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The river: John Wesley Powell's quest for the great canyon: a story

photo of man on river


es 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 bird squeal.

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 a rash.

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.

The 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 you Dunn?"

"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 showed.

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 waking.

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 25'.

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 against it."

"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."

"Still living?"

"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 the west.
"I've estimated these walls as 2,000 feet high."

Bill's head, tilted back, confronted the sky. "Make your hair curl, don't it?"

"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 ever faster--

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 mind.

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 in October.

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