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.

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