The Changing Rapids of Grand Canyon:
Waltenberg Rapid


Once upon a time, there was a large rapid in the middle of Grand Canyon that really scared those who rowed wooden boats. No, I'm not talking about Dubendorff Rapid; instead, the big scary one was Waltenberg. Yeah, the rapid is still big (see Steiger, 1993), but it isn't as threatening as it used to be. Waltenberg Rapid offers us a lesson that side canyon floods may actually make rapids easier to negotiate, and that maybe if all you are concerned with is whether your boat hits rocks or not, perhaps you should like the way Glen Canyon Dam is currently operated.
At mile 112.2, Waltenberg Rapid is half way between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. As with other rapids in Grand Canyon, the Board of Geographic Names misspelled the name of the rapid as Walthenberg, and the mistake was printed on usgs topographic maps (witness Deubendorf Rapid, named for Seymour Dubendorff). They apparently didn't know that the person being honored was named John Waltenberg, a fellow who worked for William Bass at the camps and mines upstream. Like other misspelled landmarks in Grand Canyon, I choose to honor them by correctly spelling their names.
Most of the early expeditions simply portaged the rapid. The first person to run Waltenberg, probably shouting “Whoops! Aha!” as he went, was George Flavell, who rowed the Panthon through Grand Canyon in 1896. In his typical fashion, Flavell didn't write much about his experience with Waltenberg. Everyone else running the river before 1911 either lined or portaged down the left side, scrambling among the rocky outcrops of Precambrian schists and amphibolites. If you've never been over there, it's a nice place to visit, and lots of photographs were taken from river left. By matching these photographs, we've learned a lot about Waltenberg and how it has changed.
The Kolb brothers sure noticed the rapid. On Christmas Eve of 1911, Ellsworth ran first down the left side; Emery followed on the right. Emery stuck his boat on some rocks at the head of the rapid, climbed out, and tried to free his boat. Ellsworth flipped the Defiance in one of the rapid's many holes and floated downstream, paralyzed in the freezing water. Watching the flip,

Emery furiously yanked his boat off its perch and, further down the rapid, proceeded to punch a hole in the side of the Edith that was big enough to fit a person through. Ellsworth crawled out just upstream of 112H Mile Rapid, and amazingly enough, crew member Bert Lauzon swam out and caught the Defiance before it was swept downstream. They called it Christmas Rapid, a name that obviously didn't stick. Emery came back to run the rapid in 1923 without incident. Buzz Holmstrom had good reason to dislike Waltenberg too. During his solo run in 1937, Holmstrom got tired of lining and started running everything. He hit several rocks “hard” at about 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) but made it through Waltenberg. Returning in 1938, Holmstrom punched a hole in the bow of his boat at 10,000 cfs on his way to being the first person to run all the rapids in Grand Canyon in one trip. Waltenberg was his nemesis.
The change in Waltenberg was both subtle and significant. The largest debris flow from Waltenberg Canyon occurred between 1911 and 1923. This debris flow filled in the right side of the rapid, but not enough to help the Kolbs or Holmstrom. Another debris flow sometime between 1973 and 1984 deposited a small cobble bar, raising the top of the debris fan and increasing its volume. As a result, the debris fan now pushes more water towards the left, raising the depth in the center of the rapid sufficiently to cover the rocks that plagued the Kolbs and Holmstrom.
So why on Earth would a boater want to like the way Glen Canyon Dam is operated? Two reasons: flood control and high minimum releases. Because of the flood control operations of Glen Canyon Dam, floods rarely exceed 33,000 cfs (the notable exception being 1983, of course). Dam releases are rarely sufficient to move large boulders around, so the enlarged debris fan at Waltenberg is going to remain large for the foreseeable future. The high minimum releases, combined with the reduced width of the channel, provide sufficient water to cover those nasty rocks in the center of the rapid. You can always get into trouble in wooden boats, but you are not likely to hit rocks in the center of Waltenberg in the near future.
Bob Webb