Old Timers Trip


   I guess I’m like many early ‘70s boatmen that first learned the river from Bill Belknap’s old blue river guide, staring at the pages and pictures until each caption was engraved in my brain: “First women to traverse the canyon, Dr. Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter, in 1938”... “Jim and Bob Rigg set speed record in 1951, rowing a Nevills cataract boat through the canyon in 2 1/2 days”... “Girls grill golden brown porkchops where Powell party stretched meager rations.” If someone had told me back then that twenty years later I’d be spraddled fisheye on the deck of a Cataract boat with Bob Rigg at the oars and Lois Jotter in the back seat, I’d have been mighty dubious. And if that same someone had added that Garth Marston, Kent Frost, Les Jones, Norm Nevills’ daughters Joan and Sandy, Gene Shoemaker, Martin Litton, Tad Nichols, and John Cross Sr. and Jr. and others would all be on the trip as well... yeah, right.

   But there they all were last month, some with their spouses. Harvey Butchart and Don and Mary Harris showed up at the Ferry to see us all off. I was one of several lucky guides that had the honor of being on the crew led by the unflappable Alistair Bleifuss: two motor rigs, two dories and a Cataract boat. Scientists Bob Webb and Ted Melis had put the trip together as part of their debris flow and repeat photography studies. The purpose was to delve into the hundreds of years of Grand Canyon memories on board. When did House Rock change? Where were the beaches? What happened at Boucher? Is Lava different? How many different Crystals do you remember?

   Tad Nichols reshot many of his old 1950s pictures, many of them now sans-sand. John Cross Jr. described in detail what it was like being the first boatman at Crystal in 1967. Bob Rigg dated the mystery debris flow at Boucher. Lois Jotter Cutter added botanical information. Everybody added something at each site; some added a lot.

   But some of us on the crew had ulterior motives. Stories (also called history). The rescue of the Esmeralda; John Cross Jr.’s five day jet boat run that took a month; Kent Frost’s 1939 hike/log raft/primitive boat/living off the land/hitchhiking trip through Glen Canyon; Lois’s tales from the ‘38 trip; Martin’s tales of the battles to save Grand Canyon and the dories’ first impromptu run of Lava, straight off the ledge; Garth Marston on Willie Taylor. There was an ample supply, and Lew Steiger and his film man Jeff worked dawn to dusk recording it all with occasional help and kibbitzing from Roy Webb, Karen Underhill, myself, and others. We now have enough oral history to fill our pages for years to come.

   I had the special honor of joining Bob Rigg in the Bonnie Anne, a Cataract boat he borrowed from Jack Treece, a gracious friend who did occasional trips with Mexican Hat Expeditions way back when. I got to learn the fine old art of Cataract rowing from a true pro: Major Powelling backward off the side of the tongue, pivoting and sliding off to the side of the biggest waves. I also got to learn what happens when you put one in a particularly big crashing wave. Gets pretty wet. And if you’re sideways... well, suffice it to say it gets a lot wetter.

   But the best part of the trip was getting to know the truly wonderful people behind those legendary names. Superstars one and all, each one a monument to the honorable trade of Grand Canyon boating. We’ll be printing their stories for some time to come.

   Special thanks go to Diane Grua who worked tirelessly to put things together, to Dave Wegner for his support, and to the NPS, BoR, USGS, GCES and everyone else involved. It was, and I’m not kidding, the coolest trip I’ve ever been on.

   A few choice comments:

   Bob Rigg to Tad Nichols, day 3: “We’ve seen more people today than we saw in several years.”

   Lois Jotter Cutter, on which days she wanted to ride in a rowboat: “I’d prefer to be in a rowboat on the big water days—I just don’t feel safe on those big rubber things.”

Brad Dimock