The Changing Rapids of the Colorado River—
President Harding Rapid

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 Harding.
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and Crampton, 1987, p. 137–138), photographed it (Figure 1), and even named his rapid number 160 “Boulder Rapid” in his unpublished notes (Webb, 1996).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 right side.

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 p.

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, 67 p.