In the Southwest, river runners and river rats have the same great, great grandfather.
Our patriarch is the one-armed Maj. John Wesley Powell, who launched four wooden boats in May 1869 down the Green and Colorado rivers. As a river runner, I want to travel where Maj. Powell went. Now, in historic detail, there is a new map that shows me his route and rendezvous with destiny in the Grand Canyon.
That epic trip, during which a boat would be smashed at Disaster Falls and three men would hike out at Separation Canyon never to be seen again, helped define American courage and bravado in the 19th century with a daring expedition that lesser mortals would have thought impossible. It revolutionized geoscience as the leading minds of the day tried to understand “deep time” and the age of the Earth. Christian theology, based on the “begats” in the Bible’s Old Testament, assumed Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago.
Named John Wesley Powell after John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in America, Powell looked at ancient rocks on canyon cliffs and knew that everything he had been taught was wrong. His river trip would begin new branches of science. He named creeks and drainages on the Colorado Plateau, including the Escalante River, which Father Escalante never saw; the Henry Mountains, the last named mountains in the Lower 48; Bright Angel Creek in Grand Canyon; and its colorful antithesis, the Dirty Devil River.
HHHIn 2019, Powell’s fateful journey will have its 150th anniversary. Many events are planned, and local Mancos mapmaker Frank Lister has published his own colorful commemoration. Powell’s trip was immortalized in his book, “Exploration of the Colorado River of the West,” and in his place names, but now it is time to memorialize the trip itself. Lister has done just that with a new map full of vibrant illustrations, and a careful chronicling of each and every Powell campsite.
“With the sesquicentennial next year, it seems like the right thing to do,” Lister told me. Now, river runners like myself, who want to paddle, row and float most miles that Powell traversed, will have our own map to do just that. But, I’ll skip the flat water, thank you.
I won’t bother trying to paddle across Flaming Gorge reservoir or Lake Powell, dubbed by some environmentalists Lake Foul. I’ve been through the Canyons of Lodore many times and even suffered our own tragic loss at Disaster Falls, but we’ve always taken out at Echo Park or Split Mountain. I want to row through Desolation-Gray canyons and test my mettle in Cataract Canyon. I’ve been down through the Grand Canyon three times in rafts, but each campsite is different. Each trip has a unique flavor, and I’d love to go again and again.
Lister’s Time Traveler Map, titled “John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Colorado River Exploring Expedition, an illustrated map and adventure anthology,” whets my appetite. Lister makes me want to stuff my dry bag, find my flotation device, put a paddle in the water and go.
HHHLister has managed to condense nearly 1,000 miles and 100 days of river travel into one large, foldable map that shows campsites from Expedition Island at Green River, Wyoming, to Powell’s take-out at the confluence of the Virgin and Colorado rivers near the mud flats of Lake Mead. Imagine the vast Colorado Plateau before there were dams, farms, freeways and hundreds of diversion ditches pumping the river dry.
Lister spent months working with a team of scholars, river runners, writers, cartographers and designers with original oil paintings by Glen Hopkinson and detailed information on Powell’s boats.
“This is far more than just a map,” river runner and writer Christa Sadler says. “It’s got something for everyone. In addition to a wonderful annotated map of Powell’s journey through the region, an excellent text gives the reader important background on Powell’s purpose, crew, boats and gear.”
Research included time at the Powell Museum in Page, Arizona, and the Powell Museum in Green River, Utah. Lister attended the rowdy, raucous Grand Canyon River Guides annual meeting for comments and quips from guides.
He says with humility, “This has been a huge educational thing for me. I’ve learned a lot,” including trying to sort out what happened in 1869 and Powell’s subsequent 1871 well-financed trip, which he conflated into one book forever confusing scholars and river runners alike.
I asked Lister what he thought the major would think of this Time Traveler Map. He laughed and said, “I think Powell would like this. It’s a book on a single sheet of paper.”
With admiration, Lister added, “The guy had such vision. He was self-taught and the first to understand the Colorado Plateau’s geologic uplifting and downcutting. All the civilians on the trip failed. Military veterans survived the ordeal. Powell was obsessed with science.”
HHHIndeed, Powell understood water in the West better than anyone else in the 19th century, and better than most scholars in the 20th century. Certainly better than politicians. Powell would have changed our political boundaries. Instead of a square-shaped Colorado with our oddly drawn county boundary lines cutting across canyons and mountain ranges, Powell wanted political districts to encapsulate watersheds. He wanted local administration of water so that citizens and neighbors could control their own fates.
Powell would have been aghast at our trans-montane water diversions where Denver and other Front Range cities siphon off Western Slope water and giant federal reservoirs hold, but also evaporate, our most precious resource. He learned the aridity of the West firsthand, and his fated journey taught him much. Wallace Stegner’s biography of Powell, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” is my favorite, but there’s also Donald Worster’s “A River Running West,” and I like Edward Dolnick’s “Down the Great Unknown.”
New books for the 150th anniversary include “River Master” by Cecil Kuhne, “The Powell Expedition” by Don Lago and “The Promise of the Grand Canyon” by John F. Ross. For 2019, there will be displays at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River, Wyoming; the John Wesley Powell History Museum in Green River, Utah; the Moab Information Center; and the National Geographic Visitor Center/Imax Theatre at the Grand Canyon.
But there’s only one new map.
HHH“So beautifully written. Simple, concise, packed full of interesting details of Powell’s life from boyhood to scientist to adventurer,” says Loie Belknap Davis of Westwater Press, which produces river guides and maps. “What a perfect way to capture the John Wesley Powell story in a fresh way – to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the journey into the great unknown, 1869-2019.”
Time Traveler Maps has a winner on its hands. Lister has produced maps of the Colorado Plateau and its borderlands, satellite images of the Four Corners, guides to the Santa Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona, maps of Navajo Country and the Hillerman Indian Country Map & Guide, but the new Powell map is a stunning, timely tribute.
“This is not a river guide. This is to haul around in your dry box and take out and study at night – on all sections of the journey,” Lister says. He’s right. Time to pack my river gear.
Hopefully, we’ll get epic snows for epic flows next year. It will be a season to honor the patriarch. The dangers he faced will be adventures for us. Powell mapped the canyons and named the Plateau Province. We can only follow and row in his memory.
Andrew Gulliford is a historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at [email protected].