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The Life of the Mighty Green pt.2

By Dave Glenn
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2003, Vol. 18, No. 2

 
 
© Ann Stephenson

That’s how the first rendezvous was held in Wyoming near the confluence of the Henry’s Fork and the Green in July of 1825. Hundreds of trappers made their way to the rendezvous, sold their furs, entered shooting and horsemanship contests, drank themselves silly, and then headed back to the mountains. Ashley took the furs overland to St. Louis and sold them for $50,000.

But what happened to Ashley while exploring the Green is another story. It’s a tale my father read to me on my first multi-day river expedition down Lodore Canyon. He told me how forty days and 230 miles after starting out, Ashley lost boats, equipment and nearly all of his men.

It’s 1972 and I’m just a seven-year-old pup. We’ve loaded up on large, bulky, World War II surplus rafts, I’m wearing my Mae West life jacket and am ready to go. Dad tells me of the first real rapid we’ll see that day; he tells me it’s called Disaster Falls because that’s where John Wesley Powell lost a boat in 1869. Not a good thing to tell a nervous seven-year-old whose life jacket is almost as large as he is.

 
Traveling down the Green with NOLS is a discovery of those who came before. Here students examine petroglyphs left by Ute Indians long before Powell’s expeditions.
© Jim Purdy
John Wesley Powell is also known as a great discoverer of the Green River. A major in the Union Army, Powell had lost an arm in the war launched in 1869 in Green River, Wyo. He led two expeditions down the Green in 1869 and 1871, both funded by the Illinois Natural History Society and the U.S. Government. Powell and his men rowed heavy, oak boats through the canyons, each boat loaded with over a ton of scientific instruments, food and supplies. Initially, they didn’t run the rapids. They carried, or portaged, the majority of their gear around the big rapids and then would line their boats through. Sometimes it would take days to portage around one single rapid.

As they progressed down the canyons, the explorers became more confident running through the larger rapids. With one or two men rowing as fast as possible with their backs towards the rapids, one man would then steer the boat with a steering oar on the back. This worked well, but only when going faster than the current. In the slower waters when not surveying, Powell would sit on his rocking chair in the boat and read poetry to his men. It was in the Grand Canyon near the end of the first expedition when two of Powell’s men decided they’d had enough and that it was suicide to continue running the rapids. They made the decision to leave the expedition and hike out of the canyon. They were never heard from again.

It’s now 1983 and I’m feeling pretty good. I’ve been running rivers for many years and have some river guiding experience under my belt. It’s the year of the big winter, and the big runoff. All reservoirs in the Green and Colorado system are at capacity and there is a fear of structural damage to the dams unless they can get rid of as much water as possible. The river is up and a group of us are launching down Lodore once again. It is my fifth trip down the canyon and, as trip leader, I’m ready for the adventure. In years past we’d run the river at levels from 1,000 to 5,000 cubic feet per second. Today as we’re launching it’s running at 10,500 cubic feet per second. Little do we know we are about to learn a good lesson from the once again mighty Green. The rapids are larger, longer and incredibly intense.

Five days later we emerge from the canyon humbled, scared, and having learned a good lesson of respect and appreciation for the river and those who first explored it.

Powell gets a bum rap in the annals of history and exploration. His published notes on his explorations of the river combine both trips into one, never mentioning the names of his men on the second trip. In order to make his memoirs more exciting, he also changes the times and dates of when accidents or other exciting occasions occurred. As a result, historians tend to discount his expeditionary feats, but what amazing feats they were. The first expedition ran nearly 1,000 canyons and rapids of the Green and Colorado rivers, and, what’s most impressive, Powell lived to tell about it. Old timers said it was crazy, it was suicide, said it couldn’t be done, that the rapids would kill them, but Powell and his men proved them wrong.

It’s March of 1989 and five of us are launching on the Yampa river in Deer Lodge, Colo. We’re going to canoe down the Yampa to the confluence of the Green and pull out at Vernal, Utah. The Yampa is the last of the large undammed tributaries of the Green and Colorado rivers. The weather is cold and snowy, but our hearts are light and we’re ready for adventure. There is nothing better than the feeling of your first launch on a new river. The preparation and logistics are complete, now it’s time to explore, run the rapids, hike the canyons and learn the country. We’re on day three and we’re scouting Warm Springs Rapid. This is the largest rapid on the Yampa and, even in early March at 300 cubic feet per second, it’s a rapid to be reckoned with, especially since we’re in canoes. As I sit there staring at the undulating rapid I think about how far we’ve come since Powell’s days. Powell and his men ran the Green and Colorado rivers in heavy boats and rowed faster than the current to keep control of the water crafts. Nowadays we row rafts facing downstream and generally row against the current to control the boats and to see what’s below us.

In the late 1800s, river running history was made once again on the Green River. According to Roy Webb in his book If We Had A Boat, it was a trapper and prospector named Nathanial Galloway from Vernal, Utah who would alter the course of river travel forever. “Galloway changed [river travel], by the simple expedient of turning his boat around and facing downstream,” writes Webb. “This solved a number of problems at once. Most simply, it allowed him to see where he was going. Equally important, he could slow the boat down on the approach to a rapid, or even in the midst of one, so that he could recognize obstacles in time to avoid them. He didn’t have to depend on a steersman for directions, whose orders could never be heard above the roar of the rapid anyway. Galloway’s flat-bottomed, highly maneuverable boat could turn on a proverbial dime and even hover in the midst of a churning rapid.”

Not only did Galloway forever change how we run rivers, he designed new boats that were lighter and easier to maneuver than the boats Powell used.

Now it’s 1996 and I’m working a NOLS alumni river trip down Lodore Canyon. Lodore Canyon is located on the eastern end of Brown’s Park in the Three Corners region, an area on the boarders of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Brown’s Park is approximately forty miles long by five miles wide and was known as a famous hideout for outlaws with names such as Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Isom Dart and Ann Bassett, Queen of the cattle rustlers. While the rest of the West was becoming settled and structured, Brown’s Park remained a haven for outlaws until the early 1900s. With its warm climate and proximity to three different states, outlaws could avoid a posse by hopping on their horses, crossing the Green, and fleeing to a different state.

I share Brown’s Park outlaw stories with the participants while rigging the boat. While rowing down the canyon we also share stories of Powell’s expeditions. We talk of Ashley’s adventures; we talk of how and why river running techniques have changed over time. We talk about current water issues: dams, irrigation and how six states are constantly battling over water rights from this wonderful river. We scout and run the rapids that don’t look much different from when Ashley first ran them in 1825. We camp where they camped, we feel like we’re the explorers, we enjoy the adventure, and we appreciate. We appreciate the hardship and adventure of the early explorers on the Green, those who chose to live with a challenge, and we appreciate the Green and all its history has to offer.

 
 
A young River Explorer: Dave Glenn on his first river trip in 1972.
Dave Glenn, a NOLS instructor since 1991, has been a river rat for most of his life. Today he’s director of NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyo.

Part 1 | Part 2

 
 
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