Raft guide Georgie White’s last raft trip down the Grand Canyon was in 1991, right before her 80th birthday. She wore a full body leopard print leotard and drank Coors for dinner. Her first trip down the Grand looked a little different. In June of 1945 she and a friend, Harry Aleson, decided to swim the river because they couldn’t afford a boat. They jumped in at Diamond Creek, wearing windbreakers, tennis shoes, and life jackets, and carrying backpacks packed with watertight tins for food. They were swept 60 miles down to Lake Mead, and Georgie became obsessed with the Colorado River.
In the ’40s commercial rafting was just getting started and White was the only woman on the river. In 1946 she swam in again and in 1947 she and Aleson bought an Army surplus raft and started taking people on “share the cost” trips. She became the first woman to row the Grand, which was a heated decision. Even Aleson, who had been her biggest advocate, was against her doing it alone. In the early ‘50s she started guiding trips by herself and by 1961 she had taken more passengers down the Grand than any other guide.
White came to the Colorado after her personal life unraveled in Los Angeles. She was on her second marriage, which would soon end, and the year before in 1944, her 15-year-old daughter Sommona Rose had been killed in a hit-and-run accident on her bike. She’d met Aleson at a Sierra Club talk and decided to go explore the river with him to get over her grief about her daughter’s death.
“I fell in love with the river, married it, and I don’t plan no divorce,” she said after her second marriage, to Jim White, unraveled.
Once she set up her company, Georgie’s Royal River Rats, on the Grand, she started running other rivers. She guided commercial trips on the Green, the Snake, and the Salmon, and explored rivers in Mexico, but she always held the Colorado to a higher standard. You could be a river rat on other rivers, but you could only be a royal river rat on the Grand Canyon. If you made it down the Grand with White you got initiated. At the takeout she’d crack a raw egg over your head and dub you a rat.
Georgie’s trips had no frills. She was known for surviving on beer and a few vegetables, and she didn’t bring much else for people who metabolized differently. Dinner was canned meat and veggies mixed together. Because of her bare bones way of doing business, she charged much less than other outfitters and undercut their rates, upping her traffic. But she innovated the way people ran the river, too. She pressed the BLM for an organized permitting system and she invented the G-Rig, three boats strapped together with an outboard motor on the back. A precursor to modern sweep rigs, the G-rig made it possible to run bigger groups down the river in a more stable raft.
Even though she was as tough as any man, Georgie was rough on other women. She rarely hired them, except as cooks, and was partial to hiring L.A. fire fighters as guides, because they were strong and good at following directions.
White was a public figurehead of commercial rafting. Life and Sports Illustrated ran stories about her, she was on the Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson days, she took then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on a trip, and she didn’t shy away from attention (see: leopard leotard). But she was also intensely private and didn’t share much about her personal life with people. She told people that she grew up in Chicago, but she was born in Oklahoma. And her given name was Bessie, not Georgie. After she died, rumors started that she was Bessie Hyde, who disappeared in the canyon with her husband, George, in 1928. Georgie’s friends found George and Bessie Hyde’s marriage license and a pistol in her underwear drawer when they were sorting through her things after her death.
White died in Las Vegas of stomach cancer in 1992, when she was 81. She’d sold her guiding company, Georgie’s Royal River Rats, the same year. In 2001, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names renamed Twenty-Four Mile Rapid Georgie Rapid, in her honor.