Jay Meehan: Exploring terra incognita by rapids
“Science and Reason have always been on the side of Utopia; only the cussedness of the human race has not.”
~ Wallace Stegner
It wasn’t long following the driving of the Golden Spike up at Promontory on May 10, 1869 that John Wesley Powell and his bunch first got their boats wet. There were ten of them including Major Powell, a crusty adventure-seeking lot of volunteers, Civil War veterans, and mountain men, and they planned on heading where even geographic rumor had feared to tread.
So now, on the heels of the transcontinental railroad hoopla of earlier this month, we have another celebration in the works. This go-around, it’s the sesquicentennial of when the Powell Geologic Expedition of 1869 slipped their watercraft into the current at Green River Station, Wyoming Territory on May 24, 1869.
They had four boats in all, built to spec in Chicago and loaded on the recently completed Union Pacific rail line thereabouts for transport to Wyoming Territory. Three of the round-bottomed Whitehall rowboats were rigged for freight – 21 feet long, four feet wide and made of oak.
Christened the Maid of the Cañon, the Kitty Clyde’s Sister, the No Name and equally packed to the gunnels with the expedition’s 10-month, 7,000-pound food and supply cache, each boat was designed to be rowed by two oarsmen. The fourth craft, the Emma Dean, smaller and lighter and fashioned from pine, would serve as Powell’s personal flagship.
For anyone who has floated sections of the Green and Colorado Rivers, delving into the histories of both the 1869 and 1871-72 Expeditions is an exercise brimming with rewards. Most all the place names currently in use along the respective waterways were born of the Powell bunch.
Some of them are interned under reservoir flatwater as is the case for Disaster Falls at Flaming Gorge where they lost the No Name and its cargo early on to raging whitewater. The precious barometers, the expedition’s sole means of determining elevation, although they would be replaced somewhat, in a fashion, were never to be seen again.
They would meet further chaos following their passage though the Gates of Lahore, especially once the Yampa River enters the fray at Steamboat Rock. It should also be noted that members of the fur trapping Ashley party had bounced through this same section in non-steerable “bull boats” back in the 1820s.
But what Powell’s men were up to was a different slice altogether. Where the Mountain Men had thought possibly they had stumbled onto the grand east-west waterway to the Pacific that had been the goal of the Dominguez-Escalante party in 1776, these 1869 adventurers had more of a clue as to the enormity of their quest.
They would completely drop off into the unknown, what the incomplete maps of the day referred to as terra incognita. The exposed geology, as we have come to know, borders on being beyond vocabulary adequate to the task. Nothing prepared them for grandeur of the scale they were about to encounter.
The canyons of Desolation, Cataract, Glen Canyon, and the Grand, itself, still waited in the wings to blow their only somewhat seasoned minds.
One of their lot reached his breaking point early-on and hiked out. He’d seen enough and so had his adrenaline cache. This was while they were still in Utah, on the Green, way before they encountered the Colorado deep within the meanders of what would become Canyonlands National Park.
Although they wouldn’t be aware how close they came to the finishing their run through the Grand Canyon, three more would throw in the towel and hike out at what became known as Separation Rapids. Scuttlebutt has it that either Indians or Mormons done them in.
In the absence of a photographer, or even photographic equipment with which the amateur could experiment, the 1869ers counted upon quality sketch artistry for documentation. Powell, on his second expedition, that of 1871-72, would fill that void. The rest of his crew would also be less hardscrabble and more suited to the task than the first.
No doubt there will be a gathering up in Green river at Expedition Island to celebrate the anniversary somewhat similar to the one train buffs had at Promontory a few weeks back. It’s a pretty cool place, even when not marking a special happening.
And to fully prepare you, there is an enormous backlog of literature to read and rapids to run awaiting your beck and call.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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