I‘ve heard that when a commercial trip launches in the Grand Canyon, guides recite the hallmark statement from John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition: “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not.”

Powell penned these words in his journal at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, where the silty sage-colored water for which one river was named gave way to the chalky red namesake of the other. Subsequent events would prove Powell right. Though many Indigenous tribes have long called the canyonlands home—many even regarding them as their holy sites of creation—Powell’s trip was the first recorded by Western settlers. In the heat of the desert in August, he and his crew of nine men faced near starvation and other questions of survival, and just three days before completing his journey Powell lost three men to discord, all of whom left the river to hike out and were never seen again.

At that confluence of complementary colors, Powell couldn’t have predicted the perils before him, and although hopeful for some level of acclaim, he also didn’t know the legacy that would follow him home. He didn’t know his expedition would become the catalyst for the Four Great Surveys of the West, nor the creation of the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Ethnology. He didn’t know his discoveries would have him pleading for the progress-hungry delegates of Washington D.C. to heed the aridity of the West, and he didn’t know they’d ignore him. And he certainly didn’t know that nearly 150 years after his own harrowing journey, five 18-foot oar frames carrying my female-skewing group of 20- and 30-somethings wearing Hawaiian shirts and glitter would complete the 226-mile stretch of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, crushing the same waves that crushed him, all while singing “Dixieland Delight” (the Alabama version)
on repeat.

As we pushed off at Lees Ferry on March 24, 2024, I didn’t say Powell’s words aloud. To me, they seemed to have soured in the post-Powell world where maps, social media and river flow charts overshadow any sense of mystery. What falls there are, we knew, and in fact had a list of recommendations for the best to take photos of. What rocks beset the channel, we knew, courtesy of a $30 river map with detailed beta on each rapid. What walls ride over the river, we knew, thanks to a color-coded stratigraphic column and a newly graduated master of hydrogeology in our midst. What was left for us and the other 29,000 river runners who travel the canyon annually to “know not?”

But of course anyone who’s spent enough time on rivers knows that water has the power to not only erode the outer landscape but also our inner one, and the true mystery is in what it reveals within ourselves.

Christian Newby rows an 18-foot oar frame raft through the Grand Canyon in March 2024. PHOTO BY COLIN HISLOP

I didn’t consider the color of the water until our second day on it. At Mile 112 Camp, I studied the green ripples and tasted the full-bodied grittiness of the word Colorado in my mouth. This Spanish name, better suited for the once-free flowing red river it was originally named for, tasted different spilling from my lips and into this version of the river, the emerald ribbon that maybe should be called something else entirely.

Out of respect for the Colorado of today though, the one that flipped one of our boats and pumped adrenaline through many a swimmer, I should make clear that this river is not tamed. But it is bridled. When the Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1966, choked this once uproarious red river, the Colorado became a wild horse with a bit between its teeth and reins around its neck, yielding to the tug that tells it when to sprint forward and when to rear back. And while even a saddled horse has a mind of its own, this bronco is forever changed from its free-roaming days.

The water flowing by Mile 112 Camp moved steadily but not swiftly; there was no sense of urgency. Using my imagination, I tried to fill the riverbed with another image, one of opaque rust-colored water bucking over sandstone ledges and boulders, eager to reach its destination, unflinching in its demonstration of omnipotent power over the landscape. The Colorado once gushed into the Sea of Cortez, 1,450 miles from its Rocky Mountain headwaters, but the 15 times dammed and many-times diverted river now rarely reaches this destination. In 1920, a stream gauge near Yuma, Arizona clocked the river flow at 129,000 cubic feet per second. After the filling of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, the river’s spike was a mere quarter of that.

Powell’s 1869 expedition was intended for science, a means by which to study geology, geography and water as a resource, though the conditions of the canyon quickly refocused the goal to survival. But even with his barometers, maps and other instruments in pieces, Powell gleaned perhaps the most critical hypothesis from his immersion in desert country—there’s not enough water. At least, not enough to match the expansive vision of a then-ballooning United States. In 1862, just seven years before Powell’s trip, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, granting 160 acres of public land—read: stolen Native land—to settlers looking to claim their piece of the West. When Powell emerged, he pleaded with Congress: This 160-acres thing, it’s not going to work, he told them. Historian John Ross chronicles Powell’s experience in his book The Promise of the Grand Canyon.

Butler’s group prepares dinner at Upper Ledges, a small rock ledge camp at river mile 159. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

“In the canyon that experience was an epiphany of sorts in a visceral way,” Ross said in a 2019 Arizona Public Radio interview. “It began to evolve into an idea about [how] humans should intersect and interact with the land, and with its resources, with water … He was not an environmentalist in John Muir framework, but in a very important way he was laying out the groundwork to think about how we intersect with our land sustainably.”

Ross suggests Powell was one of the first people (I would further qualify as one of the first white settlers) to start thinking about how the conditions of the land, climate and geology should shape the way we use it, not the other way around. But Powell was mournfully ahead of his time, and his previously written-off warnings now haunt us as prophecy.

In late 2022, the bony skeletons of rapidly dropping lakes Powell and Mead rattled in national headlines. Stories about the plight called the Colorado “crisis-plagued,” and described the river as if it were a cancer patient on the brink of becoming terminal. The river system is shared by Mexico, 30 Native tribes, as well as Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. More than a century and a half after Powell made his case to mind the arid West, nearly 40 million Americans rely on the Colorado as a water source, as do 5.5 million acres of farmland. The dams at Powell and Mead provide power for millions. In a typical year, 1.9 trillion gallons of water are consumed in the Colorado River Basin.

A decades-old agreement between the seven states in the Colorado River system appropriates water to each state in quantities now being analyzed as more than what exists within the system. In an unprecedented action, the U.S. Department of the Interior asked the states to update their agreement in January of 2023 or face cuts by the federal government. Amid heated debate, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada agreed in May 2023 to take less water, but as historic drought and other manifestations of climate change loom large, the water system’s fate still hangs in the balance.

“If Congress had listened to what Powell said,” Ross said in his NPR interview, “if we had kept water more in watersheds and developed appropriately, I think we would be a saner, saner world.”

It’s amazing how this perilous reality of scarcity eludes you on the river. A mile beneath the rim, everything is scaled in such a way that makes it hard to imagine the concept of limitation. Any boater also knows that the river often demands complete presence—it’s in fact the thing that draws many of us to it. In reading Powell’s journals, this seems true for him as well. While he emerged with grand conclusions, his entries are anchored in active language; verbs tell the story of each day, and adjectives bring each sight and experience into colorful view at a time when cameras could only shoot in black and white.

Logged on August 25, 1869, at what I presume to be the canyon’s famous Lava Falls rapid area, Powell wrote:

“From this volcano vast floods of lava have been poured down into the river, and a stream of the molten rock has run up the canyon, three or four miles, and down, we know not how far.”

What a surprising sight those black formations must have been to Powell, petrified in their fluidity. To us, Lava Falls was heavily anticipated. A series of YouTube videos, and an Instagram page, @grandcanyoncarnage, had memorialized the image of Lava before we even saw it ourselves. We shared the scout above the rapid with several other groups studying the route of safest passage and greatest thrill. We watched as motorboats, allowed on the canyon April through mid-September, barreled through the whitewater, their inflatable tubes taking the brunt of the river as customers sat in rows on the center platform, gripping the shoulder straps of their life jackets like the safety bars of a roller coaster.

These rigs are flying cars compared to Powell’s fleet, which included three 21-foot boats made of oak and one 16-foot boat made of white pine, all built to Powell’s specifications. The smallest boat, designed for Powell to move swiftly as the lead, was named the Emma Dean after Powell’s wife. Among the other gear boats were the Maid of the Canyon, a symbolic companion for the lonely men; the Kitty Clyde’s Sister, named for a song from the Civil War, during which all expeditioners but one fought in; and finally, the No Name, no story there. We followed in tradition, naming the members of our fleet We Three Queens, self-proclaimed by the boat’s female trio; the Ice Queen, for the boat with the cocktail ice cooler; White Lightning, sometimes referred to as Major Med, whose white rubber carried both our med kit and EMT; Meat Boat, or Poop Boat, the only all-male vessel and the unlucky carrier of our human waste; and finally my beloved boat, the kitchen boat, called Yes Chef.

A cactus bloom emerges from a bud. One of the benefits of a spring trip are the flowers. PHOTO BY COLIN HISLOP
The Nankoweap Granaries remain intact high above the river. PHOTO BY COLIN HISLOP

As we went to push off from the eddy above Lava, the roar of the falls was so loud we couldn’t hear one another, so we all raised our hands nervously in the air, river speak for “go.”

My boat was last, captained by Christian Newby, who sent 50 us in stern-first, handily kissing the edge of the top pour-over. As we hit the next hole, a massive wave rose to fill the entire backdrop, and Newby let out one big hoot before punching through the water with one powerful oar stroke. We met our crew below the rapid for the traditional celebration at Tequila Beach. We passed around a bottle wrapped in duct tape and took turns puckering our faces while Lava Falls continued to roar behind us.

While Powell’s journals suggest his crew opted instead for a three-hour portage around the falls, he shared in the celebration of splendor in that wickedly stunning section of the canyon (though I suspect there was no tequila).

“What a conflict of water and fire there must have been here!” he wrote. “Just imagine a river of molten rock, running down into the river of melted snow. What a seething and boiling of the waters; what clouds of steam rolled into the heavens!”

Our own expressions of wonder were limited to simpler language, often a mere “look at that rock!” but the sense of awe was congruent.

Ironically, the canyon has a way of leveling otherwise far-apart experiences like this. It takes layers of deep time and presents it on a single plane. The rock at Lava Falls from an eruption 800,000 years ago, red handprints from some of the canyon’s earliest inhabitants, the scuffs on the rocks from Powell’s burly oak boats, and our Chaco-patterned footprints in the sand all exist together in one moment. Maybe more than any place else I’ve been, this canyon holds onto things. It’s something about its paradoxical compactness and immensity, its depth and antiquity, that renders it the greatest raconteur of the West. The water carries countless stories, but the canyon keeps them.

Butler’s crew poses for a group photo in Redwall Cavern. PHOTO BY ALEX NELSON

On day 15, we tied the boats off in an eddy and wandered up a side canyon called Blacktail. Another group, the one we launched with at Lees, was camped where Blacktail’s dry creek bed spilled into the river, and they joined us on our walk. My partner Micah and I took up the rear, and Hoppe, an older man from the other group, hobbled a bit to keep pace with us.

“Jeff’s up here, and he’s gonna play guitar,” Hoppe told us between puffed breaths. “He’s really good.”

It was Hoppe’s birthday, something we only knew because his son Henry told us. Each person in our group took turns wishing him happy birthday as our boats played leapfrog down the river, and each time he responded the same: “It’s just another day, for me.” He didn’t tell us which birthday it was (I’m guessing around 65) but he did divulge that this was his sixth trip down the canyon, which is perhaps a better measure for his life, anyway. He proudly proclaimed that his wife Cindy whom he calls “the boater of the family,” has been down seven times. The couple live on a 75-acre retired fish hatchery in Kremmling, Colorado—population 1,500—after living in Grand Lake, which “got too touristy.” Cindy runs a rafting supply company called Ripple Works, which she says doesn’t make much money but lets them share good deals on boating gear with their friends, which makes it worth it.

Despite launching with them 130-some miles and two weeks ago, we hardly spoke to them until they watched us flip a raft in Crystal Rapid. They floated past us as we cleaned up our mess, effectively snaking the sought-after Bass Camp. Henry later offered a truce, telling us he’d flipped his own boat in the same hole five trips ago—he says he’s always gone the left line since.

As we walked alongside them in these wavy walls, I felt like we all knew each other a little better. We started the trip calling them The Oldies, and assumed their gray-haired horde looked down on our froth-mouthed crew of Grand Canyon virgins. But after sharing more miles, we know them to be people who have lived a good amount of their lives on this river and others, people whose stories are worth hearing. I hope they now know us not as a bunch of whippersnappers with reckless energy, but passionate young folk galvanized by the prospect of our own lives spent on rivers. As we walked, Hoppe told us about the chaos of his own first trip, where they forgot the toilet seat, and another trip where they lost a poorly tied boat to the current in the middle of the night. He smirked at us, and I supposed maybe he saw a little of them in us.

“The first time down is always the best,” he’d tell us later, donning a shirt with “Grand Canyon April 2004” printed on the breast pocket.

With Hoppe on our tail, we arrived to a slight widening in the river-bent canyon where our group mixed with The Oldies in an amphitheater-shaped audience. A younger man with eyes the color of the clear aqua river at Havasu Falls was picking guitar strings and singing a song I didn’t know in a voice rubbed with the texture of desert sand.

“Wow,” I thought. “Jeff is good.”

Hoppe leaned against the wall and Micah and I found our place among the audience, which started humming along to Tyler Childers’ “Feathered Indians,” a request from Becca, captain of We Three Queens. Across from us, our friends Cole and Kaelyn danced, swinging each other around in their own wingspan of tenderness, and Hoppe watched. It was bright outside, but only some of this light found us on the bed of the canyon, the sedimentary walls capturing both specks of sun and guitar-string echoes between conglomerated grains of sand.

This moment was beautiful because it was shared, not only between us and The Oldies, but between us and all that this canyon holds. There’s honor in giving our stories to this Grand Ole Canyon, which will remember our shadows dancing against its moonlit walls when none of us remain to remember ourselves.

On the longer stretches of slack water, where the rapids were few and far between and there wasn’t much to do but sit on the bow and feel the river moving beneath me, I thought a lot about Barry Lopez’s 1945 essay “The American Geographies.” He wrote that the only way to truly know a place is through time spent in it. “The people in whom geography thrives,” Lopez wrote, are those who have spent this time. Perhaps they don’t know the name of every flower, or how to distinguish between two kinds of trout, “but they are nearly flawless in the respect they bear these places they love,” he said. “Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly. It rings with the concrete details of experience.”

Knowing the Colorado River and knowing the Grand Canyon has nothing to do with maps, photographs or color-coded geology keys. This was true for Powell, when he declared all that he “knew not,” and it was true for me and my 14 friends on March 24, 2024. Knowing these sacred places isn’t about knowing what they can do for us, either; it’s not about water appropriations, historic droughts or even river permits. Knowing these places is about coming into relationship with them; it’s letting quiet, perfect moments of awe transform us, and the permission they give us to be part of this beautiful, wild system.

At our own confluence in the West, where history merges with the present and so much mystery lies ahead, we lean into this mutual reverence with the land. What’s left to “know not” is not the West itself, but how we will apply ourselves to it.

BELLA BUTLER is the managing editor for Mountain Outlaw.