyon because it is the second most visited park in the country, and certainly the most iconic park whose future is dependent upon the future of the river system,” Mazal says.

Conservation efforts concerning the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are focused on managing the Glen Canyon Dam, which accommodates the needs of nearby cities and farms by storing water and producing hydroelectric power.

But Glen Canyon Dam blocks sediments and nutrients from the Colorado River endangering native fish species. It prevents seasonal floods that flush the river of debris, destroys hospitable habitats for invasive fish and distributes native vegetation. It also lowers the river temperature since water is released from the dam’s lower and colder reservoirs.

“The health of the Colorado River, having contributed to carving out the geologic feature for which the Grand Canyon is known, is part and parcel the health of Grand Canyon National Park,” Mazal says.

The Infamous Flapjack Affair Band at the headwaters of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Madeleine Ballard

Finding Inspiration

Along the Confluence route, the band was inspired by people whose lives would be greatly affected by changes in the Colorado River Basin.

“We met people who had shaped their lives in the basin in various ways and who had various types of connections to the river,” Barron says. “We tried to write music that was inspired by our time spent with these people and the experiences they shared with us as well as the things we were learning along the way and our experiences in the places.”

One of their new songs, entitled “Spine,” draws on their encounter with a Havasupai medicine woman who talked about the Colorado River as the spine of the mother.

“A great way to learn anything about a place is to talk to people who build their lives around it,” says Sarah Noyce, the band’s fiddle player from Sheffield, England.

Other characters they met along the way included park rangers, country musicians, cattle ranchers and climate change experts, each with their own experience in connection to the river and all working to preserve their way of living.

“We hope to inspire people to think and converse and consider the relationships that they have with the places that they call home, looking into the national park resources near them,” Barron says.

Engaging Millennials

As the demographic that frequents national parks is aging, the future of the parks, and the lands around them, will fall on millennials and younger generations. The documentary aims to engage these younger people to be a part of the conversation on the environmental issues concerning the Colorado River Basin and conservation in the parks.

“I would say the whole framing of the project itself is intended to target that age group,” Mazal says. “We’re trying to use a really character-driven, slightly humorous and light approach to storytelling that we think will resonate better than a traditional documentary format that tends to be really earnest and serious.”

NPCA also hopes that viewers will see a role for themselves and feel a sense of ownership in the parks.

“This is the next generation of decision-makers,” says Mazal. “We want them to feel like they are empowered to play a role in shaping the future of these protected places and protected resources.”

Barron offers some advice to turn young people’s inspiration into action. It draws on the band’s interaction with the Havasupai medicine woman. Everyone has talents, tools and abilities. The best thing an individual can do is enable those qualities to contribute to the world.

“Make an effort to listen to all the different perspectives and lifestyles in these places and then do as Dianna [the medicine woman] instructed us and think about how each of us is equipped to help move the world forward together,” Barron says.

The documentary on Confluence is set to come out in 2017 and be shown at film festivals across the country. Barron’s plan is to visit one university in each state and promote its message.

“Hopefully there’s something in there that no matter who you are, no matter what your approach is, you can find something to resonate with in this story,” Barron says.

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