By Justin Malloy

John Wesley Powell is perhaps America’s greatest lesser known explorer. Geologist, Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Army, collegiate professor, and political director, Powell had many accomplishments in his life, but perhaps none were greater than his two explorations down the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Powell and his men set off on their first voyage down the Green River on May 24th, 1869. These were to be the first men to descend the length of the Green to the Colorado and all the way to the end of the Grand Canyon. Their mission was to conduct as much scientific research as they could, studying geography, geology, ethnography, and natural history. The area which they were to explore was at the time considered to be “the last blank spot on the map”. By the end of their second trip in the early months of 1872, they had successfully mapped the area, accrued the first photographs on the canyons, and collected important scientific data that would go on to form the basis of how the West would be settled.

To read all about the adventures of Powell and his men, check out his book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. He goes into incredible detail of the harrowing challenges they faced, the breathtaking discoveries, and humbling moments of self-realization. It is a must read for any river rat.

As the first men to explore this region for the purposes of science and mapping, they were responsible for naming the important features of the place, from the rapids to the canyons to the rock pinnacles and grand amphitheaters in between. The stories that follow are those of Powell and the canyons he explored.

 

Lodore

While Powell and his men encountered a few tricky rapids in the canyon they dubbed Flaming Gorge, it wasn’t until they reached the subsequent canyon did they suffer any true challenges on the river. The Canyon of Lodore is full of large rocks and swift water, a difficult combination when one has inexperienced oarsmen navigating heavy wooden boats. The most challenging rapids are considered highly technical even today.

Throughout their journey, when the men of Powell’s expedition reached such rapids, they almost always portaged around them, which meant carrying the cargo and then the boats themselves overland until reaching calmer waters. If any story from their journey through Lodore requires mentioning here, it is what happened at the rapid that became known as Disaster Falls. With the turbulent whitewater in sight just downstream, the lead boats of the expedition pulled ashore to scout the portaging route. The lone boat that did not make the landing was called the “No Name”.

In dubbing this boat the “No Name”, Powell wanted to follow the lead of the Greeks and Romans, who, as stated previously, would name their boats after their gods in hopes of pleasing them to ensure a safe voyage. Of course, they didn’t have enough boats for each of their gods to have one named in their honor, so the tradition became leaving one craft unnamed in hopes that any god who did not have a specific boat dedicated to them would gaze upon the unnamed one and say, “That one must be for me.”. Powell’s fatal error was rather than leaving his craft truly unnamed, he painted “No Name” on the side. 

This must have angered the ancient ones as the “No Name” careened downstream, past the rest of the party and directly into a large rock, splitting the boat in two and throwing the three men overboard. After a perilous swim, the men made it to land safely and the rest of the crew came down to meet them. Half of the destroyed boat floated away with the other section stuck to a boulder upstream. Powell decided to make camp there to allow the men to rest, dry off, and assess their losses. In doing so, he realized that the only barometers he brought on the trip were in the “No Name” and resolved to attempt to salvage them. 

Unsure if the barometers are even in the section of boat lodged on the rock, and with swift, dangerous water to cross to even reach it, this seemed like a poor decision. However, as Powell writes:

Sumner and Dunn volunteer to take the little boat and make the attempt. They start, reach it, and out come the barometers ! The boys set up a shout, and I join them, pleased that they should be as glad as myself to save the instruments. When the boat lands on our side, I find that the only things saved from the wreck were the barometers, a package of thermometers, and a three-gallon keg of whiskey. The last is what the men were shouting about. They had taken it aboard unknown to me, and now I am glad they did take it, for it will do them good, as they are drenched every day by the melting snow which runs down from the summits of the Rocky Mountains.

 

Just like many modern day river rats, a little bit of whiskey was all it took to lift their dampened spirits. 

It’s hard to believe these rough and tumble mountain men would be inspired by poetry, however, that was the case with this canyon. The name Lodore comes from a poem by the English poet Robert Southey, best known today for penning the original version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. The poem in question was “The Cataract of Lodore”, written in 1820 and inspired by a waterfall in northwestern England. Here is a short excerpt of the poem:

 Retreating and beating and meeting and sheeting,

 Delaying and straying and playing and spraying,

Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing,

Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling and boiling,

 And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,

 And rushing and flushing and brushing and gushing,

 And flapping and rapping and clapping and slapping,

 And curling and whirling and purling and twirling,

 And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,

 And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing;

 And so never ending, but always descending,

 Sounds and motions for ever and ever are blending

 All at once and all o’er, with a mighty uproar, –

 And this way the water comes down at Lodore.

In 1976, over 100 years after Powell’s journey, Dee Holladay expanded his growing company to include trips down the Gates of Lodore and the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument.

 

Whirlpool

Whirlpool Canyon of the Green River is the first canyon to emerge after Echo Park and serves as the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. In his book, Powell writes:

The Green is greatly increased by the Yampa, and we now have a much larger river. All this volume of water, confined, as it is, in narrow channel and rushing with great velocity, is set eddying and spinning in whirlpools by projecting rocks and short curves, and the waters waltz their way through the canyon, making their own rippling, rushing, roaring music. The canyon is much narrower than any we have seen. We manage our boats with great difficulty. They spin about from side to side and we know not where we are going, and find it impossible to keep them headed down the stream. At first this causes us great alarm, but we soon find there is little danger, and that there is a general movement or progression down the river, to which this whirling is but an adjunct – that it is the merry mood of the river to dance through this deep, dark gorge, and right gaily do we join in the sport.

 

Today, groups traveling down both the Green and Yampa rivers get to enjoy the nine miles of Whirlpool Canyon and its “merry mood”. It remains as beautiful and striking as it was in Powell’s day thanks to the defeat of a proposed 1950’s dam project known as the Echo Park Dam. The location of the proposed dam is roughly one mile into Whirlpool Canyon, and had it been completed, would have flooded the canyons above it and irrevocably changed the canyon below. One can still find surveyors’ discarded ladders and drill holes in the canyon walls near the proposed site.

Filled with ancient sea stacks, abundant wildlife, and breathtaking canyon walls covered with dramatic cliffs and spines, Whirlpool is a majestic stretch of river. At most water levels, there is not a rapid of too much consequence. However, at high water, Stateline Rapid can be a formidable wave train with large whirlpools and strong eddies lining either side. After a successful run through Stateline, you will find yourself back in Utah and near the camps at Jones Hole.

 

 

Split Mountain

Split Mountain Canyon serves as a great example of the objectivity Powell and his men used when naming places. Upon the approach to Split Mountain, the canyon appears exactly as described… a mountain split down the middle into two sides. To gain perspective downstream, Powell and one of his men climbed to the top of the canyon wall and assessed the river. From 3000 feet up, he was able to estimate the distance of the canyon and their altitude with surprising accuracy considering the resources at his disposal.

The final canyon on any river trip through Dinosaur National Monument, the Green River cuts through Split Mountain after meandering around Island and Rainbow Parks. It is approximately seven miles in length with four named rapids, numerous unnamed riffles, and swift water throughout. The rapids in this canyon, such as Moonshine and Schoolboy, were all named by Bus Hatch, the original commercial river runner in Dinosaur National Monument.

 

 

Justin Malloy Writer

Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.