Powell’s canyon trip still amazes - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Powell’s canyon trip still amazes

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Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2005 5:39 am | Updated: 7:35 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA - Illinois geology professor John Wesley Powell heard stories of bizarre landscapes in the uncharted regions of the West in the 1860s.

His curiosity and sense of adventure led to one of the most daring exploits in American history.

Powell was a noted explorer who had rowed the entire lengths of the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, sometimes by himself, before he ever ventured into presentday Arizona.

The New York native had served in the Union army and lost his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh. He recovered, rejoined the war and rose to the rank of major before the conflict ended.

Afterward, he worked as a professor and museum curator at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill.

He traveled and lectured often. At some point, he heard preposterous accounts from prospectors and trappers about a red river and a miledeep gorge. Powell decided to lead an expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers to verify or debunk the claims.

He and nine crewmen launched the first of two expeditions in present-day Utah in 1869. They traveled 1,000 miles in wooden boats he designed. They passed through Glen Canyon, the Grand Canyon and other geographic wonders.

"Think about this — he didn’t know what was around the next corner," said Paul Nelson, a guide for Wilderness River Adventures, which provides raft trips that retrace portions of Powell’s route.

"He named everything. He named Glen Canyon. He named a lot of the rock strata. He named a lot of the rock formations," Nelson said while floating between 1,000-foottall sandstone cliffs last week.

A month into Powell’s first expedition, a man abandoned the trip, saying he had endured enough adventure for a lifetime. Two months later, three other men, afraid of the roiling river, climbed out of the canyon only to be killed by Shivwits Indians.

Powell discovered Indians had visited the region long before his crew or other American pioneers ventured into the gorges.

Glen Canyon’s walls are dotted with pictographs — symbols ancient people pecked into rock thousands of years ago.

One rock panel at a spot called Picto Beach shows antelopes and hunters, perhaps indicating that hunting in the area was good. Another design appears to be four stairs, which might have helped direct people to a nearby trail out of the canyon.

After completing the expeditions, Powell proposed damming the Colorado to control and collect water to accommodate future settlements — perhaps even cities — across the desert.

Eventually, his idea caught on. Glen Canyon Dam, just south of the Arizona-Utah state line, was dedicated in 1966. It created Lake Powell.

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