John Wesley Powell
A selection from
THE CANYONS OF THE COLORADO
Narrated by Jeff Riggenbach
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From the Little Colorado to the Foot of The Grand Canyon
_August 13_.—We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown.
Our boats, tied to a common, stake, chafe each other as they are tossed
by the fretful river. They ride high and buoyant, for their loads are
lighter than we could desire. We have but a month's rations remaining.
The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled
bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled; the few pounds of dried
apples have been spread in the sun and reshrunken to their normal bulk.
The sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. But we have
a large sack of coffee. The lightening of the boats has this advantage:
they will ride the waves better and we shall have but little to carry
when we make a portage.
We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the
great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves
against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are
but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or
lost among the boulders.
We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.
What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know
not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may
conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are
bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the
jests are ghastly.
With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the
canyon below and are carried along by the swift water through walls
which rise from its very edge. They have the same structure that we
noticed yesterday—tiers of irregular shelves below, and, above these,
steep slopes to the foot of marble cliffs. We run six miles in a little
more than half an hour and emerge into a more open portion of the
canyon, where high hills and ledges of rock intervene between the river
and the distant walls. Just at the head of this open place the river
runs across a dike; that is, a fissure in the rocks, open to depths
below, was filled with eruptive matter, and this on cooling was harder
than the rocks through which the crevice was made, and when these were
washed away the harder volcanic matter remained as a wall, and the river
has cut a gateway through it several hundred feet high and as many wide.
As it crosses the wall, there is a fall below and a bad rapid, filled
with boulders of trap; so we stop to make a portage. Then on we go,
gliding by hills and ledges, with distant walls in view; sweeping past
sharp angles of rock; stopping at a few points to examine rapids, which
we find can be run, until we have made another five miles, when we land
Then we let down with lines over a long rapid and start again. Once more
the walls close in, and we find ourselves in a narrow gorge, the water
again filling the channel and being very swift. With great care and
constant watchfulness we proceed, making about four miles this
afternoon, and camp in a cave.
_August 14-_—At daybreak we walk down the bank of the river, on a
little sandy beach, to take a view of a new feature in the canyon.
Heretofore hard rocks have given us bad river; soft rocks, smooth water;
and a series of rocks harder than any we have experienced sets in. The
river enters the gneiss! We can see but a little way into the granite
gorge, but it looks threatening.
After breakfast we enter on the waves. At the very introduction it
inspires awe. The cauyon is narrower than we have ever before seen it;
the water is swifter; there are but few broken rocks in the channel; but
the walls are set, on either side, with pinnacles and crags; and sharp,
angular buttresses, bristling with wind- and wave-polished spires,
extend far out into the river.
Ledges of rock jut into the stream, their tops sometimes just below the
surface, sometimes rising a few or many feet above; and island ledges
and island pinnacles and island towers break the swift course of the
stream into chutes and eddies and whirlpools. We soon reach a place
where a creek comes in from the left, and, just below, the channel is
choked with boulders, which have washed down this lateral canyon and
formed a dam, over which there is a fall of 30 or 40 feet; but on the
boulders foothold can be had, and we make a portage. Three more such
dams are found. Over one we make a portage; at the other two are chutes
through which we can run.
As we proceed the granite rises higher, until nearly a thousand feet of
the lower part of the walls are composed of this rock.
About eleven o'clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very
cautiously. The sound grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we
find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of
rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of perhaps 75 or 80 feet
in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves
on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We can land
just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make
a portage. It is nearly a thousand feet to the top of the granite;
so it will be impossible to carry our boats around, though we can climb
to the summit up a side gulch and, passing along a mile or two, descend
to the river. This we find on examination; but such a portage would be
impracticable for us, and we must run the rapid or abandon the river.
There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off, and away we
go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave and
ride to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave,
and down and up on waves higher and still higher until we strike one
just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat. Still
on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is
caught in a whirlpool and spun round several times. At last we pull out
again into the stream. And now the other boats have passed us. The open
compartment of the "Emma Dean" is filled with water and every breaker
rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that,
we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and
are then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is
unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred
yards through breakers—how, we scarcely know. We find the other boats
have turned into an eddy at the foot of the fall and are waiting to
catch us as we come, for the men have seen that our boat is swamped.
They push out as we come near and pull us in against the wall. Our boat
bailed, on we go again.
The walls now are more than a mile in height—a vertical distance
difficult to appreciate. Stand on the south steps of the Treasury
building in Washington and look down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol;
measure this distance overhead, and imagine cliffs to extend to that
altitude, and you will understand what is meant; or stand at Canal
Street in New York and look up Broadway to Grace Church, and you have
about the distance; or stand at Lake Street bridge in Chicago and look
down to the Central Depot, and you have it again.
A thousand feet of this is up through granite crags; then steep slopes
and perpendicular cliffs rise one above another to the summit. The gorge
is black and narrow below, red and gray and flaring above, with crags
and angular projections on the walls, which, cut in many places by side
canyons, seem to be a vast wilderness of rocks. Down in these grand,
gloomy depths we glide, ever listening, for the mad waters keep
up their roar; ever watching, ever peering ahead, for the narrow canyon
is winding and the river is closed in so that we can see but a few
hundred yards, and what there may be below we know not; so we listen for
falls and watch for rocks, stopping now and then in the bay of a recess
to admire the gigantic scenery; and ever as we go there is some new
pinnacle or tower, some crag or peak, some distant view of the upper
plateau, some strangely shaped rock, or some deep, narrow side canyon.
Then we come to another broken fall, which appears more difficult than
the one we ran this morning. A small creek comes in on the right, and
the first fall of the water is over boulders, which have been carried
down by this lateral stream. We land at its mouth and stop for an hour
or two to examine the fall. It seems possible to let down with lines, at
least a part of the way, from point to point, along the right-hand wall.
So we make a portage over the first rocks and find footing on some
boulders below. Then we let down one of the boats to the end of her
line, when she reaches a corner of the projecting rock, to which one of
the men clings and steadies her while I examine an eddy below. I think
we can pass the other boats down by us and catch them in the eddy. This
is soon done, and the men in the boats in the eddy pull us to their
side. On the shore of this little eddy there is about two feet of gravel
beach above the water. Standing on this beach, some of the men take the
line of the little boat and let it drift down against another projecting
angle. Here is a little shelf, on which a man from my boat climbs, and a
shorter line is passed to him, and he fastens the boat to the side of
the cliff; then the second one is let down, bringing the line of the
third. When the second boat is tied up, the two men standing on the
beach above spring into the last boat, which is pulled up alongside of
ours; then we let down the boats for 25 or 30 yards by walking along the
shelf, landing them again in the mouth of a side canyon. Just below this
there is another pile of boulders, over which we make another portage.
From the foot of these rocks we can climb to another shelf, 40 or 50
feet above the water.
On this bench we camp for the night. It is raining hard, and we have no
shelter, but find a few sticks which have lodged in the rocks, and
kindle a fire and have supper. We sit on the rocks all night, wrapped in
our _ponchos,_ getting what sleep we can.
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