Bluewater Voyage in the Little Colorado River!
from Desert Magazine August 1956
By Kittridge Wing with Lester Womack
EXHAUSTED, We dropped upon the sandbar in the bottom of the Little Colorado River Canyon and gazed up at the 2600 feet of beetling cliffs down which we had just lowered ourselves. Nearby was one of the packs we had carried down--a folded rubber boat. With it we hoped to effect the first navigation of the Little Colorado River.
Boat trips down many of America's white-water rivers have become commonplace. Anyone can buy a ticket on a ride down the Ausable or the Snake, and some of the thrill has gone from the rapids of the Green and the Salmon, so routine has their navigation become. But, happily there still remains a few frontiers for the river-runners, streams which because of their violence or inaccessibility have not felt the bite of paddle or oar. Such a course is the Little Colorado of Arizona which has run defiantly on through the centuries, unprofaned and seldom visited by man--for good and sumcient reasons.
The word "river" is a misnomer for this extraordinary- drainage system. Through most of the year there is not enough water in the Little Colorado to fill a canteen let alone float a boat. But when cloudbursts strike the Painted Desert a surging, tearing, redbrown flood boils down the canyon and the channel is transformed from a ribbon of sand into a torrent of destruction. In April and May of some years there is a more gentle, continuous flow from the melting snows of the White Mountains.
While explorers and surveyors have been conquering the rapids of western rivers for more than three-quarters of a century, it remained for two venturesome young men in April, 1955, to navigate for the first time the turquoise water which flows from Blue Springs in the chasm of the Little Colorado below Cameron, Arizona. Here is the story of a difficult and hazardous expedition.
The Little Colorado is one of the most
forbidding canyons in the West. For the last 53 miles of its length the river is a great
jagged gash in the Arizona plateau, reaching an ultimate depth of 3457 feet below its rim
as it enters Grand Canyon. At many points along this winding gorge, one can throw a rock
into the stream-bed a half-mile below, so sheer are the walls! Because of its cutting
prowess, the river has achieved complete privacy in its last miles. Even the Navajo
families who herd sheep in this vicinity stay well
back from the canyon edge, in superstitious fear of the dark chasm. Ar in the depths, the river flows in mystery, inhabited by the beaver and the otter and occasionally by a wild duck or egret.
In the early part of the 19th Century,
Captain Sitgreaves of the Topographical Engineer Corps, received
orders from Washington to "pursue the Little Colorado to its junction with the Colorado . . . and pursue the
Colorado to its junction with the Gulf of California." With nothing more to go on, Captain Sitgreaves set out from the Zuni pueblo in New Mexico. When he reached the Little Colorado he followed it down stream for some miles, possibly to the vicinity of what is now Cameron, Arizona, and then abandoned the project as being too hazardous. This opinion has prevailed to this day.
Here then was a stream to challenge the river-man, a sinuous questiori-mark of a river laid across the map of Northem Arizona. It was to accept this challenge that we were on that sandbar one April afternoon last year.
The obvious beginning for a boatride down the lower Little Colorado is at Cameron, where the only highway bridge in a hundred miles crosses the canyon. Here the cliffs are low and the stream-bed accessible -- but we found almost no water in the river at this point. So we were forced to travel west from Cameron along the rim to where we knew navigable water existed.
At Blue Springs subterranean streams
contribute over 200 cubic feet a second to the main channel. Water
would be no problem here, but descending the 2600-foot canyon wall was another matter.
My fellow explorer, Les Womack, knew
the location of an old Indian route that snaked down the cliffs to
the canyon floor at the Springs. As far as we knew this was the only route down the south rim of the canyon. The year before, Les had worked his way down to the bottom with the use of ropes and believed he could find his way down again. With that much to go on, we laid our plans.
The boat? Obviously it must fold
into a back-pack, and must weigh as little as possible. We settled on a
Navy.:four-man inflatable raft. Food? Again weight was critical; we took as little as we dared, but enough to support us for a week. Bedding? We decided to suffer the cold rather than burden ourselves with heavy bedrolls. Incidentals? Cameras and film, a snake-bite kit and a coil of climbing rope. And, most important of all, water to drink. Blue Springs emits sulphurous water, of a lovely turquoise color but unfit to drink! So ours became possibly the first river expedition in history to carry all its drinking water to the river--five gallons--40 pounds of it and as it turned out we needed every drop.
This map drawn by Norton Allen shows the locale of the tragic air accident on June 30 when a United Air Lines DC-7 ant a TWA Super Constellation collided in mid-air bringing death to 128 passengers and crew members. The DC-7 wreckage was found near the southern end of Chuar Butte and the TWA plane struck a mile south at the base of Temple Butte.
At last we completed the accumulation of gear and food, and we drove to the canyon edge above Blue Springs, 20 miles from the pavement over a rough wagon road. At sunset we looked down the darkening chasm and took our first photographs, wondering privately if the negatives would ever survive to reach the developing tanks. It is a wide mysterious world out there on the Little Colorado rim, and a full moon and night breeze only emphasized the loneliness. We heard not even a coyote all night long.
Morning broke clear and we busied ourselves with the packs. Always at the start of one of these trips comes a procedure of selecting and rejecting supplies. Les and I debated and packed, reconsidered and unpacked, for an hour. The load on which we finally agreed weighed about 200 pounds, obviously too much to carry in one trip. This we had expected for our boat and water supply alone weighed 100 pounds.
With half the load in our bulging rucksacks and the other half in the car, we headed down over the rim at 8 :10 with only a pair of soaring ravens watching us.
This day and the next were days of hard work, hardly pleasant to look back upon, but satisfying. The route down the canyon wall to Blue Springs is the cruelest track a rubber boat ever descended. The first thousand feet called for cliff-scrambling and rope work; the next thousand was through a tangle of monoliths and boulders in a steep ravine. We took almost all the first day to get to the bottom because we lost the route many times on the upper cliffs and had to do much reconnoitering and backtracking. If the Indians ever had a trail here its markings have long since eroded away.
We had a mishap on the first day which nearly ended our expedition before it began. Only 10 minutes after starting, our 120-foot coil of five-eighths inch Manila climbing rope escaped from hand while being passed down over a ledge, and took a running jump out into space, rolling and bounding out of sight under the overhang far below! Les looked at me and said "We've had it." I mournfully agreed.
We inched our way down to look and hung our chins over a little 50 foot cliff, a sandstone stratum which apparently ran sheer and overhanging out of sight both to right and left. Below it was a short talus slope where our coil of rope must have come to rest. Up the cliff behind us a narrow chimney cut through a shoulder of rock that obstructed our view to that side. Les boosted me up into the chimney and from there I climbed down over the shoulder and down the ledge on a precipitous but well-formed natural ladder. I put my feet and hands to the steps of rock as had the Indian discoverers of this route centuries before me, and was soon down to the slope below. Nearby was the pesky coil of rope. Here we learned an important lesson: never carry a tightly bound coil of rope. Keep it in large loose coils that will catch and hold if dropped. This coil came to rest 400 feet below its jumping off place--and only because the binder twine had broken and the rope uncoiled. We had the line hung over a rappelling pin by 9:30, and let down all of our load to the foot of the drop by 11:00. The rest of the descent was without hazard.
Next day, after a night's sleep in the canyon bottom, we made a round trip to the rim and back, bringing down the boat, paddles and final supplies. The awkward package the folded boat made gave us many uncomfortable moments on the cliffside. Much of the time we could not wear the boat on our backs, but had to pass it from hand to hand down the rocks. The combination of anxiety and heavy loads had us into near exhaustion by the time we returned to the river-edge, but after a rest on the beach and a wash in the cool water, we had energy enough to inflate the boat and go for a trial spin on the calm pool of Blue Springs.
Once on the murky water, we felt a mighty elation, but our delight was tempered by the rock-strewn, wave tumbled river below the pool. What would we find around the bend? We had little real information about the river. In many places it cannot be seen from the rims and its channel has never been surveyed or mapped in this area. Would we find waterfalls which the boat could not run and which we could not portage around? The Indian hearsay and legend which we had heard indicated that this would be the case--we could only hope that these tales were superstition. The famous explorer Major Powell faced the same Indian warnings when he embarked on the unknown Colorado in 1869, yet he got through. Surely this little tributary of the Colorado could not stop us now--or could it? Too tired to speculate or worry for long, we cooked supper over a driftwood fire and turned in.
Our two evenings in camp at Blue Springs were delightful. We camped on a flat of cool sand, ringed on the high sides by a polished blue limestone cliff and decorated on the river side by a stand of pale green tamarisk. The gush of spring water and the squeak of bats filled our ears all night long. On the second night, with a moon directly above and the canyon walls towering dizzily in the pale half-light I was awakened by the rustle of a paper bag. Raising my head to look, I stared full into the dark eyes of a big ringtail cat who was investigating our provisions. After a long exchange of gazes, he backed away a few steps, turned, and was gone like the perfect creature of the night that he is.
On the long-anticipated morning of Tuesday, April 24, we began the actual boat ride. Behind us was the hard work, ahead the pleasure of the river and the stimulation of the unknown. We packed and lashed our gear in the boat with great care, using plastic waterproof bags for cameras, film and food which must not get wet. We paddled around the pool for an hour, trimming ship and getting accustomed to the handling of our rubber doughnut and finally, at 10:30, we turned the prow north and west into the first rapid.
Almost immediately we were delighted with the performance of the craft. It became a living part of the current, adjusting its very shape to the contours of the rapids and squeezing through narrow rock passages with ease. In the beginning we were very nervous about bumping or scraping the hull, but we soon learned that the rubber is tougher than elephant hide and will stand the most outrageous punishment.
At the last and largest of the Blue Springs outlets, a half mile below the Upper pool, we stopped for a swim. There here issues from a cavern five or six feet below river level, making a clear, inviting pool of ever circulating 69-degree F. water. We took more pictures, the sun illuminating the contrast of clean blue spring water entering the main current of red silt.
At noon we reluctantly embarked, knowing we had to make many miles before dark. We traversed the Redwall gorge on this first day. Here the cliffs of limestone grew ever higher above our heads as we descended. In places there were undercuts three and four hundred feet high, shutting from view all of the upper walls of the canyon rising to the rim three thousand feet above. Even at midday there is a cool quiet shadow under some of these overhangs which swallows circle for food, their sharp calls echoing from the cliff. We stopped at one such place for lunch.
That afternoon our boat-work, which had been entirely comfortable all morning, began to offer a problem. We came by degrees into a stretch of river where the current was intersected by little barrier dams of lime and moss over which only two or three inches of water ran in a long riffle. Such impediments forced us to unload the boat and either drag or lift it across the riffle--only to find another such obstacle a quarter of a mile downstream. By the time we quit for the day we had crossed a dozen such dams, each one larger than the last. We estimated the waterfalls over several of these to be seven or eight feet in vertical height --not exactly navigable water!
We camped that night under a prodigious overhang of the Redwall, built a huge fire to dry our gear, and went to sleep wondering how many dams and waterfalls would challenge us the next day.
Happily, the second day on the river went much better in point of mileage made. We were off to an early start and by 10 a.m. were through the worst of the dams and into a somewhat broader, more easily run river. At noon we came to the midpoint of our passage, the junction with Salt Trail Canyon coming in from the north. Here we examined the banks for some evidence of the old Indian trail to the historic salt mine up canyon. But we found no sign of human passage, indicating that the occasional floods 50 and 60 feet above normal river level had wiped out the ancient trails.
Along the shores were many trails of other inhabitants, however. The tracks of deer, coyote, beaver, otter and ringtail were everywhere. We looked for the prints of mountain sheep, but found none. Kingfishers were common, pointing to the presence of fish invisible in the clouded water. Occasionally a silvery minnow jumped clear of the surface and we also found a catfish head on a rock in midstream probably abandoned there by an otter. A solitary and very nervous merganser rose several times ahead of us as we drifted down to him.
By midafternoon we sighted Cape Solitude, the mighty promontory under which the two Colorados flow together. To our distress, the sun was screened behind a brassy overcast, discouraging the taking of pictures in this place never before photographed. Hurrying now, we plunged through the last two miles of continuous rapids and arrived at the great portal where the rivers join at 5 p.m.
We accomplished what we had set out to do--the first navigation of the lower Little Colorado. We passed from the mysterious cleft of the Little Colorado into the historic confines of the Grand Canyon, whose rapids are being traversed each year by increasing numbers of boat parties. Our pathfinding cruise down the tributary was behind us--now we were into the world's most dangerous river, in one of the smallest boats ever to venture on the stream in these parts. If we were in any mood of self-congratulation over the feat just accomplished, it was dissipated by the ominous rolling power of the Colorado. We had to travel 10 miles down this torrent to a trail back up the canyon walls to the rim and civilization.
We portaged the first rapid. It was a noisy and awe-inspiring monster compared to the riffles of the tributary we had just left. Then down the great channel and eddy below the rapid we paddled with much care and some trepidation--the grease-colored boils and whirlpools of the current commanded as much respect as a whitewater rapid to our unaccustomed eyes. Our little boat seemed small indeed and our paddles puny against the force of the flood. It was growing dark and cold and the clouds gathering in the trees on the North Rim were threatening rain. After portaging one more rapid, we made camp in a sheltering ledge. There we ate a sumptuous supper-- a canned ham which we had been saving for a celebration banquet.
It rained most of the night, in the trifling, grudging way of inner-canyon rains, but we slept dry under the ledge. In the morning the storm broke away and we could see sparkling new snow under the firs on Cape Royal, a vertical mile above camp. As we started downstream on our final leg, we remarked how much smaller and less terrifying the river had become since the evening before--so much will good food, sleep and a bright morning do for a man's courage!
Although we portaged one more rapid and lined the boat through two others, we decided that we could have run all of the fast water of this stretch if we had wanted to be entirely sporting. But we were carrying a wealth of irreplaceable film and discretion, not valor, was our watchword. Nonetheless, we did have many a lively ride down long slopes of swift water, with the savage crests of the rapid's tongue roaring loud a few feet to one side or the other. We found that the shallow draft and maneuverability of the little boat were real advantages in sneaking past the edges of the worst rapids. Frequently we made use of tiny rivulets between the rocks of a side channel, leaving the heavy current to snarl in frustration out in midstream. In a matter of five hours' running we made eight miles down river--and wished we could have gone another 80, so pleasant were the sky and clouds and breeze and river.
We rounded a last bend and recognized the beach at the foot of Tanner Trail, where we were to leave the river and climb to Desert View in Grand Canyon National Park. It was 3: 30 pm when we hauled the boat from the water for the last time and squeezed out the cargo of air.
Next day we struggled up the 15 miles of Tanner Trail with our burdens of boat and supplies, staggered over the rim at sunset and found a flat tire on the car which had been left for us at trailhead!
Thus in the humiliation of changing a tire our expedition came to an end. But we had conquered the Little Colorado. We had solved the mystery of its deepest canyon and had brought back a photographic record of its previously unphotographed walls and waterfalls. Our report of the trip to the National Park Service has shed light on a formerly unexplored corner of the Canyon Country.
The Bureau of Reclamation proposes
someday to develop the water resources of the Little Colorado Canyon, so that eventually
there may be a gigantic dam across our lonely chasm, and a lake may invade our pleasant
campsite at Blue Springs. We sincerely hope this never comes to pass for the canyon of the
Little Colorado is second to none in spectacular beauty, and we feel it should be
incorporated into the protective custody of the National Park Service along with its big
brother, the Grand Canyon. Here is a section of our vanishing frontier that should be
preserved in its entirety--a wild, rugged, wilderness area to remain free from
commercialization for all time.