One day in a recent June, four of us took off on a drive of more than a thousand miles—from the village of Palm Desert in southern California to the town of Green River in eastern Utah. Our purpose was to join Georgie White for her forthcoming rapids shoot down Cataract Canyon.
This is an article from the June 23, 1958 issue
There are two Cataract canyons in the Southwest, and they are as different from each other as two places could be. The one in Arizona is a tiny enclave hidden away in a hard-to-reach part of the vast Grand Canyon. A couple of hundred Havasupai Indians dwell there in idyllic content, weaving a few baskets, growing a little fruit, now and then slaying a deer and tanning its hide to buckskin, and from time to time yawning or gently scratching themselves. No doubt you have heard the song, From the Land of the Sky-blue Water, that the late Charles Wakefield Cadman wrote to salute their bliss. By the corniest kind of coincidence, the car we were riding in belonged to Al Cadman, a nephew of Charles Wakefield, and Al was driving it.
The other Cataract Canyon, in Utah, is just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. None of the four of us had ever been there, but we had all read or heard that this Cataract was anything but idyllic, its waters far from sky-blue. Boatmen were said to rate it one of the toughest stretches in the whole Colorado system. This Cataract was supposed to contain ferocious white water all the way, and it was the one we were heading for.
Half a dozen or so of the rapids Georgie White takes you into on her three-week, 300-mile run down the Colorado from Lee's Ferry through the Grand Canyon are certainly ferocious. Their shooting, however, doesn't last more than a few minutes for each, and between these occasional ferocities there is plenty of calm water for her passengers to recover in. But one of our quartet had been told by somebody that, in contrast to the Grand, Cataract Canyon embraced a supergigantic nightmare of a rapid that stretched 41 miles virtually nonstop.
This report of a 41-mile-long rapid was a sample of the manner in which men often encourage one another while traveling to white water that is unknown to them. I contributed to our panel a heartening statistic I had recently encountered. Between 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell's expedition first traversed Cataract, and 1927, when Clyde Eddy's party of 11 college boys, a hobo, a mongrel dog and a cub bear made it (but only by the skin of their collective backsides), the canyon's raging torrents had killed about 30% of all those who had ventured to fight their boats through them.
Greg Hitchcock, who manages office buildings in Pasadena, Calif. and is a crack photographer of outdoor subjects on the side, and Al Cad-man and I had been on the Grand Canyon run with Georgie in past summers. Our quartet's other, and senior, member was Randall Henderson, the publisher and editor of an excellent monthly, the Desert Magazine, which is well known on the Coast. For almost half a century he has lived in and explored desert areas throughout the Southwest and down into Mexico, and his command of desert lore is exhaustive. Although 70 years old, Randall is still an expert cliff scaler and summit reacher. He also knows his way around in white water. Ten or so years ago he made the Grand Canyon run with the late Norman Nevills. But Randall had never before been on one of Georgie's trips.
We were traveling northeast, and when we got to the Colorado we stopped to find out the score at Art Green's Marble Canyon Lodge, which is seven miles from Lee's Ferry, where the rivermen start their Grand Canyon runs. Art told us that the river was at 150,000 second-feet. (In hydrography, a second-foot is the flow past a given point of a cubic foot of water in one second.) It was the highest the Colorado at this given point and season had been in years. Greg Hitchcock and I checked with each other. When we had pulled out of Lee's Ferry on my first Grand Canyon run with Georgie, the river had been at about 15,000 feet. There was 10 times as much water in the Colorado here now as there had been then.
Well, that, I told myself, was the end of the 41-mile-long rapid. The Colorado would no doubt be as high in its upper reaches, and water as high as this buried the rocks so deep that it washed rapids out. Right now down at Lee's Ferry they were tuning up motorboats to make the Grand Canyon run, and they would run it at full throttle. So, running Cataract Canyon would be different from running it under normal conditions. We'd probably tear along at a great rate and maybe almost level with the tops of the cliffs. It might be good fun, and at least it would be unusual. After taking a few beers against the heat of the day, we drove off, heading for Green River, 225 miles upstream. Then Greg and Al and I started to fill Randall in on all we knew about Georgie, because he was going to do a story on her for Desert. I will try to summarize the fill-in in my own words.
Georgie White, a middle-aged Los Angeles housewife married to a retired truck driver, is the only female professional boatman on the Colorado River. Among specialists in comparative fluminology, the Colorado, because of its raffish and unstable behavior, is regarded as the most dangerous river in the world. Therefore, running boats down it can scarcely be classified as a ladylike pursuit. But Georgie runs her boats, and, though she was not gently nurtured when young, she is a lady in the true sense of the word—full of fine instincts, warmhearted, generous and brave.
She was born in the slums of Chicago and lived in them until she was about 16. Almost the only happy memory Georgie has of her childhood is swimming in Lake Michigan, particularly during storms. Whenever it thundered good and loud and she could sneak off, she would hurry to the lake and throw herself in its waves.
At the age of 14 she went to work as a cigaret girl in a speakeasy owned by several hoodlums of moderate prominence. There was a house rule that the cigaret girl had to take her tips in snorts of the joint's whisky—which, of course, helped increase its sale. Out of regard for Georgie's tender years, however, the management humanely amended the rule to permit her to take her tips in half-snorts. One day, after she had been working there a year or so, Georgie noticed an old crone rummaging around the joint and inquired who she was. The crone had once been the joint's cigaret girl and taken her tips in whisky; her current age was actually 25. Georgie quit her job in horror. (Though a strict vegetarian, the adult Georgie does enjoy an occasional snort, providing it is of reliable goods. She doesn't give a hoot what anybody else eats, but shuns meat herself—not in the conviction that it is nutritionally harmful, but because it entails the killing of animals. She won't eat fish for the same reason.) Soon after leaving her job, she married Harold, a good-looking assistant elephant tender who was in Chicago with Ringling Brothers. He had fallen in love with her while patronizing the speakeasy after evening performances.
Georgie hated the circus. "It owned you," she says in recollection. "I made up my mind nothing was ever gonna own me." And she hated New York, where her husband had taken her after the circus closed for the winter. (With no more elephants to tend, the versatile Harold had landed a job tending bar.) Georgie found the metropolis overcrowded and unfriendly; everything desirable was forbiddingly expensive. The one exception was Central Park, and she went for a long ramble in it almost every day.
One afternoon on the park's bridle path she saw a group of men in sweat suits, sprinting up and down on bicycles with low-slung handle bars. They were professional cyclists working out for the Six-day Bike Race about to open in Madison Square Garden. All her life Georgie has had a gift for making friends with strangers, and the racers took an immediate shine to her. When they learned that she didn't know how to ride a bike, several of them at various intervals knocked off their workout to help her with her introductory lesson. Walking back to her hall bedroom, Georgie had one of her inspirations. She would learn to ride and so would Harold (he, too, had had an underprivileged childhood); then they would somehow get a couple of bikes and travel on them to California. There, she had heard, it was roomy and friendly and prices were reasonable.
When Georgie sets her heart on something, she always achieves her aspiration, especially if the aspiration seems to others unfeasible or even outrageous. She and Harold took a few riding lessons together; then, on a pair of old racing bikes that the kindly six-day pros gave them, they pedaled—in winter—all the way to the Coast. The young couple settled in Los Angeles, where Georgie gave birth to a daughter.
Harold grew to hate Los Angeles as much as she had hated New York, and eventually they were divorced. Later Georgie married Jim White, who was short and husky and 15 years older than her and drove long-haul trucks all over the Southwest. He had been born and raised in the Dakota Badlands and during World War I had served in Hoboken, N.J. as a horsebreaker for the Army remount service. Whitey was crazy about the baby and loved Georgie, and they still love each other. She had named the baby Sommona Rose. "A French name," Georgie once told me.
Georgie's passion for the Colorado and its tributaries was engendered in the summer of 1944. At a suburban bicycle club she attended a lantern-slide lecture by Harry Aleson, a veteran outdoorsman from Richfield, Utah. His subject was the desert and slick rock country of the so-called Four Corners, where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet at their edges. Aleson's pictures and talk carried her away, and after the lecture she questioned him at length. A few days later, Georgie and Aleson and a young prof from Los Angeles City College set off for a two-week hike through the bizarre, rugged terrain Aleson had described.
Her abrupt departure with two male strangers was all right with her husband; Whitey's only reaction was to hope that a change of surroundings might do her good. For Georgie had just been through a terrible tragedy. She and Sommona, who had reached 15 and was the light of Georgie's life ("We done so many wonderful things together"), were biking along a highway when they were struck by a hit-and-run driver. Sommona died in the ambulance. The cops soon caught the driver, who was a young sailor, AWOL and falling-down drunk, and they wanted to throw the book at him. When Georgie saw the wretched sailor the next day, she refused to sign the complaint. "Revenge don't get you nowheres," she told the baffled cops, and was unshakable in her decision. But afterwards she nearly went out of her mind.
Georgie's hike with the two men not only did her good, it started her life on a new and lasting course, for during it she discovered the Colorado. In the next two summers she and Aleson investigated the river farther by swimming stretches of it, through rapids, whirlpools and the side currents that flowed upstream. They would have preferred boating down the stretches, but that was hopelessly beyond their means. The rivermen charged fancy prices for trips in their specially designed, custom-built cataract boats; in those days Norm Nevills was getting $1,000 a passenger for his Grand Canyon run.
After the war, however, the Navy's unsinkable 10-man life rafts of inflated neoprene, the synthetic, rubberlike plastic, became available in the surplus stores. Aleson bought one and started experimenting on the Colorado. He took a trial trip with it through the Grand in 1949 as a hanger-on to a wooden-boat expedition led by veteran rivermen. Then he and Georgie independently made canyon runs with passengers in two 10-mans in 1951 and 1952. By 1953, Georgie felt that she had acquired enough knowledge of the Colorado and skill in combating it to put on a Grand Canyon run of her own.
When the news of her aspiration came out, there was a great squawking along the river. It was outrageous for a woman even to think of such a thing; it would lead only to a horrible mass disaster; the National Park Service ought to forbid it, etc. Having watched her for nine straight summers from a ringside seat, Aleson, if anybody, should have had faith in Georgie's flair for taking on and throwing the forces of nature, but he squawked the loudest of all. His devotion to her was appalled by the possibility of her ruin or death. Georgie was flattered by his concern and didn't argue; but her heart was set, and that July she left Lee's Ferry, commanding a trio of 10-mans. Three weeks later her first Grand Canyon run was over, and when they debarked at Temple Bar in Lake Mead, each of her eight passengers was alive and well.
From then on, Georgie expanded her operations year by year until they became, for Colorado River travel, practically mass-production. She now makes three Grand Canyon runs every summer. Before that, though, starting in early spring, she has already been in Utah and led five or six week-long trips through the gentle Glen Canyon (there's always lots of furious rock-climbing and spelunking and chasing up arroyos on these), as well as at least one down the San Juan, which flows into the Colorado from the east. In August, after her third trip through the Grand, she goes to Idaho to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon and the River of No Return; finally, in Oregon, she does Hell's Canyon of the Snake, tributary to the mighty Columbia.
Each of these trips is nearly always stuffed to the gunwales with passengers, and from the large volume of her turnover you might think that Georgie would make considerable money. But because of the comparatively low prices she charges (undercutting those of her competitors by from one-half to three-quarters), she and Whitey do little more than break even. I once poked into the economics of her way of life. "It's a paid hobby," she said.
Like the rest of us, Georgie would not mind in the least being rich, but she can't ever have set her heart on attaining that status. Her predominating drive, I'm convinced, is to take groups of people—the larger the better—to where she can share with them her love of the rivers for their beauties and excitements, and to hell with the bookkeeping. Every year she gives free passage on several trips to kids she knows whose parents can't afford even her modest rates.
At Green River, Utah, where the run was to commence, we four found Georgie, Fred Eiseman, the rowing boss, the rest of the passengers and, as expected, no water shortage. Georgie took Fred and me to look at the river, and it was really bulging. After spending the night at Robber's Roost Hotel (named in honor of a hideout in the region once used by Butch Cassidy's band of mostly Mormon boys, known as the Wild Bunch), we all went down to the boats next morning to start the trip.
As usual, Georgie was to lead the way, in the Big Boat, an invention of her own, which must have come to her originally in a dream. It consists of three Navy neoprene bridge pontoons, lashed side by side and driven by an 18-hp Johnson Sea-Horse outboard motor (but Georgie has it housed inboard). Each pontoon is 30 feet long and contains, tightly fitted within its perimeter, an immense blown-up "sausage." (This Big Boat was new—larger and heavier motored than the one mentioned in the previous installment.) I doubt if Georgie herself knows the Big Boat's gross displacement—one of the passengers estimated it at 39 tons—but whatever it is, in the realm of sport boating on the Colorado the Big Boat verges on the phantasmagorical.
As I watched the Big Boat leave, I had a feeling that this trip was going to be a good one. Because of the high water, it would be different from anything I had ever experienced; there weren't too many passengers (and I already knew several and liked them); but, best of all, Fred Eiseman was along.
Fred is 31 years old and chairman of the science department at the John Burroughs School, a St. Louis coeducational, country day establishment, which his parents helped to found. He holds master's degrees from both Wisconsin and Columbia Teachers College, and I forget whether the number of science textbooks he has written is eight or nine. During the war, while scarcely past the age of legal infancy, he served more than four years in the Navy, won a commission, and as an officer did sea duty in the North Atlantic. When Fred was aged about 12 or 13 (just before he joined the Navy, presumably), his parents took him on a summer trip through the Southwest, and he fell in love with it forever. Excepting the time out for his war service, he hasn't missed a summer there since, and has got to know its remote sections and the people who live in them forwards and backwards.
I admire Fred for many reasons but most, I think, for his relationship with the Hopi Indians. Fred's approach to the Indian problem is at once idealistic, effective and original. To a Hopi (of whom there are fewer than 5,000, living in their dozen villages on three mesas in northeastern Arizona) religion is a daily, life-filling engrossment, not the once-a-week matter it is to so many people; and the Hopis buttress this religion of theirs with a cycle of ceremonials that goes on all year round. Elaborately costumed ceremonial dances are the cycle's traditional and most important manifestations. To a devout Hopi, their importance is comparable to that of the institution of Mass in the Roman Catholic church.
But the performance of these ceremonials requires not only spiritual but physical equipment. Turtle shells, for instance. Strapped behind the right knee of every properly dressed male Hopi ceremonial dancer is a rattle made of turtle shell, about 7 inches long, within which hangs a clapper of deer or sheep hoofs. When the wearer walks or dances, the rattle makes a clonking sound. The Hopi ceremonial cycle is, principally, a supplication for fertility, by far the greatest need in their land of scorching sun and little moisture. In the Christian Communion service, bread and wine symbolize Christ's body and blood. In terms of Hopi imitative magic, the turtle shell implies water, and the rattling of the clapper implies thunder, which accompanies rain, the producer of fertility.
The better Fred got to know the Hopis the more he esteemed them for their peaceful, temperate, benevolent outlook, their fortitude in wresting a living from their cruel earth, and their dauntless perseverance in their religious observances. When he asked his Hopi friends what he could do to help them preserve their ancient ceremonies, the almost unanimous demand through the villages was for turtle shells. The sun had exterminated nearly all the turtles from the surrounding desert. Preparing for a ceremonial, one village would have to borrow shells from another, or from several. The shells of old broken rattles were being spliced together with wire.
That following summer, when the pickup in which Fred roams the Southwest reached the Hopi reservation, it carried two barrels of turtle shells. He had bought them from the North Carolina biological supply house his school's science department dealt with. When Fred showed the shells to the Hopis they at once asked him how much he wanted for them, and when he told them that they were presents they could not at first believe it. No white man had ever done anything like this before. All the old Hopis could remember the time, not so long ago (beginning about 1910 and lasting through most of the 1920s), when Hopis had been put in jail for merely dancing a ceremonial. The United States Government by statute had forbidden all Indians to take part in "non-Christian religious activities"—in utter disregard of the Constitution's freedom-of-worship guarantee.
Every summer since, Fred has brought more barrels of shells for the leg rattles. The Hopis call him Yongyóshana Bahàna: Turtle White Man. He also provides them with quantities of other raw materials for their liturgical paraphernalia, including feathers, foxtails and ferric oxide to paint their faces red.
Fred is very modest about this imaginative goodheartedness of his; indeed, he seldom mentions his Hopi activities to white people (unless they are trusted friends), perhaps in the fear of being considered not quite sane or, at best, an oddball. If the Hopis consider him odd, it is only in the sense that he is virtually unique among all the white men they ever met. They have taken him into their kivas, those semisubterranean chambers forbidden the uninitiate, to see rituals that white men these days are never permitted to see; they have given specially prepared ceremonial dances (with new songs and steps) in his honor; and he can never appear in any of the 12 Hopi villages without at once being invited to at least six different dinners that same evening. Not wishing to hurt feelings, he generally compromises by eating all six, one after the other.
We had a delightful 2½-day glide down the Green in Fred's boat. The river was much higher than usual and its current strong but its surface was placid. Greg Hitchcock was riding in the Big Boat as he always does, and Randall Henderson rode in it the first two days in line of research; but Al Cadman was in the Three Boat with Fred, and so were some more nice people. The other oarsman was Dick Smith, a young electronics engineer from West Covina, Calif., who is 6 feet 7½ inches tall. Two very pleasant lady passengers, Dorothy Wullich, a crack skier from San Diego, and Marian Jones, who was studying law in San Francisco, stayed with us subsequently down all of Cataract's 41 miles, which, by the way, turned out to be merely the canyon's length, not the size of any rapid in it.
A little past noon of the third day our glide and the Green ended simultaneously, because in from the left rolled that damned Colorado and took things over. It didn't swing on us immediately, but it was obviously in a sullen mood and spoiling for a fight, and pretty soon it started one. Compared to what came later, it wasn't much of a fight—more like a hoodlum's knocking a stranger's hat off and stamping on it, sort of a deliberate spit at our collective ego. We had rounded a bend and found ourselves by a clump of largish willows that should have been standing sedately on the left bank, but there wasn't any left bank now, only a large stretch of loose river washing over what had recently been dry land. Suddenly we were having fast waves bowled at us, real wallopers. They filled the lashed-together 10-man almost at once, making it impossible for Fred and Dick to effect any evasive action. The only thing to do was hold on with all your might and sweat the rapid out. But that brief tussle with the waves by the willows was an omen of what lay in store.
The Big Boat also had trouble at that willowed stretch; the pitching it took hurled overboard from the side pontoons a number of the rubber chests containing personal duffel and all of the heavy packs of canned food and motor fuel. Fortunately, the chests and packs had been secured to the pontoon with nylon cord and could be reeled in afterwards. There was worse trouble farther downstream when Georgie tried to land for lunch. An old client of hers, Frank Rich, a commercial artist and hot amateur horticulturist from Culver City, Nev., and Bill Lonk, an agreeable and strictly law-abiding citizen of Cicero, Ill., jumped ashore with the mooring ropes. Then a back eddy suddenly caught the Big Boat and spun it violently, tearing the rope out of Bill's hands and tangling Frank in his rope, dragging him into the water and under all three pontoons. Luckily Frank is a good swimmer, and somebody on the Big Boat grabbed him when he came up. Though Georgie gunned her motor wide-open, she couldn't get back to shore to rescue poor Bill, who had to clamber half a mile over the shore boulders until he got to a place where the water was calm enough for Georgie to pick him up.
Georgie had run Cataract Canyon before and she thought she knew it, but the exceptionally high water made this a different Cataract, a stranger to her. Back at the Robber's Roost before we took off, she had told me that Cataract was famous for its big rocks, and it was great sport doing broken-field running through them. Well, Cataract may be absolutely lousy with rocks, but I can't remember seeing a single one sticking above the surface. I remember nothing but waves and waves. They were gathered in conventions, and these conventions seemed to stretch from cliff wall to cliff wall, the biggest waves heaped up in the middle, and the smaller ones curling in from the sides to join them, gathering force on the way. And the conventions got larger and tougher to deal with as the run went on.
At midmorning on the fourth day, we were between high, wide-apart cliffs that embraced a large expanse of water in which there were very strong back currents. The immediate problem was to get into the main current in the river's center; but every time Fred and Dick would row the Three Boat almost to it, a side eddy would grab us and muscle us toward the wall of the east cliff. It must have taken a half dozen oar-bending passes before the main current was finally attained. We were at once swept around a bend and confronted by the biggest and most enthusiastically attended wave convention we had seen so far. We hung for a moment on the current's crest, then went into the waves with a great crash. Quite an adagio ensued. While the port unit of the Three Boat would be pitched clear of the water, the starboard unit would be completely submerged, with only the top of Al Cadman's lion-tamer sun helmet visible. I had a good seat to observe from, for I was in the stern of the center unit, which, of course, took its turn in this seesaw routine, while the ropes straining in the lashing rings gave off horrible groaning noises. We were in the midst of our terrific up-and-down jouncing when I heard Dorothy Wullich, who was sitting immediately to my left in Fred's boat, say "Oh!" in a way that made me shift my popeyed gaze from some gigantic wallopers rolling toward us from my right. Marian Jones had gone overboard. She was clutching a rope in the bow of Fred's boat and she looked very miserable. She was wearing glasses, and her eyes were closed.
It was a long rapid, and we were not halfway through it; the wind was from down canyon, so we were moving against it like brimming bathtubs, and the waves were doing a Valkyries' ride. Fred rose, picked his way across the duffel chests, the canned goods packs, the boat gear, reached the bow, pulled Marian in, made her comfortable, then returned to his oar, smiling as though it were all a minor and slightly embarrassing mishap that had overtaken a small child in public. When we finally were out of the rapid and found a landing place far down the river, he built a fire to dry us out, then rummaged in his bedroll and brought out a bottle of whisky to give us heart. What a man to travel with! That afternoon during another wave convention, he broke an oar and shot overboard himself. There is an old Colorado River man's adage: "When an oar breaks, there's only two kinds left—the quick and the dead." But before I could recall it and start worrying, Fred had pulled himself back into the boat, grabbed a fresh oar and resumed rowing with an apologetic grin.
But the next day, our last in white water, Fred really topped himself. As though it knew that this day was our last, that damned Colorado assembled not just another convention of waves but what seemed like a world congress of them, and with a sure sense of melodrama it waited until Dark Canyon, the last bad rapid in Cataract, to bring them out. That morning Tord Ringdahl, a jovial Swedish engineer from San Francisco, who carried a multicolored Belgian umbrella with a seat like a shooting stick's on the handle, had decided to shift from the Big Boat in search of sport. He placed himself in the stern of Fred's unit, and sport was what he got.
The sport was at its merriest when I noticed that the waves were pitching the starboard unit higher and higher with each belt. A colossal walloper had submerged all three units, and we had just started to come up; then one that must have been left over from the Old Testament flood hit the starboard unit, raised it perpendicular to the water and held it there a moment before finishing the job by pancaking it right on top of the center unit I was in. The spillage included three male bodies (don't forget that Dick Smith is 6 feet 7½ inches tall) and all the hard goods, such as bailing buckets and boat hooks, and the rubber chests, dangling from their nylon cords. It was dark in there, inside that neoprene sandwich, and as I sat bent over double because there was a body on top of me I thought that this time we'd had it for sure. We weren't nearly out of the rapid, and our motor power now consisted solely of one oar and Ringdahl's umbrella, unless the two girls could paddle with their hands. I was scared green, but suddenly and idiotically I remembered a phrase from the Grand Canyon section of one of Georgie's prospectuses. "Comparatively dangerous," it had said, and I burst out laughing. Then it got light. Fred had dropped his oar, picked the starboard unit up and hurled it back to its normal position on the center unit's other side. The upper layer of that sandwich weighed 350 pounds, not counting the heavy chests lashed to it.
On the way back to California in the car, Al and Randall and Greg and I agreed that it was a good thing Fred B. Eiseman Jr. hadn't neglected his weight lifting at the Burroughs School last winter. My operatives have since informed me that on her ensuing Grand Canyon runs last summer, Georgie told everybody: "I never saw worsen that Cataract. The average can't imagine."
DIRTY DEVIL RIVER
SAN RAFAEL RIVER
Lined up in rain at Robber's Roost, Sayre (right) and friends have their picture taken before the start of momentous journey.
A happy trio is snapped in camp at Dirty Devil's entry into the Colorado. From left: Al Cad-man, Dorothy Wullich and the author.
A snack ashore is enjoyed around a warming fire. Such feasts were familiar to Georgie's passengers as "Cataract Smorgasbord."
Drying out, Marian Jones smiles in borrowed duds after her rescue from a sensational Cataract rapid by Boatman Fred Eiseman.