River Water in his Blood

   Norm’s parents owned the tourist lodge, just above the old road there, and his little home was an eighth of a mile to the east. I lived in a little cabin on the opposite side of the road from the lodge, that the government rented from Nevills… a little two-room cabin.

   We had many experiences together over in Monument Valley. Some of the tourists would stay over in Norm’s parent’s lodge. If they wanted to go over to Monument Valley, he’d take them over. He had an automobile with big, low-inflated tires, so he could go on some of the sandy areas. Wasn’t like it is now, of course. So I went over with him to Monument Valley on two or three occasions.

   My work didn’t require all of my time every day, so I could take a half day off every once in a while and go do what I wanted to.

   My first river trip with Norm was just four miles, from the back of the Hat, they call it; that formation they call Mexican Hat. You’d put a boat on there and float down to the bridge. The old bridge.

   There were quite a number of sand waves out in the center of the stream. It was fairly smooth towards each shore. So we shoved off and he headed out towards those sand waves, cause he’d been in them before. I says, “You’re not going to get into those big waves, are you Norm?” He kind of grinned and went right on into them. He could see I was a little concerned. But when I could see how the boat handled it, why I wasn’t afraid any more.

   Norm took me on two or three trips from Bluff down to Mexican Hat, and there’s where I learned to run the river. My blood started to boil over about that time.

GCRG: Had you boated at all before that?

Harris: I did do a little rowing on Bear Lake, [in Idaho], but I had never been on a river until the San Juan.

GCRG: Was Nevills taking tourists down the San Juan?

Harris: Well, he was taking an occasional trip down the San Juan with paid passengers, but not on a big scale at that time.

GCRG: How did the ’38 Grand Canyon trip come about?

Harris: He recruited these people from Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan. The year before one of them had stayed overnight at the lodge. Norm had been over to his parents lodge and talked to her, [Dr. Elzada Clover], and visited. He got her interested in making a river trip and maybe collecting plants, for botany. So she decided to go the next year. Her assistant, Lois Jotter, decided she’d go too. And they got another fellow, Gene Atkinson. So it was the three of them from Michigan, and Bill Gibson, the photographer. And… uh… myself.

   The next spring was when we began to build the three Cataract boats that we used on the Cataract trip and in the Grand.

   I was stationed there as the engineer at Mexican Hat. That didn’t, like I said before, require all of my time. So I had some free time about every day there in the spring. [Nevills] asked me if I wanted to help him.

   He ordered the plywood from Super Harboard Company up in Washington; had it shipped down. And of course we had to hand saw out the pieces. No power tools.

   The bottom was all one piece; nine-sixteenths inch marine plywood. The decking was three-eighths. These that Nevills and I built had oak ribbing in them. The Mexican Hat I fell heir to by helping Norm build the three of them. The deal was if I go and be a boatman, then I get the title to one of the boats. So that’s how I got title to the Mexican Hat.

GCRG: That was sort of the start of commercial river running in Grand Canyon. Right there. You guys building those boats. Did Nevills talk about that?

Harris: I think he had that in mind. I think he could visualize some commercial operations with them.

As you know, I started out with the group at Green River, Utah, and we were delayed due to a couple of instances…

GCRG: Aren’t there a couple of wild stories about that?

Harris: Right, yeah. We had pulled in at the head of Cataract above the first rapid, to look at a Major Powell inscription on a big rock. And then, while we were stopped, we were about a quarter of a mile above the first rapid, so we walked down the right bank, to inspect this rapid from shore. While we were down there looking over the rapid, my boat come floating through empty. And, ah, Bill Gibson, the photographer says, “My God, there goes the Mexican Hat!”

   So I ran back up. Norm says, “Get in my boat and see if you can overtake the runaway boat.” So I went back up to where the two lady botanists were and Lois Jotter went up and joined me in the pursuit of the runaway boat. We ran down about close to four miles through about six or eight rapids.

GCRG: Those were the first big rapids you ever ran?

Harris: It was absolutely the first big whitewater I’d ever run. Or ever seen. ‘Cause there wasn’t too much in the San Juan that you’d call whitewater. Couple of small rapids between Bluff and Mexican Hat… but they won’t fit in Grand Canyon or Cataract Canyon anywhere.

   That was a pretty wild ride. I, ah, faced downstream in running a rapid and in between rapids I’d turn around with the bow downstream and row as hard as I could to try to overtake the runaway boat. Time we got down through about four or five rapids I was pretty well tuckered out.

   So I pulled off to the right into an eddy to get my wind a bit. And I said to Lois, “Well, we’ll go back into the current and go down to where there’s another big eddy on the left, about half a mile further down, and then we’ll pull to shore and go down below a point there where there should be another eddy. And if the boat isn’t there, we will just give up.

   Luckily, I walked down that quarter of a mile to that point on the left bank and the Mexican Hat was floating around in the eddy there, still right side up. The cockpit was half full of water.

   After we’d tied it up in that eddy there, it was about ,maybe, three or four in the afternoon. So I headed up river and Lois stayed down with the WEN, Norm’s Cataract boat. So I did that, and got up there, oh, sundown or thereabouts. They were on the opposite side where they had come through that first rapid and camped. So I shouted across and they come across and picked me up. I went over and had a bite to eat, and then Norm took Atkinson and me back across to go back down to where Lois Jotter was. We had flashlights and by then it had become pretty dark. So we found our way by flashlight about a mile or so and then the batteries played out. We didn’t like the chance of running on to a rattler or something, you know, after dark, so we laid out on a flat rock ‘til daylight. Then we walked on down and got to where Lois was about the time Norm and the other two people came through. And then we were all together again.

  But I figured that it was very fortunate to have that boat drift off into an eddy below this point. Otherwise it might have been bottom side up clear through the Big Drop, wrecked it maybe. So the lord answered my prayers then, for sure.

   [We] portaged the lower end of the Big Drop We were a day and a half getting the three boats and gear around that. Six of us working in, uh, pretty warm weather, somewhere around mid to the last day of June. Carried those boats across those rocks.

GCRG: I guess Clover and Jotter were pretty tough gals?

Harris: They weren’t sissies by a long beat. I’ll say not. They did their share.

GCRG: And then there was a flip at Gypsum Creek?

Harris: Yeah, Gypsum Creek Rapid. The center boat with Bill Gibson and Gene Atkinson. Norm was in the lead boat with Elzada Clover. The two other fellows in the center boat, and then Lois Jotter and myself in the third boat, the Mexican Hat. Well, Bill Gibson drifted away from the boat, and Gene got back to the overturned boat. We picked up Bill, and then Gene got pretty well towards the shore. Norm had got out of the boat.

   I can’t remember all the details… anyway. Gene Atkinson and Elzada Clover were in one of the boats, towing the overturned boat behind, and she was hanging on to the rope and they tried to go to shore and they couldn’t make it. So Norm was on shore and they went on down through the next little rapid. By that time we picked up Bill, and Norm hollered across and said he was stranded on the left bank and the other boats had gone on down. So we pulled to shore to pick up Norm.

   So the next rapid of any consequence below there, after we picked up Norm, was Clearwater Rapid. It was a good straight chute, it wasn’t on a curve, and it didn’t drive hard into either bank; and my idea was that we could have run it all right, cause it was a good, straight chute. Some pretty good sized waves. Norm says, “Oh, we better not take a chance, we better pull in.” So we pulled in on the right bank and lined it down. But the other two boats had gone on through, one of them bottom side up. We hadn’t overtaken them yet.

   We caught up with the other two boats. They had finally got them both to shore down where the water had quieted down, down two or three miles, so we pulled in there to camp.

   We spent all the next day drying out things, food, sleeping bags, and so forth, of the overturned boat.

GCRG: I understand there was a bit of friction on the trip, with Norm’s leadership. Do you think a lot of that was due to it being his first time in big water?

Harris: I think so. I’m pretty sure it was his first time in big water, and after the capsize in Gypsum he wanted to be pretty cautious, you know, overly cautious, to avoid any other trouble.

   We didn’t arrive to Lees Ferry until about four or five days late. That’s one reason that I decided to leave the party at Lee’s Ferry- I was nearly out of leave, although I could have gotten an extension on my leave, I think. But I left the party there anyway. Kind of regretted it ever since.

   As soon as I got back to Mexican Hat, I was scheduled to go back to Salt Lake City, when my leave was up. So that’s what I did. As soon as I gathered up my stuff the next day or two, I headed back to Salt Lake City.

* *** *

GCRG: How did you come to meet Bert Loper?

Harris: I had heard a lot about him, and he was in the hospital for some minor thing in Salt Lake City. So I went in to see him and he said, “I’ve had two or three occasions when I was planning to go through the Grand Canyon, and all of them faltered and fell apart and I never did get to go through. So I’d like to go through the Grand Canyon and if you’d like to go, maybe we could organize a trip.” And that’s how I met him.

   According to what he had told me, he’d planned trips through the Grand Canyon on two or three other occasions. They all petered out; didn’t materialize. Once he waited down there for somebody else to show up- I guess he must have waited for a week or so. And they didn’t show up. He was, at that time living as a hermit. So he took his boat back upstream from Lees Ferry clear to Red Canyon in Glen Canyon. Rowed it and pulled it with ropes, you know, where he could. I guess it took him maybe a month to do it. So he was quite a tough old guy.

   Of course I didn’t know him when he was a young man, He was sixty nine when I met him. But I learned more about the tricks of the river and studying the currents and things from Bert Loper than I did from anybody else. And that was the ’39 trip through the Grand.

GCRG: What was your style of rowing?

Harris: Head the stern downstream, and then you face your danger. Face downstream and quarter to boat to shift right or left. And row upstream to check your velocity if necessary. And that was the technique in running those Cataract boats.

   Norm knew the river well and was a good oarsman, but he hadn’t the experience in whitewater that Bert had, because Bert had been a boatman for a number of government survey parties on the river prior to the Grand Canyon. On the San Juan and on the Green River; all the full length of the Green through Lodore and Split Mountain. He’d been through Desolation and those upper Green River Canyons.

GCRG: I’ve always heard that he had kind of a fiery personality.

Harris: Yeah. He wouldn’t take a lot of gaff from anybody, you know. And he was a powerful oarsman and I guess kind of a rough and tumble guy in his early days. Pretty rugged. He didn’t back down from anybody.

   He smoked till he was fifty years old, so he told me. And then he quit; made up his mind he was going to quit. And he quit to the point where he was a real crank about anybody smoking. He just couldn’t stand to see anybody smoke.

   He was a great guy!

   He lived in Green River part of the time and did odd jobs around there. He made a little money as a boatman for these survey parties on the rivers. Then he worked in the mines a little here and there… wherever he could get a little work.

   He fell in love with the Colorado River when he was living as a hermit along the banks of the Colorado in Glen Canyon. Red Canyon was where his little cabin was.

   He was a powerful oarsman for his age, you know. Nearly seventy years when he went in the Grand in ’39. When Bert was in Salt Lake City he entered a rowing contest in Liberty Park. He competed against the young fellas and he won the prize.

   He had a knack with oars that I’ve seen seldom equaled.

GCRG: Did he talk much?

Harris: Well, when he got started he did. But normally not too much gab. [He had] kind of a husky, burly voice. If he had something to say, he’d say it.

GCRG: Who all went on that ’39 trip? Bill Gibson was on that also?

Harris: Yes, he was. Bill was on the trip, as I said, with Nevills in ’38. And he wanted to go again and get some additional footage on his sixteen-millimeter movie. So he was anxious to go again. And Bert, of course, had been wanting to go for years. And he wanted to have a passenger, so [Chet Klevin], a friend of the photographer, came out with Bill and was Bert Loper’s passenger on this Grand Canyon ’39 trip.

GCRG: Did you have high water?

Harris: We had kind of a medium stage. I don’t recall the stage but it was a good boating stage. Maybe in the twenty thousand range, twenty five thousand.

GCRG: Did you have pretty light loads?

Harris: Yes. See, there were only two people to each boat. We didn’t have a lot of heavy equipment of any kind. Just Gibson’s photography gear and the food and our bedrolls. That’s about all we had.

GCRG: Would you scout the rapids?

Harris: We stopped at the first big rapid, which is Badger Creek, and pulled to shore and walked down to take a look. Make an inspection on it. I said to Bert, “You think we can run it?” He says “Sure we can run it! It’s just a matter of how we’re going to run it!” Picked out a course, and he says from then on Don Harris never asked “Can we run it?”, he just asked. “How’re we going to run it?”

   [We] looked at most of the major rapids from shore and charted a course through in our minds and ran through. We didn’t portage or line any of them.

   As far as I know, Buzz Holmstrom was the only one to run [Lava Falls] prior to our trip. It was quite a bit lower stage at this point than it was when we left Lees Ferry, because we had a receding stage all the way. We gave it a pretty good casing from shore before we attempted to run it. We had no problems at all.

   [Later] we run it with power boats on a hundred thousand. Which was quite a thrill.

   I don’t recall the rapid where Chet got sucked overboard, but no problem… he rode through the rapid with his life preserver and we picked him up down at the foot of the rapid.

   We rowed down the upper reaches of Lake Mead for a couple of days, down as far as Pearce Ferry. At that point we’d arranged previously for a power launch to come up and tow our boats down to the Lake.

GCRG: So after that you did several more trips with Loper?

Harris: I did two or three in Cataract Canyon. Went down the Yampa and the Green. Then that long trip from Green River Lakes to Green River, Utah. Three of us. We had two boats and three people. That must have been close to a seven hundred mile trip. When we made our launch we proved it could be done in plywood boats, but you’d have to go when the water’s right on the peak, or you’d have them beat to pieces, so rocky in places. Proved it could be done, but we also proved it wasn’t practical at all.

GCRG: I’ve never heard of anyone else ever doing that trip.

Harris: I haven’t heard if they did either.

GCRG: Whose idea was that trip?

Harris: Bert. Bert wanted to run it. He says, “Let’s see if we can’t run from Green River Lakes clear down to Green River, Utah.” And I was agreeable to it. I could get my leave from the government to go. So we went.

GCRG: You would just do these for fun?

Harris: Yes, [Bert] wanted to do some more boating and boating was in my blood at that time too. So my youngest brother went with us as a third member of our party.

GCRG: How long did that take?

Harris: About three weeks. We launched right in Green River Lake there. Rowed down a quarter mile, down to wherever the outlet was and then into some whitewater for a ways. Then a lot of meandering, slow water down through Daniels and on past Big Piney and down near where Fontenelle Reservoir is now. A lot of quiet water there now. We didn’t stop to do much hiking. Just floating the river.

GCRG: What was it that you really liked the most?

Harris: Just being out there and riding in a boat I guess.

GCRG: When did you meet Jack Brennan?

Harris: I don’t remember the year. But it was when Bert and I had planned a Cataract Canyon trip. Probably mid-forties. We wanted to go through Cataract Canyon. We each wanted to row our own boat. We didn’t particularly like to ride alone. So we put an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune to try to recruit a couple passengers to go with us to help defray expenses and to give us company riding in the boats. So Jack Brennan was one of the fellows that answered the ad and went with us. Jack was a postal clerk in Salt Lake City. There was another fellow who went too, but he didn’t take to the river like Jack did.

   The river got in Jack’s blood. We became partners in a mild commercial way after that, just very small. Try to get a few passengers to help defray the expenses so we’d get a free trip.

GCRG: Jack built a Cataract boat too?

Harris: He built a boat designed off the Mexican Hat that I had. Built one very similar to it, and named it the Loper, after Bert.

GCRG: So then all through the forties you and Loper, you and Brennan, and various combinations of people were doing these trips and trying to get a few people to help pay the expenses?

Harris: That’s right.

GCRG: All over the southwest and Idaho?

Harris: Uh huh.

GCRG: And it was in the forties that you first became a paid boatman for the USGS?

Harris: Yes. Well, I was on the payroll for my job and doing the thing I liked and not having to take leave for it See, I worked for them and they wanted to make an inflow study on the Colorado and Green River system in the state of Utah. They had known I had gone through Cataract and some on the Green and the Yampa. They had another fella that was a fair boatmen. But he never learned to read the river like a good boatman would. Like Bert or myself or any of these young fellas that read the river… like you…

GCRG: Sometimes we think we can read it.

Harris: Read the river and you know what you’re doing. A person that’s going to be a good boatman has got to have respect for the river. That’s what everybody tells you. But on the other hand he don’t need to be afraid of it. Some are naturals for it, and others are not.

   So we started up about the Utah/Wyoming state line at Linwood. Then came down through all those canyons measuring all the little tributary inflow streams.

GCRG: You flipped in Ashley Falls on that trip?

Harris: Ashley Falls, uh huh. There was a huge rock almost as big as this room, I guess, in the center of the channel at Ashley Falls. At the stage we ran it we tried down the left side. And pilot error is why I capsized. We pulled to shore and looked at it on the left bank before trying to run. But I missed the drop over. You just can’t see where the drop over is until you’re almost on it. If I’d had one of the fellows that was with us stand on the shore and take pebbles and toss them off right at the head of the drop over so I could see whether I was left or right, then I could have hit it where I was supposed to drop over. But I was about a boat-width’s off to one way or another. And so I got out of control and capsized.

   [When] we got to Green River, Utah, we divided the party and two of us went in one boat over and put in at , uh, what do they call that ranch up there above Cisco?

GCRG: Westwater?

Harris: Westwater. We put in at the head of Westwater and the other two went on down the Green River and we selected a date to meet at the confluence. So we did that. Then the four of us and the two boats went on down through Cataract to Lees Ferry.

GCRG: Tell us about the ’49 trip

Harris: Well, backing up to the ’39 trip, when we were being towed across Lake Mead after running the Grand successfully, Bert got to thinking. He says: “This has been a wonderful trip; ideal. There has never been any friction or contention. And the age of you three young fellows combined about equals my age. That’s an old man with three young fellows and there hasn’t been any friction. So let’s plan to go when I’m eighty, ten years hence.”

   I said, “Oh, that sounds agreeable to me,” not even imagining that he might still be alive ten years later.

   When the ten years had passed he brought it up again. He was still in pretty good shape. His heart was a little bad, but he said, “Well, it’s time to go now, it’s ten years later.” We tried to talk him out of it but nothing will do. But he was bound to go if we hadn’t. He’d’ve gone alone and tried to make it. So that was why it was planned. I was with Jack Brennan then and he was my partner.

GCRG: Didn’t Harry Aleson go along too?

Harris: Yeah, he was kind of tagging along with us. He had his separate camp unit and everything. We kind of traveled together but we didn’t cook or anything together or eat together. He had one passenger and an inflatable ten-man war surplus raft. And then Bert in his eighteen foot plywood boat and me in the Mexican Hat. But Bert had a strong young guy with him as passenger that I had arranged to go with him, to relieve him at the oars in the quiet water between rapids, so Bert could relax a little. But Bert wanted to do it all. So he never let this young fellow even touch the oars.

   We’ll never know, I guess, whether Bert had a heart attack or whether he capsized or drowned. But I suspect he had a heart attack. They didn’t pull ashore to inspect that rapid at twenty-four and a half. They had started to, and he didn’t make a little sandbar just above the rapid a ways. And it was rocky there just a little further downstream. So he said to Wayne, his passenger, this young fellow, “Well, it’s rocky, we don’t want to land there. Let’s go through the rapid.” So they did, And , of course, Wayne’s back was to Bert; he was on the stern of the boat, facing downstream, and he couldn’t observe Bert. But when we picked him up he said Bert hadn’t tried to position the boat when entering the rapid. So I suspect he exerted pretty heavy on the oars and then maybe had a heart attack and wasn’t able to control the boat and they capsized. That’s my theory what happened.

   [When] we caught up, Wayne Nichol, his passenger, had got on top of the overturned boat and rode through a couple of smaller rapids and then he got a hold of the bowline. It drifted into an eddy and he had got pretty close to shore. So he jumped off and got to shore. By the time he got to shore and got some footing, why the boat had drifted around to a stronger current and he was unable to hold the bowline to hold the boat. So he had to let go and it went on down and it lodged on a gravel bar down near President Harding Rapid.

   We pulled it to shore and pulled it up where it rested from then on. And ditched the motor up under some brush. It had an outboard motor in there to use across Lake Mead, when they got down there. Bert had a typewriter. They put that and a couple or other items up under some brush and then we went on the next day, of course.

   Harry Aleson went in later and picked up the motor and the typewriter and some of the those things that we left. I think he went down the tramway where the Bureau of Reclamation was drilling for a damsite. He got some of those fellows to take him in a motorboat to where this motor was cached, and back down and then hauled it out on the tramway.

GCRG: Did Bert always carry a typewriter?

Harris: Maybe he had on some of these survey trips, I don’t know, when he was a boatman for the river survey. He wasn’t a very good writer, so he took along this typewriter to write something that was legible. He wanted to type up some notes from each days progress, sort of a typewritten diary.

   I think Bert had a premonition that he might not make this trip, being at his age, and his doctor advised him no strong exertion with his heart condition. He said, “If anything happens to me on this trip I don’t want you to try to get me out. You just take me above high water line and scoop out a shallow grave and cover me over and put some rocks on top and leave me. That’s where I want to be. In the Canyon.” Well, that’s where he was, all right, but he wasn’t above high water.

GCRG: What was the story of Bert’s flip on the ’39 trip?

Harris: He pulled ahead of us just ahead of Gateway Rapid, and he was looking down in the cockpit of the boat, and he started to bail a little water out and wasn’t paying attention to what was going on, so he drifted on into the rapid sideways, and it capsized! He and his passenger. Well, they righted the boat in midstream and rowed it to shore. By the time we caught up with him, why, they had things straightened around again and mopped the hatches out ‘cause a little leaked in through the hatch covers when it was bottom-side-up. So as he sat down he looked up at that rapid and he says, “Kiss my ass!”

* *** *

GCRG: How did you come to use the hard-hulled powerboats?

Harris: I was sold on powerboating through there after I was a boatman for that Walt Disney trip in nineteen-fifty-three. Dock Marston was the head of the boating part of it, and he asked me if I could get away and be a boatman for him. So I managed to get the leave and piloted one of the seventeen-foot aluminum Smithcraft boats through. The lead boat was Rod Sanderson, the Sanderson brothers’ father, and Marston rode with him. It was a much smaller boat, but it was powered with an outboard, just like ours were. The two seventeen-footers had a spare motor up under the bow. Don’t remember the horsepower, I believe twenty-five, that’s all they were.

GCRG: How did you drive those powerboats?

Harris: Standing up at the steering wheel up front. And I liked it so well that Jack and I decided to each get a small fiberglass hull and build some watertight compartments in them ourselves and then use the same arrangement that we had on those seventeen-foot Smithcraft. These fiberglass hulls we bought down in California, they were only fifteen-footers, but we made several trips with them and they proved out pretty well. We made the Grand a couple of times in them. I know we went through in ’54, believe it was. And ’57, I know we were on high water in ’57. We left Lees Ferry on receding stages, a little over a hundred thousand. Time we got to Lava Falls, figured it had reached to about ninety thousand. But that’s a wild ride. At ninety thousand Lava Falls kicks up some pretty big waves.

GCRG: In a fifteen-footer with an outboard. I bet that boat got kind of small.

Harris: (laughs) It sure did. Yep. It went down through one deep trough and up to where the crest was and almost didn’t go over the crest. It just jiggled a bit there. I was afraid it was going to fall over to the side. But it went on over. No Problem. Just a wild ride.

   We made several runs through Cataract with these powerboats and then later on I got a little bigger fiberglass hull and put an inboard outboard on it. I made a couple of runs through the Grand with it. I had an eighteen-foot fiberform hull, made in Salt Lake, I guess they were. Anyway, I had an eighteen-foot with a MercCruiser on it. A hundred and something horses, I believe it was. My last trip in the Grand with powerboats was with that boat.

   I never had a lot of trouble running with powerboats. But I didn’t feel at ease like I did when I went to the inflatables. Those big thirty-three-foot inflatables you’re not worried about punching a hole that you can’t repair.

GCRG: I’d imagine one of those fiberglass boats might have just sunk if you’d flipped it over.

Harris: Yeah. Luckily I never did capsize in one of them. I’ve capsized in the Cataract boats two or three times, but not in the powerboats.

GCRG: In the early 50’s you were one of the folks in on forming Western River Guides Association. Whose idea was that?

Harris: Les Jones was one, I believe, and Howard Smith was one that thought they ought to have some kind of an organization. But there were only about six or seven of us when they first organized. I was the first president of it.

GCRG: What were some of the things you were doing with WRGA?

Harris: Well, we tried to promote river safety and clean camps, two things I remember. And enjoy the outdoors.

GCRG: How did you come to run the big inflatable motor rigs?

Harris: Jack was still my partner when we went to the inflatables. We could see, if we were going to operate commercially a little bit, we could take many more passengers on an inflatable than we could on these powerboats. About the most you could take were three, besides the pilot, on those. We didn’t want to be overloaded, so we went to the inflatables.

   I bought two from Jack Curry. I think he found some war surplus rafts down in a big warehouse in Tennessee somewhere. And they had a whole raft of them sent up to Salt Lake City. Car load of them, I guess, truckload. And I bought two of the thirty-three-footers from him. And then I rigged them up with outriggers on the side, like they do now. We found them satisfactory for our use.

   I ran quite a few trips in the summer. Maybe two or three each summer while I was still employed by the USGS. And then , of course, I retired when I was fifty-six. And then I devoted pretty near all summer for a few years after that to river running.

GCRG: Where were you getting your clients?

Harris: I put an ad in a Western Gateways magazine. And after that, word of mouth gave us about all the business we wanted to handle. We had quite a few repeat passengers, from various locations.

   I think we ran that ad a couple of issues is all. And we did have an ad in Desert Magazine, I think, one or two issues. But other than that it was word of mouth. Then we sent out our literature, which is very simple. Not elaborate like some of the outfitters now.

   We offered the trip for $365 for nine days with the big inflatables. And if there were ten or more we offered a ten percent discount. We didn’t get rich. We made extra dollars on the side. But we weren’t doing it to get rich. The enjoyment was half the reason. And if we could make a few dollars on the side while doing something we enjoyed, why so much the better.

GCRG: Did you enjoy the people you took down? Did you like guiding people?

Harris: Yeah, most of them. We met some wonderful people. Of all the ones we took over the years, you can count the duds on the fingers of one hand. Some that were kind of obnoxious, you might say, that didn’t cooperate. Thorn in your side. But most are wonderful people. Took a couple from North Carolina that were lovely people. Couple from Boston, Massachusetts. They come back again for another trip and brought their two sons.

GCRG: When did you meet Mary?

Harris: Nineteen sixty-four. Through mutual friends. She had lost her first husband in a car accident about three years before I met her, and I had divorced from my wife about that time or a little later.

[Mary has entered the room and realized she’d better give us the real story on this.]

Mary: I want to tell you what happened on the very first date. It was a blind date. Blanchard called me about this friend, and said, “We talked to Don and he wants to meet you. Will you come over?”

   So Saturday night, I guess it was, I hurried over to their house. Guess what? You know where he’d gone? On a river trip! (laughs) First blind date I ever had and I got stood up by the river!

   That should have been a clue. The next date, well, we decided we’d try it again. We had a drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon. We sit on the bank and he runs the little stream with leaves and sticks. And I thought, “Boy, he’s had it. This guy’s had it.”

   On our honeymoon we went on the Grand Canyon. That was the first river trip I’d ever had, and we went in those fifteen-foot powerboats.

Harris: Well, it wasn’t long after that that she went several trips. Jack and I were still partners. And then, a year or two later, Jack said, “I think I’d like to get out of it.” So I bought his share of the business and she took his place as chief meal planner and cook.

Mary: But we made many trips together and I enjoyed every one of them. In fact, every sand bar began to look like home.


GCRG: So the car crash in seventy-two was what brought an end to your career? Or were you getting ready to slow down anyhow?

Harris: No, I wasn’t getting ready to slow down. But that damaged me enough that I didn’t feel up to the whole operation of the outfit, of the business. So I turned it over to my son Alan and Dave Kloepfer.

   Of course, following that I made a few private trips. None in the Grand. I made Cataract a couple of times. And Desolation two or three. And up on the Salmon in Idaho for two or three trips. Easy trips, you know. Get a good crewman to go along with me. But I did most of the piloting after that, on these big rafts with the outboard. Never was able to row anymore after that- I got a crippled left hand. But I piloted the motor all right.

GCRG: That’s quite a career on the river, from before there was commercial river running to what we have today. When did it first occur to you that commercial boating might really catch on?

Harris: I guess when I saw Georgie White with her big groups was one factor that made me think, “This is gonna be a pretty big business someday.”

   Yeah, it sure has changed over the years, all those years.

   We’ve had some wonderful experiences on the river as a lot of people have. And like I said before we’ve met some desirable people that we still associate with, correspond somewhat. Course a lot of my old river buddies have passed on. Jack Brennan’s gone, Aleson’s gone… Dan Lehman…

   I’m not old now but it’s been a hell of a lot of years since I was young.

Mary: Well, these old river runners, the thing about them, they had river water for blood. And they still got it. He runs the river from the car. We go up a canyon, you know, like on the Snake. You know how you follow the canyon year round. And he’s driving and he looks over and he’ll say, “How’s the rapid over there?” And I will say, “I’ll drive. You run the rapids.” And no matter how many times we go up there, he does exactly the same thing. He has to see what the rapids are like. So I think he’s still got river water. He still dreams about it.

Don and Mary Harris were interviewed at their home in St. George, Utah on February 9, 1993 by Brad Dimock and Lew Steiger. Additional material came from Don Harris’s talk at the 1993 Guides Training Seminar. Transcription by Teresa Yates. Editing for clarity and continuity by Brad Dimock. Thanks to NAU Special Collections and to Don and Mary.