In the Grand Canyon there’s a mean little rapid named Georgie. It’s named for a woman who, in her 70s, could still be found racing full-tilt down the canyon in a leopard-print leotard, a beer in her hand.
Georgie White was born in 1911 in Oklahoma, and was actually named Bessie DeRoss. She was born into a world where Orville Wright had floated in the air a full 9 minutes and 45 seconds, where Rutherford had just discovered the structure of the atom and Roald Amundsen made it to the South Pole. While a few men were making big names for themselves adventuring into the unknown, in Manhattan 146 factory workers were burned alive in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — most of them young immigrant women who were locked inside to “prevent theft.”
Georgie — as she eventually became known — had little patience for other people’s rules about her life. Two brief marriages left her with the last names (Clark and White) that she would use when she wanted, and a daughter named Sommona Rose. This relationship blossomed, as the two took to adventuring together on hikes, camping expeditions, and bike rides. But tragically, Sommona was killed by a car when she was biking when she was only 15.
It’s usually said that it was grief that drove Georgie to the desert and the Colorado River, but I think the whitewater would have found her one way or another. In 1945 she and her friend Harry Aleson started launching themselves down the river, boatless, in the old bulky life-jackets of the time. The ‘scientific’ reasoning for their daredevilry was that they were proving that, in the event of an accident in the canyon, it made more sense to float down the river than to hike out.
They raced sixty miles down the current like this and it only whetted Georgie’s appetite for this river. She and Hary hiked in next summer with a flimsy little Army Air Corp rescue raft and somehow survived the entire trek down to Lake Mead. (June 26th will be the 70th anniversary of this harebrained and beautiful adventure).
Georgie became the first woman to row the full length of Marble and Grand Canyons in 1952, made rafting innovations by lashing rafts together to build stability in the biggest rapids, and started to support her rafting habits by taking on paying customers, a “Royal River Rats” business she ran for the following 45 years. (Incidentally that “lashing” method would later lead Holiday Founder Dee Holladay to develop a signature “Triple-Rig” design; arguably the most intimate yet safe way to experience big-water river-trips. Check out their sweet style in this glance down memory lane!)
But for all her accomplishments, she never considered herself much of a feminist. As Dee Holiday explained in an interview, instead of falling into clean political lines, Georgie didn’t really expect other women to be able to do what she did. She thought she was just one-of-a-kind. (Though I do call myself a feminist, it’s hard to argue with this latter sentiment.)
She was prickly and controversial in other ways too. She was using rubber rafts when the river snobs of the time all insisted on wooden rowboats. She was known to flout the rules and regulations set out by the U.S. Forest Service (perhaps it’s not coincidental that this entity pushed back against naming a rapid in her honor). And if you were on one of her expeditions, you’d soon learn that the “Royal” part of the River Rat name was more a description of scenery than the comfort of your travels. Colleagues joked that Georgie did her grocery shopping with a big magnet: walk into a store and see what cans stick. On a trip, she’d throw a bunch of unopened cans into boiling water where the labels fell off, and each person would open one up and eat whatever was inside.
Georgie was still running the Grand Canyon in 1991, as she was approaching her 80th birthday. She died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 81. In her Las Vegas trailer after her death, they found a copy of Bessie Hyde’s marriage license and a pistol in her lingerie drawer, spawning a rumor that Georgie was actually Hyde, who disappeared during a honeymoon float down the Grand Canyon. According to legend, Hyde killed her abusive husband and hiked out alone to start a new life.
Historians have cast doubt on this explanation, and friends of Georgie suggest it’s possible she knew just what kind of rumors she would stir up by having documents like this in her possession, and maybe wanted to take people on one more ride.
Now a rapid in Grand Canyon has been named after her. A friend of hers said it would have been nice to get her name on a bigger rapid, “But I rode it last summer in low water, and that thing really kicks you in the rear-end as you go through. And that was Georgie, she liked to give people a good kick in the rear as she went through.”
I thought of Georgie when speaking to a man who was raised by a river-runner. His mom lived her life plunging through white-water. When they went together down the Colorado again last year, she was 94 years old and still laughing through the rough parts.
Last November, semi-estranged from my own family, I ate Thanksgiving dinner with company co-founder Sue Holiday, an old friend of Georgie White, and saw first-hand how her graciousness and verve holds families and businesses (and dinner parties) together. Though feasting with Sue was wildly different from what dinner with Georgie would have been like (there wasn’t a tin can in sight, for starters), I’ve begun to recognize the competence and power of the women who can run a river and run a river business.
I love meeting these women because it gives me hope for a future, and I’m heartened to see how Holiday nurtures gender diversity in a culture that is traditionally bro-centered. But the story of Georgie reminds me that deep down it’s not just about politics: the wild women on the whitewater are also wickedly fun.
Written by Kate Savage, desert wanderer, river lover and freelance writer. Check out Holiday’s River Currents blog for more of Kate’s writing soon!