By: Roy Webb
…A few years later, Clyde Eddy, a New York executive with a fixation on the Colorado River, was giving Cataract Canyon the old college try with his crew of Yale and Harvard men, his guide Parley Galloway (Nathaniel’s son, who knew a lot about boating but had never been through Cataract), and their two mascots, Rags the dog (“mostly Airedale”), and Cataract the bear cub, whom they had gotten from a traveling circus before the trip. Eddy may not have known much about running rivers but he knew trouble when he saw it, and he saw it at Dark Canyon Rapid. He immediately decided that it was impossible to run, and ordered a portage of all supplies. He soon found out, however, that portaging was not without its dangers. Eddy was on shore, photographing the operation when he heard a shout:
Suddenly the boat slipped over the rock, the current caught it up and hurled it downstream, snatching it away from Galloway and the others caught momentarily off their guard. Carey, Holt, and Adger, helpless to hold the boat, saw it dart away from them. I saw that much of the action in the ground glass of my camera, but before I could throw the focusing cloth off my head and reach the edge of the water the boat had swept by me, rushing headlong toward the main body of the river. As she passed me I saw a man’s arm curled up over the opposite gunwale and the fingers of his other hand clutching at the lifeline for support. He got his head up presently and I saw that it was Seager. A boat was adrift in the river, but that was nothing–a man was clinging to that boat in imminent peril of his life.
Aghast, Eddy was paralyzed by the prospect of losing not only a boat but a crewman, when another of his men dove into the river, swam to the boat, grabbed the line, and swam back to shore. The man in the water had by this time managed to pull himself in and was desperately grabbing for the oars, when the capricious current swept them right back to shore. To make matters worse, when they started lining the next boat through, the same thing happened again! This time Eddy and another man were able to scramble over the rocks, grab a floating line, and snub it around some rocks. Relieved that they had saved the boat, Eddy was perplexed to see one of the men in the boat gesturing frantically for them to let go of the line. It turned out that in the wild ride down the rapid the line had wrapped around the neck of a man in the water, who was almost strangled before they could get him loose. “What a river she is!” Eddy reflected that night, “How many different kinds of traps she sets to catch the voyager upon her troubled waters!”
By the 1930s, as river running became more widespread and Dark Canyon became better known, it lost some of its terrors if not its difficulties. The Hatch-Frazier trip in 1933 went through Cataract but no one made any particular mention of Dark Canyon; it was a brutal trip, hot, with low water, and maybe by the time they reached Dark Canyon it was all the same. They did stop to look at the inscription wall at the bottom of the rapid, however, and add their names. Buzz Holmstrom, a natural boatman, and a deep thinker ran it solo in 1937, in a beautiful handmade boat. Like many who have run big rapids, the process of scouting and seriously thinking about the potentially life-or-death consequences of a bad run was almost like a Zen experience:
Just ran Dark Canyon- looked it over from both sides- long time on big rock near bottom on right- saw some kind of spider- about 4 inches across if legs straightened out- white back- not cross- two little feelers in front 1/2″ long & 2 short legs behind- blackish brown fuzzy all over-move very slow- touch its face with stick & it would turn slowly & rub its face with front feelers- big line of waves go down center to run squarely into pile of rocks- current runs over & by rocks on left & down steep drop with very large waves- had intended to pull out of main current near top & drop down by right bank & then cross over at turn- current is so swift could not get out of waves & went right down middle heading for some rocks in middle- between waves managed to go to right of rocks in middle & then started to pull to left to miss big drop over boulders- waves hit boat from all sides- including sidewinders- knocking boat back to right- turned crossways & made it across brink of falls & down thru big waves at bottom-took on one gal water- not so much over stern or sides but from right overhead it seemed- Kolbs ran this in 1911- but hung up a boat on rocks in middle on Geo Survey in 21- Eddy lined it thru side channel on left on high water in 27- this channel is long dry now.
As if to celebrate his successful run, Buzz, like many before him, added his name to the “river register” on the cliff below Dark Canyon Rapid. (SEE SIDEBAR) The next year he was back, this time with free-lance filmmaker Amos Burg. In this run, Buzz uses what has come to be known as a “downstream ferry,” followed by an “eddy turn,” where the boatman uses the force generated by two opposing currents to swing his boat much faster than he could with the oars alone:
D.C. just like last year but made in much better shape- last yr tried to pull out main current at head-& couldn’t- almost got into trouble- this time drop down narrow place at R- head & stay out of main C till turn to L near foot- turn crossways & cut across bend OK hitting waves head on in turn- swing round stern 1st & thru waves at foot which are clear- no water in cockpit- but boat [pitches?] much & I think this the worst in Cat […]
That same summer (a busy one on the Colorado River!) Norm Nevills, in the middle of his first big trip. Rife with frustrations over his crew’s (and his own) lack of boating skills, he took no chance but took instead all day to portage the rapid, wearing only his underwear. And during a frigid November 1938, the French kayakers, Antoine DeSeyne and Bernard and Genevieve DeColmont, easily carried their folding kayaks around the rapid and hurried on to Hite. DeSeyne, by this time worn out by the cold and labor of paddling a folding kayak all the way from Wyoming, wrote simply “Carried boats for this rapid, little but bad, where the whole river flows in big waves through a fifteen-meter width.” So even though Dark Canyon was still a formidable rapid, by World War II portaging it had almost become routine.
There were few boaters on the river during the war; not anything to do with the rapids or the river itself, but because of war-time restrictions on car travel: there were no tires available, and gas and oil were expensive and hard to get. Norm Nevills went down Cataract from Moab in 1945 but left no account of the trip. Don Harris was also on the river during the war, but it wasn’t until afterward that river travel began to pick up again. One of the first to venture back on the river was the peripatetic Harry Aleson, who had been hanging around the Colorado since the Great Depression, and was one of the pioneers in the use of inflatable boats (the first through Dark Canyon had been Amos Burg’s Charlie, in 1938). In November 1947, Aleson found himself at Dark Canyon Rapid, and like many before him decided the risk just wasn’t worth the run:
“Nov 6 …10:10 Broke camp – began portaging equipment around Dark Canyon Rapids. Brot boat down to very brink of Rapids on oars – Terrific plunge of water over and around greatboulders; big holes, large waves. Too risky to ride today. We let boat down along Left Bank, to just below mouth of Dark Canyon Cr[eek].
A few years later, Aleson was back, and felt more confident; he ran down the right with no problems, although he did note that he thought it was the “Biggest ride in Cataracts.” His friend Pete Sparkes, following in his own boat, was “much surprised in it.”
By the 1950s, with the use of inflatable boats now common, Dark Canyon, like most of the Colorado’s rapids, was being routinely run, even though the experience was usually an exciting one. “Black George” Simmons, a USGS geologist, went through Dark Canyon rapid in 1952 and again in 1956. By the standards of the day, he was a pretty good boatman, but Dark Canyon humbled him:
We decide to run Dark Canyon Rapid and camp below. The rapid has a cluster of boulders in the middle and routes exist on both sides, but the left side looks easier. Looie unloads the Robert E. Lee and comes through. Frank and I follow in the Jeff Davis, and I do a sloppy, drunken waltz from rock to rock. Russ and Hank do best of all in the Dixie Belle. Second to Big Drop III, we considered Dark Canyon Rapid the most formidable in Cataract Canyon. From a personal point of view, it was my worst run of the trip.
SIDEBAR: The River Register at Dark Canyon Rapid
Also lost when Dark Canyon Rapid went under was the river register just downstream from the rapid, one of many that were flooded by Lake Powell. The one at Dark Canyon was especially rich in inscriptions from many different river parties; it was almost like knowing that that was the last major rapid, they wanted to exult in their survival. There was a long history; nearby was the famous D. Julien inscription from 1836, which was seen by few but intrigued many over the years.
In 1955, Charlie Eggert, an independent filmmaker from New York, hired Don Hatch, son of famed river-man Bus Hatch, to guide him on a movie trip to film the canyons before the big dam in Glen Canyon was begun. They had two inflatable boats: a ten-man inflatable raft called the No Name, and another innovation, a bridge pontoon converted into a boat. The latter served as the camera boat and was called the Brontosaur. They were so worried about Cataract that they made their only female passenger, Cyd Ricketts Sumner, fly out above Cataract and wait for them at Hite. They had some thrilling moments; the Brontosaur got away from while they were lining it through the Big Drops, and they were anxious about the rapids all the way through. Dark Canyon was no different; they knew that the quiet waters of Glen Canyon were just downstream, which made it seem all the more dangerous. And there were other dangers; they camped in the rocks just above the rapid, exhausted by the hard day. In the morning, Al Galloway (grandson of Nathaniel) admitted that he’d seen a huge rattlesnake right where they had slept. The others asked him why he hadn’t pointed it out, and, taciturn like his grandfather, he said simply he didn’t think they would have wanted to know. Don Hatch broke the tension by teasing the cook: “Let’s get out of here and run that rapid before that rattler gets hungry for some of your pancakes, Bruce.” Charlie Eggert stayed on shore to film the big boat going through:
The big boat went plunging and bounding through the big waves. Barely did they miss the cliff on the right. They were heading straight for it when they swung the boat around and gained a boat’s length away from it. The men fought with all their might to stay on the right, fought against the current which was drawing them toward the sheer wall on the left where the river curved to the west. They managed to keep her in and we cheered them on as they bounced over the tail waves at the end of DC rapids.
Charlie then joined Don Hatch and another crew member, Fred Wood, in the small raft. Using a small outboard motor, Don was able to take an easier route and they made it easily. “We gave a rousing cheer as we bounced merrily through. We took on extra–and unnecessary–splashes in celebration. We wanted to enjoy the thrill of white water to the fullest.” So Dark Canyon, like so many of the rapids on the Colorado River, had progressed from something to dread to a thrilling ride.
By the time Black George and Charlie Eggert ran Dark Canyon in the 1950s, its fate was already sealed. Spurred by the energies created in World War II, the federal government was ready to do something about the wild Colorado, to turn a “natural menace into a national resource.” One way to do that was the build more high dams on the Colorado and its tributaries. Glen Canyon Dam was authorized by President Eisenhower and by 1956, was under construction. The dam was completed in 1963, and within a few years it had flooded not only Glen Canyon but had begun to back up into the lower end of Cataract Canyon. Earl Perry, a former NPS river ranger and commercial river guide, was one of the last to run Dark Canyon before it went under June, 1964.
1964 was just at the dawn of the era of modern commercial boating, so there were no legions of bronzed young river gods to test their skills in Dark Canyon’s waves, nor hordes of sunburned commercial passengers to take pictures and thrill at the run. Instead, like Ashley Falls on the Green, or Separation and Lava Cliff in the Grand Canyon, Dark Canyon Rapid–once the scourge of the Cataracts–slipped beneath the still waters of Lake Powell quietly and gracefully. When the Colorado River finally erodes away the Glen Canyon Dam, perhaps the roar of Dark Canyon Rapid will once again cause the rocks to tremble with its power, but until then, it will have to be remembered as one of the lost rapids of the Colorado River.
Roy Webb is an author and renowned river historian. Spending a lifetime holding long memory for these special places, Roy said he began his life’s work simply because “It didn’t seem anyone else was”. He now stands as the go-to river historian for the desert southwest. Some of his first river trips were with Dee & Sue Holladay & Roy remains committed to enjoying quality family-oriented river trips. “Rivers always ask me a question: where have I come from and where am I going?”. Come join him on our Retro rafting trips!