Christopher Ketchum and Eric Konheim on the Green River, June 1988.
Credit: Photograph by Robert Morris

I met Eric Konheim during the collapse of both of our families, when he was 17 and I was seven. My father and his mother had come together after divorces that seemed to us speechlessly tragic (and that our parents, by contrast, thought quite amicable). I stayed weekends in Manhattan, in the enormous apartment where Eric and his brother, Alex, had grown up, and I remember one night sleeping on a pull-out couch, in the living room, and waking to see a shadow, tall and lanky and long-haired, flipping channels in the blue glow of the television and cursing, shaking its head.

The summer I was 9, Eric came to stay on Nantucket, where our parents had rented a house on the beach. He was wild-eyed with hair to his waist, and brought his beautiful big-breasted girlfriend, Paula Rosenfeld, both of them shouldering overstuffed backpacks. One day the preppies in town mocked him for being a hippie, and he flew back home in a rage; he apparently hated being lumped in with what he considered a wasteful subculture almost as much as he hated preppies. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard a bashing of the wall and a roar of invective that ended with a great big "Fuck it!" followed by three hours of silence, with Paula crying at the locked door, thinking he was killing himself.

When he emerged, covered in clumps of hair, he wore a crew cut he'd butchered with a pair of nail scissors. "There," he said. "So everyone can fuck off now."

That was Eric, the angriest guy I'd ever met, though it would take me a long time to figure out what really was bothering him. Paula, who years later became a psychotherapist, remembers that "there was a famous story of him getting in a fight with some bikers. Once when we were in his van he hydroplaned and we spun around and around and almost died. These moments were like his trophies."

I'd guess that a lot of this anger came from the flame-out of his parents' marriage. But somehow the stakes with Eric seemed higher. (I too had seen a divorce, and it broke my heart, and then I went and got stoned in my room.) Eric told Rob Morris that the divorce, as he saw it, was the last gasp of what he called "the big lie," the lie that the family unit was sacrosanct and unbreakable. This realization, bitter as it had to be, was also the dawning in Eric of a kind of politics of how to deal with the world. "We're constantly being misled, constantly being lied to," he told Rob. His father, Bud Konheim, was the business brains behind the Nicole Miller fashion house; his mother, Carolyn, was a pioneering environmentalist, and helped found Citizens for Clean Air, the country's first clean air advocacy group (inspired when one day she saw soot on infant Eric's face). Their split seemed to tear Eric in opposing directions: He claimed to want worldly success – to succeed the way his father had, by his own hands – but it would have to be with his mother's values, something not measured in money, for money-love, after all, was another "big lie."

So by the time he was 16, Eric had already been arrested protesting nuclear power plants in the Northeast. At 21, he ran his first river, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and henceforth dedicated himself not only to saving the wilderness but also to experiencing it for himself. At school he studied architecture and urban planning – he believed passionately in cities – but found the education useless for running rivers, so instead of desk-surfing he started a one-man moving outfit in Manhattan: "Man with Van." Six months of the year, he labored out of his Econoline 350, in army surplus fatigues and $3 high-tops, endlessly looping Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd, eating canned beans and drinking forties of the crappiest malt liquor, saving up for the other six months. "There was nothing frivolous, nothing in his life that didn't have a purpose," his roommate of three years, Debora Doell, told me. "Eating out was frivolous. Not re-using an envelope was frivolous. Having nice clothes was extremely frivolous."

Doell, a native of Oregon, shared Eric's Lower East Side apartment, helping fight the rats and the heroin addicts upstairs, whose stopped toilet leaked brown through the ceiling. She told me that Eric frequently got in screaming matches with people he saw littering. Although he loved New York, he hated that it was an epicenter of the materialism and bloated self-regard that he thought in the end would destroy the planet.

The rest of the year he kayaked. He paddled the Sea of Cortés in the company of whales, was chased by alligators in the Everglades, and ran the whitewater of this country's last wild rivers: the Snake and Salmon in Idaho, the John in Alaska, the Klamath in Oregon, the Ocoee in Tennessee. In the Southwest, where already by the 1980s the Sunbelt had begun its thirsty sprawl across the desert, he ran the San Juan River from New Mexico into Utah, where he fell in love with the spartan land, its terrible balance of water and rock. In between, he moved people's furniture and volunteered at a recycling program in his neighborhood and thought how in his life he would one day save the rivers from development, not knowing how or where to start.

When Lodore and its sister canyons in Dinosaur National Monument finally spit us into the vast arid open country of the Uinta Basin, the river ran wide and shallow for almost a hundred miles, and for the first time we scraped gravel and had to get out and shove. The unwalled, unconfined sky came as a shock. Some days the sun smashed the world, we could barely breathe, and we longed for rapids. The thermal winds blew at 40 mph, turning our boat and deviling the dust over the water. Rain fell from boiling clouds that disappeared 10 minutes later, but in answer the mud and cottonwood groves filled with mosquitoes that beat on our arms and drew blood. "The mosquitoes fairly screamed," wrote a member of Powell's crew back in 1869. "One of the men says that while out on the shore....a mosquito asked him for his pipe, knife, and tobacco and told him to hunt his old clothes for a match."

One night we watched an electrical storm, a blue and white spider strutting and flashing across the darkened sky. Then it was upon us fast, keening, and fired a bolt into a huddle of trees. A fire started in white, burnt out in red, the rain clattered, the lightning splashed in the mirroring water, and the three of us squatted on our haunches under a sandstone ledge: three hominids nearly holding one another, shoeless, silent, cowering from the storm.