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
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
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.