I'm Here to Speak for Life: River Guardian Mark Dubois

Date: 
Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re devoting a new series to the people who have shaped, and are still shaping, river movements around the world. We kick things off with a profile of an International Rivers founder and River Guardian extraordinaire: Mark Dubois.

In 1979, a young river guide-cum-activist named Mark Dubois chained himself to a boulder in the riverbed of California’s Stanislaus River. Not far away, the Army Corps of Engineers had just closed the floodgates of the hotly contested New Melones Dam, and the waters were rising behind it. The Army Corps of Engineers launched a furious – and fruitless – hunt to find Dubois before the water did.

Mark Dubois, chained to a boulder.
Mark Dubois, chained to a boulder.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen

Within a few days, Mark’s face would be on the front page of countless newspapers, and the Corps would halt the filling of the reservoir. It wasn’t a total victory, but Dubois’ action was heard round the world.Dubois was just 30 years old, he stood 6’8” in his stocking feet, and he had overcome a painful shyness to become a key part of the struggle to save one of the last undammed stretches of the river – site of magnificent limestone canyons and one of the most heavily-rafted whitewater runs in the United States.

In many ways, Dubois’ story is a tale of unforeseen consequences. Though the struggle to save that wild stretch of the Stanislaus failed, a generation of passionate river advocates was forged in the battle. They would go on to form Friends of the River, an organization devoted to protecting California’s rivers, and International Rivers.

We decided to begin our River Guardian series with Mark Dubois in part because his story is part of the founding mythology of our group. But perhaps more important, we begin with Mark Dubois because he embodies the spirit of a river guardian: passionate, committed, knowledgeable – and a bit irreverent. Patrick McCully, former Executive Director of International Rivers, sat down with him to get the story.

Patrick McCully: So I have a lot of questions for you; we’ll see if I stick to the script. (Laughter.) What first brought you to the Stanislaus?

Mark Dubois: Cave exploring.

Mark Dubois rafting on the Stanislaus.
Mark Dubois rafting on the Stanislaus.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen

Dubois first came to the river as a teenager. When told the river below would ultimately be flooded by a dam, the teenaged Dubois was sorry to hear it – but not overly so. “I’d grown up knowing that dams were a part of progress. Little did I know it would be the beginning of a long seduction, falling in love with a place.”

Little by little, Dubois did fall in love. He became a rafting guide on the river in 1971, and a few years later he got heavily involved with Proposition 17, a state measure that would have stopped the Corps from filling the reservoir. Prop 17 failed, and for a while it looked as if the movement to save the Stanislaus was over. But after a few months, activists renewed the fight – and Dubois was with them.

Patrick McCully: So then where did the idea come from to chain yourself to a rock?

Mark Dubois: I don’t remember which campaign we had lost, but we had gone up to the river to mourn our loss and plan the next campaign. Late at night around the campfire, it’s really easy to be mourning, and we’re not coming up with any ideas. So I thought – probably in the back of my mind – “Maybe I should just move on.” 

Early the next morning, I get up. Razorback was this big beautiful sandy beach and just up from Wool Hollow Canyon. There was this turquoise water coming out from the limestone waterfall, and crystal clear water and butterflies dancing, grapevines reaching out, the wildflowers in bloom, and in one moment I just felt the life of that place. And I knew that if I left, I would be like the people in Germany who may have known but turned their back.... 

At that time I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I couldn’t leave. I knew this place had helped me know there’s a far bigger miracle going on than we humans seem to know....

Mark Dubois on the Stanislaus.
Mark Dubois on the Stanislaus.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen

Patrick McCully: So did you talk to a lot of other people about it, did you strategize about it?

Mark Dubois: No. I could tell that it was very much a personal decision. I hardly told anybody about it … I remember calling my friend Fred, and I said, “Fred, you’re the only one who knows how to weld. Would you make shackles?” And his response made me know that if he’d helped me, and I had died, the rest of his life he’d feel guilty because he’d done it. That made me know that I couldn’t ask for help.

When Wednesday night came around, our research geek said, “Mark, the water’s going to be up Monday.” I was in sheer panic, because I had no idea how you attached to a boulder, and I didn’t want to commit suicide. I wanted them to know what they were doing. 

Before chaining himself to the rock, Dubois wrote letters to the head of the Army Corps of Engineers and Governor Jerry Brown, among others. As he dropped off the letter at Brown’s office, he saw a toyon tree that activists had rescued from the Stanislaus River and planted outside the governor’s window.

Mark Dubois: It was the only living thing left from the lower canyon, because the reservoir was now up. And so I went to pay homage to this little toyon tree. When I got there, this little toyon tree had grown. I was struck with the most powerful sensation I’d ever had. I just felt life. 

I realized it doesn’t matter at all if I have five days or a hundred years to live. If I’m not afraid to die, then I get to speak with my whole life and it doesn’t matter. I’ve never had anything quite so …“power” is a funny word, but for me it was the most connected I’d ever been with life, and no fear. Knowing that it really didn’t matter, that I was here to speak for life as best I could …

Patrick McCully: How long were you chained to the rock?

Mark Dubois: A week. 

Mark Dubois speaks to journalists.
Mark Dubois speaks to journalists.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen

Coverage of the action began with a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, but soon it had spread to the San Jose Mercury News, the LA Times and even CBS. 

Mark Dubois: By the end of the week, my friend came in with the letter from Governor Brown. It said “Army Corps, we’re glad you’ve agreed not to fill it anymore, and we’re going to watch you every single day and sue you.” But I knew that the spring melt had peaked. They couldn’t have filled it if they’d wanted to. They wanted to fill it up so they could test their turbines. 

Dubois and other activists went to Washington to work on federal legislation to protect the river, but the bill failed. Then, in 1982, record snowmelt and heavy rains inundated California, and a reservoir that should have taken eight years to fill was entirely flooded in one season. Mother Nature herself had done what so many had fought against – so bitterly and for so many years – on her behalf.

Dubois left California, traveling the world for a year with his new wife. Everywhere he went, he met people who were struggling to save their own rivers and who were hungry to hear about others’ experiences. Recognizing an unmet need to share ideas and information across these movements, he returned to the US and started the International Watershed Advocacy Project (IWAP). A year later, IWAP became International Rivers Network.

Friends by the Stanislaus.
Friends by the Stanislaus.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen

Patrick McCully: So the Stanislaus campaign birthed Friends of the River and International Rivers. What do you think was special about that time? I mean, not just International Rivers but RAN, Pesticide Action Network, Earth Island, Food First – all these different groups came out of that period in the mid-‘80s.

Mark Dubois: You know, I was with a bunch of Stanislaus folks a few months ago, and it was such a deep circle of friends. In my parents’ generation, people had been in the war together, and you could just tell the connections they had, right? We were all really close, but because we lost, we never talked about it. But now, enough time’s gone by, we started to talk about how that time shaped us. 

And I’ll say that … there’s something about not believing you couldn’t do something. There was something about the success of the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement … all of the sudden, people were speaking on what they knew they needed to speak for. So of course we’re going to speak on pesticides. Of course we’re going to speak for rivers. Of course we’re going to speak for rainforests …

Three years after we lost, the Tuolumne River got saved as “Wild and Scenic.” All the politicians who couldn’t help us because of momentum and agriculture, they were on board now. Three years later, three more California rivers got protected: the Kings, Kern and Merced. Politicians were now competing with each other to get more miles of river protected.

Mark Dubois with David Brower.
Mark Dubois with David Brower.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kallen.

I broke so many oars the first year because I was struggling, but eventually I learned to dance … To me, humans are at this great turning …. And the shortest distance is to come from love, instead of fighting “them” because there are no “thems.” We’re all on the friggin’ same boat together.

Just before we ended the interview, Mark recalled a 1975 trip to Glen Canyon he took with iconic US environmentalist David Brower and a group of other activists. Brower gave a talk, which he finished by saying, “I talk about oil, coal, all these resources that can’t be renewed. But there’s one renewable resource that never runs out, and that’s love."