The Colorado River and J. W. Powell

Retracing the Last 100 Miles Of John Wesley Powell's Journey

Text and Photos by John Thomas

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell set out from the banks of the Green River with nine men and four boats. A one-armed veteran of the Civil War, Powell was a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. His goal was to observe the geology of the Colorado River region. His expedition was the first to map the Grand Canyon.

On May 24, 1998, Kathy and I joined 30 other vacationers in two large rafts to retrace the last 100 miles of Powell's journey. We had never seen the Grand Canyon and wanted our first perspective to be from the river. Powell arrived at the Grand Canyon after 81 days of travel through the Green and Colorado rivers, having lost one boat and more than a third of his supplies to the rapids. He wrote, "We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire. We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled. The few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun and reshrunken to their normal bulk. The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage: they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry when we make a portage."

Colorado River

Kathy and I arrived at the canyon after a one hour plane ride from Las Vegas. We landed on a dirt strip at a working cattle ranch about 10 miles north of the canyon rim. With no towns for 80 miles, the Bar 10 Ranch is a popular staging point for river trips. They offer horseback rides, hikes in the afternoon and tall tales told by weathered cowboys. College kids working the ranch feed the tourists and stage a Wild West Show in the evening. We spent the night there in a covered wagon. After breakfast and a shower, we lined up for a 6-minute helicopter ride into the canyon to our rafts. We'd been told to limit our luggage to 15 pounds each. The river guides would supply us with life jackets, cots, sleeping bags and all the food we could want.

As our helicopter passed the lip of the canyon and began descending, the scale of the canyon became apparent. It's overwhelming. It's the biggest thing anybody's ever seen. The walls rise so steeply and close that walking in or out seems impossible. The air is so clear that canyon walls many miles away appear vivid. This view must affect everybody similarly -- 129 years ago, Powell wrote, "We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders."

Colorado River as seen from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Colorado River as seen from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

The Colorado River that Powell rode is not the same today -- 190 miles upstream of us, the Glen Canyon Dam has tamed the river. Flash floods can still occur, but seasonal peaks in flow are gone. Water is diverted for cities and for desert irrigation. The river's flow is now determined by the air temperature. On very hot days, electrical demand for air conditioners increases, and the dam releases more water through its generators. The rapids are still there, but are known precisely by the guides. The rafts we ride may occasionally be flipped, but this is a rare occurrence. Our guides seem to aim the rafts for the worst of the waves in order to give us a more exciting ride. We're far from being in survival mode.

Still, we feel a sense of adventure. The river ahead of us is smooth and quiet before vanishing around a bend a half mile away. Before we can see them, we can hear the rapids; a continuous rumbling, crashing roar. A freight train crossing the road. Other than this sound, the canyon is silent. We realize that we'll soon be immersed in the source of this sound, which cannot yet be seen. The volume of the noise at this distance is ominous. I can't help but think of Powell and his men, feeling this same sense of the immediacy of their destiny. While I'm fairly sure that we'll live through the next few minutes, Powell could not have shared my confidence. Near this spot he wrote, "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 ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly."

Our raft follows the river around a bend, and the rapids come into view. The crashing of the water becomes much louder. We can hear it even above the raft's outboard motor, which is now running at high speed. Our guide reminds us to hold on. The river ahead is foam. The downhill slope through the rapids is apparent. The far end is clearly lower than we are. This difference in elevation drives the water at a furious pace.


The smooth water of the river extends into the rapids in a long tongue. As the roiling waters close in on our sides, our speed increases and the river banks rush by in a blur. Ahead, a depression in the water becomes visible. As we approach, it seems deeper and deeper. We enter the rapids by dropping into this hole and then running up over a mountain of water behind it as the river careens over unseen obstacles. The raft jumps and tries to throw us. White water fills the air. The air temperature is over 90 degrees F, but the water is only about 55. We catch our breath as solid waves of water wash over us. There is no sound now, as all concentration is focused on the water ahead, the water being thrown at us and our strained grips on the raft.

Rafting the Colorado River

And then we're through. The bucking ceases. Sound returns. Voices and arms are raised to celebrate our deliverance. We turn to watch the other raft run the same course. Somehow it seems their passage wasn't as violent as ours. I'd felt my legs were thrown in the air at each huge mogul of water, only my grip keeping me aboard. I didn't see that happen on the other raft, but their reaction upon reaching the calm was the same as ours. We encounter rapids several times an hour. Some are wild roller coasters, some merely watery washboards that cover us with icy spray. All are exhilarating. We're explorers. There is no sign of any human life, and it's easy to believe that nobody has ever been here before.

Between these short bursts of excitement, calmer interludes allows us to wonder at the vast expanse of time displayed in the layered canyon walls. The cliffs beside us are 800 feet tall. Beyond and above them are more cliffs of equal or greater height. Each ribbon of color in the rock represents millions of years of sediment, with deeper layers being older. Fossils of dinosaurs are found only in the uppermost layers. The rock we see beside us is older than life. We take a lot of pictures. I have my underwater camera. The guy beside me watches water drain from his 35mm after a set of rapids. It still makes clicking noises when he pushes the button, so he points and hopes.

We stop for the night beside Pumpkin Spring, a travertine pool. It's a natural hot tub, with walls of limestone that precipitated from the spring water. It's about 10 feet above the river and is much warmer than the river. Kathy and I lounge in it with another couple while our guides make dinner. We're near the same point that Powell reached on Aug 26, 1869. With very little food left, Powell writes, "About eleven o'clock to-day we discover an Indian garden at the foot of the wall on the right there are some nice green squashes. We carry ten or a dozen of these on board our boats and run down a short distance where we feel certain no Indian can follow, and what a kettle of squash sauce we make! Never was fruit so sweet as these stolen squashes."

Powell's boats

We have spaghetti, garlic bread and salad, fresh cake baked in a Dutch oven. With full bellies, the entire camp falls into cots beside the river at sunset. The stars are as bright as 100-watt bulbs. There is no moon, and the Milky Way stretches across the narrow sky, bordered by the deep black of the canyon walls. We're asleep around 9:00 pm and awake at sunrise. By 5:30 our guides are announcing "COFFEE." It's some of the worst coffee I've ever had -- my only complaint. I toss it out, make some instant and line up for eggs, bacon, potatoes and toast. We pack up and the whole troop is on the river again shortly after 7:00, leaving only our footprints in the sandy bank.

This day, the wind is strong and everybody wears rain gear to make the river's spray bearable. Even the rapids seem warmer, although it's not possible to actually stay dry. We stop at a spring to fill up with water and see some Anasazi rock art. A little later, we stop at another spring, this one with a series of waterfalls. The spring falls into a cave, runs out into the sunshine and down two more waterfalls to join the river. We use ropes to climb up through the waterfalls and into the cave. This water is like a bathtub, much warmer than the river. With several new scrapes and bruises, we reboard the rafts and brave the angry waters to our second campsite.

Kathy and I find a fairly private section of sand above the river to set up our cots. We try to clean up a little and do some exploring. I find some quicksand and have to wash all over again after dragging myself out of thigh-deep muck. Tonight is the Captain's Dinner, and we approach the rafts to find our guides dressed in jackets and gowns, serving shrimp cocktail. Steak and fish are broiling, vegetables are steaming, more cake is baking. We're fed better than at many restaurants. I can't help thinking of Powell's trip. He may have stopped at this same stretch of sand to rest. His dinner would have been a little more spartan.

One of John Wesley Powell's boats.
One of John Wesley Powell's boats.

We get another early start. We're past the last of the rapids. Within an hour we arrive at Separation Canyon. The water here is smooth, the beginning of Lake Mead. It wasn't always like this. When Powell arrived at this spot on Aug 28, 1869 he wrote, "We come to a place which seems worse than any yet: to run it would be sure destruction. After supper Captain Howland asks to talk with me. He, his brother, and William Dunn have determined to go no farther. All night long I pace up and down. Is it wise to go on? At last daylight comes; breakfast is as solemn as a funeral. Two rifles and a shotgun are given to the men who are going out. I ask them to help themselves to rations. They refuse, but Billy the cook has a pan biscuits for dinner; and these he leaves on a rock. Some tears are shed; each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course." The three men walked out and were never heard from again. It's thought they were killed by Indians on the canyon rim. Powell and his remaining party ran the rapid that had worried them so. It was the last set of rapids. Two days later, on calm water, they arrived in 'civilization' in the form of a group of Mormons that gave them food.

Powell's odyssey was over. So was ours. A jet boat ferried us to a bus some miles down-lake. We returned to Las Vegas and hot showers.

Grand Canyon National Park
John Wesley Powell
Las Vegas, Nevada




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