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National Geographic - August 1947 - Boat Trip from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry

JFRCalifornia

Well-Known Member
It had been nearly a quarter century since National Geographic ran a feature on the Glen Canyon region, and much had changed in the world during that time. For most people, in those years there were plenty of more pressing things to worry about more than exploring the West, with the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing was happening in those canyons. A slow but subtle shift away from exploration to adventure-oriented recreation began to take hold on the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, in part because of the publicity afforded those places through the pictorial spreads in National Geographic in the early 1920s.

In the 1920s and 30s, the magazine started to fill in other pieces of the puzzle of the southwestern canyons. Besides a multi-year expedition in the 20s to document the new finds at Chaco Canyon, they chronicled the epic 1923 USGS survey of the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to a point about 50 miles north of Needles. The landmark story in the May 1924 issue described an adventure led by Claude Birdseye that rivaled the wildness of Powell’s 1869 ride, only this time documented in a contemporaneous 60-page feature with 63 photos, the widest national exposure of the Grand Canyon to date. With no dams on the river at the time, they were truly at the whims of the waves and current, and since there was no Lake Mead at the foot of the Grand Canyon, the survey really captured the scope of the wild river below Lees Ferry. And yet, much of the river north of Lees Ferry remained out of the public spotlight.

In 1940, Geographic published a color map of the southwestern states. Although its scale was broad, there’s enough detail there to see the major landmarks, mountains and rivers. In southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, it’s also notable for what is not there, and it’s not just Lake Powell. Page, Arizona does not exist. And there are hardly any roads (paved ones, anyway) at all. There is nothing resembling a modern road east of Kanab, until you reach Cortez, Colorado. From the south, the road ended at Kayenta. From the north, Highway 160 south from Moab (there was no 191 then) reached a junction at Monticello, where it was possible to take the righthand fork called Highway 47 to Blanding. And the road ended there. From the west, Highway 24 through Capitol Reef ended at Hanksville. From there, it was no-man’s land in all directions. There was no Highway 95, no connecting road to the north, since there was nothing to connect to, still decades away from a future Interstate 70. The Colorado River was truly isolated through Glen Canyon. Except for an isolated and hard to reach crossing at Hite, the last outposts of civilization were Moab and Green River, and from there you were on your own until Lees Ferry. In 1940, this was still the most isolated and unknown part of the United States.

California native Norman Nevills moved to lonely Mexican Hat with his mother in 1927, when he was just 19, in order to join his father, who recently got a job working the marginal oil fields near the San Juan River. Soon young Norm took an interest in running the San Juan out of Mexican Hat, following in his father’s footsteps: the elder Nevills had some experience on the whitewater Yukon during the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century. In 1938, Norm ran the Colorado River in what was likely the first commercial expedition, and soon went into business under his own name, with boats of his own design, mostly taking paying customers down the San Juan, but over time, he ran most of the major rivers of the West. He never capsized a boat it was said, and never lost a customer. His most famous customer was likely young Barry Goldwater in 1940, who later brought attention to himself through public slideshows of that trip, parlaying that and his father’s fame as local department store owner into a successful political career, first as Phoenix City Councilman, then as a Senator, later as a presidential candidate. The publicity from Goldwater and other celebrity customers also helped Nevills, who remained in high demand through the 1940s, while still barely in his 30s.

Unlike the previous stories in Geographic, the trip down the San Juan featured in the August 1947 issue was not a journey of exploration or survey, but simple adventure, a commercial recreation trip. Instead of 4 archaeologists and 13 mules, it was 13 people of no particular skill (except Nevills the boatman), and 4 wooden boats. Two of those were a honeymooning couple who, while passing through Mexican Hat and seeing the flotilla ready to push off, begged to come along. After some thought, Nevills let them come. He named the boat they took the Honeymoon Special

It was that kind of trip—less interested in discovery, more about showing a group of paying customers the awesome spectacle of the San Juan and Colorado River through Glen Canyon. And as a story to publicize the place, it was enormously effective, raising general awareness of the area in the late 1940s and 50s, and inspiring others to follow on their own adventures through the canyons. As one of the only commercial outfitters within a hundred miles, Norm Nevills was happy to oblige.

The boats would be oared by Nevills and a couple of other whitewater veterans, including a biology teacher from Moab and a civil engineer on leave from the War Department. The rest of the eclectic group consisted of a writer for Desert magazine, a Sierra Club member and his wife, an Army major, an Episcopal missionary, Nevills’ daughter, and of course the late addition of that honeymoon couple, who would row their own boat. And then there was Alfred Bailey, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. An ornithologist by training, Bailey would write the article for Geographic, with the help of his assistant, Fred Brandenburg.

The piece reads more like a modern travel journal than an account of a scientific expedition, because it was. But if the adventures were less exciting than in earlier accounts of discovery in the region, the subject matter made up for it. This was a classic weeklong river trip from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry, impossible to do today, covering nearly 200 miles along the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. The route was well-known at this point, and for the passengers, they could focus on fun and just enough adventure to inspire wonder, and to inspire others to see it all for themselves. The sand waves of the San Juan toppled several passengers along the way, but those mishaps felt more fun than life-threatening as the group made camp at Slick Horn Canyon on the first night, 40 miles downstream from Mexican Hat. They covered another 50 miles on the second day, passing Clay Hills Crossing and rounding the Great Bend of the San Juan before pitching camp near Piute Canyon, just before some exciting rapids.

On the third day, they passed looming Navajo Mountain, and finally joined the Colorado River, making camp on the right bank, just upstream of Hidden Passage, near the mouth of Reflection Canyon. It was a pretty spot, and afforded the group an opportunity to briefly visit some of the nearby side canyons on the river. First it was Hidden Passage with its dramatic entrance, and across the river, there was Music Temple, the great grotto where Powell and his group camped during both the 1869 and 1871 journeys. Bailey noted that it was too dark in the Temple to take photos, but even in the shadows they still found the signatures of many of the original explorers from Powell’s journeys.

Back on the river, just downstream on the left was Mystery Canyon, so called because in its slickrock cavernous entrance, etched footsteps led up a steep face of slickrock toward the entrance of the canyon high above, but ended before it was possible to reach the rest of the canyon. What laid beyond was a mystery. (Now we know this as Anasazi Canyon, and boaters can easily float above this obstacle and farther into the canyon.)

More caverns and ancient petroglyphs lined the shady recesses of the river, as they floated past and around Navajo Mountain, eventually reaching the mouth of Forbidden (now called “Forbidding”) Canyon, which led the way to Rainbow Bridge. There they would stay for two nights, which allowed them to take the 5 mile hike up the canyon, past a wooden sign pointing the way at Bridge Canyon, left years before by Ellsworth Kolb. Their impressions of Rainbow Bridge were the same version of wonder as everyone before them felt, but now the trail was well-worn, signs led the way, and the place was passing from exotic discovery into the world of recreational destination. Still not an easy place to reach, but just enough of an adventure for those willing to make it. And Norm Nevills—and now a few others—began to create an industry around that idea.

At Rainbow Bridge, Bailey captured the mixed feeling of awe, and that hope that something out there might even be better to discover. Relating a few of the comments he found at the register, some poetic, others cynical, there’s almost a sense of disappointment that they weren’t the first ones to find the place. Beyond the descriptions of canyon wrens and flycatchers, towering walls and cool canyon floors, here’s how he summed up his impressions:

“Here was one of the isolated monuments of our country, for it can be visited only by hiking from the shores of the Colorado River or by a long overland pack-train trip. It is the largest known natural bridge in the country, unless one visited by Norman Nevills in a remote wilderness proves to be larger.”

The flotilla moved on, coming ashore at Kane Creek to seek out the site of the Crossing of the Fathers about a mile farther downstream. There they found an ancient trail across the slickrock, likely the actual route of the two 18th century padres. Returning to the boats, they crossed the Arizona state line near Warm Creek, and saw a wooden sign affixed above the river attached to some overhanging rocks. Placed there by Nevills and Barry Goldwater several years before, it simply said, “Arizona Welcomes You.”

Their last night out was spent in Outlaw Cave (or Galloway Cave), less than a mile upstream from Wahweap Creek. Nate Galloway was an early river explorer who made several trips on the Colorado around the turn of the 20th century. In the morning of the 7th day, they soon passed Sentinel Rock, finding a good spring to drink from behind the stone monolith, and continued on to Lees Ferry. There, for the first time in a week, did they finally see signs of civilization—a greeting party. From there, it was a bumpy return on dirt roads back to distant Mexican Hat.

* * *​

Two years later, Norm Nevills was dead. He and his wife died in a tragic plane crash taking off out of Mexican Hat, ironically, to avoid having to drive those rough dirt roads that, besides the river, provided the only access to that remote little settlement. But his river running business lived on, now taken over by two of Nevills’ boatmen—the Rigg brothers—and Frank Wright, who renamed it “Mexican Hat Expeditions”. It was Frank Wright who famously connected with Tad Nichols and Katie Lee in the 1950s, where they made a series of iconic trips on the San Juan and through Glen Canyon, memorialized beautifully by Katie in song and on the page. Her writings and passionate activism figured prominently in the coming years, as the Bureau of Reclamation’s long-simmering plans to place a dam across the Colorado would soon turn into action…


This is a portion of the 1940 National Geographic Map of the Southwestern States showing the San Juan and Colorado River...

1940 Map.jpg


Cover Aug 1947.jpgThe Route down the San Juan 1947.jpg

The boats preparing to leave Mexican Hat on the San Juan...

Mexican Hat 1947.jpgSan Juan Sand Waves 1947 - small.jpg

Government Rapids on the San Juan, above Slick Horn Canyon...

Government Rapid - San Juan 1947.jpg

Near Slick Horn Canyon, site of the first night's camp...

Near Slick Horn Canyon San Juan 1947.jpg

The confluence of the Colorado River and the San Juan, near the third camp...

Confluence - Colorado and San Juan 1947.jpg


Near Hidden Passage.jpg


The mouth of Mystery Canyon, now better known as Anasazi Canyon, between the mouth of the San Juan and Rainbow Bridge...

Mystery Canyon 1947.jpg


Bridge Canyon 1947.jpg

Rainbow Bridge in 1947...

Rainbow Bridge 1947.jpg

Floating on the Colorado River near Kane Creek, approaching the Crossing of the Fathers...

Near Crossing of the Fathers 1947.jpgCrossing hike 1947.jpg

Near Outlaw Cave (Galloway Cave), between the mouth of Antelope Canyon and Wahweap Creek...

Near Outlaw - Galloway - Cave 1947.jpg
 
Last edited:

Bill Sampson

Well-Known Member
It had been nearly a quarter century since National Geographic ran a feature on the Glen Canyon region, and much had changed in the world during that time. For most people, in those years there were plenty of more pressing things to worry about more than exploring the West, with the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing was happening in those canyons. A slow but subtle shift away from exploration to adventure-oriented recreation began to take hold on the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, in part because of the publicity afforded those places through the pictorial spreads in National Geographic in the early 1920s.

In the 1920s and 30s, the magazine started to fill in other pieces of the puzzle of the southwestern canyons. Besides a multi-year expedition in the 20s to document the new finds at Chaco Canyon, they chronicled the epic 1923 USGS survey of the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to a point about 50 miles north of Needles. The landmark story in the May 1924 issue described an adventure led by Claude Birdseye that rivaled the wildness of Powell’s 1869 ride, only this time documented in a contemporaneous 60-page feature with 63 photos, the widest national exposure of the Grand Canyon to date. With no dams on the river at the time, they were truly at the whims of the waves and current, and since there was no Lake Mead at the foot of the Grand Canyon, the survey really captured the scope of the wild river below Lees Ferry. And yet, much of the river north of Lees Ferry remained out of the public spotlight.

In 1940, Geographic published a color map of the southwestern states. Although its scale was broad, there’s enough detail there to see the major landmarks, mountains and rivers. In southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, it’s also notable for what is not there, and it’s not just Lake Powell. Page, Arizona does not exist. And there are hardly any roads (paved ones, anyway) at all. There is nothing resembling a modern road east of Kanab, until you reach Cortez, Colorado. From the south, the road ended at Kayenta. From the north, Highway 160 south from Moab (there was no 191 then) reached a junction at Monticello, where it was possible to take the righthand fork called Highway 47 to Blanding. And the road ended there. From the west, Highway 24 through Capitol Reef ended at Hanksville. From there, it was no-man’s land in all directions. There was no Highway 95, no connecting road to the north, since there was nothing to connect to, still decades away from a future Interstate 70. The Colorado River was truly isolated through Glen Canyon. Except for an isolated and hard to reach crossing at Hite, the last outposts of civilization were Moab and Green River, and from there you were on your own until Lees Ferry. In 1940, this was still the most isolated and unknown part of the United States.

California native Norman Nevills moved to lonely Mexican Hat with his mother in 1927, when he was just 19, in order to join his father, who recently got a job working the marginal oil fields near the San Juan River. Soon young Norm took an interest in running the San Juan out of Mexican Hat, following in his father’s footsteps: the elder Nevills had some experience on the whitewater Yukon during the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century. In 1938, Norm ran the Colorado River in what was likely the first commercial expedition, and soon went into business under his own name, with boats of his own design, mostly taking paying customers down the San Juan, but over time, he ran most of the major rivers of the West. He never capsized a boat it was said, and never lost a customer. His most famous customer was likely young Barry Goldwater in 1940, who later brought attention himself through public slideshows of that trip, parlaying that and his father’s fame as local department store owner into a successful political career, first as Phoenix City Councilman, then as a Senator, later as a presidential candidate. The publicity from Goldwater and other celebrity customers also helped Nevills, who remained in high demand through the 1940s, while still barely in his 30s.

Unlike the previous stories in Geographic, the trip down the San Juan featured in the August 1947 issue was not a journey of exploration or survey, but simple adventure, a commercial recreation trip. Instead of 4 archaeologists and 13 mules, it was 13 people of no particular skill (except Nevills the boatman), and 4 wooden boats. Two of those were a honeymooning couple who, while passing through Mexican Hat and seeing the flotilla ready to push off, begged to come along. After some thought, Nevills let them come. He named the boat they took the Honeymoon Special

It was that kind of trip—less interested in discovery, more about showing a group of paying customers the awesome spectacle of the San Juan and Colorado River through Glen Canyon. And as a story to publicize the place, it was enormously effective, raising general awareness of the area in the late 1940s and 50s, and inspiring others to follow on their own adventures through the canyons. As one of the only commercial outfitters within a hundred miles, Norm Nevills was happy to oblige.

The boats would be oared by Nevills and a couple of other whitewater veterans, including a biology teacher from Moab and a civil engineer on leave from the War Department. The rest of the eclectic group consisted of a writer for Desert magazine, a Sierra Club member and his wife, an Army major, an Episcopal missionary, Nevills’ daughter, and of course the late addition of that honeymoon couple, who would row their own boat. And then there was Alfred Bailey, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. An ornithologist by training, Bailey would write the article for Geographic, with the help of his assistant, Fred Brandenburg.

The piece reads more like a modern travel journal than an account of a scientific expedition, because it was. But if the adventures were less exciting than in earlier accounts of discovery in the region, the subject matter made up for it. This was a classic weeklong river trip from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry, impossible to do today, covering nearly 200 miles along the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. The route was well-known at this point, and for the passengers, they could focus on fun and just enough adventure to inspire wonder, and to inspire others to see it all for themselves. The sand waves of the San Juan toppled several passengers along the way, but those mishaps felt more fun than life-threatening as the group made camp at Slick Horn Canyon on the first night, 40 miles downstream from Mexican Hat. They covered another 50 miles on the second day, passing Clay Hills Crossing and rounding the Great Bend of the San Juan before pitching camp near Piute Canyon, just before some exciting rapids.

On the third day, they passed looming Navajo Mountain, and finally joined the Colorado River, making camp on the right bank, just upstream of Hidden Passage, near the mouth of Reflection Canyon. It was a pretty spot, and afforded the group an opportunity to briefly visit some of the nearby side canyons on the river. First it was Hidden Passage with its dramatic entrance, and across the river, there was Music Temple, the great grotto where Powell and his group camped during both the 1869 and 1871 journeys. Bailey noted that it was too dark in the Temple to take photos, but even in the shadows they still found the signatures of many of the original explorers from Powell’s journeys.

Back on the river, just downstream on the left was Mystery Canyon, so called because in its slickrock cavernous entrance, etched footsteps led up a steep face of slickrock toward the entrance of the canyon high above, but ended before it was possible to reach the rest of the canyon. What laid beyond was a mystery. (Now we know this as Anasazi Canyon, and boaters can easily float above this obstacle and farther into the canyon.)

More caverns and ancient petroglyphs lined the shady recesses of the river, as they floated past and around Navajo Mountain, eventually reaching the mouth of Forbidden (now called “Forbidding”) Canyon, which led the way to Rainbow Bridge. There they would stay for two nights, which allowed them to take the 5 mile hike up the canyon, past a wooden sign pointing the way at Bridge Canyon, left years before by Ellsworth Kolb. Their impressions of Rainbow Bridge were the same version of wonder as everyone before them felt, but now the trail was well-worn, signs led the way, and the place was passing from exotic discovery into the world of recreational destination. Still not an easy place to reach, but just enough of an adventure for those willing to make it. And Norm Nevills—and now a few others—began to create an industry around that idea.

At Rainbow Bridge, Bailey captured the mixed feeling of awe, and that hope that something out there might even be better to discover. Relating a few of the comments he found at the register, some poetic, others cynical, there’s almost a sense of disappointment that they weren’t the first ones to find the place. Beyond the descriptions of canyon wrens and flycatchers, towering walls and cool canyon floors, here’s how he summed up his impressions:

“Here was one of the isolated monuments of our country, for it can be visited only by hiking from the shores of the Colorado River or by a long overland pack-train trip. It is the largest known natural bridge in the country, unless one visited by Norman Nevills in a remote wilderness proves to be larger.”

The flotilla moved on, coming ashore at Kane Creek to seek out the site of the Crossing of the Fathers about a mile farther downstream. There they found an ancient trail across the slickrock, likely the actual route of the two 18th century padres. Returning to the boats, they crossed the Arizona state line near Warm Creek, and saw a wooden sign affixed above the river attached to some overhanging rocks. Placed there by Nevills and Barry Goldwater several years before, it simply said, “Arizona Welcomes You.”

Their last night out was spent in Outlaw Cave (or Galloway Cave), less than a mile upstream from Wahweap Creek. Nate Galloway was an early river explorer who made several trips on the Colorado around the turn of the 20th century. In the morning of the 7th day, they soon passed Sentinel Rock, finding a good spring to drink from behind the stone monolith, and continued on to Lees Ferry. There, for the first time in a week, did they finally see signs of civilization—a greeting party. From there, it was a bumpy return on dirt roads back to distant Mexican Hat.

* * *​

Two years later, Norm Nevills was dead. He and his wife died in a tragic plane crash taking off out of Mexican Hat, ironically, to avoid having to drive those rough dirt roads that, besides the river, provided the only access to that remote little settlement. But his river running business lived on, now taken over by two of Nevills’ boatmen—the Rigg brothers—and Frank Wright, who renamed it “Mexican Hat Expeditions”. It was Frank Wright who famously connected with Tad Nichols and Katie Lee in the 1950s, where they made a series of iconic trips on the San Juan and through Glen Canyon, memorialized beautifully by Katie in song and on the page. Her writings and passionate activism figured prominently in the coming years, as the Bureau of Reclamation’s long-simmering plans to place a dam across the Colorado would soon turn into action…


This is a portion of the 1940 National Geographic Map of the Southwestern States showing the San Juan and Colorado River...

View attachment 13445


View attachment 13432View attachment 13433

The boats preparing to leave Mexican Hat on the San Juan...

View attachment 13434View attachment 13435

Government Rapids on the San Juan, above Slick Horn Canyon...

View attachment 13436

Near Slick Horn Canyon, site of the first night's camp...

View attachment 13437

The confluence of the Colorado River and the San Juan, near the third camp...

View attachment 13438


View attachment 13446


The mouth of Mystery Canyon, now better known as Anasazi Canyon, between the mouth of the San Juan and Rainbow Bridge...

View attachment 13439


View attachment 13440

Rainbow Bridge in 1947...

View attachment 13441

Floating on the Colorado River near Kane Creek, approaching the Crossing of the Fathers...

View attachment 13442View attachment 13443

Near Outlaw Cave (Galloway Cave), between the mouth of Antelope Canyon and Wahweap Creek...

View attachment 13444
This is great. Thanks.
 

thekid26

Well-Known Member
It had been nearly a quarter century since National Geographic ran a feature on the Glen Canyon region, and much had changed in the world during that time. For most people, in those years there were plenty of more pressing things to worry about more than exploring the West, with the one-two punch of the Depression and World War II. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing was happening in those canyons. A slow but subtle shift away from exploration to adventure-oriented recreation began to take hold on the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, in part because of the publicity afforded those places through the pictorial spreads in National Geographic in the early 1920s.

In the 1920s and 30s, the magazine started to fill in other pieces of the puzzle of the southwestern canyons. Besides a multi-year expedition in the 20s to document the new finds at Chaco Canyon, they chronicled the epic 1923 USGS survey of the Grand Canyon from Lees Ferry to a point about 50 miles north of Needles. The landmark story in the May 1924 issue described an adventure led by Claude Birdseye that rivaled the wildness of Powell’s 1869 ride, only this time documented in a contemporaneous 60-page feature with 63 photos, the widest national exposure of the Grand Canyon to date. With no dams on the river at the time, they were truly at the whims of the waves and current, and since there was no Lake Mead at the foot of the Grand Canyon, the survey really captured the scope of the wild river below Lees Ferry. And yet, much of the river north of Lees Ferry remained out of the public spotlight.

In 1940, Geographic published a color map of the southwestern states. Although its scale was broad, there’s enough detail there to see the major landmarks, mountains and rivers. In southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, it’s also notable for what is not there, and it’s not just Lake Powell. Page, Arizona does not exist. And there are hardly any roads (paved ones, anyway) at all. There is nothing resembling a modern road east of Kanab, until you reach Cortez, Colorado. From the south, the road ended at Kayenta. From the north, Highway 160 south from Moab (there was no 191 then) reached a junction at Monticello, where it was possible to take the righthand fork called Highway 47 to Blanding. And the road ended there. From the west, Highway 24 through Capitol Reef ended at Hanksville. From there, it was no-man’s land in all directions. There was no Highway 95, no connecting road to the north, since there was nothing to connect to, still decades away from a future Interstate 70. The Colorado River was truly isolated through Glen Canyon. Except for an isolated and hard to reach crossing at Hite, the last outposts of civilization were Moab and Green River, and from there you were on your own until Lees Ferry. In 1940, this was still the most isolated and unknown part of the United States.

California native Norman Nevills moved to lonely Mexican Hat with his mother in 1927, when he was just 19, in order to join his father, who recently got a job working the marginal oil fields near the San Juan River. Soon young Norm took an interest in running the San Juan out of Mexican Hat, following in his father’s footsteps: the elder Nevills had some experience on the whitewater Yukon during the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century. In 1938, Norm ran the Colorado River in what was likely the first commercial expedition, and soon went into business under his own name, with boats of his own design, mostly taking paying customers down the San Juan, but over time, he ran most of the major rivers of the West. He never capsized a boat it was said, and never lost a customer. His most famous customer was likely young Barry Goldwater in 1940, who later brought attention to himself through public slideshows of that trip, parlaying that and his father’s fame as local department store owner into a successful political career, first as Phoenix City Councilman, then as a Senator, later as a presidential candidate. The publicity from Goldwater and other celebrity customers also helped Nevills, who remained in high demand through the 1940s, while still barely in his 30s.

Unlike the previous stories in Geographic, the trip down the San Juan featured in the August 1947 issue was not a journey of exploration or survey, but simple adventure, a commercial recreation trip. Instead of 4 archaeologists and 13 mules, it was 13 people of no particular skill (except Nevills the boatman), and 4 wooden boats. Two of those were a honeymooning couple who, while passing through Mexican Hat and seeing the flotilla ready to push off, begged to come along. After some thought, Nevills let them come. He named the boat they took the Honeymoon Special

It was that kind of trip—less interested in discovery, more about showing a group of paying customers the awesome spectacle of the San Juan and Colorado River through Glen Canyon. And as a story to publicize the place, it was enormously effective, raising general awareness of the area in the late 1940s and 50s, and inspiring others to follow on their own adventures through the canyons. As one of the only commercial outfitters within a hundred miles, Norm Nevills was happy to oblige.

The boats would be oared by Nevills and a couple of other whitewater veterans, including a biology teacher from Moab and a civil engineer on leave from the War Department. The rest of the eclectic group consisted of a writer for Desert magazine, a Sierra Club member and his wife, an Army major, an Episcopal missionary, Nevills’ daughter, and of course the late addition of that honeymoon couple, who would row their own boat. And then there was Alfred Bailey, director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. An ornithologist by training, Bailey would write the article for Geographic, with the help of his assistant, Fred Brandenburg.

The piece reads more like a modern travel journal than an account of a scientific expedition, because it was. But if the adventures were less exciting than in earlier accounts of discovery in the region, the subject matter made up for it. This was a classic weeklong river trip from Mexican Hat to Lees Ferry, impossible to do today, covering nearly 200 miles along the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. The route was well-known at this point, and for the passengers, they could focus on fun and just enough adventure to inspire wonder, and to inspire others to see it all for themselves. The sand waves of the San Juan toppled several passengers along the way, but those mishaps felt more fun than life-threatening as the group made camp at Slick Horn Canyon on the first night, 40 miles downstream from Mexican Hat. They covered another 50 miles on the second day, passing Clay Hills Crossing and rounding the Great Bend of the San Juan before pitching camp near Piute Canyon, just before some exciting rapids.

On the third day, they passed looming Navajo Mountain, and finally joined the Colorado River, making camp on the right bank, just upstream of Hidden Passage, near the mouth of Reflection Canyon. It was a pretty spot, and afforded the group an opportunity to briefly visit some of the nearby side canyons on the river. First it was Hidden Passage with its dramatic entrance, and across the river, there was Music Temple, the great grotto where Powell and his group camped during both the 1869 and 1871 journeys. Bailey noted that it was too dark in the Temple to take photos, but even in the shadows they still found the signatures of many of the original explorers from Powell’s journeys.

Back on the river, just downstream on the left was Mystery Canyon, so called because in its slickrock cavernous entrance, etched footsteps led up a steep face of slickrock toward the entrance of the canyon high above, but ended before it was possible to reach the rest of the canyon. What laid beyond was a mystery. (Now we know this as Anasazi Canyon, and boaters can easily float above this obstacle and farther into the canyon.)

More caverns and ancient petroglyphs lined the shady recesses of the river, as they floated past and around Navajo Mountain, eventually reaching the mouth of Forbidden (now called “Forbidding”) Canyon, which led the way to Rainbow Bridge. There they would stay for two nights, which allowed them to take the 5 mile hike up the canyon, past a wooden sign pointing the way at Bridge Canyon, left years before by Ellsworth Kolb. Their impressions of Rainbow Bridge were the same version of wonder as everyone before them felt, but now the trail was well-worn, signs led the way, and the place was passing from exotic discovery into the world of recreational destination. Still not an easy place to reach, but just enough of an adventure for those willing to make it. And Norm Nevills—and now a few others—began to create an industry around that idea.

At Rainbow Bridge, Bailey captured the mixed feeling of awe, and that hope that something out there might even be better to discover. Relating a few of the comments he found at the register, some poetic, others cynical, there’s almost a sense of disappointment that they weren’t the first ones to find the place. Beyond the descriptions of canyon wrens and flycatchers, towering walls and cool canyon floors, here’s how he summed up his impressions:

“Here was one of the isolated monuments of our country, for it can be visited only by hiking from the shores of the Colorado River or by a long overland pack-train trip. It is the largest known natural bridge in the country, unless one visited by Norman Nevills in a remote wilderness proves to be larger.”

The flotilla moved on, coming ashore at Kane Creek to seek out the site of the Crossing of the Fathers about a mile farther downstream. There they found an ancient trail across the slickrock, likely the actual route of the two 18th century padres. Returning to the boats, they crossed the Arizona state line near Warm Creek, and saw a wooden sign affixed above the river attached to some overhanging rocks. Placed there by Nevills and Barry Goldwater several years before, it simply said, “Arizona Welcomes You.”

Their last night out was spent in Outlaw Cave (or Galloway Cave), less than a mile upstream from Wahweap Creek. Nate Galloway was an early river explorer who made several trips on the Colorado around the turn of the 20th century. In the morning of the 7th day, they soon passed Sentinel Rock, finding a good spring to drink from behind the stone monolith, and continued on to Lees Ferry. There, for the first time in a week, did they finally see signs of civilization—a greeting party. From there, it was a bumpy return on dirt roads back to distant Mexican Hat.

* * *​

Two years later, Norm Nevills was dead. He and his wife died in a tragic plane crash taking off out of Mexican Hat, ironically, to avoid having to drive those rough dirt roads that, besides the river, provided the only access to that remote little settlement. But his river running business lived on, now taken over by two of Nevills’ boatmen—the Rigg brothers—and Frank Wright, who renamed it “Mexican Hat Expeditions”. It was Frank Wright who famously connected with Tad Nichols and Katie Lee in the 1950s, where they made a series of iconic trips on the San Juan and through Glen Canyon, memorialized beautifully by Katie in song and on the page. Her writings and passionate activism figured prominently in the coming years, as the Bureau of Reclamation’s long-simmering plans to place a dam across the Colorado would soon turn into action…


This is a portion of the 1940 National Geographic Map of the Southwestern States showing the San Juan and Colorado River...

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The boats preparing to leave Mexican Hat on the San Juan...

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Government Rapids on the San Juan, above Slick Horn Canyon...

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Near Slick Horn Canyon, site of the first night's camp...

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The confluence of the Colorado River and the San Juan, near the third camp...

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The mouth of Mystery Canyon, now better known as Anasazi Canyon, between the mouth of the San Juan and Rainbow Bridge...

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Rainbow Bridge in 1947...

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Floating on the Colorado River near Kane Creek, approaching the Crossing of the Fathers...

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Near Outlaw Cave (Galloway Cave), between the mouth of Antelope Canyon and Wahweap Creek...

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amazing read and fantastic pictures, i look forward to your next post.
 

Boatingtopgun

Well-Known Member
Thanks JR. Anything about Powell is interesting reading for me. While my children were growing up, this was their second home.
 
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