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The Golden Age of Guiding

All the river-running advice in the world cannot adequately prepare a person for his first encounter with truly gigantic whitewater: the ferocity of the noise and turbulence, the mosaic of whorls, the fugues of competing current that follow separate and unpredictable paths—colliding together, snapping like the tail end of a whip, or diving straight to the bottom of the river where they can scour out holes up to ninety feet deep inside the Grand Canyon. To a casual observer, the combined picture is one of total insanity, a raging mess of tangled lines, studded with rocks, and drenched with spray that flies in every direction. 

Each rapid, however, possesses an architecture of its own, and a skilled boatman is often able to scan and trace the layout as clearly as an electrician can interpret a circuit drawing—a talent that was captured best, perhaps, by Mark Twain, who was a skilled river-boat pilot long before he became a famous writer. “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi. “And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”

For Twain, a river was a series of fluid riddles that could be unlocked and solved. And this was the task to which anyone who wanted to take a wooden boat through the canyon during the 1970s would have to apply themselves if they were to have any hope of threading—consistently and safely, time after time—the chain-linked sequence of maelstroms at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The key to it all was a charismatic conservationist who assembled a tiny navy of dories captained by a squadron of miscreant adventure-seekers. 

Photo by John Blaustein (above)

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Photo by John Blaustein

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In the annals of Grand Canyon boating, Martin Litton was a unique force of nature, a tornado of ungovernable passions, soaring eloquence, and stiff-necked defiance quite unlike anything else that’s ever blown through one of the most storied locales in American adventure. Born just outside of Los Angeles in February 1917, he grew up exploring the wilderness of California, served as a glider pilot in World War II, and started taking trips down the Colorado back in the 1950s, eventually becoming the only outfitter to guide the river’s ferocious rapids exclusively in Grand Canyon dories. These double-ended, flat-bottomed craft, which he played a key role in designing, were radically different from the ponderous oar boats that Major John Wesley Powell used during the first descent of the canyon, in 1869. Beautiful, delicate, and graceful, Litton’s dories became—and remain—the sacred craft of the canyon.golden-age-of-guiding-5

Along the way, in his roles as a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times, an editor at Sunset Magazine, and a board member of the Sierra Club, Litton also elbowed into some of the most important environmental battles of his time. In 1956, he helped block two dams inside Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, and in 1967 he and others thwarted several dams on Idaho’s Snake River. Thanks to Litton’s years of public drumbeating on behalf of California redwoods, he’s sometimes called the Father of Redwood National Park, which was signed into being in 1968. In that same year, he teamed up with David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director, to launch was probably the biggest of all of these crusades: a successful campaign to kill a pair of dams that would have stilled the Colorado as it winds through the Grand Canyon.

It was during the fight to block the Grand Canyon dams that Litton became convinced that the best way, the only way, to protect the country’s remaining scenic treasures was to enable ordinary citizens—schoolteachers, janitors, housewives, hairdressers, factory workers—to see these places first-hand and to experience their wonders for themselves. In Litton’s eyes, offering river trips at rock-bottom prices for ordinary folks while simultaneously giving them away to prominent public figures like Diane Sawyer, James Taylor, Bruce Babbitt, Richard Holbrooke, and Bill Moyers were investments that might eventually reap valuable dividends if such people could be induced to step into his boats and expose themselves to what the river, the canyon, and Litton himself had to say. Only then would they be in a position to fathom the magnitude of what was at stake.

With that end in mind he launched his company, Grand Canyon Dories, in the summer of 1969.

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Photo by John Blaustein

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Litton recruited his early guides from an eclectic mix of young men in their late teens or early twenties. Several came from among the drifters, dropouts, and misfits of northern California, many of whom worked as ski instructors during the winter and lived in teepees or tents or the backs of their pickup trucks during the summer. Others were jaded hippies, betrayed by the broken promises of the counter-culture and uncertain of anything other than the knowledge that they didn’t really fit into mainstream America. Most, however, were simply confused young men who found themselves caught in that state of limbo following high school or college when they had not yet gotten a fix on the trajectory that their lives would take.

Almost all of them were convinced they did not yet have a home, a place where they truly belonged, and although not a single one knew the first thing about whitewater or could tell the difference between a gunwale and a chine, they found themselves bewitched both by the beauty of Litton’s boats and the magic of the hidden world at the bottom of the canyon. And for all of these reasons, along with the fact that they were, to a man, young and free and looking for adventure, each was willing, indeed eager, to fling himself down the river armed with little more than his toothbrush, his tennis shoes, and for the worst rapids, a hockey helmet. 

Following Litton’s lead, they began to see themselves not as part-time summer employees, but as role models and teachers. This imbued them with a sense of purpose—one might even call it a mission—about why they were there and what they were doing—a set of responsibilities that went considerably beyond the challenges of mastering a set of delicate and unforgiving boats. 

Today, Litton merits double-barreled distinction as one of the founding commercial river runners of the Colorado and one of America’s greatest living conservationists: a man who after 70 years of both reveling in and battling to preserve a treasure trove of natural wonders, has become something of a national treasure himself.

The matter of mastering the river, however, was destined to remain an unsolved problem that would make extraordinary demands on Litton and his fledgling crew throughout those early years. Grand Canyon Dories occupied a unique and at times unenviable niche within the river hierarchy—one that would put them through a miserable series of trials until they had honed their skills to the point where they eventually became some of the finest oarsmen the canyon had ever known. 

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Photo by John Blaustein

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During the heyday of Grand Canyon Dories—the years between 1969 and 1975—no one had the faintest clue how to run the complex torrent that ran through the bottom of the Grand Canyon smoothly and safely, time after time, in small wooden boats filled with commercial clients. Litton’s crew quickly realized that their boats suffered from two glaring liabilities. First, they were so delicate that even a slow brush against a rock was enough to administer nasty dings and scratches, while a direct hit at any speed was all but guaranteed to result in major damage. Second, the dories were exceptionally finicky. The slightest miscalculation would dump them upside-down.

The boats also had the potential, of course, to do things that no other craft could, which meant they could be absolutely thrilling to drive. They could only achieve that kind of performance, however, at the hands of a boatman who understood the complexities of whitewater and knew exactly how to thread the eye of the needle. And in the earlier years, not a single doryman, including Litton himself, came close to meeting those standards. As a result, most of those early dory trips resembled exploratory free-for-alls whose carnage invited comparison with the days of John Wesley Powell. “Try and imagine a group of boatmen who had no idea what the hell is around the next bend,” recalled John Blaustein, one of Litton’s very first guides, who had never touched an oar before his first trip in 1970. “Christ, it was like a war zone down there.”

During the first few seasons there were zero instructions, almost no guiding principles, and just one general rule, which was that everybody had to follow Litton, the only person in the company who had at least a vague notion of how the rapids worked. The problem with this approach, however, lay in Litton’s incorrigible habit of taking his eye off the ball—a delinquency stemming from the fact that at any given moment he was likely to be in the midst of yet another instructional lecture or anecdote rather than paying attention to the river. Thus it was not at all unusual for him to be caught completely unawares—pointing out some feature of the canyon, building to punch line of a long story, or concentrating on lighting up a cigar—while merrily drifting downstream with his back to an upcoming rapid. When one of the passengers gently inquired about the jet-engine roar emanating from around the bend just ahead, he would spring to action, ordering life jackets to be zipped up, drinks put away, hatch lids to be slammed down and battened, all the while looking for a dry space to stow his cigar. In the midst of this frenzy, he would stand up to take stock of where they were, then turn around to face the line of boats behind him and issue instructions about the name of the rapid and what needed to be done:

All right, everybody, this next rapid is called Forester, so we’re going to swing left at the tongue…

Hang on—this doesn’t look like Forester… 

Oh Jesus, it’s Waltenberg! Pull right! For God’s sake PULL RIGHT!

As each oarsman struggled to relay a facsimile of this message back to the next boat and pray he didn’t screw things up too badly, the boss braced for the onslaught. What unfolded next was often spectacular.

One afternoon at a rapid known as Bedrock, the Bright Angel was sucked beneath an immense boulder that splits the river in two, and its entire side panel was raked off. (A portion of the hull had to be rebuilt the following morning using pieces of driftwood before they were able to complete the trip.) On another occasion, the Lava Cliff smashed up against a rock in the middle of the river and submerged, forcing her guide and passengers to abandon ship. Forty-eight hours later when the river subsided, a Park Service helicopter was able to lower a river ranger onto the wreckage to attach a cable, the other end of which was run through a winch on shore in the hopes of pulling the carcass loose. As the boat swung downstream the cable parted and the dory vanished for good, never to be seen again. 

Litton’s attitude about these disasters was philosophical—perhaps because he realized that nothing that might happen on the river could really compare to the ordeal of piloting a combat glider through World War II. In the summer of 1971, Blaustein (whose nickname was “JB”) managed to ram the poor Hetch Hetchy into a yet another mid-river rock at a place called Unkar, where the river cuts along the base of a thousand-foot sandstone cliff. He struck with enough force to split the hull from oarlock to oarlock.

“It was a terrible mess,” he recalls, glumly. “I basically broke the boat in half.” Litton, however, was unphased.

“Don’t feel too awful, J.B., the dories have been damaged this badly before,” he reassured him. “Just never all at once.”

After each of these disasters, the crew was forced to pull the boats onto a sandy beach and attempt to repair the worst of the devastation using whatever materials presented themselves: duct tape, steel wool, marine putty, loose pieces of lumber that had washed ashore. When the boats were finally able to float, they’d drift down to Lake Mead, hobble back to their Utah warehouse, and rebuild the fleet for the next trip. Then they’d go out and break everything all over again 

The learning curve throughout this process was both steep and painful. Gradually, however, Litton and his crew began to unlock some of the mysteries to the river’s hydraulics. The key to it all, they eventually realized, lay in the arcane art of reading whitewater.

Photo by John Blaustein (below)

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Kevin-Fedarko-headshot

Kevin Fedarko spent 13 years as a staff writer at Time Magazine and a senior editor at Outside before turning to freelance work in 2003. Since then, his stories have taken him to northern Alaska, the Horn of Africa, and across the Himalayas from Nepal to Afghanistan. When not on assignment or rowing a baggage boat in the Grand Canyon, Kevin can be found at his home in northern New Mexico.

The Emerald MileThis story was in part excerpted from Kevin Fedarko’s ‘The Emerald Mile,’ just published by Scribner. In addition to chronicling the epic story of the fastest boat in history through the center of the Grand Canyon, the book offers a window into the hidden world subculture of wooden boats and whitewater that Litton helped to build in the heart of the most iconic landscape feature in America. Learn more about The Emerald Mile here.

 

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