Norman Nevills


In 1936, an ex-Californian named Norman Nevills put together a guided trip down southeastern Utah’s San Juan River for three men who wanted to see and photograph Rainbow Natural Bridge. Two years later he conducted the first fare paying passengers down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. The trip, which produced considerable national publicity, made commercially led river expeditions a brand new “trophy vacation” choice, and positioned thirty-year old Norman Nevills as the man to lead them.
At the time of his death in 1949 he had, for about ten years, been known as “The World’s No. 1 Fast-Water Man” and, although it was magazine and newspaper writers who invented the title, Norm worked very hard to earn and maintain it, and basked in it as an unparalleled stock in trade. As early as 1936 he had begun to think of professional river running as a career, and in the ensuing years could get fairly distraught about anything he felt could tarnish his reputation for safe adventure. Besides being preoccupied with passenger safety, especially on-river, he worked very hard to make every trip a mixture of adventure, exploration, games, tall tales, and stunts.
For newspapers and magazines he was a wellspring of publicity ideas that generally were intended to focus on the adventures rather than the man. But most writers approached the stories from the hero angle, which he didn’t mind at all because publicity for Norm Nevills was publicity for Nevills Expeditions.
Before he had established a reputation of his own, Norm did his best to give himself a relevant boating-flavored heritage, drawing on lore about his father and grandfather. After going on the 1942 San Juan and Grand Canyon expeditions and interviewing Norm for a magazine story, author Neill C. Wilson wrote, of Norm’s grandfather, that Captain William Alexander Nevills once owned a vessel on the Great Lakes. Of Norm’s father, William Eugene Nevills, Wilson wrote that he had been in Alaska around 1900, where he had learned about driftboat design and the Canadian-Alaskan method of “backing down” through fast water, and had built a boat and run the White Horse and Miles Canyon Rapids. Although these snippets had gotten a bit garbled, each of them had some basis in a family background more colorful than Norm may have known.
During his rise to fame, Norm developed some detractors, not especially for his achievements, but for such things as being a showoff, or exaggerating, or renaming landmarks and side canyons more colorfully. His harshest critic was Otis Marston, who became a preeminent river historian.
Marston and Nevills met in 1942. Advertising man / free lance writer Neill Wilson had been one of Norm’s San Juan passengers in May and, seeing the story potential, had signed up for the July 15, 1942 Grand Canyon Expedition. Wilson suggested that he and Marston both bring their teen-age sons along. The expedition—six passengers in all—probably wouldn’t have materialized in that war year except for Wilson’s signups, and his account of the 1942 expedition was one of the springboard stories that helped launch Norm’s career and reputation. The other two passengers Ed Olson and Ed Hudson, would also be heard from again: a few years later Ed Olsen produced the award winning documentary film Danger River, and about the same time Ed Hudson, with his Esmeralda I and Esmeralda II, introduced the running of hard hulled motorboats through Grand Canyon.
On the 1942 expedition, Norm let Marston row President Harding and Mile 205 rapids as well as a few other middle-sized ones, and Marston, like countless others who have been baited that way, was hooked. In 1944 he went on the Nevills June 6–12 San Juan trip and was allowed to share the rowing with some other passengers Norm was eying as potential boatmen. In July 1945 Marston graduated to the big water when he rowed one of the cataract boats on a Nevills Expedition for the Marston family down the Colorado from Moab spring through Cataract and Glen canyons to Lees Ferry. In 1946 Marston recruited the passengers for Nevills Expeditions down the Snake and Salmon rivers in Idaho, and was rewarded by being chosen as one of the boatmen. In 1947 he rowed the cataract boat Joan on the upper Green River and in Grand Canyon. He rowed the cataract boat Joan on the upper Green River in 1947, and through Grand Canyon in 1947 and 1948.
From 1942 through the end of 1948 the two men corresponded frequently. Their relationship was a mix of common interests and symbiosis. Marston, who retired from E.F. Hutton in 1947, had discovered, in river running, an exciting new interest. Norm, whose expeditions and other work kept him in remote country a good deal of the time, had discovered an enthusiastic, perspicacious, well-heeled and well-located promoter. Marston showed river films and gave travelogue talks frequently in the Bay Area and, as time went on, in other parts of the country. Norm wrote newsy letters to Marston, gave him historical information, and put him in the limelight as a whitewater boatman and budding historian.
Sometime between the 1945 and 1946 expeditions Norm decided that the trips would be more fun if everyone had a nickname and suggested that Marston, who had grown chin whiskers, resembled a college professor, and should be called “Doctor.” By late 1945 Norm’s letters opened with “Dear Doctor” which he later shortened to “Doc.” Marston signed his letters, “Cheerio —Doctor” and opened them with “Dear Admiral,” later “Dear Commodore” and eventually “Commodore Salute.” Norm was apparently flattered and when he responded to Marston’s letters he signed them as he was addressed: in the beginning as “Admiral” and later as “Commodore.”
The two men were from totally opposite worlds. Marston was affluent, urbane, erudite, an ex-Navy officer, swimming coach, and stockbroker. Norm was provincial, horny-handed, rapid-fire, cocky, a working man. Marston lived in the university atmosphere of Berkeley; Norm had spent most of his first twenty years as an only child in a one-parent household and then was transplanted to a poverty pocket in the Utah desert where the outside world seldom seen or heard from, was of secondary interest.
Although Marston described differences between river people as “feudin,” he and Norm didn’t really feud, they just toyed with each other pretty hard. Norm once mentioned having a letter from the renowned Buzz Holmstrom, in which Holmstrom gave some opinions about running rivers in high water, and Doc wanted the letter for his historical collection. Norm kept finding reasons he couldn’t look for the letter right at the moment. Then, when Norm wanted to borrow Doc’s movie film for a showing, Doc “forgot” to send it to Norm in time.
One of their early clashes was in 1945, over determining the height and span of a natural bridge in a tributary of the Escalante River ,which resulted in Norm getting embarrassed by his not knowing trigonometry.
In the summer of 1947, between their runs of the upper Green and the Grand Canyon, Norm, Marston, and Rosalind Johnson had a three-way tiff at Mexican Hat. Ros, who was the seventh or eighth woman to go through Grand Canyon and now considered herself a seasoned river passenger, decided to go down to the San Juan behind the Nevills house and float through Gyp Creek Rapid on an air mattress. Joan Nevills wanted to do it too, and Norm was all for it, but Ros, understandably not wanting to be responsible for someone else’s eleven year old, wouldn’t take her along. Norm considered Ros’ refusal tantamount to giving his daughter orders. Norm and Ros had a spat over it and when it was over, Marston rebuked Norm, and that strained the relationship.
In February 1948, after watching Marston’s film at the Mesa College auditorium in Grand Junction, Colorado, Norm told Ros he didn’t think much of it and suggested Danger River as a “real film.” Ros, now miffed at Norm, undoubtedly relayed this to Marston, whose letter to Norm a couple of weeks later seemed intended to create, via Doris, an issue between Norm and his publisher friend Randall Henderson. The letter suggested that Norm “tell Doris that Ros…considers you have a right to sue Randall for those pictures of her.”
Later that same year during the July Grand Canyon expedition, Frank Masland, skeptical of some of Norm’s campfire tales, questioned Marston, the budding historian, as to their accuracy. Marston obliged by correcting Norm in the presence of his passengers. During the same expedition Marston hiked up Lava Canyon for several hours to explore, and stayed so long that, by the time he returned, the others had camped and prepared dinner, and they had to hurriedly gulp it down and reload the boats and run against the edge of darkness to the place Norm had intended to camp to light the signal fire that would be seen from Desert View.
That December, Marston narrated a silent film presentation for a large audience at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in which, as part of his presentation, he lauded Norm Nevills. Then about a month later he learned that he was not being offered a rowing job in 1949. After that, Marston had nothing good to say about Norm. He changed the spelling of his nickname to “Dock” and began claiming “his” rowing job was given to P.T. Reilly—who counterclaimed that it was actually given to Jim Rigg, because Jim was hired after P.T.
Despite having changed his nickname to “Dock” (and later, in correspondence with P.T. Reilly) to “Parson,” Marston continually assailed Norm for name changing and, ten years after the Nevills’ death, still refused to refer to the canyon that Norman called Mystery Canyon as anything except “the canyon at Mile 73.6”—and eventually had its name officially changed to Anasazi Canyon. As a final riposte, Marston penned a note on the file copy of one of his “Dear Admiral” / “Commodore” letters to Norm declaring that he had given Norm those nautical titles in derision.
Although Marston chose to bundle Norm’s traits together under the charge “legend builder,” a fuller and fairer appraisal would have been: “what a character!” Whatever else Norm Nevills was, he was fearless, fun loving, self-confident, highly energized, physically oriented, strong, agile, literate and expressive. He was happy with himself.
He stood five feet seven inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. Although he couldn’t bend the heavy oars like bigger men could, he had an extra measure of energy, and wide shoulders, strong arms, and calloused hands from life and labor at Mexican Hat. He was handy at most trades. He was keen at reading water, and lightning quick to react. In his thousands of miles of river running, there’s no indication he ever capsized a boat.
As the only child of a doting mother and often absent fortune-seeking father, Norman had grown up as something of a showoff. He had little or no fear of height and one of the things he liked to do was climb. At age seventeen, he and his mother visited his father at the Mexican Hat oil camp and on a day when Billy Nevills had company from up-country, Norm climbed up on the drilling rig’s “walking beam” and did his version of a Navajo dance. “ Norman, get down from there,” yelled Billy Nevills, “you got less sense than your god damned old mother!”
That was a bit unfair: Norm didn’t lack sense—he just had a high tolerance for fear, and could transcend it when the reward was great enough. His friend Hilda Oliver recalled that “he used to stand on his head and hands on the rail of the river bridge and do crazy things on the cables and scare poor Moe and me half to death.” That stunt worked well on the river trips years later: when the Colorado was carrying a lot of debris, Norm would often row up to a big floating log and headstand on it while the cameras clicked. At Rainbow Bridge he often climbed onto the top of the great stone arch, and sometimes slept there. In September 1939 he climbed to the top of Mexican Hat Rock, on a complicated pole and rope rigging that was cantilevered out beyond the brim of the 65-foot “inverted sombrero”—and persuaded Doris and a budding young archaeobotanist named Hugh Cutler to accompany him.
Sometimes Norm overstated things, like the height of the waves and the speed of the water. He did this to keep passengers and boatmen on edge about the next rapid, with exclamations like: “…Good God, that looks terrible! I don’t know how we’ll ever get through!,” and then afterwards, “well, that one wasn’t too bad this time—but the next one is really tough.” Even his daughter Sandra at age six observed “My daddy zad-jerates.” Norm just didn’t worry about objectivity; he left that to the historians. He worked at keeping people interested and excited about their trip.
With his boatmen, he was direct and could be peremptory. As an expedition leader he sometimes annoyed his boatmen by barking orders, or scolding them in the presence of passengers, and it probably sounded even more imperious because of his precise and explosive manner of speaking. As Frank Wright described it, Norm “spoke and enunciated too perfectly. I think he may have had to overcome a speech defect.” That was a pretty good guess: during Norm’s childhood, roller skating while blowing a tin whistle, he had fallen and jammed the whistle down his throat, tearing his larynx, and after that had to form words strongly and carefully.
Norm’s accomplishments were possible partly because he was in the right place at the right time, but also because of the way he was—his “nayt-chur,” as his mother put it—and also the forces that influenced his childhood, adolescence, marriage, and family life. One of those was his pugnacious, flamboyant grandfather, William Alexander Nevills, whom it’s clear Norm had been told some interesting things about, but probably never met.
William Alexander Nevills was a Canadian farm boy who left home around 1860 to work on (but not “own”) a Great Lakes steamer between Buffalo, New York and Chicago, Illinois. He married a neighbor girl, and had several children in addition to Norman’s father, William Eugene (“Billy”) Nevills. Around 1872 he sold his interest in the family farm and, leaving his wife and children in Canada, went to California, where by the mid-1890s he had become a gold mining magnate addressed, like many intimidating men of that era, as “Captain.” At the pinnacle of his life Captain Nevills had taken some six million dollars worth of gold from the ground and owned several mines, two hotels, two vineyards, and parts of a stagecoach line and a railroad. Fifteen years later he died virtually penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.
In 1889 Billy Nevills followed his father to the American West and began staking claims for him. In 1893 and 1894 he was superintendent of two mines near his father’s workings, and he made a couple of attempts to obtain mines of his own on a “working partner” basis with other prospectors, but wasn’t successful. By 1897 he and his father had a serious falling-out that resulted in Billy being written out of Captain Nevills’ will, and it appears that the two had very little communication for the remaining years of the Captain’s life.
From 1897 to 1902 Billy had a San Francisco address, and for a time he was a partner in a shipping company. In “about 1900” according to Norm, Billy went to “The Yukon to look into the big gold strike,” which had begun three years before. By 1903 he had gravitated toward the Cherokee placer near Oroville, California and met Mary Davies, whose father, a miner, had emigrated from Wales.
Billy and Mary (who went by “Mae” until her grand- daughters changed it to “Moe”), were married in late 1903 or early 1904 when he was 38 and she was 28, but Billy immediately went prospecting again for about three years, and Norman wasn’t born until April 1908, when Billy had settled down in Chico, California and was working as a machine hand. At the time of Norman’s birth, his mother was seriously ill with peritonitis, and was being tended by a San Francisco doctor named Landon Ellis, who would later figure in the family’s destiny. The pregnancy and birth were further complicated by the fact Mae was also having to care for one of her sisters who was terminally ill with tuberculosis.
Dr. Ellis urged Mae to give Norman away, but she refused, insisting that she was going to get well and live to raise her son. Two weeks after he was born, young Norman was sent to St. Helena in Napa County, with a nurse. Six weeks later they returned to the family apartment in Chico, but Mae was still seriously ill and after a week she had to take Norman to her mother’s home. Through all this Norman became undernourished and very small and thin. When Mae had regained enough strength in her mother’s home, she took Norman to Oroville, where Billy had found another job. After six or eight months at Oroville the family returned to Chico for a while, then a few months later, in 1910, they went north to Edgewood, near the Oregon border, and soon after that to the mining town of Weed. Because of the deep rift between Billy and his father, it was not until after the captain died in San Francisco in 1912 that Billy, Mae and Norman moved down to Oakland, where Billy worked alternately as a promoter, carpenter and contractor.
In 1920 Doctor Ellis asked Billy to go to Goodridge, Utah (later renamed Mexican Hat) to help his brother A.C. Ellis Jr. hold the family’s claim in the San Juan oil patch against claim-jumpers until the assessment work could be completed. He remained in Utah working for Ellis (who also used the sobriquet “Colonel” in front of his name) and then about 1927 split off from Colonel Ellis and began drilling his own wells. Occasionally he returned to Oakland to see his family, stopping en route to visit a friend named John Oliver, who had moved down from the settlement of Bluff to open a store near the oil camp.
In Oakland, Norman graduated from Claremont Grammar School in 1921 and University High School in 1925. That summer he and his mother went to Utah to visit Billy, and then returned to California where Norm took two semesters at College Of The Pacific in nearby Stockton, and the faculty noticed he was more interested in the dramatics courses than in geology.
Billy, who believed in the school of hard knocks, thought college a waste of time, and complained to his friend John Oliver that Mae was “making an educated fool” out of their son. Sitting in class wasn’t Norm’s thing either, and after the spring semester he was back around Chico briefly, and then back to Oakland where, in 1927 and 1928, he worked as a clerk, probably at the Southern Pacific Company, a railway and shipping firm with a ticket office not far from the Nevills home, and a terminal at the Oakland pier. At about this time he informed his parents that he was going to work his way around the world on a freighter, but Billy, now working mostly alone, persuaded him to come to Utah first, make some money, “and then make the voyage first-class,” and Norman and his mother joined Billy there late in 1928.
Billy’s 1927 well had produced enough crude oil that he was able to build a topping plant and pull off kerosene and gasoline for sale to the few outsiders who happened through. By June 1929 he and Norman were making plans to build a diesel-powered generating plant and sell electricity to the drillers and settlers, but soon after that the well stopped pumping oil and started producing brackish water—“went to water” in drillers’ lingo. In the early 1930s Billy drilled three more wells, but they were puny producers.
With no reason to live at the oil camp, they moved to flatter ground a mile south where the road turns west toward the river bridge, and acquired a trading post where Mae dealt in Navajo rugs and jewelry, clothing, groceries, and gasoline—which, ironically, she had to buy from Conoco and have hauled in from the outside world. A few outsiders drove through, but most of her trade was with Navajos from the northern part of Monument Valley, many of whom affectionately called her shi-ma (“my mother”). Billy, with help from Norman and some Navajo stonemasons, began building the Nevills Mexican Hat Lodge just across the road. The lodge, judging from its guest register, was finished enough to begin receiving guests by mid-August 1933.
Norman Nevills’s star began to rise in 1929 when a young General Electric engineer named Thorn Mayes, who was being transferred to California from Schenectady, New York, tried a shortcut and found himself in Mexican Hat and met Billy and Mae Nevills. In 1930 the Mayes’s returned to Mexican Hat for an end-of-year vacation and met Norman himself. Thorn had became enthralled with nearby Monument Valley, and begun progressively creating a map of the area by adding the names of the monuments and details such as elevations, roads, springs, trails, and Navajo hogans to a mosaic of Fairchild Aerial Surveys photos.
In June 1933 the Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Expedition (rbmv) came into the area. The rbmv Expedition was an interagency sponsored survey put together and directed by Ansel F. Hall. The Monument Valley area had been proposed as a unit of the national park system and Hall, the Park Service Director for Education, foresaw the need for authentic research-based information on the topography, scenic features, geology, archeology, ethnology and plant and animal life, so that the merits and boundaries of the designation could be decided. Initially it looked as if the Expedition would headquarter at Mexican Hat, and an airstrip was graded there for them, but they eventually decided on Kayenta, Arizona, which had the advantages of a government hospital and the accomodations and Navajo connections of the legendary Indian Trader, John Wetherill. From Kayenta and several field camps the rbmv Expedition worked the area for six summers. Thorn Mayes was put in charge of the seventeen-man mapping team and he hired Norman as a member of that team.
Because the San Juan River was the most expedient way to traverse the rough terrain north and east of Navajo Mountain, the Survey had brought several small boats. These craft, known as Wilson Fold-Flat boats, were ten feet long and made mostly of plywood joined by canvas hinges. They were pointed at the bow and square at the transom, which could be removed, allowing the sides and bottom to fold into a flat, easily transportable package. The Wilson boats were used about a dozen times to travel reaches of river that connected the mouths of certain tributary canyons, the first being in August 1933 when John Wetherill led them on a 200 mile reconnaissance down the San Juan and Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry.
Just a month before that, Norm and three fellow rbmv Expedition workers had gone up to Monticello, Utah for a couple of days off. Norm, while looking for an acquaintance named Donald May, whose father then ran the county newspaper, San Juan Record, encountered Doris Drown, a very attractive 19 year old from Oregon, who happened to be there with her mother and her stepfather Charles Albert (“Bert”) Dingledine, traveling circulation boosters who had come to help the San Juan Record increase its readership. Donald and Doris, who were then dating, suggested they line up Donald’s sister and two other girls for Norm and his friends, and drive over to nearby Dove Creek, Colorado, for a Saturday night dance.
Norm had been smitten by the girl from Oregon and two weeks later he and two of the same boys made a second trip to Monticello, and with Doris again as Donald’s date, and Norm and his fellow expedition workers fixed up with local girls, went to another dance, this one at the hamlet of Lockerby, Colorado. This time, Doris recalled, “…for some reason or other Norm and I weren’t interested in our dates—we were busy getting really acquainted.”
“The next time Norm came up,” she continued, “we went on a picnic up the mountain. It was quite cold. Norm threw one of his beautiful and highly prized Navajo blankets across my shoulders, saying ‘and now you’re my squaw’; I knew these words, lightly spoken, had much meaning.”
On, July 26th, Norm brought his mother and introduced Doris to her. Then—perhaps sending Mae shopping—he took Doris to see a cliff dwelling west of town, and there he proposed marriage to her. She quickly accepted, but just as quickly told him she couldn’t marry him then, because she and her parents were leaving the very next morning for their new assignment in Nebraska.
While Doris was in Nebraska she and Norm corresponded and made wedding plans. By now Norm knew that his mother wasn’t especially interested in having him get married, so he and Doris figured out a “reverse elopement” involving Norm’s friend Hilda, who was the telephone operator at Bluff. One day in mid-October, Doris phoned Hilda to say that she was leaving for Green River, Utah and Norm should meet her there at the railroad station. Hilda then wrote a confidential message and had it carried down to Norm. On receiving it, he contrived a reason to drive up to Green River, where he and Doris were married by a Protestant minister on October 18, 1933. Before that day they had seen each other only four times, but they loved each other then, and for all of their sixteen years together, and neither of their lives would have been very full without the other. They were often described as kindred spirits.
Doris, the only child of Clarence Drown, a handyman who later became an engineer, and Edith Thompson, a stenographer, was born in Portland Oregon in March 1914, after her parents had been married for seven years. Clarence and Edith were divorced when Doris was three years old and for several years she was raised by her aunt and great aunt.
About 1920 Edith married Charles Albert “Bert” Dingledine, who then listed himself as “circulation manager” for the Pendleton, Oregon Tribune. This was—or led to—a profession as a circulation booster for ailing newspapers because a few years later Mr. Dingledine’s work was taking him on a chain of temporary jobs from town to town in Oregon, Washington and California, and Edith and Doris were traveling with him.
Doris’ diary and letters describe almost constant movement during her grade school and high school years. By 1928, she and her mother and stepfather were in Spokane, where they stayed long enough for Doris to receive, on January 24, 1929, her 8th grade diploma from Spokane Public Schools. Immediately after that the family drove to San Diego, where Mr. Dingledine had a six week job with the San Diego Progress. Doris loved San Diego, but by March 17 the family was on their way back north. Her stepfather’s next job took them to the hamlet of North Powder in northeastern Oregon, where Doris entered high school and attended for a few weeks. In 1930 they were in Olympia, Washington and in 1932 in east central Oregon, where the job lasted long enough for Doris to graduate from Mount Vernon High School in the spring of 1933. Shortly after that Mr. Dingledine was hired to come to Southeastern Utah to help the San Juan Record.
A few weeks before the wedding, Norm had been given one of rbmv’s boats that had been damaged in the August run down the San Juan. He fixed it up, and he and fellow rbmv mapper Bill Wood ran it four miles from Mexican Hat Rock, down though Gypsum Creek Rapid to the Goodridge bridge.
Newly married, Norm wanted to give his bride a honeymoon trip down the San Juan, but decided that before taking them into the canyon beyond the bridge landing he’d better try it himself. In November he guided John “Jack” Frost, head of the Farmington New Mexico office of the u.s. Geological Survey, overland to plug an abandoned oil well at the point where Slickhorn Gulch joins the San Juan River. It was probably then that Norm pitched the idea of Frost running the river with him.
“If it gets low enough to wade, I might go,” Frost replied. About a month later it was, and they did.
By then they had decided to include Doris, and considering the ten-foot Fold-Flat a bit light and tippy and too small to carry three people plus gear for a trip of several days, Norm built a slightly longer boat resembling some that Billy Nevills could have seen on the Yukon River. Jack Frost described it as being made of scrap lumber, with a beam of about three feet at the chine and four feet at the gunwales, formed of inch-thick boards six or eight inches wide, nailed edge to edge over two by four ribs spaced eighteen inches apart. The cracks between the planks were caulked by pounding strips of worn out shirts and underwear into them.
Norm and Doris Nevills and Jack Frost shoved off from the beach near Mexican Hat Rock on a December day in 1933. They intended to go downstream seventy miles to Copper Canyon, where an old prospecting road, a relic of the 1892–1893 gold rush, was supposed to reach the river. The San Juan was running a bit less than 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) and Frosts “water shallow enough to wade” proved to be a bad idea: they frequently scraped over rocks, which raked out enough of the underwear caulking that the cracks began leaking badly, putting the boat in danger of foundering. Twenty-one miles downstream, not far beyond the last of the San Juan’s entrenched meanders known as the “Great Goosenecks,” they dragged the boat onto the right bank, climbed up an old miner’s route called the Honaker Trail, which was the only way out of the 1500-foot deep gorge for many miles either upstream or down, and walked overland back to Mexican Hat.
They were not discouraged though, and during the winter Nevills and Frost exchanged letters making plans for another run. This time both wives would go along. The plan was for them all to leave Mexican Hat in another boat, recover the December boat at Honaker Trail, and go on to Copper Canyon with both boats.
Norm was to build the other boat ahead of time but didn’t quite get to it, so he and Jack Frost hurriedly built one from inch by twelve inch boards after the Frosts arrived. John Taylor, who ran the trading post at Oljeto, had a Ford Model T truck that had been equipped with one of the new Ruckstell axles and could be geared down for hills and sand pits; they figured he’d come down Copper Canyon to its mouth and get them.
On the afternoon of March 9th Norm, Doris, Mae and Billy launched the new, hurriedly-built boat at the Mexican Hat bridge, and ran it to the Honaker Trail where they made camp with the Frosts, who had hiked down to meet them at that point. Retrieving the boat that had been left there four months earlier, they replaced the caulking and nailed strips of tin, cut from coffee cans, over the seams and then put it into the river to soak; to swell the planking. The next afternoon Billy and Mae hiked up the Honaker Trail and the other four set out downstream. As Frost (who eventually started running his own San Juan trips) told it later, both men had been handling the boats in the conventional way, pulling downstream, until he got turned backwards by one of the rapids and discovered that floating stern-first was better because he could see where he was going. Norm, he said, resisted the idea initially, but then began trying it.
Their second night’s camp was at the mouth of Slickhorn Gulch. On the third day they came into the section called Paiute Farms, where the river widened and they had to push and drag the boats through shallow water the rest of the day and camp after dark in a rainstorm. The fourth day they again fought the braided shallows until late afternoon, arriving at the mouth of Copper Canyon to discover that, although the truck had gotten most of the way down the floor of Copper Canyon, it wasn’t able to get to them: the old prospecting road, instead of coming to the mouth of the canyon, forked three miles from the river where one of its branches headed downstream to Zahn’s old mining camp and the other upstream to Spencer’s. To reach the truck they had to hike in darkness for two and a half hours, carrying everything they wanted to keep. When the truck got them to Oljeto at one a.m. they were offered beds but they were so grimy and tired that they declined, and slept soundly on the trading post’s cement floor.
By 1935 Norm was being moved inexorably toward his river man destiny. That year he ran a few trips on the San Juan near Mexican Hat and experimented with boat design. In June Emery Kolb, well-known for his film-making run through Grand Canyon in 1911 and another trip in 1923, came through Mexican Hat and stayed at the Nevills Lodge. Norm then had another boat of some kind, probably a close copy of the ones left at Copper Canyon the previous year. Kolb looked at it and said charitably that it was “of logical design.”
About this time Norm received a letter from Ernest “Husky” Hunt, a teacher at Stanford University. The two had met while Hunt was doing summer archeological work with rbmv Expeditions. Having learned of Rainbow Natural Bridge, Hunt was interested in seeing and photographing it. Rainbow was fairly well known by then because John Wetherill had, for many years, been leading horseback groups to it from Kayenta, a grueling three or four day ride through the labyrinth of sandstone canyons that are the north shoulder of Navajo Mountain. Hunt wanted to get to the “stone rainbow” by hiking up to it from the river. His inquiry developed into a 1936 expedition down the San Juan and Colorado rivers to Lees Ferry for himself and two acquaintances, Charles Elkus of San Francisco, and J.C. Irwin from Stanford University. The agreement was that Norm would provide the guide service and the boat, and the passengers would supply the food and pay for a truck and driver to pick them all up 191 miles down river at Lees Ferry and return them to Mexican Hat.
They launched at Mexican Hat just after noon on March 24th on 2,000 cfs of water and had rain, snow and wind the first night and most of the next day, forcing Norm at one point to land because of blinding snow. One night ice froze in the boat. Norm, in the hyperbole that’s expected of river guides, said they didn’t get sick because it was so cold all the germs had frozen.
The fourth day they made lunch at the mouth of Copper Canyon, the farthest Norm had been down the San Juan. Beyond there it was all new canyon for him, but his journal indicates that he knew where he was at all times, so it's likely that he had some notes from John Wetherill and was using the “Birdseye maps” which had been drawn from the 1921 survey done by the u.s. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Southern California Edison Company. These 21 x 27 inch sheets were especially useful because they showed, at a scale of one inch per mile, the course of the river, the milepoints, the locations (and names, if any) of the side canyons and the rapids—along with a profile of each rapid’s head-to-foot steepness.
There were known to be three significant rapids between Copper Canyon and the San Juan’s confluence with the Colorado: Paiute Rapid at Mile 21 (from the confluence); Syncline Rapid at Mile 15, and then, just above Mile 11, the one called Thirteen-and-a-Half-Foot Rapid for its steep drop from top to botttom.
Paiute Rapid was, except for times of extremely high water, split by a island formed by a mound of boulders, but at the flow level the Nevills group were experiencing, there was no right-hand channel; the “island” had become part of the right bank, and all the water ran down the left through 75 yards of boulder-studded shallows before narrowing into deeper water. In the time since they left Mexican Hat the flow had decreased to1500 cfs and Norm had his passengers walk around Paiute rapid—to lighten the boat for maneuvering through the rocks and to lessen the damage if rocks were hit—and reboard the boat below the shallows.
Syncline, a narrow straight rapid squeezed between a rocky debris fan and the canyon wall, was fairly easy, but “Thirteen-Foot”—as boatmen later abbreviated it – was, at most levels of flow, another rock-studded rapid, wide at the top and shallow most of the way down and then funneling the whole river back to the lower right where the deeper water piled into a big chunk of sandstone imbedded in the right bank that threw it sharply left toward a clutch of mid-stream boulders. No matter where a boatman entered Thirteen-Foot at the top it would push him back to the hazardous bottleneck at the bottom. The miners and surveyors who had been down the river called Thirteen-Foot unrunable, but Norm studied it and worked out his moves and noted in his log that he ran it with one passenger, Charles Elkus, riding.
On the 30th, now having reached the Colorado they stopped at Aztec Creek and hiked the six miles up Forbidden and Bridge canyons to photograph Rainbow Bridge, then went back to the boat and continued down Glen Canyon. It was slow going because the Colorado was only flowing about 7500 cubic feet per second, and on top of that the spring winds came up ( blowing upstream, as winds on the river invariably do), slowing them even more. On the 31st they bucked the wind for almost twelve hours with Norm, a chain-smoker who rolled his own cigarettes, noting that “all members of (the) party have run out of tobacco.” When they reached Lees Ferry in midmorning of April 1, the truck and driver from Kayenta, who had been waiting for them for about twenty-four hours, drove them back to Mexican Hat, and on April 2 the three Californians stayed overnight at the Nevills Lodge.
The boat Norm used for that expedition appears to have been one he nicknamed “Horse Trough.” Frank Dodge, who had been a boatman for several survey expeditions and was then doing odd jobs at Lees Ferry, reportedly looked at Norm’s crude boat and later, out of Norm’s hearing, suggested that it wasn’t worth hauling home. But to Norm it was; the boat had gotten them down the river, and he had an inkling he might need to use it again. By the time his first daughter Joan was born six months later, he had designed a letterhead bannering:
NEVILLS EXPEDITION
OCTOBER 1936
To Collect Scientific Data Colored Movies
DESCENDING THE
San Juan Canyon Glen Canyon Marble Canyon
Grand Canyon Black Canyon
541 MILES BY BOAT
TO BOULDER DAM
It didn’t materialize that year, but it soon would, as serendipitous events continued steering Norm ever more toward his destiny. The March 1936 expedition had gotten him all the way down the San Juan and 68 miles of Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry. Husky Hunt’s colored motion pictures were being shown frequently, bringing in inquiries from prospective new passengers. In June Ed Holt, one of the members of Clyde Eddy’s 1927 “college boy/pet bear” expedition through Grand Canyon, stopped in Mexican Hat and registered at the Nevills Lodge. On the 6th of September Norm launched a seven day trip from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry for two couples from Iowa, undoubtedly using Horse Trough.
In August the following year Elzada Clover, a University of Michigan botanist, stayed at Nevills Lodge and talked with Norm about her interest in canyon flora. On November 25 Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom completed a successful solo trip that began on the upper Green and came down the Colorado through Grand Canyon. In late December of 1937 Ed Holt was back at the lodge and, hearing about Norm’s occasional San Juan trips, taunted him with “why don’t you run a real river sometime?”
“I’ll be running it next year,” Norm retorted.
Norm rounded up all the books, maps, journals, and living river runners he could find and gave himself a cram course on the boats and experiences of earlier expeditions and the places they’d had trouble. He melded all of this and the chance meeting of Elzada Clover into a 1938 botanical expedition with “University of Michigan” credentials and some financial support in the form of fares. That expedition launched at Green River City, Utah and ran almost 700 miles downstream. It, in turn, produced attendant publicity that launched Nevills Expeditions as an enterprise, and adventure river running as a thinkable vacation option.
The first Nevills cataract boats were built virtually on the eve of the 1938 trip. They didn’t resemble Yukon stampeders’ boats as much as they did a longer and wider version of the rbmv Expedition Fold Flats, merged with the concepts evolved between the 1890s and 1907 by the trapper Nathaniel Galloway and adopted by the Birdseye Survey and more recently Buzz Holmstrom. Nevills’ boats adopted the concepts of decking them over forward and aft of the oarsman’s cockpit, building in watertight compartments for flotation and storage, and adding splashboards to knock the waves away from the cockpit. Norm called his boats “cataract boats”; they were meant primarily to get down a rapids-filled river, and secondarily to carry passengers.
For hull material he turned to a new product called “Super-Harbord,” a laminated marine-grade plywood. It was normally produced in four-foot by eight-foot sheets but he persuaded the manufacturer to make him a few oversized sheets, each of them sixteen-feet long and five-feet wide. From three of these sheets—one for the bottom, another for the two sides, and a third for the bulkheads and decking—Norm could build a cataract boat. With money borrowed from Don Harris, the government river gauger at Mexican Hat, he ordered material for three boats.
The launch date was initially set for June 15—which proved to be a little too early to complete the boat building, but kept them from being in the middle of Cataract Canyon at a worse time than they were. With slightly more than a month to go, the Super-Harbord was finally shipped, and when the train arrived at Green River Utah, the nearest train stop, Norm was there to unload it. Construction began on May 12th with a day-by-day log of the progress kept. The work was done by Norman and Don Harris, helped initially by Philander Hatch and toward the end by Riddel Barton. To get better coverage, and probably to save precious time, the priming (raw linseed oil, applied hot) and inside painting of the sides and bottoms was done during the framing rather than after the boats were decked over and finished. In late May it was clear more time was needed, and the launch date was moved back five days.
By June 14, all three boats were nearly completed, with just a few already-cut parts such as hatch covers and splash boards yet to be finished and attached. The special ocean longboat oars arrived and were shortened for river use. Norm named the boats Wen for his father’s initials, Botany as a nod to the theme of the expedition, and Mexican Hat for his tiny home town, and he painted them with colors Conoco had intended to be used on his mother's trading post.
The six weeks long 1938 expedition, although successful, was not smooth, mainly because the launch date was ill-timed and they were short on whitewater boating experience. Norm, with a few hundred hours on the San Juan and Glen Canyon, had the most depth and breadth, but none on a river of this volume and velocity. Nor had his second and third boatmen been chosen for their boating skills. Don Harris had helped build the boats between gauging chores, and could get vacation time with pay in June, just before a job transfer to Idaho. Wilbur "Bill" Gibson was a commercial artist - photographer from San Francisco who had stayed at the Nevills Lodge in June 1937; he was chosen because, in addition to running a boat, he was expected to help document and illustrate the adventure. Even if any of the earlier river men who were still around in 1938 would have agreed to be his boatmen, Norm probably wouldn't have asked them. He wanted very much to put his own stamp on this adventure, from which he intended to build a career for himself.
They shoved off from Green River on June 20, expecting to land at Lees Ferry on the Fourth of July. The passengers were the University of Michigan’s Elzada Clover, age 40, her teaching assistant Lois Jotter, age 25, and Eugene Atkinson, a zoology grad student, age 25. While planning for the trip Lois had personally visited Colonel Birdseye at the Geological Survey in Washington D.C. and been able to obtain a copy of the 1923 Plan and Profile of Cataract Canyon, which was out of print and not generally available. It was to prove invaluable to Norm.

Despite the rushed beginning—Norm had no sunglasses and had to borrow his mother’s, nor any boots for lining and portaging along shore and had to borrow a pair of Elzada’s—once on the water, it went smoothly enough for a few days. Their first 120 miles were on placid reaches of the Green known as Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons. They took turns rowing, to augment the slow current. Norm sat on the decks and finished bolting down the hatch covers that had been pre-built at Mexican Hat and attaching lever-like ice box door latches to hold them closed. Gene Atkinson had brought both a shotgun and a revolver and the punctuation for the first few days other than mosquitoes and a rainstorm, consisted mostly of Gene and Bill shooting a goose, a duck, and a deer. When he woke up the third morning Norm noted that the overnight drop in the level of the Green was two and a half inches across a 250 foot wide section. This seemed like good news. Although it made for even slower going through the Stillwater section, it should mean lower water in Cataract Canyon.
In mid-afternoon of their fourth day, when they came to the point where the Colorado River joins the Green, they had no way of knowing that although the Green had peaked and was now subsiding, the Colorado had not. United States Geological Survey gauging records show that the peak runoff down the Colorado arrived at the confluence of the rivers at virtually the same time the Nevills Expedition did. The combined flow of the rivers was about to send more than 61,000 cfs through Cataract Canyon, a stage of water that linked most of the rapids together into a chain of brawling whitewater more than thirty miles long.
Rapids are often located, discussed, and sometimes named by the mile point they are nearest. In Cataract Canyon those milepoints are counted by their distance upstream from a point near Lees Ferry, the last rapid in Cataract Canyon being at Mile 182.8 and the first being 34 miles farther upstream at 216.5. But some of Cataract’s rapids are so close together (in some places several in the same river mile) that to cite them by mile point would be confusing and dangerous. Therefore, boatmen try to designate the rapids by counting: Rapid #1; #2; #3. The count can change when a lower flow lets a long rapid reduce itself into several shorter ones—or even more dangerous, when high flow ties several short rapids together into a longer one.
From the confluence of the rivers the Nevills Expedition floated down four more miles on flat water. About five o’clock they landed at a curve on the right bank just above Rapid #1. Norm intended to proceed cautiously; he was determined, perhaps because of Ed Holt’s taunting, to run more (line fewer) rapids than the Eddy expedition had. He planned to stay above the rapid overnight and run it the next morning, but he wanted to have the boatmen walk a half-mile down along shore for a first look before setting up camp.
At 5:30 p.m. they were standing at the foot of Rapid #1 when Bill Gibson looked upstream and exclaimed “My God, there’s the Mexican Hat!” As they watched, the boat went by empty, riding twelve to fifteen-foot waves, and disappeared downstream. Apparently it had been carelessly tied—or maybe not tied at all in the rush for a first look—and the swelling river swinging against the outside of the curve where they had beached had simply lifted the Mexican Hat off the sand and snatched it, instantly changing a cautious approach into a wild melee that split the party and the boats just at the end of the day and kept them scattered until the next morning.
When the Mexican Hat swept away unmanned, Norm sent Don sprinting back upstream to get the Wen so they could chase the runaway boat.
While Don was headed upstream, the others raced downstream over a half-mile of rocky shore to where they thought the Mexican Hat might have been swept into a large eddy and held. But it wasn’t there. Norm then sent Gene and Bill running upstream, instructing them to bring Botany down through Rapid #1, but to have Elzada walk down.
The next thing Norm saw was the Wen sailing by with Don straining at the oars below Rapid #1, but unable to pull the boat to shore and Lois was aboard. As they disappeared down river he ran upstream and, to his relief, found the Botany now tied in an eddy some distance below the foot of Rapid #1, with Elzada, Gene and Bill waiting nearby.
Dusk was turning to darkness and there seem to be nothing more they could do until morning. They opened some cans of pork and beans, peas, and roast beef and were just starting to eat with sticks of wood since the utensils were in one of the runaway boats, when they heard a shout from the left bank of the river and realized it was Don. Loading Elzada, Gene and Bill onto the Botany, Norm rowed them across in near darkness. Now able to be heard above the roar of the river, Don told them he had finally landed on the left at the head of Rapid #7, and had made his way back up along the bank to this point. He ate some canned peaches and then he and Gene started working their way down the left shore, intending to get back to Lois.
It was a long restless night for all. Early the next morning Norm took the Botany and started downstream with Elzada and Bill aboard. Ten minutes later he came upon the others at the head of Rapid #8—Don and Gene only recently having reached there because darkness had forced them to sleep in the rocks until daylight, some distance short of where Don had left Lois the previous evening.
No one had been injured and none of the cataract boats had been lost and the only damage was a broken oar. It took until almost noon to dry everything and reorganize logistically and emotionally. Then they floated two and a half miles and camped at the head of Mile Long Rapid, about a quarter of the way through Cataract. Then next day, Mile Rapid (now called Mile Long)—so lengthy and canyon-locked that it couldn’t be inspected from shore—gave them a big exciting ride. Norm was elated: “No portages and we’re two rapids ahead of Eddy,” he wrote.
The elation was short-lived. They ended that day just above the steepest section of Cataract where, in one mile, the river drops 35 feet through four big rapids. (In later years, this piece of Cataract became known as “Big Drops” and its most formidable part as “Satan’s Gut”). The next two days were spent lining and portaging most of this four-part show-stopper, the time being taken mostly by a grueling portage of boats and cargo up, across, and back down a talus slope to avoid the unrunable pileup of waves and holes that at this stage of water Norm numbered “#24.” The two days frazzled them. In his June 26th entry he wrote, “We haven’t enough manpower for this trip and I know Don and Bill would like to quit at Lees Ferry. I would too, as we haven’t enough personnel for hard portages. Maybe we’ll feel better at Lees Ferry.”
By the end of their seventh day in Cataract they had made twenty of its 34 miles. Having gotten most of the way through the steep rapid-fire section they had relaxed a little. Norm, in the lead, was planning to camp at the mouth of Gypsum Creek but as he neared it he decided to go on to Clearwater Canyon. Then at the mouth of Gypsum the river ahead of him simply dropped out of sight. He tried to land, but the current was too swift and he only had time to shout “this is the biggest drop of the trip” a warning that only Elzada heard, as the other boats were some distance back. Caught by the current, he dodged a dangerous mushroom wave and found a course along the left wall for a hundred yards and then looked back just in time to see Botany shoot up on the mushroom and capsize end-over-end, spilling Bill and Gene into the river.
Gene in his life jacket washed on through the rapid and down to the Wen, climbing aboard with Norm and Elzada. As the Botany floated down beside them Elzada grabbed its bow line; Norm then tried to use the Wen to tow the Botany to shore but with an extra passenger and the capsized boat pulling at the end of Elzada’s tether like a two ton kite it was too much. Linked together, the boats washed through the next rapid and came out of it five or six feet from shore. Norm grabbed the Wen’s bowline and jumped for it, but the beach had an steep dropoff and he went over his head and as he scrambled for shallow water the rope slipped out of his hands and both boats swept away, leaving him stranded there.
Luckily, the Mexican Hat was still behind the other boats. Don dropped over the brink, saw the mushroom wave and missed it, ran the rapid, caught up with Bill who was trying to swim to shore, and took him aboard. They then saw Norm, stranded on shore and waving for a ride. Don picked him up at the foot of the next rapid.
Norm was shaken by the episode, and having two boats washed down the river with two people aboard who couldn’t handle them. Faced with the possibility that he might have to get four people on through Cataract in just the Mexican Hat, he insisted on lining it through Clearwater Rapid. Then, when he found the others and the Wen and the Botany beached a half mile below Clearwater, he was chagrined that he had lost his composure and lined a little five foot drop.
Elzada and Gene had gotten somewhat bunged up salvaging the Botany. Bill had been pulled out of the river too tired to have saved himself, and Norm was emotionally drained. They camped below Clearwater and planned to go on at noon the next day, but later decided to spend the rest of the day and night—their eighth—at the Clearwater camp, too. They finished drying their clothing, overhauled Bill’s motion picture camera, which had ridden several miles in the capsized Botany, napped, and played a few hands of Hearts. Norm, sure he was going to lose Don and Bill at Lees Ferry, pondered where to find replacement boatmen for the Grand Canyon leg of the expedition.
The night of July 1 they camped at the head of Dark Canyon Rapid, having taken thirteen days to make just over a 150 miles. They lined the rapid the next morning and were on quiet water at the head of Glen Canyon. But even though Glen, like Labyrinth and Stillwater, ran slow and had no significant rapids, they were still more than a 180 miles from Lees Ferry, and wouldn’t make it by the Fourth of July. On July 2nd they camped fourteen miles below Dark Canyon at the mouth of the “Dirty Devil” (Fremont River). The next day they stopped at Hite to ask which side canyons had drinkable water—and to wrangle a dinner invitation at Arth Chaffin’s ranch—and then spent the ensuing week floating down Glen Canyon, looking for “Indian ruins” and taking time to visit Rainbow Bridge.
Down through Glen Canyon, without danger to bind them together, all the resentments of ten tough days in Cataract began festering. The group split unofficially, with the Botany and Mexican Hat sometimes drifting ahead, sometimes falling behind. On the Wen, Norm and Elzada, the members with career motives, continued their ongoing conversation about ideas for the books and lectures the expedition could yield. The others, whose reasons for participating were various and less substantive, traveled together and talked about how they had gotten cold, tired, and scared. They were sick from drinking river water. They discussed that one or two of them could have drowned; that the linings and portages were grueling and exhausting; that Norm was too cautious; that Norm wasn’t cautious enough; that he didn’t seem to care about anything but expedition publicity.
The second and third boats in effect became the Botany-Mexican Hat and it sometimes passed, sometimes lagged behind the Wen. This annoyed Norm, who believed the leader’s boat was to go first and the others were to maintain interval and position behind it, and he finally pressed his point by letting them miss the Rainbow Bridge landing at Forbidden Canyon so that they both floated on through the little rapid at its mouth and had to carry their gear back upstream through the bushes and boulders to the place he had pulled in for that night's camp.
They landed at Lees Ferry on July 8th and that night Norm, accompanied by Don, Gene and Elzada, caught a series of truck and car rides home to see his family, and to find boatmen for the next leg of the expedition.
It was 4:30 a.m. when they reached Mexican Hat but earlier—about midnight—at Tuba City Norm unexpectedly met Lorin Bell, age 24, who was related to the trading post family, the Kerleys, and he recruited Lorin as a boatman. Then the next day at Mexican Hat he encountered Del Reed, age 44, a prospector the Nevills knew, and he talked Del into filling the other boatman slot.
Two days later Norm and Elzada drove to Grand Canyon to get Emery Kolb’s advice about some of the rapids and drinking water sources, to see if he could borrow a short-wave radio from Emery, and to make arrangements for getting resupplied by pack mule at Bright Angel beach. They ended up staying at the south rim overnight and most of the next day, and then drove to Lees Ferry.
On the 13th, with Lorin and Del replacing Don and Gene, the expedition shoved off from Lees Ferry, expecting easier going because in Grand Canyon the river drops an average of seven and a half feet per mile, compared with Cataract’s drop of 35 feet per mile. They were also relieved that the flow had now subsided to 25,000 cfs. This being “Mile 0,” the point from which river miles were measured both upstream and down, the mile numbers would be increasing as they went.
Bill Gibson had decided to continue with the expedition, and a Pathe News cameraman who had laid over from the July 8th arrival was going to ride the first eight miles, photograph the boats in Badger Creek Rapid, and then climb out of the canyon. So was Ed Kerley from Tuba City.
With Don having left, Bill was now the next-most experienced. Norm gave Bill the Botany and assigned Del to break in by riding as Bill’s passenger. Lorin was assigned to the bow seat of Wen where he could look over Norm’s shoulder and get acquainted with the stern-first rowing technique.
When they reached Badger Creek, Norm, probably still taking the measure of his new boatmen, found the rapid too formidable, with “a tongue that washes out before it gets started, making it most doubtful of avoiding one or the other of the holes at the head.” He had the boats lined down to a pool past the head of the rapid, then he himself rowed each of them from there down to the beach, providing the cameraman an opportunity to film him giving rides in turn to Ed Kerley, and Lorin. On the last run he took the cameraman as passenger for some on-river footage and got knocked off his seat into the cameraman’s lap, but in his journal he converted the untoward moment into an achievement, describing it as “a perfect back-flip” and noting “this type of rapid water is more the type I like” .
Soap Creek Rapid at Mile 12 had traditionally been lined. Norm found it to be “wild looking,” but had Lorin run it in the Mexican Hat. Del was not given a chance at the oars until Houserock Rapid at Mile 17 and as the expedition continued Norm began hoping that Ed Kerley would hike back in at Bright Angel to run a boat.
Except for Badger they didn’t line any rapids above Bright Angel, although at several of them Norm ran all of the boats through. At Bright Angel beach he encountered a man from the “forest service” (probably the National Park Service) who was willing to pay for the privilege of going along to help with the portages.
On July 19th just after daylight they (except for Del, who stayed with the boats) hiked up the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim. When they presented themselves at the Kolb Studio, which was perched on the canyon’s rim at the head of the trail, Emery invited them to stay for lunch, and to attend the next showing of his river movie and address his audience. That evening Norm had dinner with the Kolbs and invited Emery to be his guest on the remaining leg of the expedition.
During the three days they laid over, park visitors talked about them and pointed them out to each other, the Associated Press issued daily dispatches, and they were asked to participate with park superintendent Tillotson in a fifteen minute nationwide radio spot by the National Broadcasting Company. Norm was very pleased by all this.
Late in the afternoon of July 22 they hiked back down to the river, Emery Kolb with them, and cooked dinner at the river gauger’s cabin.
Ed Kerley didn’t rejoin the expedition as Norm had hoped he would, and the “man from the Forest Service” either could not be found, or was not re-invited. When they left Bright Angel on the morning of July 22nd, Norm had Lorin run the Mexican Hat and Del run Botany. Bill, in effect reassigned to photography, rode in Del’s boat. The river was down to 17, 500 cfs.
They had wild runs through Horn Creek at Mile 90.4, where Loren broke an oarlock, and Granite Falls, Mile 93.5, where Norm slipped off to the right and got turned end-for-end between the wave train and the cliff before being flushed out the bottom on the wrong side of the river. Hermit Falls, Mile 94.9, had an explosion wave near the bottom that Norm thought would flip one or more of the boats, so he had the boatmen line it. At the bottom of the linedown he sent the other boats off first so that Emery, riding in the Wen, could photograph them with Hermit’s explosion wave in the background.
At Serpentine, a sharp “c” shaped rapid at Mile 106, Norm and Del pulled in at the top to look it over, but Lorin missed the landing and dropped into a huge hole and tailwaves Norm described as, “the biggest we’ve seen since the big ones in Cataract.” Seeing Lorin in trouble he pulled back out into the current and ran it, with Del following. At the bottom they discovered Lorin had torn an abdominal muscle in trying to pull away from the hole, and was in great pain and unable to row enough to maneuver. Norm gave the Botany back to Bill and had Lorin ride as passenger. He gave Lorin a jigger of whiskey to ease the pain and they ran another two miles and quit for the day at Bass Camp.
On the 24th they stopped at Elves’ Chasm, a concealed grotto thirty yards off the river where a little spring-fed stream splashed down into a pool through a cluster of large boulders. In a dry alcove above the grotto they found names and early 1900s dates that had been written on the wall with charred firewood: N. Galloway ’97; Frank Dodge ’23; Clyde Eddy ’27. To those Norm added Nevills Expedition ’38. They were now only fifteen miles from Dubendorff Rapid and seeing Eddy’s name at Elves’ only reminded Norm of his self-imposed contest to line fewer rapids than Eddy had.
The Dubendorff of his mind’s eye was a bugaboo. Eddy had lined it, but during the lining one of his boats had gotten loose, washed downstream, and lodged in the rocks of the “s” shaped rapid. Held by the current and filled by the river it became immovable and after three days of trying to recover it Eddy gave up and abandoned it. Norm—with Loren still “knocked out” as he put it—didn’t want to risk running Dubendorff and capsizing a boat, but he was also still trying to do fewer linings than Eddy: “we’ve already run three rapids in the canyon from Lees Ferry that Eddy lined,” he wrote in his journal.
Emery had rigged ropes to snub his tripod to the Wen so that in calmer water he could attach his motion picture camera and stand on the stern deck taking pictures. Down through the mild rapids of Stephen’s Aisle Emery took pictures and as time went on he occasionally skipped the picture-taking and used the ropes to ride the rapids standing up. Norm, recognizing a good stunt, tried it too, and called it “great sport.”
When Norm stood at the head of the real Dubendorff the next afternoon, it was less a dilemma than he had been imagining The only danger he saw was one hole on the right, partway down. “One look decided me to run it,” he wrote in his journal. With Emery as passenger he backed down to the hole, skirted it, then when clear, invoked Emery’s stunt, jumping out on the stern deck and riding the curved tail of the rapid standing up. Lorin was back at the oars by now and the other two boats ran Dubendorff, adopting the route, but not the stunt. Their passengers walked along shore and reboarded below.
Emery’s personal rapid was the one at Mile 150. It was named “Upset Rapid” because he, head boatman for the Birdseye Survey, had upset there in 1923. Wide at the top, Upset narrowed quickly and at this stage fed most of the river back into a sharp rocky hole across most of the rapid near the bottom. Emery, after riding through with Norm advised Norm to run the other boats and Norm headed back upstream intending to do that, but before he could get there Del, and then Lorin, came through. “Both boys fumbled their course but made it thru,” he noted, but because Emery had wanted him to run all boats (probably for pictures) he chewed Del and Lorin out for not waiting for orders. He clearly admired Emery. “Emery is so like dad,” he noted after Upset, “afraid of nothing.”
On the 27th they reached Lava Falls. The others wanted to run it, and Norm did too, but felt the chances of capsizing were too strong. On another trip—he promised his journal—he would run every rapid on the river. They lined along the left side of Lava Falls and camped just below it on the rocky bench where travertine-flavored water nourishes a patch of cat tails and joint grass—the place Kolb had camped in 1923.
The next day Norm had Del drop back to third position and brought Lorin up to run in second position—not a promotion, but a way of bracketing him so he’d stay in sight. He had lagged far behind the previous day and then, catching up, had almost passed the others, who were out of sight in a cove at the head of the rapid. Had he not seen them just in time he would have gone into Lava Falls without knowing it. During the day below Lava the talk again turned to an expedition that would start in June 1939 from Green River Wyoming. Most everyone said they’d like to go.
In camp at Mile 205 Elzada worked back and forth between her plant presses and hot towels for Norm’s “trick knee” which he’d disjointed while lining Lava. They again discussed their book.
On the morning of the 29th, while they were still at the 205 camp, a small plane appeared overhead, circled them several times, and then flew off to the southwest. Norm had set an August 1st date for arrival at Boulder Beach and the press and the politicians at that end were checking to see if he was getting close.
Before they left camp Emery taught them an initiation ceremony that made them all “river rats.” Then they ran eighteen miles, taking a long lunch with a three hour nap, and camped just above the mouth of Diamond Creek. Norm was now estimating they might reach Boulder beach, near the dam, on the 31st, which would be too early for the ceremonies.
On the 30th, after running Diamond Creek Rapid’s half-mile of fast water and a dozen more miles punctuated by “some wicked twisting drops” they passed Separation Canyon, which would become the nominal head of Lake Mead. The lake was then in its final stage of filling behind the new Hoover Dam and had not quite covered the infamous Separation Rapid. They ran the mild remnant of the rapid, and a fraction of a mile beyond that noted that the river slowed noticeably from what they had become so accustomed to. They slowly gained three more miles and camped that night on reddish-brown water that was moving less than one mile per hour.
A hundred miles of Lake Mead now lay between them and Boulder beach. Somewhere along the way a motor boat was supposed to meet them and take the cataract boats in tow, but the meeting point was uncertain. On July 31st they rowed down lake all day. Norm was a bit out of sorts; his knee still hurt, he hated the dead water, and the air temperature went above 130 degrees. Resting often because of the heat, they made seventeen miles and stopped at a canyon they later figured out was the one called Quartermaster. Six miles above Quartermaster the water turned lake-blue, having finally lost its ability to carry silt.
Starting to explore, Norm nearly stepped on a rattlesnake, one of the few things he feared. Lorin then caught and consigned it to an empty bacon can with a perforated lid, but the exploratory trip up the brushy canyon was then called off and they slept fitfully that night worrying that the snake might escape, and that the brushy landing might be concealing others.
In the morning, just as they were leaving Quartermaster Canyon, another plane flew over them and then away. They pushed off, rowed five miles in four hours—stopping once to release and photograph the captured rattlesnake—and pulled the boats into a cove for shade and an early lunch.
They were beginning to make sandwiches when they heard an engine out on the lake and they ran out along shore to make sure they would be seen. The sound was that of a small motorboat, with Buzz Holmstrom at the wheel. With him were the superintendent of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Emery Kolb’s son in law, who was Chief Ranger at Grand Canyon. Holmstrom, by then working for the tour company on Lake Mead, had been waiting down lake. When the plane reported that the expedition had reached clear water, Buzz motored up to meet them. The sighting of the boats from this plane had also triggered newspaper headlines that would be in print by the time the expedition reached Boulder.
With the three cataract boats tied one behind the other by their long bow lines, Buzz Holmstrom began towing them. Nine miles farther on they stopped at Emery Falls, and hiked to explore some sloth caves. Just as they returned, a larger boat arrived, carrying a Nevada congressman, the owner of the tour company, newspaper reporters, cameramen, and Bill Gibson’s wife and parents. The big boat, with expedition members and the reception committee aboard, took over the three-boat tow. As they broke out of Grand Wash Cliffs into Pearce Ferry Basin an amphibious plane also owned by the tour company intercepted them and Bill Belknap, a young photographer destined to become a noted river runner and historian, took photos of them and then flew off. Next, an hour or so from Boulder beach they were met by another motorboat with Doris Nevills aboard. She brought news of a telegram from Harbor Plywood Corporation offering to buy all three of the news-making boats. Harbor would use the boats for publicity about their “Super-Harbord’s” indestructibility.
Doris had arrived suffering with a painful finger infection called a “felon,” and on reaching the landing Norm, without stopping to harvest any more publicity, immediately drove her to a Boulder City doctor, who sent them to Las Vegas that night for surgery. Doris was confined to a Las Vegas hospital for several days; Norm shuttled back and forth between his wife and various ceremonies and events, and more “book talk,” then on August 7th they started back to Mexican Hat. Norm invited Elzada to join a San Juan trip he would be leading in about three weeks and Lorin invited her to stay at the Kerley Trading Post in Tuba City until that time, so she rode partway back with them. En route they stopped at the south rim, and stayed for Emery Kolb’s next day movies and the opportunity to again address his audiences.
The Harbor Plywood offer was tempting—both the money for the boats and the publicity Harbor would generate for Nevills Expeditions. But the Mexican Hat had already been promised to Don Harris in return for buying some of the lumber and helping build the boats. And Norm undoubtedly wanted to keep one of the boats, maybe for sentimental reasons, but probably now as a pattern for the next ones. In the end he answered all three callings: he left the Botany and Mexican Hat at the beach for their new owners and he and Doris trailered the Wen back to Mexican Hat.
In late August, using the Wen and three borrowed foldboats, Norm, Lorin and Jack Frost took Jack’s son, Kent Frost from Monticello, Elzada, Lorin, and four paying passengers on a seven day trip down the San Juan and Colorado to Lees Ferry.
A few weeks later he could not resist driving to Green River Utah to meet a party of three French kayakers—one a woman—who had started 500 miles farther upstream, at Green River Wyoming, and were making their way down the river. Norm, then planning to run “the whole river” took them to dinner at the Midland Hotel and picked their brains about the rapids of the upper Green.
Although Norm and Elzada did stay in touch after that (as late as 1944 she was sending Norm copies of her published botanical papers) the book didn’t materialize—Norm and Elzada were too far apart on the theme and focus of it. The “next year” expedition didn’t materialize either—probably for lack of boats and lack of money to build them.
His 1938 expedition brought him a flurry of publicity and enough inquiries that in 1939 he was able to run several San Juan trips. One of his 1939 passengers was Ernie Pyle, a newspaper reporter who later became a well-known war correspondent. Pyle, who was working for the Albuquerque Tribune on a series of columns about people and places in the Four Corners, came to Mexican Hat to meet and interview Norm. It was July and the river was low, so Norm took Pyle and his editor, E.H. Schaeffer, on a twenty mile trip down to Mexican Hat, starting from the mouth of Comb Wash, in what Pyle described as a fifteen foot plywood foldboat that Norm quipped “can’t leak, but sure is doing a good job of going through the motions, isn’t it.” He captured the writer’s fancy and after the trip, Pyle wrote a lively article that was widely printed in syndicated newspapers.
With 1939’s proceeds and a winter mortgage on the Wen from his bank in Moab, Norm built two new cataract boats, one a replacement named Mexican Hat II, and the other Joan, named for his three-year old daughter. He used them and his flagship Wen in 1940, for a 1,100 mile expedition beginning at Green River Wyoming and ending at Lake Mead.
That enabled him to build, for 1941, two new boats for bread-and-butter trips to Rainbow Bridge. These first “semi-cataract boats,” San Juan and Rainbow Trail, more resembled Horse Trough than they did the cataract boats he had built three years earlier. In 1941 he made his eighth through fifteenth visits to Rainbow Bridge, keeping count in the guest register, and was accepted for membership in the New York City-based Explorer’s Club, an exclusive organization of adventurous achievers for which nomination by existing members was a prerequisite. Herbert Gregory, the noted canyon country geologist, and Ansel Hall, the general director of the Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Survey, endorsed his nomination.
When World War II began, Norm was making a little extra money as hydrogeologic field assistant for the u.s. Geological Survey at Mexican Hat. He expected to be drafted into the army and had several tentative induction dates, but each got changed through the shifting criteria of the Selective Service System and his double immunity of being a river gauger and also still drilling for oil—a precious wartime commodity. In 1942 he was able to run an already-planned expedition through Grand Canyon, as well as some San Juan trips. In 1943 the Survey advanced him to Engineering Aid at a salary of $1800 per year. He had no known 1943 expeditions but at least three San Juan trips in 1944, and in July 1945, with Otis Marston as a boatman, he conducted an eighteen day expedition for Marston’s family from Moab, Utah, down through Cataract and Glen canyons to Lees Ferry.
In 1946 he ran Salmon and Snake River (Idaho) expeditions; in 1947 another Green River Wyoming to Lake Mead expedition; in 1948 he led his traditional San Juan and Grand Canyon expeditions, and in 1949 the upper Green from Green River to Jensen in June–July, followed by his Grand Canyon expedition.
He might have gone on to try the Brahmaputra or Indus or one of the other unrunable rivers of the world that he liked to mention, and he might have survived them or not. He might have fought the damming of the San Juan and Glen Canyon and he might have succeeded where others failed. Or, he might have been in the vanguard of the post-expedition/post-dam phase of river running, for which he was unknowingly positioned. In late 1948 one of that summer’s San Juan passengers, a Sierra Club member, proposed organizing such a trip for 75 of its members . The project would undoubtedly have materialized, as Norm’s erstwhile passenger-boatman Francis Farquhar had just been elected president of the club. Norm planned to run that trip in June 1950, using outboard motors and a fleet of sixteen inflatable boats that he had ordered in the summer of 1949.
The story ended otherwise because Norm fell in love with flying. For years—maybe from the summer of 1933 when rbmv Expeditions’ hired biplane was flitting around getting Thorn Mayes’s aerial photos—Norm had wanted an airplane. It would be a quicker way to get his mail from the Bluff post office, 22 bone-rattling miles away, and he could think of many other advantages. As early as August 1944 he began taking flight instruction on his supply trips to Grand Junction and in 1946 he ordered a plane. On November 27, he hitch-hiked to Grand Junction and flew home nc48871, a Piper J3 “Cub” that he named Cherry, (which was his pet name for Doris). Like all Cubs it was yellow, with two “bucket seats,” one behind the other. The 65 horsepower engine had no starter; it had to be “propped” by hand. The fuel tanks were in the wing roots above the pilot’s shoulders. The fuel level was indicated by small glass “sight tubes” mounted on the bottom of each tank and sticking down outside the pilots’ side windows—if there was gas in the tubes, there was gas in the tanks. Thorn Mayes once noticed that when Norm banked the plane sharply, the tube on the higher wing didn’t stay full. “That’s okay, said Norm “she flies a long time after she’s empty.”
Before buying the Cub he had already smoothed the old rbmv Expeditions landing strip at Mexican Hat and talked the operator of a county road grader into blading the strip at the west edge of Bluff. The day he brought the plane home, the two and a half hour flight from Grand Junction took nearly half as long as the 240 mile drive, but flying over “his” country thrilled him immensely. That afternoon, after hurriedly doing his river gauging chores, he took Doris for a short local ride, then loaded “Soldier and HeeHee” (Joan and Sandra) into the back seat and flew to Bluff. Up there he gave a quick plane ride or two to interested locals, got the mail and a few loaves of bread, and flew back to The Hat.
That evening he wrote his mother, who was wintering in California, telling her about the day, and urging that when she returned to Utah she take the train as far as Green River and let him fly her the rest of the way to Mexican Hat. “We can make it in an hour and forty-five minutes”…(instead of) “six hours by car,” he coaxed. He knew Mae didn’t like airliners and he assured her that “this Cub isn’t like those big transports.” A month later he wrote her a “Happy New Year” letter to thank her for Christmas gifts and say that he and Doris had taken in $15,630 that year, counting his usgs pay, and expected to make $27,000 in 1947. “ In another few years,” he said, “I will quit the river and relax in an airplane.”
Going to Bluff for the mail gave him a reason to fly several days a week. His friend Hilda Oliver had married and was living at the west edge of Bluff near the airstrip; he’d either buzz her house and she’d pick him up and drive him to the post office, or sometimes he’d walk in and she’d always know when he was coming, because he’d be whistling cheerfully as he came up the lane.
By the first week of January 1947 he had already logged a hundred hours of flying time. The airplane, like the cataract boat, had become an extension of Norm. He loved what a plane could do, where it could put him. “Norm flew me from Bluff to Mexican Hat one time” remembered Frank Wright’s brother Earl, “and we was never more than twenty feet above the ground except when he crossed over a canyon.”
By March he wanted a more powerful plane and, after the river season was under way, he traded the Cub toward a Piper Super Cruiser to be delivered in late summer. The Super Cruiser had almost twice the horsepower of the Cub, a controllable-pitch propeller, two-way radio, and a two-passenger back seat. He named it Cherry II. At Doris’s insistence they had aviation coverage added to their life insurance policies.
By then the uranium boom was in its fledgling stage. There were many exposures of potentially uranium-bearing strata not far from Mexican Hat, and Norm, who had become famous but never made any real money, thought maybe uranium could be his bonanza.
He teamed up with Jim Rigg, owner of Pioneer Aviation, Don Wegner and Sid McCullough (also aviation people), and a Mormon prospector named Shumway who had a geiger counter. The others provided some gasoline money and periodic maintenance on the Super Cruiser. Norm would fly Shumway to a likely exposure, make a short-field landing wherever he could; and the two would check the area. If the instrument detected radioactivity they’d stake a claim around the hot spot. When they were finished they’d move enough rocks and shrubs to make a “strip” the Super Cruiser could take off from.
In July 1948 it was arranged that Jim Rigg’s shop would do some periodic maintenance on Cherry II while Norm was on the Grand Canyon expedition. Jim hitched a ride to Mexican Hat in a customer’s five-place Stinson to pick up Norm’s Super Cruiser and Norm instantly decided that they should fly both planes to Lees Ferry; there Norm would join his river passengers, and from there Jim would take Cherry II back to Grand Junction. The Stinson beat Cherry II to Lees Ferry by quite a margin. Norm saw immediately that he wanted a Stinson: “ Lord! Salt Lake in under two hours, bring back 1,000 pounds,” he wrote his mother.
By now he was moving toward a new venture—Nevills Aviation. For ten years he and Nevills Expeditions had been the centerpiece of several films and scores of newspaper and magazine stories that he and his wife and his mother had proudly collected and arranged in a thick deck of scrapbooks and albums. He had been accepted into the New York Explorers’ Club, photographed for the Library Of Congress, and was featured in Fox Movietone’s film, Danger River, which was named Best Documentary of The Year in 1947. He was, in fact, the world’s foremost whitewater boatman. But, as he told family friend Frank Masland after the 1948 Grand Canyon expedition, “This whitewater boating is a young man’s game.”
His boats were aging, too. The Wen was twelve inclusive years old and the Joan eleven, very respectable ages for wooden boats whose lives consisted of rotation between running rapids-filled rivers and lying on sawhorses in waves of desert heat and desert cold. He was thinking he might build one more fleet of boats, use them four more years, and retire in 1951.
He and Doris applied for a loan, probably to build the nicer house she had long wanted. A few years earlier they had pursued the romantic notion of obtaining a homesite from the Navajos on Monument Pass, with a view of the much-photographed Monument Valley. When that was unsuccessful they had decided to settle for building at Mexican Hat, on the ridge above the river and the boat beach, where they could at least see some of the surrounding country and the landmark called Alhambra off to the southwest.
By the time the 1949 expedition was set, Norm had decided to use the boats one more time. Then, returning from that expedition, he left the Wen at Grand Canyon (donated to the National Park Service) and a few weeks later wrote to Governor J. Bracken Lee offering the Joan to the State of Utah for exhibit in the Capitol rotunda “like Campbell’s racer”—the car that had set a land speed record on the Bonneville salt flats. He had, in a way, “burned his boats,” as deliberately as Odysseus did after the Trojan War.
In September 1948, having home-schooled Joan until then, Norm and Doris had enrolled her in Wasatch Academy. Wasatch was a six-year boarding school at Mount Pleasant Utah that was attended mostly by children of ranchers, National Park Service employees, and others who lived in places too sparsely settled to have schools. Periodically the rest of the family would fly to Mount Pleasant to visit her on weekends or their way to Salt Lake on business.
On Sunday September 18, 1949. Norm, Doris and eight-year old Sandra left Mt. Pleasant airport in late afternoon to fly back to Mexican Hat. Sandra remembers that on the return flight the plane’s engine was running a bit roughly. When they landed at Mexican Hat they found that an ore truck driver returning to Monument Valley for another load had left a message that Doris’s uncle had died in California the previous day. Doris wanted to attend the services and the only way she could be there on time was for Norm to fly her to Grand Junction, put her on a commercial airliner, and send a telegram informing the relatives she was on her way. Norm was comfortable with night flying and wanted to go yet that night but Doris, concerned about the roughness in the engine, insisted on waiting until daylight.
The next morning they were up and out early. A little after 7:00 a.m.. Norm taxied out from the hangar and took off to the south, which he customarily did because it was downhill and also headed them back toward their house to wave goodbye to those staying home.
He had the plane off the ground well before the end of the strip. Then, while he was still climbing for enough altitude to circle the house, the engine coughed and quit. He turned back toward the airstrip, saw he wasn’t quite high enough to clear the rocky wall of Sand Draw and tried to turn right to land in the wash bed, but ran out of altitude and flying speed before he could complete the turn. The plane crashed into the sandstone headwall just below the rim and instantly caught fire. Norm and Doris, unconscious from the impact, had no chance to get out. It was said that for a long time after that, whenever a plane happened to land at the Nevills strip, their dog “Nig” would race frantically up there yelping excitedly, and then, after a while, come walking slowly and silently home.
In the words of Hilda Oliver Perkins, who had known them both from 1933, Norm “was completely fearless. He was always laughing and happy and I don’t think I ever saw him when he wasn’t excited about doing something. Doris was the same, always smiling and happy. Life was a challenge and an adventure to both of them. I’m sure they went over in the way they would have preferred—together.”
In 1949 Norm Nevills doubted that anyone would ever equal his seven expeditions through Grand Canyon. But he had set the stage better than he knew, by handing his successors a well-finished combination of expedition boat design and boat-handling technique just as whitewater boating was catching the public fancy.

Gaylord Staveley

Note: This article is an excerpt from portions of Gaylord’s upcoming book about river running, From Nevills to Nowdays.