In John Wesley Powell’s Wake: The 150th Anniversary Trip (June 2019)

On May 24, 1869, nine men, lead by John Wesley Powell, left Green River, Wyoming for the purpose of exploring the Green and Colorado Rivers.  On August 30, 1869, ninety-nine days later, Powell and five of his remaining men reached the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin Rivers in southern Utah.  Thus ended arguably one of the most epic explorations of the American West, perhaps second only to that of Lewis and Clark some six decades earlier.

John Wesley Powell, 1872 (USGS photo)

Writings about Powell and this expedition are extensive and I don’t propose to add to them here.  Recognizing that Powell couldn’t have, and didn’t, accomplish this feat alone, I would recommend a read of Michael P. Ghiglieri’s “First Through the Grand Canyon” (Puma Press, Flagstaff, Arizona; Third Edition, 2015).  This work, based on journals and letters written by the men themselves, sheds new light on their critical contributions to the expedition, how they felt about it, and what they thought of Powell as a leader.  After reading various Powell biographies, and experiencing these rivers for myself, it seems to me that Powell and his men were a very lucky bunch of guys who repeatedly escaped potentially fatal situations as they grappled with the then unknown art of whitewater boating.  Although heroic and epic, this expedition often seems to have succeeded in spite of itself.

Still, Powell’s expedition marked the first descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this historic event, OARS (Angels Camp, California) organized a 28-day (June 5th to July 2nd) rafting trip to retrace more than 450 miles of Powell’s route between Flaming Gorge Dam and Lake Powell.

Overview map of our journey from Flaming Gorge to Lake Powell

Having rafted the Grand Canyon before, this trip seemed like our best opportunity to finally trace almost all of Powell’s original route that has not now been lost to reservoirs.  So, along with our long-time friends Wayne and Diane and 16 other guests, plus six guides, we embarked on a journey with more rafting than we’d ever done before.  Starting in the very cold, clear waters of the Green River at the base of Flaming Gorge Dam, we made our way through ever changing and always impressive scenery, to an end in the warm, turbid waters of Lake Powell.  Along the way we experienced chilly days and nights, rain, scorching heat, lightning, pesky mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies, high water, fierce winds, low bridges, big rapids, and uncertainty. Unlike Powell, whose expedition was near starvation for much of the time, our rations were both ample and excellent. However, like Powell, we always had plenty of coffee available for those who wanted it.

Accomplishing this trip had long been a goal for our AMAZING trip leader, Lars Haarr, who has taken people on rafting trips for over 20 years.  The depth of experience, positive attitude, professionalism, and extremely hard work of Lars and our other guides (Michael, Emily, Elyse, Russell, and Garth) are what made this journey a success.  Credit also has to be given to the logistical support provided by OARS staffers from the Vernal, Moab, and Flagstaff operations and to the pilots of Redtail Aviation (Moab, Utah).  It takes a village to float a raft.

Our guides (L-R): Garth, Emily, Lars (“The Major”), Elyse, Michael, Russell

And that, along with a very congenial group of fellow rafters, all of whom pitched in as needed without compliant, made this a wonderful, unforgettable, and truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Our group at the start of the trip (14 would stay for the entire 28 days)

For easier access to the details of this excellent adventure, we spaced it out from put-in to take-out over six posts keyed to sections of the two rivers:

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