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Kate Kelly Headshot

Exploring the Grand Canyon: Only the Brave and Hardy

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More than 5 million visitors come to see the Grand Canyon each year, most of them during the summer months when families have time to travel. This year, as people look out over the canyon expanse, hike the trails, or ride in a helicopter to survey the amazing topography, they might be interested in the fact that while the first European to see the canyon was a Spaniard who came north from Mexico in the early 1500s, no white man succeeded in exploring the area for another 350 years. Finally in 1869, 140 years ago this summer, a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), led the first full exploration of the area.

The only way to navigate the canyon then was via the rivers. Powell obtained four boats and selected nine men, and the group set out from the Green River area in Wyoming in late May of 1869. The Green River (then known as the Grand River) offered immediate challenges, with swiftly moving rapids that led to the river's juncture with the Colorado River. From there they ventured into the canyons of Utah.

Anyone who has ever ridden river rapids -- or seen film clips of others doing so -- knows that this trip would not have been easy. In a particularly fast-moving area, the men sometimes tied the boats to a line and walked along the shore holding on to the vessels as best they could. Occasionally they would take the boats out of the water to carry them and all the supplies to a calmer place on the river. Turning back was rarely an option, and often, the only way to continue on was to ride the rapids.

One month into the trip, one fellow left, noting to Powell that even in that short time he had had "enough adventure to last a man a lifetime." Two months later, three more men quit and tried to hike out of the canyon, but they were killed by Native Americans. At the end of the summer, Powell and the remaining crew emerged at the mouth of the Virgin River (now under Lake Mead) and were met by settlers who were fishing along the riverbank. Everyone was shocked. There had been no word at all from them for three months, and all who knew of the trip presumed the men were dead.

Though the group accomplished the original goal, Powell was not satisfied. He had confirmed his theory that the canyon was created by fast-moving waters cutting through the land, but Powell knew that they had worked so hard to navigate that they had not adequately documented what they saw. He started accepting paid lecture engagements, and by 1871-1872 Powell could finance another trip to take photographs and to create an accurate map and documentation of what he saw along the way. In 1895 Lake Powell, a huge reservoir formed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, was named for him.

This year's tourists, particularly those who hike or travel a section of the rapids, might tip their hats to Powell and explorers like him. The terms, "brave" and "hardy" barely do these men justice.