Interview: Run River Canyons While Discovering a Legendary Story

A new narrated paddling guidebook to the Green and Colorado Rivers celebrates the 150th anniversary of the original Powell expedition by combining the dramatic story of 1869 with color landscape photos and trip planning info. In this interview,author, photographer, and boater Mike Bezemek shares how it all came together—including how he lugged a small library down the river in a Watershed drybag.

Why is a 150-year-old expedition route still relevant today? Why should people care about this story?

Well, to start, it’s easily one of the greatest adventure stories in American history. The 1869 Powell expedition was pretty much the first exploratory whitewater descent ever. A one-armed former Civil War major turned self-taught geology professor shows up to a sleepy railroad outpost in Wyoming Territory,hauling four wooden-keeled rowboats. With a 10-man crew, mostly mountain men and ex-soldiers, they set off down the Green River with a bunch of flour, some bacon, and mapping instruments—having never run a rapid.

Along the way, they encountered and named canyon after canyon, many of which are now among the most famous whitewater trips in the Southwest. They were completely unprepared for the trip. They portaged or lined about 100 of the hardest rapids but ran maybe 500 of the easier ones—plus a few hard ones, mostly by accident. Their rations spoiled, their equipment broke, their boats took a beating, and they even sunk one. They thought they could last ten months, map the river course, and hole up through the winter if necessary. But three months later, only six emaciated men wearing tattered rags emerged from what Powell called Grand Canyon. And the story became a legend.

Please continue reading on the Watershed Drybags blog!

Small Detour Means Big Fun at Big Piney Creek in Arkansas

A weekend expedition in the Ozarks leads to a nearly forgotten Wild & Scenic River

The first one caught me off guard. I was staring beyond my kayak deck at the milky turquoise waters of Big Piney Creek in the Arkansas Ozarks. Just sort of marveling at the fact it’s here at all — a Class II-III Wild & Scenic River smack in the middle of the country. A region, fun fact, also known as the Interior Highlands. After two and half days driving across the South with my wife (one of which felt like just crossing through Atlanta), I’d hopped from truck to kayak and couldn’t believe my luck.

On a Tuesday in mid-May, the lower four-mile run was basically empty. At the rapid below put-in, I’d passed three local playboaters doing the thing playboaters love second-most, which is hang out on shore talking about playboating. After that, it was just white splashy holes, cold blue-green water flowing from limestone springs, and me. Until a black water snake sprinted like a whip across the pool.

Please continue reading at Canoe & Kayak on the Adventure Sports Network!

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A Trip Through Time in Desolation Canyon

I sort of knew what I was searching for and sort of didn’t. After rowing around a bend in the Green River, Rock House Canyon opened dramatically ahead. I tied my raft to shore and walked up a dry creek bed. Above rose buttes and fins of orange-brown rock, part of the Green River Formation. This geologic unit is comprised of crumbly shales and sandstones which were deposited millions of years ago when the region was flooded by the long-gone Lake Uinta.

The cliff faces shone brightly in the morning sun of early August. Somewhere near here was a Fremont Culture petroglyph panel—but I didn’t have any specifics about size, subject matter, or precise location. Also, based on the fresh claw prints in the beachside mud, there might be a nearby bear who shared my interest in rock art and amateur archaeology.

Please continue reading on The Eddy blog!

An Ozarks Paddling Mission with a Photography Problem

The view was startling. By standing on an old stone wall, in a clearing just off the gravel shuttle road, Big Piney Creek was visible far below. It was making one of those photogenic meanders, a nearly circular 180, like the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. But instead of slicing sharply into bare sandstone, this sweeping curve was etched over 500 feet deep into the densely vegetated Ozark Mountains, which rolled endlessly toward the horizon.

Ignoring the shattered beer bottles, crumpled wet wipes, and a tattered condom at my feet—my adventure detective skills suggested the previous visitors possessed a fascinating combination of traits, including drunk but hygienic, okay with littering and sexually responsible—this type of viewpoint was exactly what I’d been searching for. A wide overview of a typical Ozarks watershed to include in my upcoming paddling guide.

Please continue reading on the Duct Tape Diaries blog!

Montana Couple Completes Source-to-Sea Expedition Down the Powell Route

Dubbed ‘One River, Many Voices,’ the 1,700-mile, 135-day expedition sought to connect with river canyons and residents along the way

It was September, about a month into the expedition, when Mike and Jenny Fiebig encountered their first challenging whitewater. The rapid was Hells Half Mile in Lodore Canyon on the Green River. And their boat was a custom dory built by Hog Island Boat Works in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Eddyline Welding in Moab, Utah. The dory had a roto-molded plastic hull, expertly fitted aluminum decking, and one missing feature the Fiebigs were about to experience first-hand: Unlike other boats Mike had rowed during 20 years of raft guiding, this one wasn’t self-bailing.

Continue reading at CanoeKayak.com!



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Searching for the real Sumner’s Amphitheater in Desolation Canyon

Part I: Solo trip or death sentence? • an eclipse on the river • just some regular old symmetry-focused topographic detective work.

On the beach at Sand Wash, I’d been chatting with a dude, let’s call him “Guy,” about the first expeditions down the Green and Colorado rivers. For over two hours.

“So you’re a Powell fella,” he’d observed. Our kindred spirits took it from there, as we chatted about books, theories, and favorite tales — all colored by Guy’s tendency to swear like a sailor at a spelling bee.

Continue reading at canoekayak.com!

A Nearly Empty Island

Bike-rafting Georgia’s Cumberland Island during the government shutdown.

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, and the exact moment I step out of my tent, I spot a dorsal fin. It rises briefly into the mist from the placid Brickhill River and vanishes. I blink sleep from my eyes. After 10 minutes waiting for a repeat appearance, I’m uncertain it was a fin at all. The tide is moving swiftly past, carrying a caravan of floating reeds. Maybe that’s what I saw.

Continue reading at adventurecycling.org!

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Bike-rafting to Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore

The government shutdown inspires a weekend expedition to the Southeast’s wild national seashore

VHWIRRRR, through dense fog, the sound of an approaching motorboat rises.

I swivel my head left and right, listening closely to place the direction. There’s no way they’ll see me at speed, I realize, slightly panicked. But if I paddle in any direction, even backtrack, I might move right into their path.

I’m floating in my packraft on the Cumberland Sound, part of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Continue reading at canoekayak.com!

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A Living Museum on the Main Salmon River

As I push off from Corn Creek into the clear blue waters of the Salmon River, I feel that rush of excitement that comes with paddling a new river. The canyon hillsides mix dark metamorphic outcrops with tall stands of pine and green grasses, making a mid-July fade into gold. Across the river floats my kayaking buddy, the Perfessor, and the oar-rig with three of his friends. About this classic week-long trip on the Main Salmon, I know very little…

Continue reading on the Duct Tape Diaries blog at NRS.com!

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A Return to Rafting for the John Wesley Powell Route

We were at put-in for the upper Gauley, and I was sorting straps like a medic in a war movie frantically searching for morphine. To say I felt out of my element was an understatement. After kayaking in the Ozarks and Southeast during the past decade, my six seasons of California raft guiding before that felt like a set of vivid but patchy memories…

Continue reading on the Rafting Magazine website!

Book Excerpt: “PADDLING THE JOHN WESLEY POWELL ROUTE”

A new narrated guide blends the story of the 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers with modern explorations, landscape photography, and trip planning info.

FROM THE PUBLISHER (Falcon Guides) — On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine crewmen in four wooden rowboats set off down the Green River to map the final blank spot on the American map. Three months later, six ragged men in only two boats emerged from the Grand Canyon. And what happened along the rugged 1,000 river miles in between quickly became the stuff of legend. Today, the JWP route offers some of the most adventurous paddling in the United States. Across six southwestern states, paddlers will find a surprising variety of trips. Enjoy flatwater floats through Canyonlands and the Uinta Basin; whitewater kayaking or rafting in Dinosaur National Monument and Cataract Canyon; afternoon paddleboarding on Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Lake Powell; multiday expeditions through Desolation Canyon and the Grand Canyon; and much more, including remarkable hikes and excursions to ancestral ruins, historic sites, museums, and waterfalls.

Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route is a narrated guide that combines a multi-chapter retelling of the dramatic 1869 expedition with stunning landscape photography, modern discoveries along the route, overview maps, and information about permits, shuttles, access points, rental equipment, guided trips, and further readings. Come celebrate the dramatic 1869 expedition by exploring the route and learning the story.

NOW AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE ON AMAZON.com

See more images from the route on Instagram by following @mikebezemek or clicking the image!

1869, PART I: THOSE EARLY, CAREFREE DAYS NEAR FLAMING GORGE

A lot of blank spots here • goodbye! (forever) • foreshadows of disaster • the first canyons • JWP’s triangulation face

On May 24, John Wesley Powell arrived on the recently completed railroad to a dusty Wyoming outpost of riverside shacks beneath a stark landscape of buttes and ridges. To Green River Station, Powell brought crates of equipment, rations donated by the War Department, four big wooden rowboats, and a goal to explore the last blank spot on the American map. Waiting for him was a ragtag crew of mountain men and ex-soldiers. None of these dudes had ever run a whitewater rapid, but they were preparing for the challenge like modern raft guides—by filling their own blank spots with every ounce of whiskey they could find.

The next morning, the crew felt a bit foggy while loading the boats on shore, as described by Jack Sumner, an ex-soldier turned mountain man who became lead boatman in Powell’s pilot craft, the Emma Dean. A few townspeople came down to the river to say goodbye (forever) to these hard-partying nutcases who were led by a serious one-armed Civil War major who was 35 years old and talked like a Victorian aristocrat. Said they were going a thousand miles all the way through the Grand Canyon? But everyone knew that river dropped over sheer waterfalls before plunging into the depths of the earth. A few townswomen may have crossed themselves and blessed these poor souls. A few townsmen may have called them idiots under their breaths, with a mixture of relief and regret they hadn’t been asked to come along.

Flaming Gorge, the first major canyon encountered by the Powell Expedition, as seen today from high ground.

The early days down the river were pretty fun. Sometimes boats ran aground on sandbars, and the men flopped in the water to push them off. Expedition camps were made in the willows. They gathered driftwood for fires and explored a barren landscape faintly dusted by spring grasses. Some of the men chased big horn sheep with rifles. They usually failed but occasionally got one for dinner. When the cook, a 20-year-old mountain man named Hawkins, alone carried in a sheep on day two, the others teased that he must have found it dead. Meanwhile, Powell scrambled around with a few men, looking for fossils amid crumbly slate formations, which the major thought resembled architectural forms and strange statues.

As the ten men in four boats progressed downriver, the bulk of the Uinta Mountains grew in the distance. There were occasional miscommunications between boats. Rowing the second boat, Maid of the Cañon, was George Bradley. He was a 32-year-old active sergeant from Massachusetts, who wrote the most thorough and complete journal of the entire expedition. In exchange for contributing his relevant experience in geology and running ocean fishing boats, Powell had arranged for his discharge from the U.S. Army. Joining Bradley was Powell’s younger brother, Walter, a former prisoner of war in South Carolina with lingering temper issues. On the second day, Bradley noted the pilot boat signaled danger, but he and Walter, “supposing it to be only a small rapid, did not obey immediately and in consequence [their boat] was caught on a shoal.” A minor incident, but one which foreshadowed later calamities.

Click to enlarge pages 42-43 from Paddling the JWP Route.

As they moved south, Powell describes—in limited journal entries, plus his 1875 published account—a brilliant red gorge, about twenty miles distant, where the river dramatically entered a mountain range. But first, a few miles upstream at Henrys Fork, the men retrieved a hidden gear cache brought in overland a few months before. Here it’s worth mentioning an occasional misconception about the expeditions. While the southern parts of the route—especially the rugged Grand Canyon—were mostly unexplored by Americans, much of the canyons, basins, and native tribes above Marble Canyon were in country known to white Americans through exploration and trapping.

Inside what they named Flaming Gorge, the river entered periodic chutes and rapids as the current hastened. The boats often shipped (or filled with) water and were bailed in eddies below. Rowing the third boat, No Name, was Oramel Howland. At age 36, he was the oldest man on the expedition, one of only four crewmen to not serve in the civil war. With experience as a mountain guide and newspaper man in Denver, Oramel’s job was to prepare maps from their surveys. In one of two highly detailed letters to Rocky Mountain News, Oramel wrote those first descents felt like railroad speeds of 60 miles-per-hour, adding this would come to feel slow compared to later rapids. This tendency to exaggerate speeds, distances, elevations, and experiences was a common theme throughout all journals and later accounts of the expedition—especially John Wesley’s. Thus, all subsequent retellings, including this one, involve a great deal of interpretation as they try to unravel fact and fiction. Basically, these guys were natural whitewater boaters—certainly in their bravado and confidence, even if raw in the river-running skills.

See more images from the route on Instagram by following @mikebezemek or clicking the image!

The river soon wound into Horseshoe Canyon, carving through startling white formations of limestone and shale. Then came Kingfisher Canyon, where swallows swarmed like bees around nests tucked into cracks of a rock dome that resembled a straw beehive. Today, Beehive Point is mostly a forgotten name on a map, and paddlers may only float above the landmark buried beneath Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Next was Red Canyon, with sheer sandstone walls, where the crew labored over the first few of about 100 portages and linings around increasingly challenging rapids. Here, Powell made a quirky discovery that may help distinguish his personality from most of the crewmen. As he’d been coming down the river, sitting in his armchair lashed to the deck of the Emma Dean, the major noticed how his perspective of approaching mountains shifted. When viewed straight-on, the inclination of the oncoming slope appeared to be excessively steep and the overall height seemed shorter. Not until the river passed beside the mountain, did the true slope reveal itself.

Click to enlarge page 101 and 178 from Paddling the JWP Route.

Somehow, Powell decided if he lay on his side, the triangulating effect between his two eyes allowed him a baseline to better estimate the true elevation of a summit. While the triangulation aspect seems questionable, Powell’s method of seeing the landscape anew has merit. By lying down to change his perspective, the altered vantage point could certainly have helped him estimate topographic elevations. It’s a method not unlike visual analysis techniques, where students are encouraged to rotate an image to help notice the details. Regardless, it’s somewhat comical to imagine that while Powell’s men were charging across the landscape after sheep, portaging massive rowboats around rapids, and eventually going hungry as rations diminished, they might have looked over and seen John Wesley, lying on his side in camp, staring sideways at mountainsides and jotting notes about topographic observations.

The 1869 adventure continues on page 56 with…

PART II: WELL, IT WASN’T NAMED DISASTER FALLS OUT OF IRONY

An oh-shit moment at Ashley Falls • a portal to glory or gloom? • yeah, it’s looking like the latter, boss • okay, who brought the whiskey?

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READ A REVIEW OF PADDLING THE JWP ROUTE

— MORE ARTICLES FROM THE ROUTE at Canoe & Kayak: A week across Flaming Gorge, a weekend expedition to Red Canyon, a highwater descent of Cataract Canyon, searching for a packrafting loop in Glen Canyon, and a winter trip through Grand Canyon.
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Make Your Own Adventure on the John Wesley Powell Route

In the second week of August 1869, John Wesley Powell and his crew of eight—down one man who departed after the Canyon of Lodore—camped for a few days at the Little Colorado River. Today, this tributary in the Grand Canyon is best known for summer rafters who swim through turquoise waters when the creek is low. But during Powell’s expedition, the monsoon was in full effect and the LCR was running high and brown…

Please continue reading on the Duct Tape Diaries blog at NRS.com!

Urban Overnight on the Lower American River

A plan B in Sacramento leads to an unexpected Weekend Expedition

As the three of us pushed off into the American River near the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, there was a slight hue of smoke to the pale sky. The result of late-summer forest fires still lingering across northern California. As summers went, mine had been full of plan Bs. Only a few months before, the motor on my ’99 Taco blew up on a cross-country road trip. My wife and I found ourselves semi-stranded in my hometown, a familiar land full of strangely expensive used vehicles…

How ‘Frankenstein’ Is Based on Real-Life Adventure Travel

Mary Shelley traversed glaciers, sailed Alpine lakes, and climbed peaks, taking notes every step of the way.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when she was only 20 years old, her celebrated novel is about an arrogant scientist who comes to despise his hideous yet sentient creation. But through countless adaptations, Mary’s most-famous story has become just as misunderstood and distorted as Victor Frankenstein’s so-called “monster.”

Please click here to continue reading at adventure-journal.com!

Nantahala River Plus Appalachian Trail in a Day?

A Weekend Expedition that redefines a classic North Carolina run
I was practically sprinting downstream in my packraft through dense fog, persistent rain, and increasing rumbles of thunder. Not only was this predicament unexpected, I wasn’t even sure I’d make it. But, to clarify, by make it I didn’t mean make it out alive. Or even make it to takeout before dark. By make it, I meant I wasn’t sure if I’d make it in time for a dinner date with my wife…

 

Weekend Expeditions: Red Canyon, Green River, Golden Opportunities

How many ways can you paddle this iconic river canyon on the John Wesley Powell route in northeastern Utah?
Can a paddler get too much of a good thing? I was wondering this as I started on my sixth overall pass–fourth on this early June weekend–through the startling sandstones and cliff-clinging pines of the Green River’s A Section in Red Canyon. It was Saturday evening and there were only a few scattered fishermen putting on, after a typical hundred-boater glut at mid-day. Like a magician, I’d saved the best for last–a bomber run in my Pyranha Machno. Though the real trick was convincing my worn-out wife to run this final shuttle down to Little Hole Rec Area.

Please click this link to read the story at Canoe & Kayak Magazine:

Red Canyon, Green River, Golden Opportunities

Weekend Expeditions: A Lees Ferry to Glen Canyon Loop?

The search begins for a new Colorado River adventure on the John Wesley Powell Route in Canoe & Kayak’s new series chasing two-day paddling adventures
I was in upper Ferry Swale Canyon, with packraft and camping gear on my back, following a sandstone ridge toward powerlines. The Colorado River was beneath the plateau and out of sight. In the distance, the golf course oasis of Page rose atop an orange hillside. I was definitely on track. But the deep sand I sunk into with every plodding step had fatigued my legs. Should I have just paid a hundred bucks for a backhaul motorboat ride up from Lees Ferry?

Please click this link to read the post at Canoe & Kayak MagazineA Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry Loop?