Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route
Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route is a narrated guide that combines a multi-chapter retelling of the dramatic 1869 expedition with stunning landscape photography, modern discoveries along the route, overview maps, and information about permits, shuttles, access points, rental equipment, guided trips, and further readings. Come celebrate the dramatic 1869 expedition by exploring the route and learning the story. The following is an excerpt from the book:
1869, PART I: THOSE EARLY, CAREFREE DAYS NEAR FLAMING GORGE
On May 24, John Wesley Powell arrived on the recently completed railroad to a dusty Wyoming outpost of riverside shacks beneath a stark landscape of buttes and ridges. To Green River Station, Powell brought crates of equipment, rations donated by the War Department, four big wooden rowboats, and a goal to explore the last blank spot on the American map. Waiting for him was a ragtag crew of mountain men and ex-soldiers. None of these dudes had ever run a whitewater rapid, but they were preparing for the challenge like modern raft guides—by filling their own blank spots with every ounce of whiskey they could find.
The next morning, the crew felt a bit foggy while loading the boats on shore, as described by Jack Sumner, an ex-soldier turned mountain man who became lead boatman in Powell's pilot craft, the Emma Dean. A few townspeople came down to the river to say goodbye (forever) to these hard-partying nutcases who were led by a serious one-armed Civil War major who was 35 years old and talked like a Victorian aristocrat. Said they were going a thousand miles all the way through the Grand Canyon? But everyone knew that river dropped over sheer waterfalls before plunging into the depths of the earth. A few townswomen may have crossed themselves and blessed these poor souls. A few townsmen may have called them idiots under their breaths, with a mixture of relief and regret they hadn't been asked to come along.
The early days down the river were pretty fun. Sometimes boats ran aground on sandbars, and the men flopped in the water to push them off. Expedition camps were made in the willows. They gathered driftwood for fires and explored a barren landscape faintly dusted by spring grasses. Some of the men chased big horn sheep with rifles. They usually failed but occasionally got one for dinner. When the cook, a 20-year-old mountain man named Hawkins, alone carried in a sheep on day two, the others teased that he must have found it dead. Meanwhile, Powell scrambled around with a few men, looking for fossils amid crumbly slate formations, which the major thought resembled architectural forms and strange statues.
As the ten men in four boats progressed downriver, the bulk of the Uinta Mountains grew in the distance. There were occasional miscommunications between boats. Rowing the second boat, Maid of the Cañon, was George Bradley. He was a 32-year-old active sergeant from Massachusetts, who wrote the most thorough and complete journal of the entire expedition. In exchange for contributing his relevant experience in geology and running ocean fishing boats, Powell had arranged for his discharge from the U.S. Army. Joining Bradley was Powell's younger brother, Walter, a former prisoner of war in South Carolina with lingering temper issues. On the second day, Bradley noted the pilot boat signaled danger, but he and Walter, "supposing it to be only a small rapid, did not obey immediately and in consequence [their boat] was caught on a shoal." A minor incident, but one which foreshadowed later calamities.
As they moved south, Powell describes—in limited journal entries, plus his 1875 published account—a brilliant red gorge, about twenty miles distant, where the river dramatically entered a mountain range. But first, a few miles upstream at Henrys Fork, the men retrieved a hidden gear cache brought in overland a few months before. Here it's worth mentioning an occasional misconception about the expeditions. While the southern parts of the route—especially the rugged Grand Canyon—were mostly unexplored by Americans, much of the canyons, basins, and native tribes above Marble Canyon were in country known to white Americans through exploration and trapping.
Inside what they named Flaming Gorge, the river entered periodic chutes and rapids as the current hastened. The boats often shipped (or filled with) water and were bailed in eddies below. Rowing the third boat, No Name, was Oramel Howland. At age 36, he was the oldest man on the expedition, one of only four crewmen to not serve in the civil war. With experience as a mountain guide and newspaper man in Denver, Oramel's job was to prepare maps from their surveys. In one of two highly detailed letters to Rocky Mountain News, Oramel wrote those first descents felt like railroad speeds of 60 miles-per-hour, adding this would come to feel slow compared to later rapids. This tendency to exaggerate speeds, distances, elevations, and experiences was a common theme throughout all journals and later accounts of the expedition—especially John Wesley's. Thus, all subsequent retellings, including this one, involve a great deal of interpretation as they try to unravel fact and fiction. Basically, these guys were natural whitewater boaters—certainly in their bravado and confidence, even if raw in the river-running skills.
The river soon wound into Horseshoe Canyon, carving through startling white formations of limestone and shale. Then came Kingfisher Canyon, where swallows swarmed like bees around nests tucked into cracks of a rock dome that resembled a straw beehive. Today, Beehive Point is mostly a forgotten name on a map, and paddlers may only float above the landmark buried beneath Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
Next was Red Canyon, with sheer sandstone walls, where the crew labored over the first few of about 100 portages and linings around increasingly challenging rapids. Here, Powell made a quirky discovery that may help distinguish his personality from most of the crewmen. As he'd been coming down the river, sitting in his armchair lashed to the deck of the Emma Dean, the major noticed how his perspective of approaching mountains shifted. When viewed straight-on, the inclination of the oncoming slope appeared to be excessively steep and the overall height seemed shorter. Not until the river passed beside the mountain, did the true slope reveal itself.
Somehow, Powell decided if he lay on his side, the triangulating effect between his two eyes allowed him a baseline to better estimate the true elevation of a summit. While the triangulation aspect seems questionable, Powell's method of seeing the landscape anew has merit. By lying down to change his perspective, the altered vantage point could certainly have helped him estimate topographic elevations. It's a method not unlike visual analysis techniques, where students are encouraged to rotate an image to help notice the details. Regardless, it's somewhat comical to imagine that while Powell's men were charging across the landscape after sheep, portaging massive rowboats around rapids, and eventually going hungry as rations diminished, they might have looked over and seen John Wesley, lying on his side in camp, staring sideways at mountainsides and jotting notes about topographic observations.
The 1869 adventure continues on page 56 with…
PART II: WELL, IT WASN’T NAMED DISASTER FALLS OUT OF IRONY
Mike Bezemek is the author of four books, including Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route and Paddling the Ozarks. His work can be found in publications like Canoe & Kayak, Adventure Cyclist, Duct Tape Diaries, Rafting Magazine, Adventure Journal, and more. Connect with him at mikebezemek.com and read about his “Return to Rafting for the JWP Route” here!