Canyon Readings: The First Expeditions


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on October 24, 2010

In 1869, the Colorado River was truly the stuff of legends: it originated at the junction of the Grand and Green Rivers in northern Utah, and shortly thereafter disappeared from the map, emerging in the Gulf of Mexico 1,500 miles away. Spaniards had gaped at its extent, US Naval vessels had sailed some few miles upstream from the Gulf; missionaries and explorers had (with difficulty) crossed it, and no one knew what challenges it held as it carved its way deeper into the west’s sandstone and granite. John Wesley Powell, a self-taught scientist from Illinois, conceived the idea of the first ‘scientific’ exploration of the river and its surrounding topography, and cobbled together a crew of nine in 1869. They survived by the skin of their teeth, and Powell turned some of the lessons learned into a second expedition two years later. Two books give first-hand accounts of each: Powell’s own book largely (but, controversially, not exclusively) tells the story of the first trip, while the only full account of the second trip came three decades later from the youngest member of either expedition.

Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.—This is John Wesley Powell’s classic account of the first end-to-end running of the river, from Green River ‘City’, Wyoming to the junction with the Grand River that was then considered to form the Colorado, to the party’s emergence in the Grand Wash several months later. Powell is educated, understated, and still worth reading. It may not give you an accurate read of the emotional or physical state of the troop, but he is unstinting on the relevant details. The geology, the geography, the anthropology are all here, although he’s frequently been faulted for blending together the original 1869 expedition and the subsequent 1871-2 into one account. After all, this was originally a government document, detailing for the Smithsonian Institution what had been learned about the river and the region, making more than good on the meager funding appropriated for the second trip. (The first expedition, run on a shoestring, was cobbled together by Powell from who-knows-where.)

Despite this ‘inaccuracy’, it’s still a good yarn, although it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that in those circumstances where disaster was near, Powell erred on the side of creating the impression that he was in control. To be fair, he is unsparing when the river or the canyon walls are the source of possible doom, and the fearlessness of this one-armed major is impressive. (A Civil War veteran, he lost an arm following an injury at Shiloh.) Later journals revealed George Bradley to be the journey’s hidden malinger: he bemoans the dwindling supplies, second guesses Powell’s leadership, and still saves Powell by lowering his own pants as the Major clings to a cliff with one good arm. But his accounts of the expeditions dwindling rations seem more realistic. Powell appears to steadfastly persevere in the face of these caloric difficulties, but then he wasn’t pulling the oars or carrying the cargo on the portages. In the end, Bradley soldiered on, while three others left the group only to be murdered by Shivwits Indians. Just six days later, their six remaining companions emerged in the Grand Wash, greeted by a group of Mormon fishermen who, like most of America, had given them up for dead based on a false, planted story of their demise.

Before Powell’s journey, almost nothing was known of the Colorado’s thousand-mile extent. No one had traveled it end to end; and it could be crossed at only two known places. Rumors of mythological proportion swirled around it: it dove underground for miles at a stretch; it was impassable due to whirlpools of unfathomable size; the rapids were miles long and unrunnable in any craft. In the end, Powell took three ordinary wooden boats and nine ordinary men, and with precious little planning, carved through the heart of the only uncharted territory in the U.S.

A Canyon Voyage—Frederick Dellenbaugh was a 17-year-old easterner with apparently little to recommend him for an expedition to the last uncharted section of the U.S. That hardly distinguished him from the rest of Powell’s second crew (or his first), but his account of that journey suggests that his energy, spirit, and sense of companionship were probably as apparent to Powell as they were was to me. His ability as an artist, which later led him to train in Europe, was primarily responsible for a spot on this second expedition to the Colorado, which was nearly guaranteed to be more successful than the first. It’s easy to imagine that this trip changed his life: he continued to combine his artistic abilities and his love for the outdoors and the unknown, heading to Alaska in 1899 with Harriman, Muir and the other elite of the emerging conservation movement, illustrating scores of articles and books about natural history, and eventually returning to the topic of the Canyon for a pair of well-received books in the first few years of the twentieth century.

A Canyon Voyage was written more than 30 years after his trip with Powell and companions, but it hardly seems like recollection at all. That’s largely due to its principal source: the extensive diaries that Dellenbaugh (like nearly every participant) kept of their experiences, which keeps the story completely in the present moment. The result is a wonderful balance of a daily account of the expedition from a resourceful, thoughtful, and fully engaged participant who hardly comes across as a teen. Perhaps that’s due to careful writing, but I doubt it. Dellenbaugh’s position, as well as his audience, are vastly different from Powell (whose first priority was to justify any monies he’d received, and procure additional support for the future), and so his account of the difficulties faced by the second team is more honest and detailed. But he was hardly a whiner or a shirker, and also leaves little doubt that the trials of the first trip greatly influenced Powell’s preparation for the 1871-2 expedition (which actually wintered and explored in the southwest before returning briefly to the Colorado). Along the way, they survive the constantly threatening waters of the pre-dam lower Colorado, worry about (but never encounter) the possible threats from hostile natives, come close to the end of the food stores as they await resupply at various points, and spend time with legendary characters Jacob Hamblin and John D. Lee, each of whom is a gracious and generous host. (This is especially notable in Lee’s case, as even then he was held responsible for the 1855 Mountain Meadows Massacre.)

I think Dellenbaugh’s book is actually the better read, but both are worthwhile. He pays more attention to personality and difficulty, and takes more joy (and pride) in the expedition’s repeated ability to succeed in the face of every challenge. He is affectionate and generous towards Powell, rarely second guessing him (and it was probably rarely necessary). It’s easy to see why this book was reprinted in 1926 and 1962, and remains available even today. (My copy was of the 1926 edition, which includes some amazing reproductions of maps of the region pre-Powell, and the new maps that Dellenbaugh helped produce in his role as assistant topographer.) Best of all, I just learned that the sting of the saddest sentence in the book has been removed. Dellenbaugh repeatedly describes the efforts made to climb the cliffs and photograph and sketch their surroundings, and yet after the fourth or fifth reference to his artistic endeavors, I began to wonder why they hadn’t been used to illustrate the volume. Midway through the book a footnote sadly notes that ‘the pencil sketches I made on this trip were taken to Washington, but I do not know what became of them.’ But during the research for his 1999 book The Wild Colorado: The True Adventures of Fred Dellenbaugh, 17, on the Second Powell expedition into the Grand Canyon, Richard Maurer found them miscataloged in a Smithsonian archive.

If you’re interested, A Canyon Voyage is available free for downloading at Project Gutenberg.
Grand Canyon National Park
P.o. Box 129
Grand Canyon, Arizona, 86023
(928) 638-7888

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