John Wesley Powell and his crew of battered boatmen spent the morning of 14 August 1869 rowing through one rapid and carrying their boats around two more, after which they climbed back into their waterlogged rafts and continued down the river. “About eleven o’clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously,” Powell recorded in his memoir, regarding that day’s events. “The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river.”
The men pulled their rafts to shore. Before them lay a rapid Powell ended up naming Sockdolager – a nineteenth-century slang term for “the knockout punch.” It was very nearly the rapid that did them in.
Sockdolager Rapid contains numerous rocks and some small pour-overs, and in the very centre of it two lateral waves come together to form one massive wave which stands 15 to 20 feet tall. These two waves continuously rise and fall over each other like two hands washing. If the small “Emma Dean,” the expedition’s scout boat, were encounter that wave Powell was certain it would burst apart as easily as a soap bubble.
But the most terrifying part about the rapid for Powell and his men was what might be waiting for them at the end. They simply didn’t know. The long rapid continued around a corner, disappearing from view. Would the rapid finish with a set of tailwaves that transitioned smoothly into flat water, or did it fall over a 200-foot cliff that would kill them all? Prior to embarking on their daring journey to map the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers, they had heard rumours that the canyons contained one or more such falls. Was this that ?
The rapid was bordered on both sides by sheer wall cliffs which offered them no way to portage or line their rafts around it, and there would be no bank to pull into if they did discover the rapid terminated in a waterfall. To push off into the rapid would be the ultimate test of courage. To push out into that rapid which held the very real possibility of carrying them over a massive, crushing waterfall was an act of full and complete commitment.
And why was Powell willing to risk his life and the lives of his crew to explore and map this dangerous river? Simple curiosity.
“And the purpose of this shoestring expedition?” wrote Wallace Stegner, regarding Powell’s expedition. “Only to discover. To find out. To observe, analyse, map, comprehend, know?”
Powell began his journey on 24 May 1869, leaving from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, United States of America. He started with a team of ten men, including himself, and four boats. He finished the expedition 99 days later with six men and two boats For Powell this difficult journey was made all the more challenging because he had only one arm. His right arm had been shattered by a Minié ball during the Civil War Battle of Shiloh and had to be amputated.
The Colorado River Exploring Expedition was famous for being the first men of European descent to explore and map the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers – a geographical area the size of Texas – which in 1869 was the last unmapped spot in what would later become the United States. But before they had even reached the Colorado River, the romance of their grand endeavour had long since worn off. For everyone, that is, but Powell.
The first in a non-stop series of mishaps and accidents occurred on 9 June, the seventeenth day of their expedition, when one of their rafts, the “No Name,” crashed into a rock, cracked in two, and sank, taking a third of their rations with it to the river bottom. Powell named the rapid where the “No Name” sank Disaster Falls. A week after losing the “No Name,” a fire spread through their camp and consumed clothes, blankets, nearly all their cooking gear, and all the tents. On 5 July, they lost the first of their crew, Frank Goodman, to fear and the unceasing anxiety of what unknown dangers lie ahead. He abandoned the trip telling Powell “he has seen danger enough.”
The expedition lost much of their food rations to spoiling. Powell first discovered the sorry state of his food supplies on 11 July, less than three weeks into their journey. The dried apples and flour were covered in mildew, the bacon was rancid, and most of the sugar had melted away. Powell put his men on 1/6 rations, which wasn’t nearly enough calories or nutrition for their physical demands.
The expedition had already suffered numerous catastrophic losses by the time they reached the Colorado River. The most difficult part of the journey still lay ahead. They still had to traverse Cataract Canyon (home to four of the largest rapids in the world), Glen Canyon, Marble Canyon, and the Grand Canyon (home to three granite gorges and more than a hundred rapids) before they would arrive at the mouth of the Virgin River, which would mark the end of their journey.
By the time Powell and his courageous crew reached Lee’s Ferry – the geological border that separates Glen Canyon from Marble Canyon and the place from where all Grand Canyon river trips launch today – the expedition was left with only five weeks’ worth of rations. They had begun their voyage with enough for ten months. The expedition was now in a race against the clock. Could Powell get his expedition through six hundred more river miles, hundreds of rapids and other obstacles before his waterlogged rafts and waterlogged food rotted away? Before he and his men starved to death? Or drowned? Or shot each other? In the literal sense they were starving. In every other way they had bitten off more than they could chew.
But despite the hardships, accidents, and grumbling men, Powell maintained his courage, his optimism and most amazingly, his curiosity and the ability to be awed by the many wonders he encountered during his grand journey.
I had the amazing good fortune to spend eight seasons as a river guide in the Grand Canyon from 2005 to 2012, during which time I completed more than 70 raft trips. I worked for a company called Wilderness River Adventures based out of Page, Arizona. Nearly a century and a half after Powell and his men endured a cold, hungry, anxious night camped on these banks, Lee’s Ferry has become a much different place. Its atmosphere, rather than one of dread and despair, is one of great joy and light-hearted exuberance; this is where people from around the world gather to embark on two adventure-filled weeks, surrounded by renowned beauty. When pushing off from Lee’s Ferry, one’s spirits are so buoyant, wearing a life jacket seems almost redundant.
It was late September, 2007. This was my last trip of my third season, the 27th trip of my river guiding career. Our trip , Jeff Touchette, finished giving the safety talk to our eager passengers, then we boarded the rafts and shoved off from the bank into beautiful, transcendent Marble Canyon. I was rowing a baggage boat with my fellow guide and good friend Zach Chappell. The other boatmen were Brett, Christine, Debo and Amanda. They’re irreverent, foul-mouthed and good-humoured. Like Powell and his men, they were drawn to the Grand Canyon for the adventure it promised. After six months on the river, I, like the walls of the Grand Canyon, was river worn. I offered to row first, so I sat at the oars and Zach pushed us off. And there it was again. That electric zing that comes from crossing over into adventure.
A hundred feet after pushing off from Lee’s Ferry, we crossed another invisible threshold, this time into Grand Canyon National Park. Past the Paria Riffle, the river became flat as canal water. Jeff, seated in the lead, was pushing oars steadily, but not urgently, with plentiful pauses when we just drifted at the pace of the river, let the raft spin as it may while we leaned back and contemplated the light playing on the cliff walls, which rose 500 feet above us. Five miles later we stopped for lunch, and two miles past that we came to our first rapid of the trip: Badger Rapid, a medium-sized, read-and-run rapid with a few medium-sized playful waves. I rowed the raft into the tongue of the rapid, where we dropped into a wave trough and burst through the wave behind it like a bull lowering its head and charging through the Matador’s cape.
Powell wrote in his journal from 22 June that the teeter-totter, soaring motion of his raft cutting through a rapid felt very thrilling. “What a headlong ride it is! Shooting past rocks and islands. I am soon filled with exhilaration only experienced before in riding a fleet horse over the outstretched prairie.”
During my time working as a guide, I gained a deep respect for Powell and the edge-of-impossible feat he accomplished in navigating the unmapped stretches of the Green and Colorado Rivers.
My respect for Powell and his raw, amazing journey grew from three different sources. The first came from reading Powell’s memoir of his journey titled The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, first published in 1875. His descriptions were spare, used only so his readers might see in their imaginations what he believed they’d never see in real life. Down the Great Unknown, a biography by Edward Dolnick, included journal entries from two members of Powell’s expedition, Jack Sumner and George Bradley, which painted a fuller, less-biased account of the journey. My second source came from experience, especially my first two years on the river working as a swamper. Yes, I was learning river navigation and boatmanship, but a swamper’s primary duty is drudge-work and heavy-lifting, which gave me a taste of what Powell’s men endured. What I endured will never compare to portaging three 400-pound boats around a rapid.
My third source of respect for Powell, and more-so his boatmen, came during my third season, when I was promoted from swamper to boatman and given command of my own raft, after which I better understood the anxiety and trepidation that came from being the person responsible for getting the raft and its passengers and gear safely through hundreds of rapids and other obstacles.
Of course, any trip I take will never compare to Powell’s expedition. The major difference is that almost anything bad that may happen on one of my trips will simply be a matter of inconvenience. If I screw up and have a bad run through a rapid, my ego may get bruised. When we’re on a river trip we can pretend that we’re secluded, and indeed it often feels that way, but if things get too rough, if an injury is severe, we can pull out a $3,000 satellite phone, carefully protected inside a water-proof case, and call in a National Park Service helicopter to come rescue us within several minutes. It certainly takes the edge off the sense of danger.
But having said that, I still know how it feels to lie sleepless in my bed, filled with the born of knowing that the next day I will have to run Hance Rapid, or Crystal Rapid, or Lava Falls, three of the trickiest, most dangerous rapids in the Grand Canyon.
It started raining in mid-afternoon, and I stopped rowing long enough for Zach and me to put on our rain coats. The cold September drizzle continued through the rest of the day, deep into the night. We camped at Silver Grotto, having rowed 29 miles first that day. While unloading the rafts, we discovered the trip’s first : we’d left one of the tent bags behind. We had enough tents for our passengers, but not enough for the guides.
We pitched a tarp over our camp kitchen and cooked a dinner of trout, asparagus and mashed potatoes. Dinner time is usually social hour on the river, but not that night. Our passengers crowded under the tarp and gulped down their food, then rushed back to their dry tents, for which were envious.
After dinner, I walked down to my raft and wrapped my sleeping bag inside a tarp, changed into dry clothes and crawled in. I reached over the side of the raft and trailed my fingers in the river. The knowledge that I got to sleep right on top of this ancient, yet ever-refreshing river has always filled me with deep awe, amazement, and reverence. I drew my hand back in and pulled the tarp over my head. It was warm and humid inside my little cocoon, the first time I’d been warm in five hours. I listened to the rain pattering soothingly on the tarp. I rolled onto my side and as suddenly as a fly landing on a Venus flytrap, sleep grazed my weary eyes and my eyelids snapped shut.
By 10 August, Powell and his crew had safely traversed Cataract, Glen, and Marble Canyons and were poised to enter the Grand Canyon. They spent two days camped at the mouth of the Little Colorado River (61 miles below Lee’s Ferry) while Powell fixed their latitude and longitude. Noting the exact coordinates of major landscape features was an important, necessary duty to Powell’s mapmaking, and where the Little Colorado River meets the Colorado River was one of those spots that needed . The points on the map with exact latitude and longitude established a solid trellis upon which the rest of the map hung. To Powell’s crew, already on 1/6 rations and the rest of their food spoiling at an alarming rate, even necessary delays, such as mapmaking and positional reckoning, seemed grossly unnecessary.
Powell securely fixed their latitude and longitude on 12 August, and that night wrote in his journal what has become the expedition’s most famous passage. “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant for their loads are lighter than we would desire. We have but a month’s rations remaining… We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.”
On the morning of 13 August, Powell and his crew untied their boats and for the 82nd time pushed off into the river to add another 14 miles to their map. During the course of the day, they ran three rapids, lined three more and camped just above Hance Rapid. They spent the next day portaging around it, and two miles later arrived at Sockdolager Rapid, which for many of the crew, would prove the most frightful experience of the expedition. “I decided to run it,” Sumner wrote in his journal that night, “though it gave me a queer feeling in my craw, as I could see plainly enough a certain swamping for all the boats. But what was around the curve below out of our sight?”
Indeed. What was around that curve?
For Powell and his men, the mystery most speculated upon, and the source of their greatest fear and anxiety, was the possibility of encountering a Niagara Falls-sized waterfall. And Sockdolager Rapid might be it. The rapid certainly roared like Niagara. All the men knew that if there were enormous falls at the end of the rapid they’d be helplessly carried over it. It was for a situation such as this that Powell had hired mountain men and Civil War veterans. These men had faced sure defeat before, and had charged straight into it. These were men who had learned that the secret to bravery on the battlefield was “don’t think, just charge.” They knew that if they spent too much time calculating their odds of success they’d just psyche themselves out and freeze up. So, before they could do that, they blindly shoved off into Sockdolager Rapid, and into the great unknown.
We now know there is no waterfall below Sockdolager, but the waves it held were so powerful it nearly did them in anyway. Before any of the rafts had progressed 100 feet into the rapid, all three boats had swamped, which made them completely unmanageable. The river sent them banging into rocks. By this point in the trip both the men and boats were heavily battered, and Sockdolager gave them everything but the knockout punch. Rocks knocked a hole in the side of the Emma Dean and they lost one oar and broke another.
For Sumner, rowing into Sockdolager was the scariest experience of his life, and that’s saying a lot coming from a man who saw heavy action in the Civil War. He wrote about it that night in his journal. “I have been in a cavalry charge, charged the batteries, and stood by the guns to repel a charge. But never before did my sand run so low.”
The group spent the next day struggling through Grapevine Rapid and limped their banged-up boats downriver to a clear creek that Powell named Bright Angel Creek. Today it’s the site of the Phantom Ranch, which contains several cabins and campgrounds maintained by the National Park Service. Today it’s the main thoroughfare for hikers traversing the Grand Canyon from its North Rim to South Rim, or vice versa. There Powell and his crew camped the nights of 15 and 16 August, while they repaired their boats and cut new oars. They had been on 1/6 rations for the last 36 days and their little remaining food was in such terrible condition that Powell threw away the last of it. Later that same day, they lost the last of their baking soda. They had left it out to dry in the sun and a swinging bowline swept it into the river. That meant no more bread. This event stood as the perfect metaphor for that point in the journey. The expedition had been one with few joys, and 16 August marked the day when the last of the trip’s levity was swept away.
Shortly after, and for reasons not mentioned in anyone’s journals, Powell lit into Dunn for losing his [Powell’s] watch, something that had happened nearly two weeks earlier. Dunn heatedly replied that he’d “whoop his ass if he wasn’t a one-armed cripple.” Powell’s brother, Walter, leapt to his brother’s defence, and Hawkins and Hall jumped to Dunn’s aid. Walter walked to his boat and began unlashing his gun from its deck, but before he finished, Hall punched him in the head. When Walter whipped around he found Hall’s pistol levelled at his face. Hall told Walter to back off before he got his head blown off. After that the camp was divided in two, between those who sided with Dunn and those who sided with Powell. It was a division that continued for the duration of the trip.
From Bright Angel Creek, the expedition could have rowed through the remainder of the canyon in just three or four days, and Powell’s men wanted to do it. They desired to cut loose and row, damn the portaging and the consequences, for they had reached the point in their terrible journey where it was either go safely and slowly and starve doing it, or go fast and get the bloody thing over with and risk drowning in one of the dozens of rapids that still lay ahead of them.
The ever-prudent Powell was able to restrain his men a few days longer, but playing it safe meant portaging, which simply ate up too much time. And too much food. And the men’s patience. After a few days of playing it safe, even Powell couldn’t continue with the slower and safer course any longer. The situation of their severely dire rations compelled them to row. From that point on they would portage only when absolutely necessary.
Which brought them to a conundrum on 27 August when they came to a rapid that looked truly terrifying, and unnavigable. It was the worst rapid they’d seen yet. This rapid, they all agreed, must be portaged; it was the only sensible way around it. Except the cliff walls on either side of it were sheer, giving them no purchase to portage, or line, their boats around it. And running it looked even more suicidal than running Sockdolager. Is this where the Grand Canyon would force the expedition to quit?
Powell knew he was close to the end of their long expedition. His barometers showed their current elevation very nearly matched that of their endpoint. He’d come more than a thousand miles through uncharted, rugged territory. He’d endured hunger, monsoon rains, 115F degree heat, portaging, wounds, injuries, abandonment, and threats of mutiny. After all that, he simply couldn’t bear to quit when glory – and immortality – lay just a few canyon curves farther.
“To leave the exploration unfinished, to say there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on,” Powell wrote in his journal that night.
But for two members of the crew, who had ended their loyalties with Powell after the fight at Bright Angel Creek, this was the end. On the right side a canyon advanced away from the river. Maybe it would go all the way to the rim, and from there perhaps they could find their way to a friendly Mormon or Native American settlement. They certainly intended to find out. The two men were Bill Dunn and Seneca Howland, and since Seneca planned to leave, his brother, Oramel, went with them. Powell tried to talk the three men out of abandoning the trip. The three men tried to talk him and the other men into coming with them, telling them they’d all be dead on the far side of the rapid. The next morning, Dunn and the two Howlands left, and the scout boat, the “Emma Dean” was also left abandoned on the beach. Dunn and the two Howlands were never seen or heard from again.
Powell and the remaining men piloted the two rafts through the rapid without incident, and continued onwards. That evening they passed through the last granite gorge and the following day emerged from the Grand Canyon. Mission accomplished!
Much as the Colorado River has cut through multiple layers of ancient rock revealing what lies beneath, so did the river expose Powell’s strengths and flaws. Powell was brave and confident. He was also a sceptic who believed all religions were mere mythologies invented by men. But though he lacked religious faith, he had total faith in himself and his abilities. Dolnick, Powell’s biographer, described him as “pathologically optimistic,” a great quality in an explorer.
Although the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers were unmapped by Europeans in 1869, numerous Native American groups lived along the rims of the canyons that lie along Powell’s route. In 1868, Powell set out on a reconnaissance mission to contact them and learn what he could from them about the course and nature of the river he was about to explore. He spent much of the winter of 1868-69 with a group of Tabuats Ute Indians. They called Powell “Kapurats,” which means “arm off,” due to his missing right arm.
Though Powell was the first person to map the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers, all authors and historians agree that he didn’t regard himself, or take credit, as the first person to explore or discover the canyons through which he travelled. We now know that more than 250 archaeological sites, formerly occupied by Ancestral Puebloans, have been found below the rims of Marble and Grand Canyons, 37 of which exist along Powell’s route, which he may or may not have encountered during his journey. Powell recorded visiting eight of these sites in his journals.
In the years following his expeditions he was appointed the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology for the Smithsonian Institution, during which tenure he spent time with the Kaibab, Uinkarets, Shivwits, Hopis, Navajos and other tribes, recording their languages and customs. He and his staff are credited with identifying more than 500 unique Native American languages.
Powell was ambitious. Though he lacked the schooling and credentials to back it up, he nevertheless considered himself a scientist, and he hoped that mapping the last blank spot on America’s map would put him on the map too. It worked. Powell went on to become a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the first Director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. This is an anthropological contribution the value of which should not be underestimated. Their preservation of so many different Native American languages and traditions came during a time when most Native American tribes had been moved off their native land and onto government reservations where they were forced to assimilate into European culture. Once on these reservations, most tribes were then forbidden to speak their native language, forbidden to practice their religion, their rites, their customs. Their traditional ways of life were disappearing very quickly.
I admire Powell greatly for his optimism, his courage, his faith in himself, but the Powell quality I admire most was his curiosity. It was his bedrock layer, and it was as inexhaustible as the Colorado River.
Despite the expedition’s crushing hardships, Powell never lost his ability to be awed by the majesties he witnessed in the canyons he traversed. Even during some of the trip’s most harrowing, worrisome days, Powell’s journals often sing with the majestic scenes he observed.
He ended his memoir with this observation: “The glories and the beauties of form, colour, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon . . . A year scarcely suffices to see it all . . . You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths. It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task, by a year’s toil a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equalled on the hither side of Paradise.”
In my eight years as a Grand Canyon river guide, I too was privileged to witness many of the canyon’s splendours. Each year I began my river seasons in early April and finished in October, seeing the spring flowers bloom and die in the heat of summer. In April, I’ve seen the Bighorn sheep lambs trailing their mothers, and in September the rams butt heads. I’ve watched Orion disappear and return, and all the constellations shift. I’ve seen ducklings no bigger than ping-pong balls in April, grow a little bigger every trip. I’ve seen flash floods change the formation of side canyons and beaches, over and over again.
One of my favourite activities was visiting the ancient ruined villages of the Ancestral Puebloans, the indigenous people who lived in the Grand Canyon until approximately a thousand years ago, who left behind ancient dwellings, petroglyph panels and trail systems, many of which can be visited by today’s Grand Canyon river runners. A visit to one of their ancient dwellings or villages never failed to fill me with a feeling of awe and admiration for their abilities to thrive in such a harsh environment.
Any time I’ve visited one of their abandoned villages and looked out upon the river and the cliff walls, it was impossible for me not to wonder what they saw a thousand, two thousand or three thousand years ago. Did they look out upon crops of corn, beans and squash? What did they do for recreation? What were their ceremonies and festivals? What were their worries? What did they look forward to? What amazing things did they see during their years in the Grand Canyon? What filled them wonder and awe?
During my eight years as a river guide I’ve seen amazing sunsets, shooting stars, waterfalls, rainbows. Scarcely a trip went by I didn’t witness some wonderful, reverent, magical moment.
When my alarm clock went off on that last river trip of mine, I sat up in my sleeping bag and let some of the sleepiness percolate out of my head. I changed clothes, shoved my sleeping bag into my dry bag and walked to the camp kitchen where I started heating water. A half hour later I alerted camp that, “Coffee is ready!” The signal to wake up.
We ate breakfast, washed dishes, broke down camp, loaded rafts and pushed off into a new day of adventure. The sun was shining, the autumn air perfectly crisp. We soon came under cloud-cover, into a stretch of the canyon where, on this last day of September and at this early hour of the morning, the river still lay in the shadow of the cliff wall. The reflection in the still water created the illusion that the canyon was two miles deep. It gave us the feeling that we were floating through there in a hot air balloon. We stopped talking and leaned forward to better take it in. The cracks and water stains at the base of the cliff walls mirrored in the river took on the images of rockets, arrows, trilobites, birds and butterflies. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
Despite all my time working there, I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of raw respect that Powell had for the river and the canyons he struggled through, for the simple reason that I’ll never have to endure what he endured. The Grand Canyon is no longer as difficult to traverse as the Alps or the Himalayas. But there is one way Powell’s level of respect for the Grand Canyon can never reach my own – I have spent eight river seasons inside it, watching it change and change and change.
During my eight years as a Grand Canyon river guide, I rowed my raft, set up camp, tossed my pliers, cooked dinner, led hikes and swam in plunge pools. I played Bocce ball, read poems, visited ancient ruins, crashed rafts, and made a hundred new friends.
But mostly I tried to be present, observant and ready for those moments of awe, when the Grand Canyon unfolded her magic.
Steven Law is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.
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