Bill Beer continued from page 1
In the spring of 1955 John Daggett and Bill Beer made history. These days Beer makes swimming the whole river with fins, a couple of leaky black bags, and a lousy, leaky rubber shirt sound pretty fun. But after you read his book “We Swam the Grand Canyon,” you realize, they did have a pretty wild trip. And parts of it weren’t all that easy.
We sat down with him at Cliff Dwellers a couple GTS’s ago and picked up a few addendums to the book. It’s not quite the same in print because you can’t hear that wonderful, frequent, infectious, often self-deprecating laugh of Bill’s. So you’ll just have to imagine that part.
A ten-man?! An Army ten-man is what it was?
Yeah, an Army ten-man raft. It wasn’t heavily loaded, it was just the outboard and the dog and a few simple things, and the two of us with a pair of swim fins, and we were still pretty good swimmers, and so we just towed it. (chuckles)
Then I went down with Marston, the trip that Willie died on. Then I did the Disney trip that Marston did. I think that was probably 1956 and 1957 maybe.
Then I stayed away from the Canyon. I was doing a little lecturing with our film, making a few bucks and paying for the film and trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I got sort of fed up with being one of those two guys who, you know, everywhere I went—like here. (laughs) I lived that every day, and I’d just had it up to here with that, so I decided to... (makes pushing motion) pas the Canyon, get out of the thing. I got married and divorced and married again and had a kid. I’d always wanted to go sailing. In the meantime I was working in various jobs, mostly media, public relations, doing a little writing and a little filming, a little camera, a little TV producing and stuff, buying and selling real estate. John and I were still friends, we were still living in Southern California, and he was going into his second marriage and having a couple of children, having some problems of one kind or another...
I had always wanted to have a sailboat in the tropics, and one day I turned to my wife and said, “Now if we sell everything we’ve acquired, we could probably buy a boat. Are you ready?” And she said, (chuckling), “Well, no, but okay.” (chuckles) So to make a long story short, in 1965 I bought a boat. It happened to be in Connecticut, and we drove across country after having all the garage sales and real estate closings and all that sort of thing, and sailed to the Virgin Islands where I managed to live incognito for about twenty years until one day some guy came up to me and said—I was sitting in the yacht club—”Say, Bill Beer, aren’t you one of those two guys who....” (laughs) But by that time I had another persona, and I didn’t mind it anymore, and I don’t mind it now. It’s not something that bothers me, but it did bother me for a while, I did not like it.
Oh, yeah, to get back to the Grand Canyon. Then it was 1985 or 1986: My wife and I and daughter, who is now grown, planned a trip to Europe. Among the things we were going to do was we were going to meet in England for the christening of a friend of ours’ daughter. And we’d been doing all these plans in the house, and my ten- or eleven-year-old son was being left out of all this. So I finally turned to Ben—that’s his name—and said, “Gee, Ben, this is not fair. We’re talking about all these wonderful things we’re going to do, and we’re leaving you out. What would you like to do?” Ben turned to me and said, “I’d like to go down the Grand Canyon with you, Dad.” I was on the horns there, I couldn’t get off. I had to say to him, “Well look, it wouldn’t be fair to take you without taking Barrie too”—my daughter. And so he agreed that was okay. So I called Bill Belknap and Bill Belknap said, “Go with GCE [Grand Canyon Expeditions]. So I called GCE and made reservations, and when we came back from England, the three of us, my two children and I.... My wife could not go—she does not like this sort of thing, she can’t sleep on the sand, and she gets seasick anyway. (laughs) So the three of us went down the river that year, and I was terribly impressed. I’d been off the river, had not had any contact with it at all for twenty-some odd years. And in the library of GCE on the river, there were all these river books that I didn’t even know existed, and I read all these books, and geeze, I was in almost every one! I thought, “Good Lord, what’s going on here?” And of course I had the usual people coming up and asking me about the trip and this kind of thing—you know, passengers.... Our plane was delayed at New York connections, and we arrived in Las Vegas at about two o’clock in the morning or so, two-thirty in the morning, and there were guys waiting for us, wanting to meet Bill Beer, and I sort of thought, “Oh, Lord, what’s going on here?” But I loved the trip, and I was so impressed with the Canyon and what the river guides had not done or done to the Canyon, and how pristine it still was, in spite of the dam and in spite of the thirty thousand people a year and all that stuff. I was just overwhelmed that the Canyon was still there and it was still a great place—and so was my daughter. She came back and swamped the year following or two years following. And after she swamped, she convinced me that I should apply for a private trip. So I said, “Alright, okay kid, I’ll do it.” She went to law school and got out of law school, and we waited and we waited and we waited, and finally last year, 1994, our number came up and I took a private trip down. Then I had a chance to meet even more people, and I became more impressed with the river guides and what had been going on on the river and what had not been going on on the river. Good things had been, and bad things had not been, in my estimation, for the most part. Yeah, there’s some negatives, of course, but altogether, it’s amazing what you guys have done to that river. It’s really astounding what you’ve done for it. Think of other places and how they’ve been screwed up to a fair-thee-well, and you think of the Grand Canyon, you realize that particularly the river guides, I think, have done a marvelous job.
I meet people who.... O.C. said he’d been through how many times? Awesome number of times to me, at any rate. But the amount of knowledge that’s been acquired about the Canyon, in all the disciplines, is to me.... And the knowledge that the guides absorb, and then can pass on to their passengers, I’m impressed by it.
You said you were really impressed with the things that hadn’t been done. What are some examples?
Okay, just to kind of put a capper on it, and then I’ll give you some more details: there was less trash in the Canyon last August—less human trash—than there was in 1955. A different kind, of course, but I found old beer cans—not in the Canyon, but up Havasu and places like that. We didn’t find any cigarette butts, but all the cable cars and the stuff left over from the Marble Canyon or Bridge Canyon dam sites and of course all the bat cave stuff, and miscellaneous other things, debris left behind by various trips or other groups—that was all gone in 1995-94, and nothing was left. …That was impressive to me. Footprints were all over the place, but that was all you saw of human beings—no fires, no nothing. When we went down in April of 1955, that was just before the floods, and there wasn’t much trace of the previous years’ expeditions—there hadn’t been many previous years’ expeditions. Dock had us as—we were in the early part of the third… three hundred, and I think that year in 1955 he stopped counting, because it went up to four hundred that year or something. But he told me we were 219 and 220, I think, were the numbers he gave. And then the onslaught happened, because Georgie ran thirty or forty people through that year on her first trip. I don’t know if she made more than one trip or not. But I missed the sandbars and I missed the mud flats and I missed all that kind of stuff. ...those people who didn’t see the river before the dam don’t really know what they’re missing. The river is dirtier because of the tamarisk and all the other stuff, and the lack of sandbars. It was very clean in those days. But still, to think you’re putting thirty thousand people a year through there, with all the camping stuff, and they’re greenhorns, most of them—it’s pretty amazing.
There were bigger sandbars?
There were times when John and I, for example, carrying our boxes and walking in our bare feet, had to go across—we called them “mudbars”—soft sand, muddy stuff, that was pretty broad. In fact, there were a few times when we had to put our swim fins back on and make them work like snowshoes in the sand or the mud, so that we could walk through the stuff, carrying these boxes, which weighed about eighty pounds a piece, I think. They weighed enough so we only at the end of the trip could carry two boxes at a time. We always had to make two trips from the river to the campsite. That doesn’t exist anymore. There are no mud flats that you can’t walk across. I mean, we would have sunk in to our knees if we had not put on the flippers.
The great piles of driftwood: they’re talking today about all the fires. I set off several acres of fires (laughs) of driftwood—marvelous! We were very cold, and it was a wonderful way to warm up. Of course we were only two people, and we didn’t have boats, and we could take all of our gear off the river. So finding a campsite for us was trivially easy—we could camp almost anywhere. There was almost no stretch of the river where we wouldn’t camp—maybe a few places, like just above Vaseys on the left bank where it comes right down. But basically, we could camp almost anywhere. We had some sensational places to camp. There’s one campsite that I can’t remember, but it’s down there in the Granite Gorge, and I think there’s a picture in my book of looking down, and we’re up in this pink granite about forty, fifty feet off the water in these little pockets of sand. Now that’s an interesting picture, and I should point that out. I guess I did point it out to Webb. That sand was put there by flood, and that flood was forty, fifty feet off the water in the Granite Gorge. No question about it, we had this wonderful little thing, little separate rooms. We got to camp in some of the river fluting, too, farther down—I think you’ll see in the movie tonight, maybe. I don’t know if Briggs left that part in, but there’s this little campsite we had right in the river fluting, and it was just splendid, a splendid little place.
I think the scarcity and the necessity now to plan for your campsite—even if you have a fairly small group—is a major change. Even going down with Dock, Dock knew the river pretty well. I don’t know, he made ten or fifteen or twenty trips by the time I went with him. And he knew the river pretty well, and he had people with him who knew, and he sort of knew where he wanted to camp. But he had a lot of options, even with a group of maybe twelve or fourteen, I think is what we ran with him. The Disney trip we had seven or eight boats and a little larger group and it was a little more careful planning there because of all the cameras and various other requirements. But I think that’s a change. [finding camps today]
The lack of tamarisk, the cleanliness of the banks, the fact that they were scoured every year—those floods really did a nice job of sweeping out everything and making the thing look very clean. And the river bank is not dirty in the human sense, but it’s not quite the scrubbed thing that it once was.
Is there significantly less sand?
Oh, I think so, yes, no question about it. It’s a little hard to say about it in the very lower part of the Canyon, because there’s still a lot of pretty large areas of sand. You know, down below Havasu —it’s too subjective for me to be able to tell you whether there’s more or less.
The idea of doing the trip... you guys had been in the service?
John was in the Marines, I was in the Army. We had been college roommates in 1946, 1947. I think it was 1947 we were roommates as sophomores in college. We knew each other slightly as freshmen, because we lived in the freshman dorm, but we actually wound up as roommates, and then we became friends and I worked for John in college. John is a very aggressive entrepreneur in many areas, and he ran a tree surgery business. I was one of his employees for about a year in college. Then after school we kept in touch. And when his first wife was killed in a horrible train crossing accident—wiped out a pregnant wife and two children—I had been doing a little research for him in Northern California. He was thinking about moving there, and I hadn’t heard back, and so I picked up the phone and called him and he told me that Paula had been killed.
With also the other children?
She was pregnant, and two kids were killed, all in one train crossing accident. They were on their way to buy eggs or something, and it was in Solano Beach, California.
And John... at this time I’d had it with jobs. I was working at some big corporation which was just not for me—I’m not a big corporation type and neither was he. He suggested I come down to Southern California and we find something interesting to do. So I thought, “What the heck,” and quit my job, jumped in my car and went down, and we roomed together in Hollywood for a while, and made a sailing trip to Mexico on another person’s boat. I became somewhat imbued with sailing, I thought it was a great way to live. And the trip was scheduled to go through the Panama Canal and along the northern coast of South America. It’d be a great adventure for a couple of guys just out of the service and kind of footloose and fancy free. But like a lot of sailing voyages, it kind of blew apart from crew problems in Acapulco. We had a riotous time in Acapulco that was lots of fun. I can remember John on New Year’s Eve throwing a stick of dynamite in Acapulco Harbor. (laughs) Fireworks! And the third member of the crew, who also left the boat at the time, had done some river running on the Feather River. We were a little frustrated about having had our great adventure blow apart, and we went back to California and talked about doing something else. And this third fellow said, “Well, you should go run one of the whitewater rivers of the West.” You know, the great excitement, “Do the Feather River or the Snake.” And John and I both kind of pooh-poohed that as kind of trivial. We’d heard something about the Colorado River being “The Big River,” and we said, “If we’re going to run a river, we’re going to go run the big one. Why fool around with second-rate?” (laughs) That was our attitude. We had a lot of hubris at that time, I guess. It’s been characteristic of both of us all the time, ever since. At any rate, we threw that around for a while, and I began to be interested in the thing, and I began to try to figure out, get what I could about it. One day John said something about, “We don’t want to take any boats. Hell, let’s just swim it.” (laughs) And the idea was born.
Were you guys swimmers? Had you swam a lot? I mean, why?
We’d done a lot of surfing and a lot of rough water swimming. I had been on a high school swimming team. John was a very good swimmer as well. And at twenty-five, whatever we were, we were obviously in very good physical condition. We lived in apartments in Los Angeles—we had two or three, we kept getting thrown out of them for rowdiness. (laughs) We were always swimming in the pools, doing laps and stuff like that, just, you know, exuberance of that age.
At any rate, that’s how the idea was born, and like a lot of ideas, it grew, and it grew rapidly. The next thing we knew, we were at Lee’s Ferry.
Was he still kind of crazed over that tragedy?
Yeah. I think it’s classic that grief takes two years. We were at Lee’s Ferry in April of 1955, and I think it was about a year before that that his wife and kids were killed. He went through a tremendous trauma, as almost anybody who has that kind of thing happen to them does. He was in terribly bad shape for a while. And then the trip down the Mexican coast was somewhat therapeutic for him, and the Grand Canyon was very therapeutic. One of the things I think he said after his President Harding [Rapids] accident... He had... when his wife and children died, he’d considered suicide, and he realized he couldn’t do it. He’s not the suicidal type. He thought, “That’s the answer, but I can’t do it, it’s not there.”
At any rate, when he had his President Harding accident, and he thought he was going to die in that; he was under the water a long time and he thought he’d bought it at that time. That made him realize that he really didn’t want to die, he wanted to live. And I think that was John’s turning point. He’s a very resilient man, he’s had a lot of tragedies in life, some of which had nothing to do with the river but they’re just as bad as the ones you’ve heard about. And the rest of the way down the river, he was determined that he was going to come out. And I think when he got out of the river, he was mentally in pretty darned good shape. He got married again not too long after that to a girl that he’d met just before we went down the river, and had a couple kids and that whole thing. He’s mentally been in great shape ever since.
Now you said he was determined to come out. Once you guys got down there, was there ever a question that you were going to make it out of there? Did you get kind of scared?
John started out with a lot of bravado and a lot of determination and overconfidence. I’m guilty of overconfidence, perhaps. But Harding kind of put the fear of the river in him—it really did. He then began to fear that he might not come out. And when he got clobbered in Bedrock, he was absolutely convinced that this was going to be a very difficult—and Bedrock’s pretty far down—but he was convinced that this was not going to be an experience that he was going to survive, and he was determined to do so. I noticed that whereas in Soap Creek, which was the first real rapids—we tried to go through Badger on the side, and it didn’t work (laughs)—at Soap Creek John said, “I’m going right down the middle, to hell with it.” And I said, “Great, John, I’ll take pictures.” At Lava Falls, John said, “Bill, are we going to swim this?” I said, “I don’t know about you, but I am.” He said, “Great, I’ll take pictures.” (laughs) So the roles had slightly switched. But after Lava, of course there was no doubt in John’s mind either—there wasn’t anything left. And in between, we had a lot of fun. I mean, some of those rapids were just a barrel of laughs for us, except for the cold water. For the most part, after Soap and a few below Soap, and after Hance, we didn’t really have too much doubt, and we felt we really knew what we were doing. We couldn’t get out and scout all the rapids. We scouted Lava, we scouted Upset only because we camped there. We scouted Hance, and I think we scouted Nankoweap, because it was a different sort of rapids to us, and we weren’t quite sure what we were facing at a big delta-like Nankoweap. But I don’t think we scouted anything after that, that I can recall. We got to study those side canyons pretty carefully, and I don’t know whether you guys have that experience, but we sure learned that. You can look at those side canyons, and study the angle at which they’re coming in, and the depth and the width of the canyons, and listen to the roar, and you get a splendid idea of what’s coming up before you can see it. And of course we couldn’t see the rapids from our eye-level view, until we were right on the brink.
Could you maneuver in them very good?
When you’re pushing two rubber boxes a foot-and-a-half square or so, and you’ve got a pair of swim fins, in still water how fast can you move? That’s how fast you can move in river water. You’re only going to move sideways, you’re not going to swim back upstream and slow the flow down. So you’re only going to move sideways. But we’d started off with a theory, which we clung to, developed back in Los Angeles, and I, to this day, think it’s very valid. I can remember one discussion that went something like this: The human body is a very flexible thing, and if we continue to maintain our flexibility, we will go with the flow of the water. The water does not hit rocks “thump!,” it gets a cushion of water ahead of it, and the laminar flow upstream from the rock is several feet away from the rock. It flows around the rock. You can see this in the ocean, you can see it in any river, you can see this in your bathtub. This is the way water operates. And we felt that the human body—unlike a boat which is hard and doesn’t have much of itself in the water, comparatively—a boat can hit a rock, but we didn’t think a human being would hit one. And we didn’t hit any, except the two times... John hit Harding only because he let his bags go around one side, and he went around the other; and in Bedrock. Anybody can hit Bedrock, as you probably know. You catch that wave wrong, and you get bumped. He didn’t get bumped hard, but he got bumped right in his coccyx and it hurt like heck for a long time. He wasn’t able to sit down for two or three days. But he wasn’t seriously injured, he was just a little frightened, because that was the first rock that had really bit him, since Harding. I got a few ankle bruises and a few things like that, and so did he, but we never really hit anything hard. We didn’t expect to. One of the purposes of those boxes, the way we.... We thought of a lot of different things to carry our gear, a lot of alternatives: We thought of air mattresses and inner tubes, and a whole lot of things. And when we saw the river boxes, we realized they were really what we wanted, because we could make them flexible too by just maneuvering them, and they would go with the flow.
But this was the first river you’d ever run, and you never even saw the Grand Canyon?
Never seen the Grand Canyon.
Okay, now, just to fill in the gaps for somebody that wasn’t there, to put you into perspective, you told me a story last night about your dad, him being a pilot and about him playing tennis. Would you mind telling that real quick, just because...
Oh, my father’s very famous (laughs) in a small world. He’s the most successful senior tennis champion in the world. He was a Pan-Am pilot, had a fabulous record. He never scratched an airplane in thirty-odd years of flying. And when they retired him at sixty, which is compulsory, he was very upset, because he was in tremendous condition. He’d always been a tennis player. He’d carry his racket out and play a little bit of tennis here, but he’d never played in a tennis tournament—he’d never had time, tournaments were always scheduled and “I’m sorry, Captain Beer, you’ve got to fly to Midway” or someplace. So he decided to take up tennis seriously. He didn’t want to go make money. Father is not a person who goes and makes money, you know. He could have gone into real estate and done all kinds of things, but he decided hell with it, he wanted to play tennis—and ski. He built a cabin for himself at Squaw Valley, which he still has. Well, he wasn’t at it for very long before he became very good, began winning tournaments all over the place. Now you have to understand something about Dad: We used to tease him about being the only man in the world that couldn’t open the front door and step out without thinking of the thirty-two possible things that could happen. And that makes a good flier. He’s also very thorough about his tennis. He went out and bought a tennis ball machine. He belonged to a tennis club, and he made a deal with this tennis club to take his tennis ball machine out there. He’d get up at six o’clock in the morning and he’d hit a thousand balls before breakfast. So he became very good at tennis—doesn’t look very good, but boy, if you get the ball near him, he puts it away, I’ll tell you! And so he began winning, and now he’s compiled more than seventy—I think his last number is seventy-one or seventy-two—national championships in the various seniors categories. [He] started, I think his first one was in the sixties, and then the sixty-fives, and so on. He’s got two or three grand slams, where he won every tournament in the country that year in his age bracket. He’s been inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in Northern California, and I’m sure he’ll wind up in wherever that one is back east before too long. They don’t have any more tennis tournaments at his age bracket now, except the National Nineties, which is an invitational tournament.
He’s ninety years old right now?
He’s ninety-one now. And he’ll be playing there two weeks from now, and I’m going to fly up to Orlando and get him in practice, play a little bit with him, and shape him up so he can beat those other young kids of ninety. We took him down the river last year at ninety. Very conscientious man. Well, fun story... John and I did not let very many people know that we were going to do [the swim]. We felt that there would be some resistance to it. The cat got out of the bag the last couple of days before we left Los Angeles. But we didn’t let our family or anything know. And when we wound up on the South Rim in another one of those fortuitous accidents, a series of which made me what I am today (chuckles), I felt it was incumbent upon me, since there’d been so much flack about it at that point, that I ought to call my family and let them know I really wasn’t dead. (laughs) So they were having a wake. Everybody was gathered, commiserating with Mother and Dad—except my little sister and my little brother who were just absolutely determined that I wasn’t dead, “You can’t kill Bill, no way!” Father got on the phone and the first thing he said, “Well, how are you doing this? What’s your [rationale]? What made you do this?” All he wanted to know was the details. Very typical of the man: How do you do a thing? And he’s still doing that today.
While we’re clarifying things, just for somebody that hasn’t read the book, the thing that happened to John, at President Harding there’s a big rock and a big hole there. What happened? Did he get sucked into that hole and thumped around a little bit?
Apparently the Harding Rock—and this makes sense, I haven’t seen it, maybe you have—apparently the Harding Rock, being worked on all the time by the water, has gotten itself into some kind of a mushroom shape, like these standing rocks around here, you know? I say I don’t know this for sure, but that’s what we guess. I came into Harding first, and it looked very easy, and it was very easy. And I think, I’m not sure, I don’t remember, but I think that I got awfully close to Harding, stuck my foot out and spun around and went on the right side of Harding, by just fending off with my flippered foot, just by sticking it up, you know, and doing that sort of thing. If I didn’t, I swam awfully close to it, and just kind of paddled a little bit away from it, so as not to hit it. John, for some reason or other, at that point, had tethered his boxes on a lanyard, and was separated from them and was swimming separate.
But there was a line he was holding onto?
Yeah, on his wrist and on the boxes.
Which he couldn’t release.
When he went around the rock one side, and they went around the other side. Now John is a very strong guy, and he managed somehow or other, when he was underwater, knowing he was dead, to take those boxes and to pull them. He couldn’t break the line, and he couldn’t get it off his wrist, because it was already too tight. He managed to pull those boxes around against the current to his side of that rock and pop to the surface and came on down the river. But in the meantime, he’d gotten cut up pretty badly. You know, at his knuckle he had bone showing. I was going to stitch it, we did have some thread, and he didn’t want me to stitch it. So we put a splint on it, made a splint, and you’ll see in the movie tonight, even way down the river in the little campsite in the fluting, he’s still wearing that splint, because if you bend the knuckle, it’s going to tear it open, and we wanted to keep it so it wouldn’t. So he swam a good part of the river with a splinted finger.
How long did the trip take you?
We were twenty-six days. We were three nights off the river. The night we spent at Bright Angel, we did swim down from—I guess we swam about seven to ten miles down to Bright Angel, and then climbed the Kaibab Trail. So we really swam that day. Then we spent two nights off the river at Havasu. We swam fairly far—I don’t remember exactly how far—to Havasu Creek, and then climbed to Mooney Falls. Couldn’t figure out how to get above Mooney Falls, so we camped at the foot of Mooney Falls—it was dark anyway. And then we walked up to Havasu the next day, discovering the trail through Mooney—by the debris is how we discovered it, by the people debris we found. “Oh, look at all these cigarette butts—there must be some way through here.”
There were cigarette butts in 1955?”
Yeah, below Mooney. The litter from hikers—it was only hikers, obviously—litter from hikers is how we found the entrance at the bottom of the trail up through Mooney. And then we went to Havasu and we were by this time kind of beat up. My feet were badly swollen, and John’s were swollen somewhat, so we elected to spend a night in Havasu. In fact, the Indian Agent gave us the government guest house to spend the night. We spent the night in a bed (laughs) in the government guest house there. And then we walked back down the next day and swam below Havasu.
Were you pretty whupped at the end of the trip? Physically, did you come out stronger than when you went in?
Yeah, when we came out of that river we could have whipped our weight in mountain lions! (laughs) We couldn’t believe the kind of condition we were in. Well, I mean, even at Kaibab, I think we swam, as I say, eight or so miles that day, something like that. And then we climbed the Kaibab. I put it down in the book, my memory has now slipped me. We climbed the Kaibab in a very short time, three-and-a-half hours—does that sound about right?
I fell apart near the top, John just kept right on going. He just kept right on chugging. He said, “Bill, if I stop, I’m not going to be able to start again, so I’m going to keep going. And if you don’t show up, I’m going to send help for you. Bye.” (laughs) And there I was, the last maybe eight hundred feet or something, falling down every few steps, and I’d either fall into mule manure or snow, because there was snow, and either one of them would wake me up, and I’d get back on my feet and stagger a few more steps. I was really suffering. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did, and it was dark, and kind of fun, because ha-ha-ha John looked so disreputable that he had to walk all the way to Bright Angel, and I got a ride—I hitchhiked a ride. (laughs) I arrived more refreshed than he was!
On subsequent trips with Marston, I swam a number of rapids. I did Lava Falls twice one trip: swam it and walked back and swam it again. And one trip I did Lava Falls with no boxes. I don’t remember that now. People were taking movies of it, and Marston may have movies of it in his archives. I don’t have copies of that. But it’s kind of interesting, because I discovered that swimming Lava, particularly, without the boxes, was if anything, a little more difficult than with.
You can’t swim successfully with your arms and keep your head out of the water and see where you’re going. If you’re going to do any maneuvering in a rapids, you’ve got to get a glimpse now and then, and that’s what a swimmer does, is only gets a glimpse now and then.
Why’d you swim it twice that time? Lava. Why would you go back and do it again?
I don’t remember, I was having fun, I think. I liked it.
When you entered, which side did you take?
You go down the middle. When I was.... Go right down the middle of the tongue.
Well, down the tongue, but you know the ledge in the middle of Lava Falls? Was it there? We think of it as a big ledge that drops straight off. You don’t want to get in that, do you? Big, sharp, steep, nasty.
But you have to understand something: That which flips a boat doesn’t bother a swimmer. We don’t care about waves. They don’t hurt us.
Well, this is a hydraulic, where the water sucks back, you know.
Yeah, sure. Sure, I got in that and rolled around and came out. It’s no big thing. I’ve been in bigger waves in the Pacific Ocean. You go body surfing in Southern California or off the coast of Mexico, you’re looking at waves that make that thing in Lava Falls look... Of course they’re moving, and so they might possibly scrape you over a rock if you’re not careful. But the only thing you have to worry about in a river rapids, in Lava you do have to worry about that little peninsula sticking out—what do you guys call that? Black Rock? You don’t want to hit that, and you could hit that. You see the water washing up on that, you could get washed up on that. And so as we scouted Lava, and all the times I swam it, I scouted it and realized, all I gotta do is go down the tongue, never mind the hole, just get left enough to miss that rock. After that there’s nothing else to it.
Well now in that photo it looks like you’re pretty close to shore over there.
The photo on the book cover? That’s John. I’ve swum it already, and I stopped down on the left side.
Well in that photo, is he not kind of far right?
Not too far—he missed the rock very nicely. I guess Briggs has that sequence in his movie. I think he took that. He’s taking from the Black Rock. He’s with the movie camera taking pictures of me, and I’m a lot closer to it than he gets. Now he’s nervous, remember—he’s been to Bedrock and he’s been to Harding, and he looks at that Black Rock and he says, “I’m not going to hit that sucker!”
Now he wants to live.
He is swimming furiously to the left to miss that. And he does, he misses it nicely. That’s a perfect run, as you can see in the still picture. I went down, got out on the left side, came back up with a still camera and took pictures of his run. And that, I got what I think is the best picture of the trip, is the one that’s on the cover. You can see he’s in great shape, he’s doing fine.
Would you end up going underwater for long periods of time?
Sure. I was under in Lava for more than half the trip. You get thrown around a bit in a big rapid, sure. I think Lava was the most I was underwater. I don’t remember which specific rapids—we went underwater a few times, but not seriously—even the Lava thing. I got under farther in Lava because of that hydraulic wave—it pushed me down—it pushed me down to where it got dark. Of course this is muddy water, and so you don’t have to go very far down in muddy water before it gets dark. But I don’t like being in dark water, and I was not happy for a few seconds there, because I couldn’t see the light. But I knew I had all the buoyancy in the world, and I knew that I was far enough left. See, what we did in those years—and I’ve got to remember to say this tomorrow night—what we did in those years that you guys don’t do much of now, whenever we scouted a rapids, we had a wonderful opportunity to see how a swimmer would go through a rapids. We could throw driftwood in the water, and we must have thrown a half a cord of driftwood in (laughing) at Lava Falls.
Oh, you did, I’ll be darned.
Sure. We did it at Soap too. Unlimited supply of driftwood. And often we didn’t have to throw any, because there’s stuff coming down. We could just watch that stuff.
But this is your first river trip ever, so you guys figured out how to read water right off the bat then?
Is it that hard?
Some people pick it right up.
I don’t think it’s a difficult thing to do. I mean, you look at it and you see what it does.
Some people see it pretty darned quick, and some people, it takes them a long time, and some never get it.
I don’t know about other people. It’s like I can’t play the piano, and some people can sit down and play the piano, and I marvel at it.
It’s real interesting to see somebody like you, such a hairball guy, come to this place with such a.... Where does the Canyon fit in for you, having had such a broad spectrum of experience?
Well, the Canyon was a major part of my life, and in fact, one of the reasons I went to the Virgin Islands was to get away from it. I wanted to be anonymous again. I was down there almost twenty years before anybody ever knew that I had swum the Grand Canyon. I’m the oldest charter skipper in the place, and I’ve been at it longer than anybody. I’ve probably got the longest track record of anybody in the world, sailing the same boat: thirty years I’ve been sailing that boat. And if I do say so, I’m not half bad at it! (chuckles) So I had a reputation which was entirely separate from the Grand Canyon, was not involved in the Grand Canyon, and I got free of the stigma of being one of those two guys, “one of those two nuts,” sometimes, okay? Nobody likes being called a nut, even though maybe it’s partly true. John and I don’t consider ourselves nuts. We think we did something rationally and intelligently and successfully. I didn’t used to be able to say that, because I wasn’t old enough. And now I’m—as my father used to say—thank God I’ve reached the age where I can say anything I want and they just put it down as, “Okay, he can say it at his age.” (laughs) But still, the Grand Canyon has to have been a major part of my life, because it was a major event that affected a lot of what I’ve done. I’m very proud of what we did—as you and everybody else is proud of anything you do that’s successful. I’ve been fond of teaching my children and anybody else who’ll listen that a great part of the happiness of any human being is measured by their accomplishments and nothing else. And accomplishment is not defined by somebody else, it’s defined by yourself. You find an objective, you set a goal, you achieve it, and you’re proud of yourself, and you’re happy. It can be something as trivial as winning a set of tennis, or it can be something very significant like winning a Nobel Prize. Most of us are not in a category of human beings where a Nobel Prize is even an option, but what are options to us are the things that we take pride in having done. I take pride in what we did in the Grand Canyon. I think we did a damned fine job of doing what we set out to do. Not a very significant accomplishment, but it was ours.
But I did get a little tired of having only that attached to my name. It’s like this weekend, that’s all I am, I’m the guy that swam the Grand Canyon. “Oh, you do something else?!” (laughs) “What does your friend John do? Does he do something else?” It’s refreshing to be back to this again, but I couldn’t take a steady diet of it.
Well, between you and the place, do you think about it, I mean, just as far as....
The Grand Canyon?
Yeah. You know, all that cosmic stuff.
How can you talk about a thing like that?
It’s hard to without sounding corny.
Of course. But to you and to these guys here, I don’t have to say more than a few words, because everybody feels the same way. It has a profound effect on you for the rest of your life. I couldn’t go back to the Grand Canyon last year—I went to the rim for the first time. I didn’t go to the rim in 1985 when I went down with the kids. I went to the rim the first time, and I walked along that rim for a day, and I lived with all those ghosts. I mean, there was Dock Marston, there were all these other people. (emotionally) It affected me, it affects me now. It’s a... Everybody has that feeling. You don’t have to describe it to somebody who has it. I don’t want to go back there again, because I don’t want to get that feeling again. I don’t want to see my ghosts. I will, probably, but I’m not going to go out of my way. It’s tough coming here. The last time I was at Cliff Dwellers was with Dock and Margaret. People talk about Dock all the time, but Margaret was far more than half that team.
...You play the hand that’s dealt you. That’s a favorite saying of mine, “You play the cards that are dealt you.” But I think my only philosophy of life, and I try to teach it to my children—I think I’ve succeeded in teaching them—what’s to be afraid of?
Well, fear is a healthy thing, of course, when it’s protecting you from something you shouldn’t ought to do. But I think it’s a truism, I didn’t say it first, fear is something that comes from inside. It’s almost always fear of the unknown. You’re not afraid if you know what’s going to happen, in most instances. But a lot of people create too much fear for no reason, they’re afraid to do something. I don’t know whether they’re afraid to fail—sometimes I’m sure that’s the case. Or they’re afraid they’re going to get hurt, or they’re afraid they’re going to lose money or some other thing. But I think that you examine all the alternatives, try to be as accurate in predicting it, as careful in calculating what you are going to be able to do and what you’re not going to be able to do, what the consequences are, and then damn the torpedoes—Go! You know, I mean, I want to take up ultralight flying. I’m not a flier, but everybody else in my family is. I’m fascinated with this thing, and I’m reading all the books I can on it. And I think that’s another thing: If the other guy can do it, you can do it. (with emotion) It makes life much more fun. I mean, when I sold all our property and took our little baby girl and jumped in a sailboat and sailed to the Virgin Islands my mother was shocked! (chuckles) “What are you doing?! That little baby girl! Taking her out to sea!” But I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. And we’ve had a very good life in St. Thomas, it’s been very good, and a very worthwhile thing to do. Had a whole nother series of adventures, about which I’m not going to write a book.
Bill Beer’s book “We Swam the Grand Canyon” is available at McGaugh’s in Flagstaff. Highly recommended. You read it and right away you realize that even though the years may have softened it all to a rosy glow for Beer now, it wasn’t easy. They had to be tough s.o.b.s to make it. The publicity aspect worked out a lot like it had for Powell and the first Nevills trip: they were reported lost to begin with, then miraculously returned from the dead. (The NPS looks great in this book, just in how they dealt with Beer and Dagget and the media glare- very cool, level-headed, smart.)
In the end, it may be that this episode was instrumental in opening up the river... If two guys could swim the whole damn thing and live, how hard could it be to get on a big old boat with Georgie White and go through there?
Bill Beer isn’t one to overstate his case, though. He just goes and does it. He’ll be back in Arizona when this issue goes to press, but may not have time to revisit the Canyon country this trip- might be too busy flying around down south in the new ultralight he’s coming here to buy. Then he’s gotta go north to tune up his dad for another tennis match…