Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route: Exploring the Green and Colorado Rivers is a new guidebook that combines a condensed retelling of the dramatic 1869 Powell expedition with color photos and trip information for the entire 1000-mile river route. In this interview, author and photographer Mike Bezemek tells us about creating the book and rafting the route.
When did you first learn about John Wesley Powell?
I was a raft guide in California during my early twenties, and Powell was a big deal in that crowd. Essentially, he led the first whitewater expedition. I tried to read Powell’s 1875 book at age 20, but it was pretty dense stuff. I sort of skimmed around the book and lost interest. In my defense, it does start with a hundred pages of dense topographic description.
Years later, I’d moved a few thousand miles away and I mostly kayaked in the Ozarks and Southeast. I’d practically forgot about Powell, but then one day I won a private permit for a winter Grand Canyon launch. I suggested to my friends that we do the trip as a fresh eyes descent, meaning no one in our group has ever seen the canyon before.
I made an offhand comment it would be our own exploratory personal first descent, sort of like Powell’s trip. Then I remembered I’d never finished Powell’s book, and I realized I was relying on other people’s descriptions of the 1869 expedition. This launched me on a multi-year project during which I read every book and account of the expedition that I could find and explored every segment of the 1000-mile route.
How did the river trips go?
That was the best part! Over five years ago, I began running the many sections, often multiple times. Some trips were a week-long, others were over three weeks at a time. I also paddled several 1-day trips, which allowed for opportunities to get a feel for the access along the route.
We started out the first trip in kayaks, but soon I began rowing a raft on the longer sections to carry enough gear. Food, books, beer—just the basics. Oh, and it was also nice to carry some hiking shoes and a day pack for exploring as many side canyons and hikes as possible. Eventually, I brought a paddleboard and later a pack-raft, just to have those different paddling experiences in various places. For anyone interested, I put together some articles about the river trips on my website.
Can you mention a little about the route and your book?
Sure, the route starts in Green River, Wyoming where Powell launched in 1869 with a crew of nine mountain men and former Civil War soldiers. From there the Green River winds south. There’s lake paddling on Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Class II whitewater in Red Canyon. Easy floating in Browns Park. Class III whitewater in Dinosaur National Monument. A hundred miles of floating through the Uinta Basin. Class II-III in Desolation Canyon.
Some of the best class I paddling I’ve ever seen is in Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. Inside Canyonlands National Park the Green joins the Colorado River and continues through class IV Cataract Canyon. Then there’s almost 200 miles across Lake Powell. And the big hurrah is, of course, the trip of a lifetime through Marble and Grand Canyons.
After exiting at the Grand Wash Cliffs, the route ends about fifty miles across Lake Mead, in an unmarked spot in the middle of an empty bay, below which is the now-flooded confluence of the Virgin River and the Colorado.
Each of those segments can be paddled, with some being world famous and others little known or mostly forgotten. My book covers planning info for every paddling opportunity, with information about guided trips and outfitters, for all the rivers sections and reservoirs. I also discuss the lesser-paddled upper Green River and lower Colorado. There are color landscape photos from the route, and there’s a condensed multi-chapter retelling of the 1869 Powell expedition which is interwoven throughout the book. That way, you can learn the dramatic story while exploring the route for yourself. There’s an excerpt on my blog.
How did being a former raft guide help you in your project?
This was critical. After I left California, I mostly kayaked and rarely got in a raft for about eight years, other than occasional runs in a 12-foot paddle-catamaran raft So, I didn’t fully realize how much I had forgot about running Western rivers and rowing big gear rafts. I bought a 14-foot raft and re-learned to row on different types of runs, including the Gauley, the Ocoee, the Arkansas, the Saint Francis at flood stage in the Ozarks, and even the mighty Mississippi through the bedrock section at the Chain of Rocks near St. Louis.
Luckily, I had the memories from the guide days still in my head. Like riding a bike, things did come back. But there were still a lot of hard knock reminders about boat angles and oar technique and strength conditioning. We’re lucky that none of us flipped during the practices or on the actual Powell route. But pretty much everything else happened, including accidentally surfing holes and cramping arms and beaching boats and so forth. I did a story about all the mishaps for Rafting Magazine.
Any suggestions for people considering a guided trip on the Powell route?
More than anything just go on a trip! And if you go on one, chances are you’ll want to do another. Obviously, the Grand Canyon is the overall best trip along the Powell route. But the other 800 miles have a ton of great trips, as well. Some are shorter, some longer, some are easy flatwater, and others are whitewater. Really, they’re all trips of a lifetime.
A guided trip is a great way to introduce yourself to the Powell route. While I was out exploring the route, we made friends with a lot of guides and guests on the guided trips. We teamed up for safety during a highwater Cataract trip, ended up camping and boating together the final two days. I’ve bumped into Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) rafting expeditions several times and we floated alongside briefly, hiked together, or camped adjacent. One time we even joined forces for a big final night party at mile 220 with a moonlight sing-along.
Oh, and bring hand cream. Lots and lots of hand cream. You’ll understand once you’re out there!