The middle part of this story is the best known. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag expedition of ten mountain men and ex-soldiers in four wooden rowboats down 1000 miles on the Green and Colorado Rivers. The crew became the first Americans to pass through what was then called Big Canyon. While camped at the Little Colorado River, Powell described it as the “great unknown,” and he later renamed it Grand Canyon.
The three-month trip came with many hardships and exhausting portages. By the time the expedition emerged from the Grand Wash Cliffs, near present-day Lake Mead, there were only six emaciated men in two boats. The three who left the expedition and hiked overland, a few days before, would never be seen again. And the story of this first descent soon became an American legend.
The basics of this adventurous story were all that I knew when I became a raft guide in California at age 20. The details remained scant (other than recognizing Powell really enjoyed topographic descriptions), when I put down his book after 50 dull pages. At the time, running whitewater seemed way more interesting. Years later, I was a transplanted teacher living in St. Louis. When some friends and I began exploring the Powell route with kayaks and rafts, I decided it was time to learn the full story.
Along the way, I discovered a few things. First, if you skip the opening 100 pages of Powell’s book, it gets pretty interesting. Second, Powell had an eventful latter life. After the 1869 river trip, Powell returned for another expedition in 1871-72. He later managed several geographic surveys of the west. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey. He started the Bureau of American Ethnology and recorded many aspects about Native American cultures and languages before the destruction from forced relocation by the U.S. Government. But other than a few books—like Powell of the Colorado by Darrah, Across the Hundredth Meridian by Stegner, and A River Running West by Worster—the early part of Powell’s story is commonly forgotten, despite containing some of his most adventurous episodes.
Fourteen years before plunging into the depths of the great unknown, Powell was a 21-year-old schoolteacher living near Decatur in Central Illinois. He was a transplant from western New York State, by way of southern Wisconsin, where his family had abandoned a 5-year stint as wheat farmers.
How to explore the western rivers and wilderness on the route of legendary explorer John Wesley Powell
You’ve probably heard the story. In 1869, a one-armed Civil War major named John Wesley Powell led a ragtag crew of mountain men and former soldiers 1,000 miles down the Green and Colorado rivers. Their goal was to explore the final “blank spots” on the U.S map, particularly the great unknown of what was then called Big Canyon. Wild rumors reported plunging waterfalls or that the river vanished into the earth.
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.
Part I: Solo trip or death sentence? • an eclipse on the river • just some regular old symmetry-focused topographic detective work.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”