We’ve got an autographed black and white photo of John Wesley Powell above our water cooler at the office in Salt Lake City, and no one around here will confess they forged it. Every time we fill our water bottles we get a wink and a nod from ol’ J.W.
A sculpted bust of him (donated by a Western River guide), proudly displays our “Best River Outfitter in the State of Utah” awards since they began giving them out. Powell looks stoically proud (if not surprised) to have started all of this. I bet he wishes he could run it all again… He’d do it better with each trip, exploring something new each time…What did John Wesley Powell do 150 years ago that made him “grandpa” to all of us in the river running industry? If you want one of the best overall visual summaries I’ve ever seen of the Powell expedition, I recommend you get the Ilustrated Map and Adventure Anthology published by Time-Traveler Maps. They are available in our Moab Adventure Center store in Moab, Utah – or online at our RedrockOutfitters retail store. Contact us directly if you don’t see it for purchase and we’ll handle your order. Artwork by Glen Hopkinson from this foldout map anthology are used in this post below.
In brief, after the Civil War, Powell took it upon himself (with official recognition from Congresss, and on behalf of the Normal College of Eastern Illinois) to map the last un-mapped region of the West. At the time, the rugged region of broken canyons was marked on maps only as “The Great Unknown”. The map below reviews their route into that unknown:
Why was it the only region still unknown? Because, as Powell had deduced by trying to explore the canyons by land, the best way to access the thousand-foot-deep canyons of the West would be by river. The same rivers that Native American legends claimed went underground in some places, or over thousand-foot falls… Powell was willing to gamble that they could do what had never been tried before.
Powell’s expedition of ten men, including himself, began on May 24 in the name of the natural sciences, naming everything they saw that was noteworthy – and they named nearly all of it. “Disaster Falls” was one of the early rapids to get a name…
By the end, on August 30, 1869, only six of the original ten remained. Frank Goodman (a last minute addition who met Powell on the train headed west) had his fill of adventure after nearly drowning in Disaster Falls, taking a known route across friendly Ute lands back toward Vernal, Utah where he settled and raised a family. Many weeks and many canyons after Goodman left amicably, three more crew men decided their fates were better off hiking out than continuing by river with an increasingly agitated and disagreeable Powell. Those three men (Oramel and Seneca Howland and William Dunn) were killed mysteriously near the rim of Separation Canyon at about the same time the boats reached the end of the canyon at Grand Wash Cliffs. At that end, they were finishing more for survival than for science, or congressional recognition.
Though not without controversy and loss, the expedition was, overall, a success. All told, no other exploratory first descent river expedition has come close to opening up as many unknown canyons as Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. His expedition not only mapped the “Great Unknown” region of the West, but showed thousands of river-runners since then, that the rivers and canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers were indeed…runnable.
But the bustling river running industry today didn’t immediately spring up to begin taking tourists down the river. There’s one-hundred and fifty years of history between then and now to catch up on. More on that part of river running history to come in future posts. You may be surprised to learn that even a hundred years after that first expedition down those canyons and rivers, only about a hundred people had ever followed his course. Think of it… by 1969 we had sent men to the Moon, but river rafting was only in its infancy as a popular vacation choice. Desolation Canyon, Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon (from the river at least) were still only beginning to be really discovered by the general public. Add another 50 years more and things have changed again; the Moon is as close to becoming a vacation destination as the heart of Grand Canyon was in Powell’s time. 2019 is also the year that the world’s first transcontinental railroad pounds a Golden Spike in the same 150 years of celebration.
Those first trains that introduced the masses to the West with Manifest Destiny, first brought the one-armed Major Powell and his wooden boats to Green River Station to discover the unknown. Fortunately that experience is in many ways still alive on every modern-day rafting trip through the canyons. It could be argued that in comparison to Powell’s day these special places have been invaded by tourists, but if what the tourist takes away from a wilderness river rafting experience is a renewed sense of their own spirit, renewed faith in their fellow-man, and exposure to nature’s pace that is simply unrivaled in any adventure vacation anywhere on the planet today, then the risk of exposure to the masses (one wilderness experience at a time) is worth the reward. Many today, just like in Powell’s time, speed across the bridges over these canyons and rivers still don’t notice the small groups of boats heading down river. Next time you cross a bridge, look down the river and ask yourself if you’d be willing to go wherever the river took you – at whatever pace it wanted – just to know what’s around that next bend. Do you know Desolation Canyon? Cataract Canyon? Are you ready for this? (We will help you get ready). You might wonder what will happen to you if you take on such an adventure… but the more important question to ask is what will happen to you if you don’t?
Some twenty years after Powell’s adventure, after all the blank places in the map had been named, after all the unknown had become known, he was pressed to publish his journal in popular form – not the scientific papers he had previously published. Powell writes the preface to his book, “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” as though he were never as alive as much as when he and his crew were half-dead in the glorious half-light of canyon walls; surrounded by a wild and free river running endlessly past their camp and staring at endless stars in the crack of sky above them:
“Many years have passed since the exploration, and those who were boys with me in the enterprise are – ah, most of them are dead, and the living are gray with age. Their bronzed, hardy, brave faces come before me as they appeared in the vigor of life; their little but powerful forms seem to move around me; and the memory of the men and their heroic deeds, the men and their generous acts, overwhelms me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a fountain of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, these good men never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind service was rendered to me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon.
To you – J.C. Sumner, Willian H. Dunn, W.H. Powell, G.Y. Bradley, O.G. Howland, Frank Goodman, W. R. Hawkins, and Andrew Hall – my noble and generous companions, dead and alive, I dedicate this book.”
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