Tuesday, January 17, 2012

John Wesley Powell Descends the Colorado River

This year we visited the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, a place which gets about 4.5 million visitors a year.  Most of these visitors never descend into the canyon and until a century and a half ago, most of the canyon had never been traveled by anyone.  Indians of the area descended into the canyon and even farmed and lived there in certain areas, but they were not able to and did not travel along the bottom of the canyon for any distance.  Travel at the time was in and out of the canyon but not along the canyon. 

John Wesley Powell changed all that.  The American Civil War had just ended and Powell who had  been a Major in the Union Army organized an expedition to explore the Colorado River and its tributaries.  The US was still relatively young.  Americans were still moving west and if the movement west was going to go forward in earnest then transportation routes were needed, not only to bring people into the region but also to export resources out of the region.  Major Powell was the man to find those transportation routes.
I knew the basics of Powell's story but after my own trip to the Grand Canyon, I pulled Powell's report of his journey off my book shelf where it had sat unread by me for a number of decades.  It was time to upgrade my knowledge of this piece of Western history.
I have not finished Powell's book so this is an incomplete report, but this being a boat related blog, I will focus on Powell's means of transportation, that is, wooden row boats.
Powells boats with one or two exceptions were 20 feet long, made of wood with extra frames added for strength. The front and back ends were decked over and closed off to form water-tight compartments in which food and gear were stowed.
The journey began on a tributary of the Colorado river in territory where the canyons were not yet as imposing as farther down the river.
The expedition's first camp is shown here.  Notably absent from the picture is any kind of plastic, a substance without which modern camping and river travel would be unimaginable.

As the journey progressed, the canyons became deeper and the expedition encountered falls and rapids.  The picture above shows one of the options for dealing with rapids, that is, to run them.
Other options for dealing with rapids were lining the boats down the rapids and portaging.  In either case, the usual method was to assemble the boats on shore at the head of the rapids and secure them while scouting the rapids.  Where possible, the boats were lined, that is, led down the rapids with lines tied to both ends of the boats. 
If the rapids were too severe the boats needed to be unloaded, the gear carried to the bottom of the rapids and then the boats.  All this took time and lots of work. 
Powell and his crew explored new territory and also inadvertently invented a new sport: river running.  This sounds like not that big a deal since totally inexperienced travelers now do this trip every year albeit with experienced guides.  But what made it different for Powell and his crew was that none of them knew whether their boats would survive the rapids or what the severity of the rapids would be.  They also lacked modern gear and were cut off from civilization for most of the trip.  Conditions were sufficiently horrid to make some of the men quit.
Photos are from the National Park Service site.


Unknown said...

This is a pretty interesting story. I knew about Powell before I moved out west, but after working on the Green River (where his journey started) and finaly seeing the Grand Canyon, I became even more impressed. I lived just a short walk from Expedition Island in Green River, WY where he launchd his boats. Even today the river can be menacing at times. I can't imagine what it was like before the river was mapped. Sadly, many of the native fish species of the Colorado watershed that Powell encountered are not doing so well.

Beer, Banjos, Boats and Biology

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