A Daring Voyage Down The Grand Canyon


An account of the unique feat accomplished by two intrepid miners who, in frail row-boats, made a trip which has never before been performed in its entirety by water—a voyage down the rock-strewn torrent of the Colorado River, where it burrows thousands of feet below the surface of the earth in a series of tremendous gorges, the most famous of which is the Grand Canyon. Time and again the two men faced death in the boiling rapids, but eventually they emerged in safety after a journey of seven hundred and fifty miles, lasting over three months.
Everybody has heard of Niagara Falls and the terrible rapids which the tortured waters of the river form below the great cascade.
The Niagara, however, is a mere creek in size compared with another American stream, the Colorado, which may well be called a river of mystery, partly because of the strange region through which it passes, and partly because so little is known about it. Unlike the Niagara, the Colorado is far away from civilization. Making its devious way through inaccessible mountains and arid deserts, very few human beings live near it. But the Colorado flows under the earth rather than on the top; for hundreds of miles it rushes through vast gorges thousands of feet in depth. The greatest gorge of all is well called the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.
The Grand Canyon, however, is only one of a series of mighty clefts in which the river has literally buried itself. The bottoms are so rugged, so strewn with great rocks and boulders, that only in a few places does the current flow smoothly. For miles and miles the surface of the water is a mass of foaming wave-tops, tossed ceaselessly to and fro amid the rocky obstructions, forming currents and fierce eddies beside which the famous Niagara whirlpool seems insignificant.
There are places where the surface of the Colorado is seven thousand five hundred feet below the brink of the gorge, and at nearly every point it is close on six thousand feet. Looking across from one edge of the canyon to the other, the distance seems to the novice to be two miles. Say so to one of the guides or trailsmen and he may smile; for at Bright Angel trail the width is no less than thirteen miles, while the tourist who stands on the brink at Grand View and looks directly across covers with the glance a distance of eighteen miles. The eye is indeed deceptive here, for if you descend to what is known as the top of the inner gorge and look down upon the river the Colorado appears to be a muddy creek twenty or twenty-five feet wide. But these black walls of granite, which descend almost vertically from the place where you stand, are actually four times the height of Niagara’s famous gorge, being nearly fourteen hundred feet sheer, and the river itself is over a hundred and fifty feet wide.
Yet, spite of its fierce current and deadly, rock-strewn rapids, men have dared to attempt to float down this semi-subterranean river in boats. They have tried it, but only two such adventurers can say that they did it successfully, and can prove their story by photographs. These men, who have accomplished a feat that seemed to be impossible, are Charles Russell and E. R. Monett, two American gold-miners. Away back in 1869 the famous explorer Powell tried to navigate the river with an expedition consisting of four boats and eight men, but most of the boats were wrecked long before the end of the gorges was reached, and in several places they dared not trust to the waters, but carried their craft bodily round the dangerous passages. Twenty years after Major Powell made the attempt Stanton, another explorer, tried it with three boats and twelve men, but his party did not complete the journey by water. Since then several other expeditions have risked their lives; and in some cases men have gone into those grim and gloomy gorges and never been heard of again.
Russell and Monett expected to have a companion named Loper in their adventure, but, as will be noted, Loper met with such disaster early in the trip that he left them. How the trio conceived the daring exploit is worth the telling. The plan, according to Russell, originated several years ago in the mind of Russell’s companion, Loper, while the two men were working in a mine at Cripple Creek. In 1893 Loper had been attracted to the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado, in South-Eastern Utah, by the excitement created by the discovery of placer gold there. He had never forgotten his experiences, and confided to Russell his belief that the Grand Canyon of the Colorado offered proportionately greater chances of much richer placer mining. The two men planned to make their start in the spring of 1900 but the dangers and almost insurmountable difficulties of the task they had so lightly undertaken slowly became apparent to them, and they finally decided to wait until they were properly equipped in point of money and information. At the outset they found they must get at least one more companion if they were to be successful—and four men were preferable to three. According to Russell, their eight years’ search for a partner disclosed no individual with the necessary qualifications who was willing to make the trip.
Consequently, it was not until April, 1907, that their long-laid plans began to materialize. Loper met Monett—a boy in appearance, not seemingly strong and unusually quiet—at the Mohawk Mine in Goldfield. But that Monett was not young—in courage, at least—and not as weak as a casual glance revealed, was presently evidenced when the young man expressed not only a willingness to share the dangers of the trip with the other two, but urged as proof of his strength his work in the mines—a daily physical test calling for no little endurance. Loper notified Russell, then foreman of a mine near Prescott, that the third man had at last been found, and a meeting was arranged for Green River, Utah, early in September. To this point were shipped the row-boats Russell and Loper had determined to pin their faith to, together with a three months’ supply of provisions.
Realizing that the loss of the boats meant failure and perhaps loss of life, the explorers took great care to secure suitable craft. They were designed to be light yet strong, each large enough to hold one man in addition to the food and clothing composing his outfit. Each boat was sixteen feet long, with steel ribs, covered with a tough wooden “skin,” which was still further protected by a covering of stout canvas. To prevent them being swamped in the boiling rapids, the boats were covered with decks made of steel sheets, carefully riveted together so that the joints would be water-tight. A hole just large enough to admit a man’s body was left in the centre, and when the voyager took his seat at the oars flaps of heavy cloth were stretched around his body extending to the edges of the cavity. Each craft had a reservoir full of air built into either end, like a lifeboat, to give it more buoyancy. The little fleet bore the names of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, the respective States from which the intrepid trio hailed.
On the Green River in Utah, one of the sources of the Colorado, the men launched their craft and began their strange voyage. They were four days in reaching the Colorado, having to travel about a hundred and twenty-five miles. It was not difficult to tell when the Colorado was reached, for almost immediately they plunged into what is known as the Little Cataract Canyon, where the smooth waters abruptly ended. For forty-one miles they were swirled and thrown about in the grip of angry currents. Luckily Russell and Monett came out safely, but Loper came to grief. Their experience is thus described by Russell:—
“The rapids presented a terrifying appearance, the rushing, roaring water, beaten into foam as it plunged over the rocks, rolling in waves five to ten feet high at the foot. These extended for a hundred yards and more before they became quieter, and ended in swirling whirlpools. Hardly does the water quiet down when it takes another plunge, so close are the rapids together. This was my first experience in shooting rapids. I seemed to go very slowly until quite near the brink, when my speed was suddenly accelerated and over I plunged, the boat taking a stiff angle downward as she went over, only to rise abruptly as she climbed the next wave. Then came another pitch downward for the succeeding billow, but this she did not climb. The wave combed back fiercely, and the stern end of the boat plunged under, the water almost taking my breath away as it swept clear across the boat. She rose nicely, however, and came out on top of the next one easily. We were soon through the worst part, and pulled into the eddy.
“Before long we entered upon the worst part of this canyon. Rapids Fourteen, Fifteen, and Sixteen are so close together that they must be run without stopping, as there is practically no quiet water between them; and so rocky is No. Sixteen that it seems impossible to get through at all. Loper proposed to run it with his boat, the Arizona, while we watched the result. He handled the craft very dexterously, being an excellent oarsman, and was successful in striking the only place in Rapid Sixteen that a boat could pass through. But even here the current dashed hard against a huge rock, taking a vertical drop of four or five feet off one side. Loper found it impossible to keep the boat away from this boulder and she was swept heavily against it. She turned almost on end, but luckily the water was deep and she came up like a fish. After seeing Loper’s experience Monett and myself were fearful of our ability to get through, and Loper bravely volunteered to bring our boats through, which feat he accomplished in safety.”
When they had pulled themselves together and looked over the little fleet it was found that Loper’s boat had been unfitted for further service by the collision with the rock, and the greater part of his supplies lost. After a consultation it was decided that the others should leave their unfortunate partner at a little settlement just below the cataract and proceed. Russell and Monett, pushing ahead, put in many days prospecting along the shores of Glen Canyon. They waited for Loper at Lee’s Ferry, a Mormon settlement, more than twice as long as the time agreed upon. Then, as there were no signs of him, they determined to go on without him. Friday, the 13th of the month, had no terrors for the intrepid pair, and they started off down the river on the morning of that day, with the Marble Canyon acting as an introduction to the Grand Canyon below. In dwelling on this stage of their journey Russell seemed to lose sight entirely of the remarkable nerve both men showed in going through what is admittedly the wildest part of the river without the third companion who, at the outset, had seemed absolutely indispensable to the successful accomplishment of the trip.

In seven days they had passed the length of the roaring stream through the perpendicular walls of Marble Canyon, towering up on either side to an average height of three thousand feet, and had come safely through the worst rapids up to that point. At one place there were fifty-seven rapids to be negotiated in quick succession, some of them having falls from sixteen to twenty feet deep.
Entering the Grand Canyon, for the first fifteen miles below the entrance of the Little Colorado they found the water comparatively quiet. From this point onwards they found however, their way was threatened by the worst falls they had thus far met. But the good luck which had attended them from the start still prevailed, and they managed to force their way without damage to either boat down over the almost continuous cataracts. Christmas found them only fifteen miles above Bright Angel trail. In describing the manner in which they celebrated the great day, Russell remarked, casually, that they certainly hung up their stockings—to dry. From beginning to end of their journey the adventurers had been obliged to depend for fuel entirely on such driftwood as they could find lodged in eddies and on the rocky shores. They spent more than one night in clothes soaked through with the icy water of the Colorado, with no fire to warm them. Their Christmas camp, however, was on a narrow strip of sand, with a greater supply of driftwood at hand than they had found at any point along the river. Immediately below this camping place, and continuing for the succeeding ten miles, the river dashes through a troubled stretch, the most perilous section of which is known as the “Sockdologer Rapid.” To make matters worse, Russell found it impossible to follow his usual custom of “picking a trail” through these rapids. When possible the elder man climbed along the precipitous sides of the canyon beside each cataract leaving Monett above the rough water in charge of the two boats. In this manner Russell could observe the most dangerous places through the rapids, and chart a course accordingly. But in this ten-mile stretch the granite walls rise sheer and smooth for the first fifteen hundred feet, and Russell could find no foothold, so that the men faced the necessity of “shooting” unknown waters.
Russell led the way in his boat, swinging it into the boiling current stern first—his own method of taking each cataract—making the frail craft respond to his will when possible by a forward pull on one or the other of his oars. After the first minute the cockpit in which each man sat, shut off from the rest of the boat by water-tight compartments, was filled to the gunwales with icy water, in which the oarsmen were compelled to remain. The boats dashed through one wave only to plunge into another. With less than a quarter of a mile still to be covered before the less vicious water below was reached, Russell heard his companion cry out in terror from behind, but before he could turn to ascertain the cause he was driven into smooth water. Mooring his boat at the foot of the rapids as quickly as possible, Russell half climbed, half waded, along the shore of the river and made his way hack.
Here was disaster indeed! Monett’s boat had been thrown by a heavy wave into a cleft between two jagged rocks. The craft was wedged in so tightly that he could have done little to release her if she had been “high and dry,” but as it was he was literally a prisoner in the rushing waters, and how to rescue him was the question to be answered—and answered quickly. How Russell performed this brave feat is best told in his own words: “Monett, with his boat wedged tightly between two rocks, whose tops were about a foot below the sweeping water, was hanging desperately to the gunwales of the little craft—his body straightened out horizontally by the rush of the current. The boat was completely wrecked, but when I threw the rope to him I was astounded to see the boy carefully work his way closer to the craft and begin to tie its contents securely to the one means of saving his own life.
“So loud was the roar of the rapids that it was useless for me to yell to him to let the provisions go and save himself. Four times he made me haul sides of bacon and sacks of beans through the thirty feet of rushing water between him and the shore, before he finally caught the rope himself and let me drag him to safety. He had been in the water more than twenty minutes, and was nearly exhausted when I helped him to his feet.”
The loss of the boat seemed at first to mark the end of their attempt to equal the record of their predecessors, but Monett insisted that they should try the plan of carrying him astride on the stern of the surviving boat. “If we strike too rough water, I can always swing overboard,” he urged, “and we’ve needed a drag that wouldn’t get fouled in the rocks all along.”
So the adventurers continued, Monett managing to keep a grip on the covered deck while Russell navigated the frail craft through the foaming torrent, stern first. It was a case of “get out or die,” as they put it afterwards, for they could not possibly scale the black walls that rose on either side for thousands of feet as sheer as a stone falls through the air. They might abandon the boat and work their way up to some rocky shelf, but they stood an excellent chance of starving if they found farther progress impossible. Thus began one of the most remarkable exploits in the history of adventure. For several days they dodged in and out of the rapids, but finally reached the little stretch of smooth water where the river flows past Bright Angel trail. At noon one day, about two weeks after the second shipwreck, a party of tourists were eating their luncheon by the river-side; they saw two men in one little row-boat swing out of the rapids two hundred yards up stream and row leisurely toward them. In the thirty years that tourists have visited the bottom of the canyon at this point, it is safe to assert that not one ever saw a sight like this. Two horses were placed at the disposal of the explorers, whose clothes were torn and soaking wet, while their faces were covered with many weeks’ growth of beard.
They had planned to climb out of the canyon at Bright Angel to send and receive letters, but they had no intention of remaining here. With all their provisions now confined to the limited quarters of one boat, and with other incentives to make them push on with all speed possible, it was with difficulty that they were persuaded to remain at the hotel three days. During their stay here they were feted and made the heroes of the hour by the guests. Through it all they displayed an equanimity and unfailing good nature which surprised those who expected to find these ragged adventurers rather taciturn than talkative. Three days later the entire community accompanied the two men to the river edge and bade them an enthusiastic farewell as they pushed off into midstream and headed down river once more.
Below Bright Angel they had more thrilling experiences, for one of the ugliest canyons had to be “rushed,” as Russell puts it. Here they went through no fewer than fifteen different rapids in a distance of twenty-five miles. Several times Monett was torn from the boat by monster waves, but being an expert swimmer and very strong he managed to keep himself from being drowned or dashed upon the rocks, although his escapes were miraculous. At length they emerged from the last gorge at the little town of Needles, California, where their appearance excited the utmost astonishment. They had started on the journey with clean-shaven faces, but their hair and beards ad grown until Russell and Monett looked twenty years older. Their clothing was stained by exposure to the weather and torn by the rough usage they had experienced, and they appeared far more like tramps than the heroes they had proved themselves to be. Well they had earned the right to hoist the “flag of victory” on their little craft, even though it was only the remains of a cotton undershirt tied to a pole. During the last part of the voyage the gunwale of the boat was swung against a ledge with such force that the steel deck was torn from its fastenings, and, to lighten the craft and keep her from sinking, they had to pull off the useless sheets and throw them overboard.
During this unique voyage they floated down no less than seven hundred and fifty miles of the Colorado, traversing over twenty gorges whose walls ranged from three thousand to seven thousand feet—over a mile—in height. While the Grand Canyon and its divisions was the longest of the gorges, extending for three hundred miles, they also ran the Marble Canyon—a gorge seventy-five miles long. The last abyss from which they emerged was Black Canyon. At this point they came to the first settlement of human beings they had found on the banks of the Colorado since leaving Lee’s Ferry over three months before, for the Bright Angel trail is several miles away from any dwelling.
The men say that they were able to accomplish their exploit only by doing the exact opposite from what a boatman usually does. They let their boats go stern first down stream instead of bow first, and pulled their oars against the current. In other words, they kept rowing away from their destination, and up instead of down river. They followed this plan because, as Russell said, it enabled them to see where they were going. The current and rapids propelled the boats so swiftly that they merely used the oars for steering. Thus they avoided rocks and points on shore upon which the craft would otherwise have struck and been battered to pieces.