Braving the Canyon

All world explorers have great stories to tell – of braving the unknown, facing incredible odds, possibly never to return. Even the preparation for these journeys amazes me; I simply can’t fathom how you even begin to pack for a trip that doesn’t allow for stopping at a Wal-Mart when you realize you’ve forgotten something critical. Complicate that further by limiting your provisions to only what you can stow in a very small space and it’s amazing that some of these people ever returned at all.


One story I’m fascinated with is John Wesley Powell, who chose to explore The Grand Canyon the hard way – by sailing four wooden rowboats down the Colorado River that cuts through it. He led nine men on a 99-day trek through these rapids in the summer of 1869. All they knew going in was the total distance of the canyon; the cuts and turns of the river were a complete unknown.

As Powell wrote in his journal, “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. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”

gcanyon2As gorgeous as the views were, the sailing was rarely pleasant. They often found flat banks for camping at night, but the narrower the path became, the higher the walls rose above them, making it certain that whenever they were in the most danger they were also without an escape route.

Every sharp bend of the river was sure to have large rocks jutting out, waiting to be smashed into. Where the rapids merged, eddies spun their boats around “like little toys.” And the waterfalls!

gcanyon3With the rock walls stretching a mile straight up on either side, currents too strong to fight pushing you onward, with nowhere to run, nowhere to even rest and get their bearings, they had but one choice. “Better to go over with the boat … than wait for her to be broken to pieces.” Yep, they rode over the waterfalls, doing what little they could to keep the boats level so they wouldn’t hit the bottom nose-first and be lost.

Naturally, when they heard the falls in the distance, they did everything they could to stop and scout the area first. Toward the end of the journey, they stopped just shy of the worst rapids they’d encountered yet. They could see a dam created by fallen boulders, creating “a broken fall of 18 or 20 feet; then there is a rapid, beset with rocks, for 200 or 300 yards, while on the other side, points of the wall project into the river. Below there is a second fall; how great, we cannot tell.” Beyond this laid another 200 yards of rapids and yet another waterfall.


Not wanting to lead his men into certain death, Powell spent the afternoon climbing the granite walls, trying desperately to find a vantage point that would show a peaceful stretch of river beyond the falls. He pushed too far, however, and found himself stuck, suspended 400 feet above the river. His men scrambled to the top of the gorge, lowering a rope for him, but he could not let go of the rock to grab it.

Why? Powell only had one arm. His other had been blown off by a cannon ball in the Civil War!

So there he dangled until his men devised a plan of wedging their oars into the crevices, thereby holding him against the wall until he was able to let go of the rock and be pulled up by the rope.

All that and they still had to brave the impossible falls the next day. 

Inside walls of the Grand Canyon just above President Harding Rapids on Colorado River

They managed it, of course. After three months of sailing through what Powell called, “our granite prison,” they came at last to The Grand Wash, the end of their journey. Powell’s journal entry that night summed up the expedition:

“Ever before us has been an unknown danger, heavier than immediate peril. Every waking hour passed in the Grand Canyon has been one of toil … endured in those gloomy depths. … Now the danger is over, now the toil has ceased, now the gloom has disappeared. … The river rolls by us in silent majesty; the quiet of the camp is sweet; our joy is almost ecstasy.”

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