Note To Dkos Readers: If you are just joining me for this series of diaries on, please read the introduction in the first diary (http://www.dailykos.com/...). I also recommend reading the ensuing diaries. It will help explain the essence of both the adventure and the social politics behind same.
The Green-To-Grand River Odyssey: At 6,100 feet above sea level, Green River Station to the bottom of the Grand Canyon was quite a drop in elevation. At the western province where the canyon terminates (at the Grand Wash Cliffs), the mean elevation is something like 700 feet above sea level. That expansive domain, aptly called the Great Unknown at that time, was the destination Major Powell and his men would one day explore. That is, if all went well. When he doffed his hat to the well-wishers who stood along the banks to see them off, the major felt his chances were good that he and his men would end up safe and sound. Then again, reports based on hearsay and laced with pessimism around that time suggested another outcome. In short, all bets were off the men would survive the ordeal. The odds also increased when it was discovered the commander of the expedition and his crew were not seasoned veterans of this kind of exploration. Yet the major gambled they would prevail and his also men bet on the same outcome.
Of the two rivers, the Colorado (which was then known as the "Grand River") and its deeper canyons was said to be the roughest by the few who ventured close to where the frenzy of its rapids could be seen or heard. The Colorado was also the least known, especially above Black Canyon (present day Lake Mead country). The characteristics of any river depend on the four features described earlier (i.e., the gradient, bed topography, constriction, and c.f.s.), also the debris and other hazards that account for rapids to form in select places. Through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado is classified as a pool and drop river, with long, serene stretches obstructed here and there with whitewater. Thus behind the whitewater the river pools and smoothes out.
Rapids form about ten percent of its length through the Grand Canyon. Yet they account for some fifty percent of the river’s drop in elevation. Because the pools of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are lengthy in places, the river drops about eight feet a mile through the canyon’s mile-deep interior. But just like measuring canyon mileage by way of trails, any kind of measurement in this domain can be seriously misleading, especially for novices who ply the river or the trails. These twenty or so miles of the Colorado River’s total rapids, that is, if they were all strung together, means (on average) the river falls a far more daunting forty feet per mile. Yet the overall drop seems far steeper than it really is.
Historic photo of river crossing, at Lee's Ferry:
Lee’s Ferry is some 3,000 feet above sea level, while Bright Angel, which is now the famous inner canyon mecca, Phantom Ranch, is 2,400 feet. The North Rim, some fourteen miles back from the river, rises 8,000 feet above sea level, and gets as high as 8,900 hundred feet in some places. Compare this to the 7,000 average along the South Rim. In this stretch alone, the river has dropped some six hundred feet, while the canyon rims are well over a mile high. Thus a mere forty-foot-per-mile drop is minuscule by typical whitewater standards. In fact, there are lots of other rivers that are much steeper with higher c.f.s.
Here, again, comparisons sometimes miss the point. In this case, comparing any river with the assiduous Colorado that patiently incises its way deeper into the inner canyon gorge, where the water pliably turns this way and that on its journey to the sea.
From the start to the finish, that is, from below Lake Powell in the east and Lake Mead in the west there are something like two-hundred and twenty five rapids that run the gambit anywhere from Class II to Class V rapids, with Class VI rated non-runnable. In this generous list are sixty Class V rapids. (This classification is sometimes rated on a scale of 1 to 10 and still puts some sixty of the rapids at or near the 9th level.) Because the river is constantly evolving, and because the colluvium (i.e., the debris flowing in from side canyons) is constantly pouring into the main channel, it means more wild and violent rapids are sure to be created over time, some of them overnight (i.e., Crystal rapid, just below mile 98 and formed in 1963). Now you get an even better insight to what kind of trouble Major Powell’s men got into even in Class III water.
Did the rapids and the potential peril of each outweigh the aesthetics along the way? Unequivocally, no. The major was cautious when he heard the report of the whitewater and got his first glimpse of the danger the Indian had spoke about, who may have been stretching the truth. It turned out the Indian knew what he was talking about.
Photograph of Major Powell and Chief Tai-gu, a Paiute Indian, (sometime before the 1871 expedition):
Yet the major was enamored by the beauty of those canyons he and his men rowed through, especially the Grand Grand. He likened the canyon to a library of the gods with some 10,000 gloomy, dark reading rooms. He may have had in mind the myriad solution caves punctuating the Redwall Formation. In his vivid prose and imagery Powell perceived something the others may not have tapped into, at least not to the depth he did.
One of the largest Grand Canyon Redwall Limestone solution caves:
What we of today take for granted as being accessible was anything but accessible in Powell’s time, including many decades after his expeditions were made famous. Here was one canyon and one overwhelmingly huge estate of geology that defied the Spanish conquistadors centuries before Major Powell came here, and would remain a nearly impenetrable island of rock with huge bites taken out of its features. It was therefore the prize that had to be won above all the other canyons that led to it. Much larger than a combination of a couple or few Eastern states, this frontier was an embarrassment to the government, since no one prior to Major Powell had ventured into this area with any intent to map and explore the terrain. Now you know a little more of what whet the passion and appetite for Major Powell to come and be the first to do what no other had done. Not even the prospector, James White. If anything, his epic and hair-raising adventure (if he even told the truth) was far to the west, where the Grand Canyon’s walls were nearly spent, as was the architect river responsible for its initial creation.
A Large Land Only Partially Explored, Though Mostly Unknown: Major Powell's 1869 expedition, as well as the reprise two years later, was formed to do a topographical survey and collect other science-based information (i.e., hydrography). Thus for the purpose of cartography. There were always charts of a kind that the Spanish entradas had previously made and used to navigate throughout the West and Southwest. When, in 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado heard rumors of a vast place where a large body of water ran, he immediately jumped to the possibility it might prove useful as a means to navigate down river toward Mexico. That was where a larger contingency of his fellow countrymen were. If the gold these ambitious men, and some say ruthless, sought did turn up, then the river in this ‘vast place’ was the perfect means to transport such wealth. Acting on his hunches, as well as his hopes, Coronado dispatched one of his captains, Pedro de Tovar, to confirm or deny the rumors. Tovar made it to Tusayan, which today is the tourist strip just outside the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Tovar wasn’t impressed with the poor settlement he stumbled upon but thought the local Indians might be able to locate the place and the body of water Coronado hoped to find. Upon Tovar’s return Coronado dispatched another one of his officers to the same region. This time it was Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who was the first European to set eyes on the future named, Grand Canyon of the Reo Colorado. His arrival was later in the summer, 1540. He, along with five of his men, plus a few Hopi Indian guides had reached what today is called Desert View in the eastern part of the South Rim. In spite of finding what he thought was the locale Coronado was eager to find, Cardenas wasn’t impressed with the vista before him. As for the body of water that was said to cut through its profoundly deep chasm, it simply wasn’t there. At least Coronado didn’t think the insignificant brown body of water he saw could benefit the Spaniard’s cause. From that sector of the canyon and overlook, the Colorado meanders like lazy river. Because of the distance, what looks like an indolent avenue of water of insignificant size is much, much larger and more vigorous. Cardenas’ perception was easily fooled and he estimated the source of water was around six feet wide. He was confident this wasn’t the river his superior, Coronado, sent him a long way to discover. But to his credit Cardenas accurately figured the distance from one rim to the other and pegged at some ten miles. Still, the Grand Canyon in his eyes was little more than a colorful barranca—a great gorge that simply wasn’t worth the time to explore. (But some of his men made a futile attempt to reach the water. Only they were forced to turn back late in the day. Swallowed by the immensity of the canyon, they soon realized those seeming blocks of rock their boss, Cardenas, claimed he could fit into the palm of his hands were, in their words, larger than the ‘Towers of Seville.’)
With a great deal of irony, the Indian guides with Cardenas knew much more about the canyon than what they had let on to the young commander, Cardenas. They were also directed by their tribal chief not to show and tell too much, for fear the Spanish interlopers might find a way into the canyon and possibly bring harm to the Havasupai Indians who lived in the western ramparts of the canyon. The Havasupais and Hopis were also on good terms and there was no way of knowing what the powerful conquistadors were capable of doing in their quest and presence in the Southwest. (In short, they came for two main reasons: to find gold and souls. The souls, as converts to the Catholic faith, would produce the labor to mine and transport the gold. That’s just the way assimilation of some cultures goes and such conquests have happened ever since one tribe or clan showed up in another’s territory.)
These conquistadors that launched their various entradas over time were well-organized, very determined, and knew how to rule an empire of thousands of men when they, themselves, numbered only a few hundred at the most. As soldiers of fortune and exploration, these helmeted men with their formidable weapons simply overwhelmed the native population wherever they marched. They also brought with them something the natives had never seen before: guns and horses; also, the hard-working burros. Another gain to their presence is the conquistadors made maps. The plunder they sought was reportedly part of the rich treasure cached in the so-called "Seven Lost Cities of Cibola" (also known as El Dorado or Quîvara). When found, these treasure seekers needed the maps to rely on, for supplies and other reinforcements, as needed. The maps would also reveal reliable water sources, like rivers and streams, that could be used in their efforts to transport the wealth to far off places where new ships would be built for the return to the Old World. That was the ideal plan anyway.
One river above all the others was prized and sought after. It was none other than the Rio Colorado—if only the Spaniards could find it and know for sure it was the Colorado. (There had been sightings of what might have been this river. Yet there was never any proof of this. Considering the Spaniards later in time called Cardenas’ barranca the Grand Canyon of the Reo Colorado, or something close to this modern day translation, its origins were obscure, and so was much of its final voyage after the river left the canyon it helped to create. In any event, it was never used for transport. At least not in the canyon country where it was considerably out of bounds to all but a relative few for many centuries after its discovery.
As it turned out, nothing was ever easy for the Spaniards who first came to the New World to seek its plunder and convert the natives to their way of faith, or else kill them. Since arriving in Spanish Florida (in 1528), and ruled over by its governor, Panfilo de Narvaez, these well-armed and well-trained newcomers decided they had to see more of the new country. In their explorations, the Spaniards would be invincible and the Indians could not protect themselves against a well-armed force of men.
Besides Coronado’s efforts to map the terrain he and his men covered, there were other Spanish explorers that combed and mapped other parts of the West and Southwest. Hernando de Alarcon was one of them. He had reached the real Rio Colorado on August 26, 1540, but he named it El Rio de Buena GuiaRio de Buena Esperanza—the "River of Good Hope." It was then the third name was assigned to the Colorado River by the Spaniards who chanced upon this same river at different times and places. The second name came from Melchior Diaz during the first entrada, when he called it Rio del Tison—the "Firebrand River." Both entradas were simply launched to conduct more exploration, more map-making, and more snooping around for precious metals. They were still unlucky in this undertaking, although they certainly produced a lot of maps and explored a lot of virgin country.
Yet another hundred or so years passed before the next momentous events occurred that centered around the, by now very famous, Rio Colorado. This time, a rather remarkable priest, Eusebio Francisco Kino, or Father Kino as he was more commonly known, spent some two decades in the region of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, in Old Mexico. Between 1687 and 1711 (the year of Father Kino’s death) he had made over fifty journeys throughout the region. Not only did he set up a plethora of missions along the way, as well as baptizing thousands of Natives to the Catholic faith, he did what the others before him had done: he mapped the territory enough to get around. He also explored some of the Colorado River territory, crossing the legendary river approximately thirty miles before its junction with the Gila River. He was on his way to California and his purpose was to determine if California was an island, as once it was reported, or was it a peninsula? Eventually, he discovered he could reach this province by foot, and therefore it wasn’t necessary to go by ships, which was what Francisco de Ulloa had figured centuries earlier.
What Fray Kino finally presented to posterity was the name Rio Colorado and shows up on Spanish maps.
After Fray Kino came Juan Bautista de Anza, in 1774, who was captain of the Presidio, at Tubac. He organized an expedition to establish a land supply route to California, thus officially opening the land passage that Fray Kino had determined many years earlier. Later, Fray Francisco Garcés, who was a Franciscan missionary at Mission San Xavier del Bac, near present-day Tucson, accompanied Captain Anza to the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. In 1776, Fray Garcés also sought a land route between New Mexico and California. His foray brought him up the Colorado River, where he reached a new Indian village where the Mojave Indians lived above present day Needles, California. He eventually made it to where he was going. He also explored a part of the Grand Canyon region, where the Havasupai Indians lived inside the canyon, at the bottom of the fifth formation down from the top, now called the Supai Group. They were the very Indians Tovar and Cardenas had also searched for, mainly because their home led into the unavailing abyss (it was to the Spaniards). Fray Garcés was lucky and he reached the Indian village on June 20, 1776. What he also witnessed in that vicinity was none other than the Rio Colorado. He was also the first European to come back to the Grand Canyon and lay eyes on the Colorado River and know that it was, indeed, the same river his predecessors had eagerly sought for centuries.
Finally, the famed Escalante-Dominguez expedition added the latest maps of the wide region in that same year. They were also seeking a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to California. While the two priests and their entourage never did make it to California, they eventually returned to Santa Fe and were reprimanded, though not blessed, for not succeeding in their mission, Frays Escalante and Dominguez had fortunately taken along a seasoned military engineer, who was also a map-maker. His name was Don Benardo de Miero y Pacheco, and it was largely his maps that became the standard of route finding in that vast territory up until the time of Major Powell’s expeditions.
The upshot of introducing this historical perspective is more than a rudimentary lesson about map-making. For centuries, the maps the Spaniards made were the only charts that were available. Even then those who navigated by these charts did so at their own peril, for there were many blank places in the maps that were represented by mere or suggested dotted lines. There was simply too much territory that wasn’t explored. Even if it was, a lot of guess work went into the maps. In some cases, the maps were drawn from hearsay. In extreme cases, it was simply a best guess estimate what the lay of the land was in reality compared to what the map indicated.
The Ensuing New Map Makers And Explorers: Returning to our story. . .with the exception of the Emma Dean, the freight boats were loaded, and some might say critically overloaded, with rice, flour, beans, coffee, lots of coffee, sugar, bacon, dried apples, and sundry scientific supplies (i.e., sextants, chronometers, barometers, thermometers, and compasses), as well as the crew’s personal and camping gear (i.e., tents, bedrolls, spare clothing and ponchos). The major included in the cargo the necessary tools for their planned ten-month odyssey (i.e., axes and saws, nails and screws, ropes, traps, gold-panning equipment); also rifles, pistols, muskets and plenty of ammunition. The Powell expedition was therefore well-equipped and prepared for just about any contingency. Most of what they took were evenly divided into the three freight boats, while the Emma Dean carried only a few of the scientific instruments, three guns, and three bundles of clothing for each of the three men aboard her. That way Major Powell’s scout boat had a greater advantage over the others (i.e., it was therefore more maneuverable). He also intended to keep the lead, a comfortable lead, to forewarn the other boats about the dangerous whitewater, including how best to run it.
A typical camp scene (taken during the 2nd expedition):
Some ten miles downstream from Green River Station the men made their first camp at the foot of an overhanging cliff. By then, they had already determined the weight of the freight boats was too much. They also figured they had too much food, so they promptly disposed of some of the extra rations into the river (about five hundred pounds of bacon). Then they redistributed some of the weight, so that the oarsmen might better manage their boats. But the boats were still too unwieldy. There was also a lot the men had to learn about running and reading the river. Regardless who among them had prior experience in boats, the men were all greenhorns when it came to this greenish-brown, swollen river that swiftly carried them on its back. The whitewater was still to come and entailed a crash course in how to handle the more temperamental stretches where time does a strange thing in the worst of the rapids: it seems to slow down and speed up at the same time. Naturally, it all depends on how one takes on the rapid. Sometimes the peril seems to take forever to transpire and sometimes it passes in the blink of an eye.
From the description of the accounts on that first day the men seemed to handle the task quite well. Major Powell must have felt pretty good about this somewhat singular and motley crew of varying talents and skills he signed on to do the work. He had to be smiling when he left civilization and took his men into a no-man’s land...that undiscovered country where no boatmen had ever gone before. Or so he assumed no one had ever run that river, or the one to follow it. He was mistaken about this, of course.
That first evening Oramel Howland and Bill Dunn set out to hunt for dinner but returned with one small rabbit. Sumner had noted in his diary what the hunters shot was slim rations for ten hungry men and would only get more slim as the days wore on. However, this contingency of scarce game to hunt was something none of the men had counted on.
The next few days were a mixture of rain and sunshine. Yet the men’s spirits were still not dampened. It was just a matter of trying to keep their personal gear dry, which sometimes wasn’t always possible.
On the fourth day of the excursion, May 27, the men had reached the junction of the Green River and Henry’s Fork. Major Powell and some of his men had been here the previous year. They had cached some provisions and instruments nearby and had scouted out some of the regional terrain, including this fork. To their delight, no one had touched the supplies, not even the animals. By then, the scenery had vastly improved from what it was. The men also yearned for a taste of running the canyons that were still ahead of them. They saw how cliffs that surrounded them steadily rose higher and the river had turned more sinuous, although there was still no whitewater to speak of. Instead, the Green River was deep and calm as a lake in most places, although still running swiftly through the new topography.
Beyond Henry’s Fork were scenic vistas beyond compare, like Flaming Gorge (now inundated by a huge, deep reservoir), Ashley Falls, Horseshoe Canyon, and Red Canyon’s soaring walls of red sandstone color. The men were making good time and had finally experienced scores of rapids, some of them bad, although none were considered to be impassable. Some rapids they ran, some they lined and portaged. These oarsmen were quickly learning how to read and handle the water and navigate through the rapids as they went along. When they came upon, what would later be called, Ashley’s Falls, they discovered the name, Ashley, scratched on one of the rocks, with the date 1825 beside the name. Some of the men thought the date was 1855. Major Powell and some of the others were aware William Ashley once ventured through this region, although they didn’t know too much more about him or what he had accomplished. From earlier reports the major read he assumed the falls where he and his men pulled over to scout was where Ashley had drowned, along with some of his men. However, such a tragedy never happened. All the same, Major Powell and the men found the falls to be unsettling. It was also the first place they had come to that looked perilous. Major Powell was wary of this place and took no chances in how to best negotiate a way past the danger. He decided not to run the rapids. Instead, the men portaged and lined (lowered) the boats to the bottom of the falls. Then on they went to the next rapids somewhere down river, never quite knowing if they would run them in the boats, or end up carrying heavy loads on their backs, or else lining down the boats one at a time to get them below the danger.
Ashley Falls historic photo (from the 2nd expedition):
Did Major Powell reckon he had anything in common with the legendary, Ashley? More than likely he didn’t. However, William H. Ashley was an important contributor to American West history and it’s not just how much the major knew about this early explorer.
Born in Virginia, in 1776, Ashley was a major figure in the fur trade who ventured west of St. Louis. He had explored part of this region in 1825. He, along with the likes of other now famous mountain men (i.e., Provost, Henry, Fitzpatrick, Bridger and Beckwourth, all of whom were mentioned earlier), had explored various parts of the Green River, including this cataract named after Ashley. They were undoubtedly the first white men to venture into this part of the region. At that time, the Green River was known as the Seedskedee Agie (or the "Prairie Chicken River" as the Crow Indians called it). The determined Ashley, who wanted to revolutionize the fur trade, had wandered, along with his partner, Andrew Henry, and some few others. They came through this part of the territory in 1824.
The entirety of this part of the country the Powell expedition rowed through was as remote as it was a curiosity to men like Ashley. His party was not here for exploration, as was Major Powell’s intention. It was business. These frontiersmen were after beaver, mostly. They were also looking for favored overland routes to the West and Northwest. Once located, these routes would make it easier to transport the furs and pelts to the East, where a lot of money could be made. But none of these men had ever bothered to map the terrain. Instead, Ashley and his men had relied on the likes of John King Robinson’s 1817 map of Mexico, Louisiana and the Missouri Territory. Much of this map and its reference was actually plagiarized from Miera y Pacheco’s work, who was with the famous Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776. In addition to stumbling onto the Seedskedee Agie, Ashley was interested in two other streams somewhere in the region, namely, the San Buenaventura, purportedly flowing from the central Rockies to the Pacific Ocean near Monterey Bay, and the Colorado, which Pacheco showed flowing into the Gulf of California. What Ashley knew of the Seedskedee Agie was that it flowed south into Mexican territory, at least that is what Thomas Fitzpatrick told him. He also discovered there were plenty of beaver still there, even though by the time he arrived there was clear evidence other trappers had already been there.
Now the Powell expedition of 1869 had come into this region. This was all the province of he and his men had named Flaming Gorge and Red Canyon. Because it was all new territory without names of prominent places, or even scenic icons, the men were eager to name just about anything. Either the major came up with the names, or else his men made suggestions. With respect to the treacherous falls they ran on the second of June, it was Ashley’s name on the rock that provided them with the namesake. One thing the major was sure of about that name was the fact he considered it a warning. What he and his men didn’t know was how some of these early explorers didn’t drown here. But they were river runners for a time. Bravely, Ashley and his men navigated part of the river on provisional bull-boats. These flat-bottomed craft were constructed from a framework of willow branches and buffalo hides. They also proved unworthy in any rough water, especially the likes of rapids. In fact, Ashley nearly drowned in one place, for he did not know how to swim. But Jim Beckwourth did know how to swim and chased after Ashley. Beckwourth almost drowned in the daring rescue attempt.
A week or so later the canyon that had trapped Ashley and his men had opened up. It was at that point when the Ashley party gave up their exploration along the Green River and went onto explore another part of the country. William Ashley embraced a new notoriety, for in time he had found success (i.e., established the famous Hudson Bay Trading Company), and was later elected to congress (in 1831).
The First Real Test: The Powell expedition continued down river. Before long, the sandstone country had opened to a place known as Brown’s Hole (today it’s called Brown’s Park). This hideaway nestled in the mountains the men discovered on June 3. In time, it would become a haunt for outlaws and cattle rustlers. Perhaps the most famous outlaw who would use the setting for his favored hideout was Butch Cassidy. But to Major Powell and the men it was idyllic country that would soon change into something more foreboding—Lodore Canyon. Here the two thousand foot-high cliffs closed in on the river and locked the sun away for most of its diurnal crossing. The Gates of Lodore was the entrance into this stone abyss. Its towering portal was also a foreboding sight to the men. Dark and shadowy, the interior of its dour setting would prove to be the first real test for the men, which they all pretty much realized in view of the spectacle that rose up on either side of the river.
Historic Gates of Lodore photo:
Another historic photo of Lodore Canyon (by O. E. Beaman):
The aforementioned Red Canyon, just upstream from Lodore, has lower walls and runs east-west, and means it receives ample sunshine. However, in Lodore the much taller cliffs run north-south, yielding an echoing fissure where the whitewater’s decibels roared and certainly had the men’s attention. Here, also, the Green River finally reveals its true might, as rapids, for they are nearly continuous. By that time, the Powell expedition had already noticed how the feature of the water provided them with a clue as to the nature of the water that lay ahead. Dark, smooth water was probably deep and therefore safe to run, while random ripples indicated there were rocks just below the surface. Contrast this with a smooth, rounded mound of water that usually signaled a large, and barely submerged rock. It is for this reason they watched for the V-shaped stretches of water where noise, foam, debris and standing waves awaited their passage, especially inside this lofty, narrow canyon. These smooth tongues of water that stretched out at the top of the rapids were usually wide at the top but narrowed downstream wherever the river squeezed itself between nearby obstacles. Either the four boat crew would aim for one of the more obvious V-shaped approaches, or they would pray, portage, or line the boats through the danger. Of course, once they set their minds and chose a course to run the rapid, there were often many surprises in store for the crews of the four boats. Sometimes the waves of the rapid came at the boats all at once. Sometimes there were fierce whirlpools or deep holes in the way. And sometimes there was so many rocks and boulders in the channel it was nearly impossible to slip through the obstacle course without hitting something potentially damaging, or even life-threatening.
In short, the way the water tended to pool behind the rapid quickly revealed a not-so-forgiving and challenging passage the men were committed to negotiate in one of three ways (i.e., to run the rapid, or else line or portage). With boats that were anything but manageable in whitewater the danger increased, just as the riddle of each rapid created the same or different problems every time the men rowed into them. Factor in the accelerated c.f.s., the hydraulics of the water, and how the bed topography sometimes bent the river this way or that. The way the water slammed into the walls was the way the boats did not want to follow. In all, those frequent rapids inside the narrow confines of Lodore posed a ready recipe for danger, even in modest-sized rapids.
It was a poem, The Cataract of Lodore, by Robert Southey that had inspired Andy Hall to suggest a name to the major for this canyon. (If interested in reading this lyrical and imaginative poem, you can find it at this website: http://www.bartleby.com/...) Apparently, it was a perfect moniker to describe the legion of cataracts that awaited the men. The worst of the worst they cautiously advanced on June 8. They were all in agreement this rapid was the most ominous one to day. It would be called Disaster Falls. This now famous stretch would pull one of the boats into its fierce hydraulics and break it in half, as though the boat was made out of balsa wood. The story is, perhaps, the second most important lamentable incident of the expedition and will be highlighted at this time, simply because historians consider what happened here was telling, that is, given what happened here was prophetic for what would eventually happen to some of the crew toward the end of the voyage.
An Aptly Named Rapids: When the more agile scout boat, the Emma Dean, pulled to shore to warn the other boats of the approaching danger, the No Name’s crew tried to escape the stationary maelstrom of fast-flowing water but were quickly pulled into it. Major Powell’s flag signals were to no avail, for the Howlands could not stop what was about to happen. Suddenly, the No Name hit a rock, tipped upward, then soon filled with water. The men lost their oars and were utterly helpless to do anything to try to save their craft. The boat and its besieged crew raced sideways down the rapid, crashed into another rock, then instantly broke in half. The three men who rode the boat through the raging water were forced out of its cockpit and none of them had life jackets. In fact, none of Major Powell’s men had life jackets. Because he was restricted to just one good arm, perhaps he thought it was in his best interest to have an edge. Still, running rapids without a life jacket for anyone is tempting fate, while counting on luck or grace to survive the kind of mishap the No Name’s crew experienced.
Historic drawing of Disaster Falls:
Historic photo of the falls (O.E. Beaman):
Down the raging rapid the three men floated. A few hundred yards later they were in another strong secondary rapid (Lower Disaster falls) that was gorged with huge boulders. The men tried to hang onto whatever was left of the No Name. At one point, the river carried them near a sandbar, much like a mini-island in the middle of the river. Oramel let go and managed to make it to shore. Frank Goodman tried the same move but missed and soon vanished into the river. About a hundred yards farther downstream Seneca Howland managed to pull himself onto the same sandbar. Then Goodman reappeared a few seconds later, only he clung to a large rock in the middle of the torrent. Oramel found a branch and waded back into the river as near Goodman as he dared. As the branch was extended toward him, Goodman finally let go of his precarious perch, bravely dove for the branch, and was pulled to safely. All three men were temporarily safe, except they were marooned on a small island with a wild river all around them. Worse than this, the river was rising and Major Powell and his men knew something had to be done about the situation, or else the three men would be the first casualties of the trip that was still in its infancy.
It was Jack Sumner who decided to risk the danger and go and rescue his comrades. After unloading the Emma Dean, he managed to cut a diagonal path to the island from below the cataracts. When he reached the island, which was no easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, the men were aboard and now were set to test the rapids once more, as well as to rely on Sumner’s ability to return them to safety. He did. Major Powell’s published memoirs years later spoke of how glad all the men were just to be able to shake hands. Nonetheless, the No Name was wrecked, the three crewmen were spared, and Sumner was the hero who risked his own life in reaching the Howlands and Goodman, then getting them back to shore.
It was Sumner’s typical modesty in how he wrote about the event in his journal. He always referred to himself as ‘the trapper’ and never used his own name. Seneca was the last man to leap to the safety of the sandbar and it was feared he, more than the other two, might have drowned on that day and in that fearful rapid. Sumner also noted in his entry how Seneca had a brief second to escape the danger. Otherwise, he would have been flushed down the river and more than likely ended up drowning. You can tell by Sumner’s curt remarks that he liked Seneca very much, as they all did, and thought he was a ‘true man as can be found in any place.’ Sumner’s testimony would also be illuminating in the way of a characterization and defending Seneca later in the journey, also Oramel and Bill Dunn. Suffice it to say at this point all three men would make a momentous decision that would put their characters in question.
Now that the men were all safe there was another serious problem: what remained of the No Name was obviously useless and the ten men were down to just three boats. In defense of what had happened, Oramel claimed (to the others) there was no time to bail and therefore the once sturdy freight boat was unmanageable. That is, he and the others could not reach the shore as the other three boats had managed to do in the nick of time. The question that haunts historians today is whether or not Major Powell’s signal was seen by the crew of the No Name in a timely manner. Certainly, the way the Whitehalls handled in rough water was dreadful, and this stretch of bad water seemingly all at once had worked against the Howlands and Goodman in escaping the danger. There was also the fact that maybe none of the crew in any of the three freight boats had seen the signal in the first place. Instead, the ‘Sister’ and the ‘Maid’ had fortunately pulled to shore in time, which was when they noticed the Emma Dean was already there. The major was waiting for the last boat to arrive before determining how to run the rapid.
This irksome mishap would continue to haunt the men from that day forward. In the meantime, about a half mile downstream from Disaster Falls they had spotted what remained of the wrecked boat. The No Name, or what was left of it, was in the middle of the river, wedged into some rocks, and reduced to a few battered boards and the splintered stern bulkhead. Major Powell decided there was no use trying to salvage whatever remained of its cargo, including most of the three crew’s personal gear, which was also lost in the pileup. About a ton of cargo, one-third of the total weight the four boats originally carried, was taken by the river. Food, three rifles and a revolver, ammunition, all of Oramel Howland’s maps to date, half the mess kit, and many of the scientific instruments were in the No Name when it met its end. The three lucky crewmen who survived were now down to nothing more than their underwear and whatever extra clothing the other men in their company could provide them.
Needless to say, this was the blackest day of the excursion. Major Powell was despondent and for good reason. Initially, he wanted to ensure all three freight boats divvied up the supplies, just in case such an accident might occur. It did. But he soon discovered all three barometers had been placed in the forward watertight compartment of the No Name and now the fundamental purpose of the exploration, as a scientific expedition, was in jeopardy. These instruments were essential to this survey, because they were used to show the river’s altitude, and therefore how much farther the river had to fall before it reached the sea. Now that they were lost or damaged the excursion could not continue, that is, as a scientific expedition, until, and if, he could replace the precious and valuable instruments that were loaned to him by the institutions that had helped to finance and supply the expedition.
Once more, Jack Sumner came to the rescue, for he volunteered to retrieve whatever cargo was still left in the No Name. This stalwart achievement took place on the following day, June 9. When he and Andy Hall reached the wreckage they found the three barometers intact. In addition to this risky adventure to retrieve the instruments, were two thermometers, one pair of boots, some sole leather, and one special prize the men all cheered about when Sumner held it up for display—an untapped two-gallon cask of whiskey that Oramel Howland had smuggled aboard at Green River Station. As the major would later state in a letter he had published with the Chicago Tribune (August 20, as written on June 18 of that year), what the men were really shouting about was Jack’s finding and bringing back the booze. Wisely, he let the men celebrate the prohibited cache because of the situation they had all faced as well as the inclement weather.
So, the uncertainty comes down to whether or not Sumner really went after the scientific instruments, or was it the booze? Fortunately, when the No Name was destroyed the men still had plenty of provisions left. They could hunt and replenish their stores with what they all wanted anyway — fresh game. Of course, there were also the vouchers that Major Powell could draw on available rations and supplies at any Army post along the way. Moreover, these chits were for twenty-five men and not just ten. This incentive, alone, along with the original Agreement among some of Major Powell’s men had signed in order to get paid for specimens they killed, or even a chance to pan for gold, pretty much locked all of the men into the doing of the deed until it was finished. Unfortunately, as things turned out there was very little fresh game that was killed from start to finish, although the fishing, at times, wasn’t too bad. For a time, fowl (mostly ducks and geese) were plentiful and a welcomed change of diet. But mountain sheep and deer were not. Beaver and rabbits were also shot whenever the men could find and kill them. It was the meat of small or large animals, including fowl, that the men loved more than anything else. Fish would do in a pinch. As for the rations they had to depend on until such fare was brought into the camp by any of the hunters, at best such stores were mildly tolerated.
Another disappointment the men faced was the fact there were no pelts to be taken, since the game, especially bears, were rarely seen. Likewise, there was no booty—gold or silver—to be found, much less the time and energy to search for it. What the Agreement originally specified was a desirable outcome at best, especially in light of how the expedition soon turned into an exigency to stave off the heat and starvation that assailed the men, and to complete the trip as soon as possible. More about this point further along.
More Peril To Come: Beyond the disastrous Disaster Falls were other menacing rapids that had to be run in whatever way the men could negotiate a safe passage through these roiled segments. This part of the Green River also threw one surprise after the other at the men and they were forced to endure the challenge. There was simply no way to back out of the deeply cut and slender canyon that continued to keep the sun out of its interior for most of the day. From here on, the men lived in a near perpetual state of suspense. As the river twisted through the labyrinth of high walls that closed in on the river, the blare of the rapids and the foaming whitewater pretty much lined the way. Bradley wrote on June 10th how the river through the canyon wasn’t a succession of rapids, but one continuous rapid. He was only slightly exaggerating. Still, Lodore is one of the shortest canyons of the Green River, yet its bed topography and debris in the channel created a lot of rough water the men had to constantly deal with.
The stringency of the exploration took its toll on the men. Sometimes the boats were damaged by rocks and had to be repaired before rowing or lining down yet another rapid. To fix the boats also meant another delay beside another loud rapid that more than likely privately addled some of the men. Sometimes a full day’s labor would advance the party by a mere mile or two. Making matters worse, the hunters usually brought back no fresh game to supplement the rations. On June 13th Bradley complained how there was still no fresh game served on their dinner plates. He also mentioned why he felt the hunters luck was bad. Bradley thought if all of them were more quiet, especially when rowing to shore, then the animals wouldn’t hear them coming. Such noisy fanfare, however, was why the game always had time to get away. Moreover, he stated the hunters tended to start shooting their rifles almost as soon as their feet hit the ground which is why he equated them to mere school boys on a holiday. Before he stopped writing that entry, Bradley admitted that he, himself, wasn’t a hunter and he really didn’t have the right to criticize the others. Then again, he wrote that he was certainly entitled to his opinion about the matter. One gets the sense from that entry Bradley was not confrontational or critical of others. At least not to their faces.
In addition to the lack of fresh game meat, the rapids were also becoming more perilous to get through by any means. The rapids were also nearly constant. The men had to wonder if the greatest loss in elevation might not happen in this canyon and therefore not unfold in the thousand or so miles from the start to the finish line. The fact was, the rapids were getting worse. Before long they were into what would later in time be called Triplet Falls. This segment of whitewater marked the place where three falls were in close succession to one another. The continuum of these rapids also posed the greatest danger since Disaster Falls.
Every rapid has its own characteristic, pretty much like every trail has its own personality. In this case, the main current of Triplet Falls, the rapid, led into the cliff and could easily flip any boat that ran into the wall. That likelihood was just the first part of the long rapid. Because of the nature of this stretch of whitewater, the men were forced to portage around the first rapid, then line down the second and third parts. Beyond this rapid was another devil of a rapid called, Hell’s Half-Mile. It was situated where the channel was choked with many large-sized boulders and was considered to be one of the most difficult rapids on the river the men had thus far encountered. Here was an exceedingly long rapid that growled and bared its teeth, as obstacles in the way; a seemingly endless stretch of white foam that demanded memorizing for boatmen to try to get through its maze. Here Major Powell and his men also lined the boats as a precaution. Besides the friction of the ropes burning their hands, the men risked breaking their bones or badly scarring their legs on the slippery rocks along the way. Worse than this, the possibility of getting their feet caught (i.e., foot entrapment) in a rock, and then drowning, was always on the back of their minds. Sometimes one of the boats even broke free and the men could only wonder what its fate would be when they managed to snag it back again, that is, if the river didn’t completely destroy the vessel. On that particular day, the Maid Of The Canyon did break free when she got crossways in the waves. In his journal entry that day, Sumner equated the boat to a frightened horse.
The reason the Maid of the Canyon broke free was because the men had paid out too much line and the strong current of the water snatched the boat for itself. It turned out to be a tremendous tug-of-war between five strong men and one very potent river. At first, the men gave up the ‘Maid’ as lost. But after a half mile’s chase they found her trapped in an eddy, worse for the wear and tear on her planking, but still afloat and placidly spinning in the water.
An All-Out Rout By A Sudden Conflagration: That night, June 16, the men camped at the mouth of a small brook. They had hoped the worst was over, but they might have felt this same way during most of the preceding days that were particularly difficult to get through. The following day they faced more rapids, but at least some of them were manageable and the four boat crews were able to run them. Two days later, the men were at a campsite and eager to take a break from the river that seemed never to tire of the kind of punches it threw at the men. It was a pretty campsite that was about a quarter of a mile long and some fifty yards wide. Thick with trees, mostly willows, cedars and pines, it had also an abundance of sagebrush and grass that suggested a welcome to the men to camp here. They always looked forward to sleeping on grass, as opposed to the sand, for obvious reasons.
Downstream was another singing rapid that would have to be run the following day. For the time being, campsite was a small slice of heaven for the men, that is, until all hell broke lose.
Hawkins started a camp fire to prepare lunch for the men. Meanwhile, Major Powell had ventured off to explore and conduct more of his scientific interests. The boats were unloaded in order to dry out the gear. Not too long after Hawkins made a fire, a gust of wind suddenly swept up the river and sent embers flying everywhere. In an instant, the entire camp went up in flames. Hemmed in by towering cliffs, the men could not run inland and escape the peril. Instead, they raced toward the boats. It was sheer chaos and a fair amount of panic as the flames devoured anything and anyone in their path. Hawkins grabbed as much of the mess kit as he could carry and ran for his boat. But the flames had beat him to it and had already burned through the ropes that moored the boat. It was free in the water and he leaped toward it but lost his balance in the attempt. Falling into the water, he emerged empty handed and the mess kit was now another trophy claimed by the river. Fortunately, Andy Hall was aboard and kept the boat upstream of the rapid. Hawkins climbed into it and he and the other men in the boats pulled back into shore a short distance downstream. But the wind and the raging inferno was invincible and had already reached this spot. The fire forced the men to go back to the river and head downstream.
Historic drawing/depiction of the camp fire:
From high above Major Powell had seen the smoke and fire and wondered what had happened. More precisely, he may have wondered what was going so terribly wrong with the expedition on this river, as well as in this strange and seemingly bewitched canyon that was more of a nemesis than a mere creation of nature.
Eventually, the men pulled back to shore again and had managed to negotiate the rapids and escape the holocaust. However, their valiant efforts to save what they could, including themselves, came with a heavy price. They had lost valuable plates and utensils, as well as the mess kit. Some of them were singed and hairless in places. On June 17 Oramel Howland composed a letter to his employer, the Rocky Mountain News. He spoke of the loss of most of the utensils and how they were down to a gold pan for making bread, one baking oven and its broken lid, a kettle for boiling water, and sundry and few other items. He also stated how they had to improvise with what they had left in order to get by. However, he didn’t appreciate the fact Hawkins sometimes used some of the articles for his own makeshift spoon and to clean his teeth. Howland’s wry commentary more or less took the edge off of things. The humor was helpful, although this second major incident in Lodore clearly reduced the men’s rations, supplies, and equipment that would eventually have to be replaced. At least that was the plan most likely on all of their minds after it was all said and done.
To be continued tomorrow (posting in the late afternoon). As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.
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