Big Rivers: When John Lesley Powell Ran the Green and Colorado, He Traveled through the West's Wildest Country - It Still Is

By Marks, Ben | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Big Rivers: When John Lesley Powell Ran the Green and Colorado, He Traveled through the West's Wildest Country - It Still Is


Marks, Ben, Sunset


Nothing in our contemporary experience - on this planet, anyway - compares to what it must have felt like to get into one of the four wood boats that pushed into Wyoming's Green River on the morning of May 24, 1869. Ahead lay an alien terrain of carved sandstone and chiseled granite, a territory that on most maps of the day was represented by a large uncharted hole.

It took no shortage of nerve to fill this space in the growing nation's map, which is probably why popular history hasn't been able to resist making a hero out of John Wesley Powell. The Major, as he was known, was a one-armed Union veteran of the Civil War who led several expeditions down the Colorado River and its tributaries from 1869 to 1872. Though not the first to navigate major sections of the rivers (that honor belongs to a trapper named William Ashley, in 1825), Powell was the first to run it for 1,043 miles from Green River, Wyoming, to the confluence of the Colorado and the Virgin just below Arizona's Grand Wash Cliffs. Along the way he surveyed, lovingly described, and gave names to places that few of us can picture the West without - Flaming Gorge, Echo Park, and a string of golden canyons, including Lodore, Desolation, Cataract, Glen, and, of course, the Grand.

Maybe that's why, despite all who came after him, it is Powell we think of when we are floating comfortably down the rivers that so bedeviled him and his crews. Maybe we'll never know what it felt like to get on one of Powell's boats, but we will always look at the West through his eyes.

River-runner's log

Here's a quick guide to Powell's West - through journal entries from 1869 by the Major and his lead boatman, Jack Sumner, as well as thumbnail sketches of the places today.

Green River, Wyoming

DATE: May 24.

POWELL: "The good people of Green River City turn out to see us start. We raise our little flag, push the boats from shore, and the swift current carries us down."

TODAY: Expedition Island, where all of Powell's voyages began, is now a national historic site. A nature trail runs around the small island, and events are occasionally held to mark the island's place in history. For Green River info, call (800) 354-6743.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Wyoming and Utah

DATE: May 30.

POWELL: "We thread the narrow passage with exhilarating velocity, mounting the high waves, whose foaming crests dash over us, and plunging into the troughs, until we reach the quiet water below. Then comes a feeling of great relief Our first rapid is run."

TODAY: Flaming Gorge was dammed in 1964, but the canyon's red walls still have the power to enthrall. Especially dramatic is narrow Horseshoe Canyon, one of the few wake-free zones on the reservoir. The reservoir and its surrounding wilderness are enjoyed by some 2 million people a year, most of whom come to hike, fish, relax on a houseboat, or run the rapids below Flaming Gorge Dam. For info, call (435) 784-3445.

Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado and Utah

DATE: June 9.

SUMNER: 'About ten miles from the head of the canyon we encountered what was afterwards named Disaster Falls, a very bad rapid, or rather four very bad rapids ... the 'No Name,' in [the] charge of O. G. Howland, failed to make a landing. It was drawn into the rapid and ground to pieces on the rocks below."

TODAY: Dinosaur National Monument encompasses Lodore Canyon, where Powell's party lost its first boat and the seeds of discontent between the Major and three ultimately doomed members of his crew were sown in Disaster Falls. Contemporary river-runners might wonder what all the fuss was about, especially with rapids such as Triplet Falls and Hell's Half Mile awaiting downstream. Dinosaur also encloses incomparable Echo Park, which was saved from damming in 1956 when the environmental movement decided to fight a dam site here (the trade-offs in this Sophie's Choice were dams at Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon). …

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