Is there a more interesting rapid
in Grand Canyon than President Harding? It isn’t especially challenging
whitewater, yet it seems like more boat wrecks have occurred here than
in any other rapid with the same level of difficulty. Its current name
isn’t its first, and doubt was cast early on concerning its antiquity.
Finally, the run here has changed and not because of a debris flow.
The unusual name for this rapid comes courtesy of the U.S. Geological
Survey expedition of 1923. The night before their portage of Soap Creek
Rapid, they tuned into khj radio in Los Angeles and heard that President
Warren Harding had died. Claude Birdseye, expedition leader, decided to
take a day of rest on the day of the funeral, which coincided with the
expedition’s arrival at a little rapid formed around a large rock
in the center of the channel. Emery Kolb, head boatman, and Grand Canyon
veteran, did not remember this limestone block in the river from his 1911
trip (Freeman, 1923). They decided to name the little rapid for the just-deceased
Kolb’s memory was faulty. Robert Brewster Stanton saw the boulder
(Smith and Crampton, 1987, p. 137–138), photographed it (Figure
1), and even named his rapid number 160 “Boulder Rapid” in
his unpublished notes (Webb, 1996). The name, which never appeared in
Stanton’s publications, was as elusive as Kolb’s memory. Because
the usgs expedition concluded that the rock had fallen into the river
between 1911 and 1923 (Brian, 1992, p. 32, says “about 1910”),
many passing this point have looked up to the right-side cliff to fit
it back into one of the many depressions up there. Stop looking up there,
unless you like the view; that rock has been in the river for a long time,
and it came out of the unnamed canyon over on river left, transported
by a long-ago debris flow.
There are three runs here: right, left, and center. The three have very
different consequences, depending on water level. The usgs expedition
had the first documented accident here—Elwyn Blake tried to go right
but instead tangled with the wave rolling off the rock. His boat flipped
onto its side, throwing Blake clear, but he quickly swam back and climbed
in (Blake, 1923). The most famous incident here, which occurred during
the epic swim of Bill Beer and John Daggett in 1955, should have changed
the rapid’s name again. Beer swam right, Daggett went center, and
the rock scored its second victory. Daggett was swept under the left side
of the rock and was temporarily pinned; when he emerged, he had numerous
cuts to his head and hands (Beer, 1995, p. 71–74). Beer compared
the rock to a cheese grater, and his casual observation reveals the antiquity
of the rapid. The rock had to be in the current for many years to develop
those sharp flutes.
Over the years, President Harding
Rapid has become almost legendary in terms of those who have lackadaisically
entered its tongue. One commonly used river guide (Stevens, 1983) rates
it a “4,” but this rapid is one of the few in Grand Canyon
that requires a move after entry. One incident, regularly repeated, involved
clueless boatmen, a flipped boat, and shaken-up passengers. When rescuers
suggested to the boatmen that they calm their passengers by having them
hike Saddle Canyon, the boatmen reportedly responded: “Where is
Saddle Canyon?” On one trip we were on, one boat casually entered
center, then stern-walked on the massive wave that forms at 45,000 cubic
feet per second (cfs), but luckily didn’t flip.
Depending on when in the 20th century river runners encountered it, the
run here has changed. At high water levels, some have successfully run
the center waves; Reilly, who passed the rapid at a discharge of about
125,000 cfs in 1957, reported “a slick bulge…with just a suggestion
of a hole below it” (Reilly, 1957, p. 9). At low water, the first
observers report the run was on the right; Stanton’s photograph
(Figure 1A), taken at about 5,000 cfs, shows only a narrow slot on the
left. The left side was briefly narrowed following a 1983 debris flow
(Figure 2), but subsequent high releases from 1984 through 1986 quickly
widened it. Recently, rockfalls that began in the winter of 1998 (Webb
et al., 2000) narrowed the low-water run on the right, forcing all but
the most adventuresome river runners left. We predict relatively frequent
debris flows here, suggesting that the run will eventually return to the
Bob Webb and Chris Magirl
Beer, B., 1995, We swam the Grand Canyon: St. Thomas, Virgin Islands,
15 Minute Press, 171 p.
Blake, H.E., Jr., 1923, 1923 Grand Canyon of the Colorado River trip,
Diary of Elwyn Blake: Monticello, Utah, the San Juan Record, September
6, 1923, typescript manuscript, p. 6–7.
Brian, N., 1992, River to rim: Flagstaff, Arizona, Earthquest Press, 176
Freeman, L.R., 1923, Diary of the U.S.G.S. Grand Canyon voyage: College
Park, Maryland, National Archives, unpublished diary, 78 p.
Reilly, P.T., 1957, Log of P.T. Reilly for Marble-Grand traverse, June,
1957: Flagstaff, Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, Special Collections,
unpublished manuscript, 18 p.
Smith, D.L., and Crampton, C.G., 1987, The Colorado River survey: Salt
Lake City, Howe Brothers Books, 305 p.
Stevens, L., The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, A guide: Flagstaff, Arizona,
Red Lake Books, 115 p.
Webb, R.H., 1996, Grand Canyon: A century of change: Tucson, University
of Arizona Press, 290 p.
Webb, R.H., Griffiths, P.G., Melis, T.S., and Hartley, D.R., 2000, Sediment
delivery by ungaged tributaries of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon:
U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Investigations Report 00-4055,