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John Wesley Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River

On July 15, they passed the mouth of the San Rafael River, which came down from the distant mountains in the west. Late in the afternoon of the 16th, they reached the junction of the Green and Grand Rivers. George Bradley said they—

... had been running all day through higher walls, mostly vertical, but the river was smooth though in some places more rapid than for two days.

The canyon looked dark and threatening but at last without warning, no valley or even opening unusual, it broke the Grand with a calm strong tide very different from what it has been represented . . . The river Colorado formed by the junction of these two is as we can see it calm and wide and very much unlike the impossible unpassable succession of foaming and raging waterfalls and cataracts which have been attributed to it.

Arriving at a campsite.

The following day they over hauled their rations and found the flour in bad condition. After sifting it all through mosquito netting to take out the lumps, they had only about 600 pounds left.

July 18—The day is spent in obtaining the time and spreading our rations, which we find are badly injured. The flour has been wet and dried so many times that it is all musty and full of hard lumps. We make a sieve of mosquito netting and run our flour through it, losing more than 200 pounds by the process. Our losses, by the wrecking of the "No Name" and by various mishaps since, together with the amount thrown away today, leave us little more than two months' supplies, and to make them last thus long we must be fortunate to lose no more.

Ancient cliff house.

On the morning of July 21, the party started down the Colorado River.

The river is rough and bad rapids in close succession are found. Two very hard portages are made during the forenoon. After dinner, in running a rapid, the "Emma Dean" is swamped and we are thrown into the river; we cling to the boat, and in the first quiet water below she is righted and bailed out; but three oars are lost in this mishap. The larger boats land above the dangerous place, and we make a portage, which occupies all afternoon. We camp at night on the rocks on the left bank, and can scarcely find room to lie down.

July 23—On starting, we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed. . . . Early in the afternoon we arrive at the head of more rapids and falls, but wearied with past work, we determine to rest, so go into camp.

The men discussed the probabilities of successfully navigating the river below and concluded that:

. . . there are great descents yet to be made, but if they are distributed in rapids and short falls as they have been before, we shall be able to overcome them; but maybe we shall come to a fall in these canyons which we cannot pass, where the walls rise from the water's edge, so that we cannot land and where the water is so swift that we cannot return. Such places have been found except that the falls were not so great but that we could run them with safety. How will it be in the future?

Trying to keep the boats in single file, they rowed on, cautiously feeling the way. Their voices were drowned by the sound of the river as the water broke over 50-foot-high blocks of limestone. The boats became almost unsteerable as they shot down rapids and fell precariously over falls. Sometimes, caught in whirlpools, the boats spun endlessly.

As they continued, the river became even more swift and winding; the canyon walls narrowed and towered more than 2,000 feet above them, casting dark shadows over the water course. The men made their way with extreme care, hugging the left wall of the canyon and examining the gorge before them. It was with great relief that they finally emerged into open and quiet waters after traveling 41 miles through what was later called Cataract Canyon.

On July 28, they entered a long, straight canyon (later called Narrow Canyon) where the stream ran between low red cliffs. After a short distance, they came upon the mouth of a stream, entering from the right, that was not shown on any of their maps. As the water was muddy and had an unpleasant odor, they immediately named it the Dirty Devil River. On the left wall, opposite the mouth of the river, they discovered the ruins of an old building. After examining the cliffs. they climbed up to the eroded walls of the building and found arrowheads, broken pottery, and primitive etchings on the face of the cliff. Farther down the river, the party discovered a similar group of buildings; Powell surmised that Indians living in the area had fled to these cliffs and canyons for safety when attacked by nomadic tribes.

Marble Canyon.

The explorers reached the mouth of the San Juan River on July 31, and on August 3 they arrived at "El Vado de los Padres" (the Crossing of the Fathers). It was here that the Fathers Garces (credited with naming the river the "Colorado") and Escalante, Spanish priests and explorers of the West, crossed the river in 1776.

The journey continued through a canyon where the river, in its meanderings, had undermined the vertical walls. There were mazes of side canyons and gorges and huge potholes in the rocks. On the canyon walls and back many miles into the country, the explorers saw monument-shaped buttes, carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcoves, gulches, and mounds. They named it Monument Canyon, though later the name was changed to Glen Canyon.

The walls of the canyon they entered on August 5 were the limestone and hard sandstones they had learned to fear in Cataract Canyon. They traveled cautiously in water that boiled between sharp rocks and over limestone ledges. As they proceeded, the canyon walls rose higher and higher. In places, the river occupied the entire channel; the cliffs rose vertically from the water's edge and there was no place to land. The walls were of colored marble—white, gray, pink, and purple.

August 9 . . . Scenery on grand scale. Marble walls polished by the waves. Walls 2,500 feet high. 3 portages before dinner. This afternoon I had a walk of a mile on a marble pavement, polished smooth in many places, in others embossed in a thousand fantastic patterns. Highly colored marble. Sun shining through cleft in the wall and the marble sending back the light in iridescence. At noon a cleft of canyon on left, quite narrow with a succession of pools one above another, going back and connected by a little stream of clear water. Pot holes filled with clear water. Banded marble at noon, 20 ft. out of the water. After dinner we found a spring gushing from an orifice in the marble, as silvery foam glad to see the light released from prison. A bank of brilliant verdure (ferns chiefly) on the talus below.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006