In 1984 fifteen South African kayakers drifted 300 miles down a full Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, from Lee’s Ferry to where the current now dies in Lake Mead, arrested since 1936 by the massive concrete Hoover Dam. Our trip was amazing and awe-inspiring but one couldn’t really call it an ‘expedition’ as we were guided by people who had been there before; and we were catered for, and we were just fifteen of about twenty thousand people who trip the canyon each year. Admittedly few do it in kayaks, most going in inflatable rafts. Some still use dories similar to the wooden ones Powell used on the first float down the river.
THE CANYON: Recent studies support the hypothesis that the Colorado River established its course through the area about 5 to 6 million years ago, exposing around two billion years of Earth’s geological history in the various layers as you descend. Current archaeological evidence suggests that humans first reached the Grand Canyon area as far back as 10,500 years ago, and inhabited the area around 4,000 years ago.
In 1540, led by local Hopi guides, Spanish Captain Lopez de Cardenas reached the rim of the Grand Canyon on foot; In 1776 a Spanish priest was taken by a Havasupai trader to his place in Havasupai Canyon, again on foot.
In 1857 a party ventured about 300 miles up the river from the mouth in the Sea of Cortes in a 54ft steamboat to Black Canyon, downstream of the present Lake Mead.
THE FIRST DOWN-RIVER TRIP: The first known trips that floated downstream through the whole of the deep canyonlands were in 1869 and 1871, led by an adventurous one-armed Major with a scientific bent, John Wesley Powell. He kept a diary of his first trip, but no pictures; I have the diary in a beautiful book published a hundred years later:
Powell led a party of ten men in four wooden boats 1000 miles down the Green river, into the Colorado river and through both Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon to below where we finished. As almost always on any continent, local guides – in this case Native Americans – helped them.
Read much more about this amazing 1000 mile river trip – the first to go all the way through these amazing river canyons – on the Green, and the on the Colorado, Glen Canyon (now drowned under Lake Powell) and the Grand Canyon.
The expedition had little communication with the world outside the valley, leading to rumours they were lost; many reports on the expedition while they were gone were written, mostly made-up and some including obituaries. Powell apparently enjoyed reading his own obituary on his way to New York after the trip ended! What actually happened on the three-month trip is in doubt. New diaries have surfaced that show there were probably tensions leading to people abandoning the journey. Powell’s hero status led to most historians glossing over any doubts. Amazing that one hundred and fifty years later we can still uncover new diaries, new information, new sources – including interviews with descendants of other trip members – that add to our knowledge.
NEW BOOK: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon continues to be one of the most celebrated adventures in American history, ranking with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Apollo landings on the moon. For nearly twenty years author Don Lago has researched the Powell expedition from new angles, traveled to thirteen states, and looked into archives and other sources no one else has searched. He has come up with many important new documents that change and expand our basic understanding of the expedition by looking into Powell’s crew members, some of whom have been almost entirely ignored by Powell historians. Historians tended to assume that Powell’s was the whole story and that his crew members were irrelevant. More seriously, because several crew members made critical comments about Powell and his leadership, historians who admired Powell were eager to ignore and discredit them. Lago offers a feast of new and important material about the river trip, and it will significantly rewrite the story of Powell’s famous expedition. His book is not only a major work on the Powell expedition, but on the history of American exploration of the West.
TAKE A TRIP: Here’s a 23 minute video of a six-day raft trip down the canyon on quite a low river. Turn the sound down – it’s just muzak. The footage gives a good glimpse of the magnificent scenery.
Here’s a short report on an 18-day raft trip through the canyon – interesting how the popularity of this adventure means one has to enter a lottery to get allocated your own private trip down the canyon – getting your turn to go may take many years! Apply now!
Or join one of the sixteen commercial outfits who’ll take you down the river in their craft, guide you and feed you.
Above the Grand Canyon the Powell party passed through beautiful Glen Canyon. The feature pic above this post and this one here show Glen Canyon, which is now gone – drowned beneath the waters of Lake Powell. An environmental desecration committed so crops could be grown where they shouldn’t be grown, so golf courses could be made where they shouldn’t be and so lawns could be watered where there should not be lawns. NO MORE DAMS!
Great news in 2021 that four dams on the Klamath river in Oregon and California are going to be removed, allowing the river to flow free again. And slowly – very slowly – the river and its valleys will hopefully recover. The Glen Canyon dam should be removed, Lake Powell should go, Glen Canyon should be revealed again in all its splendour. Let’s never give up that fight. Crazy to think Homo sapiens 2021 model feels he “cannot” halve the size of his lawn (which he seldom walks on) and so save a river and its valley!