BY JOHN VERNON
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
looked around him--all hell was breaking loose. His boat had nosed
down, got gripped by the river, and wind had turned to water. The
Emma Dean shot forward in a blink and Wes was shouting and
Jack Sumner rowing air and Bill Dunn pulling so hard on his oars
that a tholepin popped out and clattered to his feet. He dropped
down to pick it up. Between Bill in the bow and Jack in the stern,
Wes waved his stump and bellowed out orders lost to the roar and
hiss. "Left, boys, left! Man your oars, Bill!" Shouts reduced to
Just moments ago they'd been drifting in a dream on a placid tilt
of river, a bubble's downward sag. Below and beyond it, peaks of
waves and gouts of foam had leapt like little demons trying to spot
the doomed men. Prominent in the rapids ahead was a monstrous boulder
stacking up the river--neck folds on a bull.
Now they raced toward it. "Left," he screamed, then looked back
to spot, a hundred feet behind them, the Kitty Clyde's Sister
sliding into the rapids, with George Bradley and Wes's brother
Walter attempting to row, the latter's mouth wide open in song.
Even George couldn't hear Walter's voice, Wes thought. The roar
of the rapids, more like fire than water, drowned all other sounds.
But Wes knew what his brother was singing: "John Anderson, my Jo."
He could tell by the satisfied warp of Walter's mouth.
He turned back to face upriver, clinging to his rope tied around
a strut, which he used for busting rapids. His inflated life preserver,
wrapped snug around his neck, felt like a horse collar and took
away some dignity, since no one else wore one. The Emma Dean
climbed waves then dropped then climbed again, and above her
the canyon walls rose in red bluffs and the noontime sun flamed
off the sandstone and the river caught its light and spread it like
From his height above the men he could see the
fatal boulder, obscured by a left-moving sheer wall of water. "We're
lost, boys, we're lost!" He stood to full height--five feet four--and,
shaking his head, laughed like a madman.
No Name entered the rapids now, and twisting around Wes spotted
it jumping like a deer jumping logs, and the grown men inside bouncing
up and down--the two Howland brothers and the helpless Frank Goodman,
clinging to his seat. Wes shouted again--he wasn't sure why or at
whom or even what--then a wave cuffed his boat, nearly knocking
him over and something in his spine broke into blossom and he righted
himself in the act of turning back, and all this happened in a moment.
The unceasing roar filled the air and the river rose before him.
"Left, boys!" he screamed, stressing that direction with his head
and upper torso. The right stump helped too, straining left across
his chest, with nerve ends sprouting a frantic phantom arm. He watched
Bill in front of him rowing with one oar and felt like clubbing
the oaf. They weren't going left, they were broadsiding toward the
huge rock ahead and he screamed, "Both oars, Bill!" Furrows of water
rocked the boat left and right, sending columns and streamers 10
or more feet high toward Wes, half standing, and bucked him like
a bull. From his height above the men he could see the fatal boulder,
obscured by a left-moving sheer wall of water. "We're lost, boys,
we're lost!" He stood to full height--five feet four--and, shaking
his head, laughed like a madman.
A shard of his attention sensed the Maid back there shooting
into the rapids, and detected as though from an inner distance the
howls and execrations of Andy Hall and William Hawkins.
The Emma Dean reached its crisis. Wes had to sit when his
boat rose and hung suspended in time, remitted from gravity--but
shaking like a peak about to blow. She seemed to keep rising while
water crashed through her, her forward momentum still jerking her
up. At last she paused. Out of nowhere he pictured the real Emma
Dean, safe in Detroit. And the water carved open, or so it seemed--it
positively parted to receive them.
They shot straight ahead through two walls of water, and now it
was just a neverending breathless race. Wes stood again. Below him,
Bill Dunn with the tholepin in his hand looked startled as a baby
laid on his back. Wes turned to signal the others left, as far left
as possible, but he had to hang on and couldn't use his flag. It
was all body language--head butts, stump flaps. The Emma Dean
didn't race, she flew through the air, then slammed down so
hard he was airborne for an instant. She spun around madly, pinning
Wes to his seat, but the boys worked the oars--this was water they
could bite--and the boat swung downriver slowing to full steam.
Amazingly, Bill still rowed with one oar. It mattered less now.
A perfectly flat slide of water had found them and they rode it
down the wind toward the next hanging avalanche of river, then rode
that around a bend--these rapids were endless--past shawls of foam
pouring over boulders left and right of their boat. The river slowed
as it curved.
Wes pulled off his rubber life preserver. He wore it as a favor
to Emma, since, with only one arm, swimming would be tricky if her
namesake capsized. You needed every crutch, he thought, every human
expedient--gadgets, prayer, quick wit, charms and spells--when the
unknown lay around every corner.
They herded together, the Emma, the Sister, the
No Name, and the Maid, in a gentle eddy near a beach
at a bend. Here the river looped right. The men began to bail--all
except Frank Goodman in the No Name, sitting up smartly
now, and Bill Dunn in the Emma Dean, still working on the
tholepin. Wes asked, "That's not done, Bill?"--at which Seneca Howland
looked up from his boat, bailing like mad, and said, "Bill--are
"Shut your damn pie hole."
A snarl, a stare--the games men play with each other, thought Wes.
They anchored the boats and climbed onto shore and sprawled in the
sand eating biscuits and dried apples passed out by Hawkins. First
willows then box elders and cottonwoods grew on the rocky soil behind
them, then the broken ground rose to high red cliffs seamed into
blocks. The river had quieted down, and their boats hardly tugged
at the deadman anchors.
The next day being sunday, George and Oramel suggested they observe
it, but Wes wanted to see the canyon up ahead. "Fasten your belts
and gird up your loins," he told the two men, the stumpy George
Bradley and the prophet Ora Howland. Those two rowed like Christian
slaves doing the minimum but the others pulled hard, bucking winds
all the way through a broad valley.
It rained off and on. Clouds were still massing to the east when
they landed, so they pitched the tents. They camped in sandy soil
on a ledge above the river near the end of Brown's Park with gambel
oaks around and cottonwoods overhead and willows nearby with which
they made mattresses. Downstream the river entered the mountains
between two cliffs with a tinny distant roar, and Wes stared at
those gates, having spotted them last year when snow lay on the
ground. Massive and high, the sandstone cliffs were broken with
seams but just about perpendicular. And the left one flamed up when
a cloud unleashed the sun.
Bill Dunn took their elevation and discovered they'd fallen about
a hundred feet since the Red Canyon rapids. Oramel plotted their
recent course and worked on his maps, but they were water stained
and damp. Jack Sumner and Hawkins tried panning the river--no color
Wes walked downstream to stare at the canyon's gates because something
felt wrong, some thought half-formed when he'd stood here last winter.
This was the voyage he'd begun planning then--the scientific exploring
expedition he'd dreamed of for a year, the one that would carry
him deep into the earth through unknown country, through canyons
and mountains and past looming landforms whose secrets had locked
up millennia of history. He'd studied erosion, analyzed rocks, read
about uplifts--and rejected the notion that earth's scarred and
knotted surface was the product of catastrophe, as Professor Whitney
claimed. The surface of the earth in its elephantine mass delimited
its own capacity for change; change was logical, slow, and persistent,
and was written in river and rock and their characters, inscribed
in landforms born of their friction. Yet, here--and in similar sites
they'd come across last winter--the river cut directly through a
ridge of mountains. It didn't have to do that; it could have stayed
in this valley. Across the river from this spot the valley curled
east and its obstacles were fewer and lower, he observed. But to
the south--solid rock. It looked like someone had struck a meaty
hand through the heart of the mountains and plowed that narrow furrow.
It was even more awful to behold in this light, he imagined telling
Emma. This late afternoon pre-summer solstice light. The sun couldn't
strike the canyon's inner walls, which grew darker as they plunged,
answering the brilliance in this valley with gloom. Standing in
this spot it was impossible to resist the sepia theology, the allegory
of the chromos, the familiar parables of light and dark.
Just yesterday, Ora had compared the winding twists and snares of
the river to the Christian's earthly voyage, and Wes couldn't help
it--for a moment he thought the man was right. After all, unless
perversely inspired, why would a river choose to carve directly
through a massive block of mountains? First the crafty river seemed
to run without design, then it made for the highest point within
sight as though ordinary valleys weren't worthy of its notice.
Ordinary valleys, of course, were ancient; they'd been worn down
by time. Here the river cut gorges, stark and high, without the
rounded walls of eastern river valleys. From everything he'd learned
about the Great Canyon a thousand miles south, the same held true
there: high walls, massive and chiseled--profound, gloomy depths--precipitous
spires, towering pinnacles, labyrinthian chasms. It overwhelmed
conception. How his heart ached to see what the inner eye could
only feebly sketch!
A glacier could have carved the canyon before him--maybe that was
the answer. Or maybe the answer was an underground river whose roof
of earth collapsed and got washed away. No--long ago he'd rejected
that idea. The ability of water to carry off soil seemed incontrovertible,
but common sense and Occam's razor made short work of the fantasy
of underground rivers. The river itself had sliced through this
mountain, but how?
In the middle of the night when Wes woke to the sound of someone
hawking he reached for his boots with his right arm before realizing
it was missing. He'd been listening to Emma play a Schubert impromptu--no,
he'd been searching the forests of his Wisconsin boyhood for an
enormous yellow pine bent over in an arch, and the search was full
of sadness and sorrow from hearing Emma at the piano, and besides
he was lost; then he woke in his tent. The ravines and gorges of
his dreaming mind began their process of vanishing like folds in
rising dough, and he checked the sky outside the tent and found
it drunk with stars. He couldn't hear the river but sensed its weight
below them sliding through the earth with a deep steady pressure.
Still, it was remarkable--to locate themselves amid a floodtide
of stars who knew how many million miles away. But everything was
connected, Wes thought. He sat there all night, drifting off then
He pulled on his boots and exited the tent, careful not to wake
Bill Dunn or Jack Sumner. Stars flooded the valley. He woke Ora
Howland who retrieved the sextant from the Maid of the Canyon
and the heavy chronometer--it looked like a giant pocket watch--from
the Kitty Clyde's Sister . Meanwhile, Wes raked out the fire's
banked coals and fed them with branches and pieces of oak. They
worked together in silence. The air was still and cool, the wind
depleted, but the stars were slowly moving, circling the earth.
With his compass, Wes located north and set up his sextant on its
tripod. He sighted through the eyepiece and moved the index arm
until Polaris sat squarely on the wire. "Ora," he whispered. "I
need a candle."
Oramel rummaged in the No Name for a candle while Wes looked
up at the quicksand of stars and tried to resist being pulled in.
He flinched when Ora lit a match beside him. With the candle they
scrutinized the calibrated scale and found the altitude and Wes
jotted it down, then pulled out his pocket almanac. He consulted
his table of mean refractions and calculated their latitude as 45ű
Then he took observations for time and distance on the moon's edge
in relation to Polaris. When the Major whispered "now" as the moon
reached the wire, Ora, holding his candle to the chronometer, noted
the time to the minute and second. Wes consulted his nautical almanac
and together he and Ora performed the subtraction from Greenwich
Mean Time. Ora wrote down the hour, minutes, and seconds. Then every
few minutes for the next hour they took a new reading.
When Ora yawned, his entire skinny body hung down from the empty
crater of his mouth. Wes held the candle to Ora's list of readings.
He computed a mean from their 12 observations and calculated their
longitude. Ora shrugged. "Just where I thought we were."
They packed up their instruments and Ora put them back in the boats.
Why didn't Ora sit down then and there to plot their location and
make corrections to his map? Wes wished to know. But he kept the
question to himself. Yawning, Ora crept back into his tent.
Still, it was remarkable--to locate themselves amid a floodtide
of stars who knew how many million miles away. But everything was
connected, Wes thought. He sat there all night, drifting off then
waking. Stirring the fire, watching the sky sponge up the stars
as it turned ashen grey then sifted blue at dawn, he thought of
their little seed of a planet racing through the universe--just
like their seed pods racing down the river. And what lay ahead?
They loaded up the boats and floated out of Brown's Park and through
those enormous gates of red sandstone. Inside, the canyon walls
were higher than any they'd seen--and consequently darker--and the
water was cold and fast and relentless, prompting Andy to shout,
"How does the water come down at Lodore?" to which Wes, who knew
Southey's poem by heart, boomed out, "Collecting, projecting, receding
and speeding, and shocking and rocking, and darting and parting,
and threading and spreading, and whizzing and hissing, and dripping
and skipping . . ." until the rushing waters drowned him out. But
they had a name for this canyon now--Lodore--much to Jack Sumner's
disgust, who announced that the idea of using Limey trash to find
names for new discoveries was un-American.
They struck a chain of rapids, but none they couldn't run. They
turned it into a race; the oarsmen rowed hard to skim the river
like birds and the ruddermen in the rear steered with their long
oars, facing forward and shouting directions, and every now and
then Wes in the pilot boat ran ahead to scout the river, then signaled
for the others.
On terraces from which enormous cliffs leaped, the rock was a deep
brownish red lichened over, but slanted walls of sun made it crimson
on top. In some places slopes of pi–ons hung in shadows by the shore,
in others the walls plunged straight into the river, suggesting
a new source of worry to the Major: Where on earth would they land
if they couldn't run a rapid? Squeezed by the canyon, the river
was deep, but deep did not mean free of obstacles, and who knew
how many boulders lay just beneath the surface?
Next day they started early and the rapids persisted. High cliffs
obstructed the early morning sunlight, and in their drawers and
shirts the men grew wet and cold. As always in the Emma,
Bill sat in the bow and Jack in the stern, and Bill, facing Wes,
laid his strong upper torso into both oars. He was rowing for the
body heat, Wes figured, since in most stretches the river ran swiftly.
Bill pulled and they flew--like whipping a fast horse. A hawk shrieked
overhead and Bill looked up but Wes didn't bother. He was watching
Bill row, feeling vaguely envious--watching him strain with each
lunge of the oars like a man granted parturition by the gods. The
high faint scream came from overhead again. "I'd like to see this
from a hawk's perspective," said Wes.
Bill pulled on the oars. "Give me the worm's eye view any day."
"My father would say we sit in God's palm. Yet we pygmies strive
"I'll buy that. Thou knowest, Lord. My daddy said to me I brought
you in, Bill, I can take you out again. I can make another one looks
just the same."
"What religion was he, Bill?"
"What religion? Whiskey."
"What was he raised as?"
"Raised as a drunk."
"Not to my knowledge."
"Did he teach you to trap?"
"He was a worthless pieces of furniture. He taught me how to curse."
Each talked looking up at canyon walls--Wes to the east, Dunn to
"I've estimated these walls as 2,000 feet high."
Bill's head, tilted back, confronted the sky. "Make your hair curl,
"Suppose you were the creator," said Wes. "What better way to impress
the human mind with a foretaste of eternity?"
"You mean chasms like this could smash you to a grease stain if
you step off the rim, so mend your sinful ways?"
Wes smiled. He couldn't help it--with infidels such as Bill he'd
talk religion like his father, whereas to believers like Oramel
Howland, always grousing about we ought to stop on the Sabbath and
maybe a prayer now and then wouldn't hurt, he talked geology instead,
as though everything he did followed laws of compensation.
A roar ahead grew louder--Wes hadn't been watching. They were crossing,
he realized, a flat apron of water toward a line beyond which the
pot had started boiling. Behind him he heard a hollow rubber hiss--Jack
Sumner inflating the Major's life preserver. Bill raised his oars
and the Emma Dean gently revolved in the water, slow and
peaceful. Wes found his flag then crawled past Jack and climbed
on top of the stern deck to see.
"How's she look?"
But they made it to shore--first the Emma Dean then the
Sister . Wes disembarked and scrambled up the bank to see
the rapids better. The brown and grey river poured over rock, or
the rock raked through water--hard to tell which. It is to be observed,
he told himself--practicing for his account of this voyage--that
the water on the ocean merely rises and falls. A wave, if there
are waves, is a form passing through. But here on the river the
form remains and the water charges through it and multiply that
by a thousand waves which impede and lash the water yet whip it
A shout came from the river. To his horror he spotted the No
Name with Ora, Seneca, and the Englishman Frank Goodman perched
at the apex, then shooting forward. It went completely under then
fountained up and flew, then blasted through a wave and hung there
on its hip. Purple-brown blocks of rock stood all around it. A series
of splintering crashes ensued like successive doors slamming. Wes
waved the flag madly--as though that would help. Then he scrambled
back to intercept the Maid, leaping as he ran with great
sweeps of flag, and at least the final boat made it to shore.
It took wes most of the next few days to put the loss of the No
Name behind him. The river helped; it kept plowing ahead. Lodore
Canyon would take them to the confluence of the Green and Yampa
Rivers, their first major landmark. A fourth of their food and equipment
had been lost, there was one less boat--but here they all were and
on their way. They'd managed to survive.
He glanced at the cliffs and the sparse rash of trees and the water
gliding by. The high broken walls of the canyon drifted past and
when the sun struck the water it sent red and yellow columns clear
to the bottom, which caught them and broke them and toppled them
back. His account of this voyage--what would it be, monograph or
narrative? Geological Notes Pertaining to . . . . It would
depend, of course, on the specimens he found, the observations he
made, the character of the country. The world lay ahead and they
were cleaving it in two and his mind was the edge, his solitary
Photo: Major John Wesley Powell, geologist, ethnologist, professor,
and Civil War veteran (he lost an arm at Shiloh), didnŐt take a
camera on his first run down the Green and Colorado Rivers, in 1869.
The photos in this article are from his trips in 1871 and 1874.
Left: Captain James Pilling at the Gate of Lodore.
John Vernon '65, P'97 is the author of the novels La Salle
(1986), Lindbergh's Son (1987), Peter Doyle (1991), and All
for Love: Baby Doe and Silver Dollar (1995), as well as the
memoir A Book of Reasons (1999), a portion of which appeared
in BCM's Winter 2000 issue. This excerpt is adapted from
his new novel, The Last Canyon, due out from Houghton Mifflin