River Water in his Blood
Norms 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 Norms parents lodge. If they wanted to go over to
Monument Valley, hed take them over. He had an automobile with big, low-inflated
tires, so he could go on some of the sandy areas. Wasnt like it is now, of course.
So I went over with him to Monument Valley on two or three occasions.
My work didnt 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. Youd 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 hed been in them before. I says, Youre 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 wasnt afraid any more.
Norm took me on two or three trips from Bluff down to Mexican Hat, and
theres where I learned to run the river. My blood started to boil over about that
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 shed go too. And they got another
fellow, Gene Atkinson. So it was the three of them from Michigan, and Bill Gibson, the
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 didnt, 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 thats 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: Arent 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 Id ever run. Or
ever seen. Cause there wasnt too much in the San Juan that youd call
whitewater. Couple of small rapids between Bluff and Mexican Hat
but they wont
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 Id 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, well go back into the current and go down to where theres
another big eddy on the left, about half a mile further down, and then well pull to
shore and go down below a point there where there should be another eddy. And if the boat
isnt 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 wed 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, Norms
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 didnt 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 werent sissies by a long beat. Ill 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
I cant 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 couldnt 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 wasnt on a curve, and it
didnt 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 hadnt 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 Norms
leadership. Do you think a lot of that was due to it being his first time in big water?
Harris: I think so. Im 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 didnt arrive to Lees Ferry until about four or five days late.
Thats one reason that I decided to leave the party at Lees 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 thats 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, Ive 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 Id like to go through
the Grand Canyon and if youd like to go, maybe we could organize a trip. And
thats how I met him.
According to what he had told me, hed planned trips through the Grand
Canyon on two or three other occasions. They all petered out; didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 hadnt 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.
Hed been through Desolation and those upper Green River Canyons.
GCRG: Ive always heard that he had kind of a fiery personality.
Harris: Yeah. He wouldnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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 Ive 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, hed 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 Lopers passenger on this Grand
Canyon 39 trip.
GCRG: Did you have high water?
Harris: We had kind of a medium stage. I dont 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 didnt
have a lot of heavy equipment of any kind. Just Gibsons photography gear and the
food and our bedrolls. Thats 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! Its just a
matter of how were 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. Howre 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 didnt 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
I dont recall the rapid where Chet got sucked overboard, but no
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 wed 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 youd have
to go when the waters right on the peak, or youd have them beat to pieces, so
rocky in places. Proved it could be done, but we also proved it wasnt practical at
GCRG: Ive never heard of anyone else ever doing that trip.
Harris: I havent heard if they did either.
GCRG: Whose idea was that trip?
Harris: Bert. Bert wanted to run it. He says, Lets see if we
cant 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
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
didnt 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 dont 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 didnt 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 didnt take to
the river like Jack did.
The river got in Jacks 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 wed 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
Harris: Thats 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
GCRG: Sometimes we think we can read it.
Harris: Read the river and you know what youre doing. A person
thats going to be a good boatman has got to have respect for the river. Thats
what everybody tells you. But on the other hand he dont 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
cant see where the drop over is until youre almost on it. If Id 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-widths
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?
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.
Thats an old man with three young fellows and there hasnt been any friction.
So lets plan to go when Im 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, its time to go now,
its ten years later. We tried to talk him out of it but nothing will do. But
he was bound to go if we hadnt. Hedve 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: Didnt 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 didnt 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.
Well 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 didnt pull ashore to
inspect that rapid at twenty-four and a half. They had started to, and he didnt 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, its
rocky, we dont want to land there. Lets go through the rapid. So they
did, And , of course, Waynes back was to Bert; he was on the stern of the boat,
facing downstream, and he couldnt observe Bert. But when we picked him up he said
Bert hadnt 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 wasnt able to
control the boat and they capsized. Thats 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
GCRG: Did Bert always carry a typewriter?
Harris: Maybe he had on some of these survey trips, I dont know,
when he was a boatman for the river survey. He wasnt 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 dont 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. Thats where I want to be. In the Canyon.
Well, thats where he was, all right, but he wasnt above high water.
GCRG: What was the story of Berts 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
wasnt 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. Dont
remember the horsepower, I believe twenty-five, thats 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 thats 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 didnt 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 didnt feel
at ease like I did when I went to the inflatables. Those big thirty-three-foot inflatables
youre not worried about punching a hole that you cant repair.
GCRG: Id imagine one of those fiberglass boats might have just sunk if
youd flipped it over.
Harris: Yeah. Luckily I never did capsize in one of them. Ive
capsized in the Cataract boats two or three times, but not in the powerboats.
GCRG: In the early 50s 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 didnt 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
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 didnt get rich. We made
extra dollars on the side. But we werent 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 didnt 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
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 shed 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 hed 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 wed 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, hes had it. This
guys had it.
On our honeymoon we went on the Grand Canyon. That was the first river trip
Id ever had, and we went in those fifteen-foot powerboats.
Harris: Well, it wasnt 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
Id 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 wasnt getting ready to slow down. But that damaged me
enough that I didnt 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
GCRG: Thats 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.
Weve had some wonderful experiences on the river as a lot of people
have. And like I said before weve met some desirable people that we still associate
with, correspond somewhat. Course a lot of my old river buddies have passed on. Jack
Brennans gone, Alesons gone
Im not old now but its been a hell of a lot of years since I was
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 hes
driving and he looks over and hell say, Hows the rapid over there?
And I will say, Ill 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 hes 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 Harriss 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.