Funny how some things that seem so intuitive turn out not to have been natural at all. In the golden age of Western river exploration, when one-armed Powell was naming canyons and alienating friends, oarsmen relied more on strength than their other capabilities, like say…oh…sight.

When rowing a boat, pulling is a more powerful stroke than pushing. With your back to your intended direction, you dip the oar blades in the water and pull toward your body. It feels strong. It feels good. And hey, if it’s effective enough for the Olympic and Ivy League rowing teams, it should be good enough for a bunch of dirtbag rafters, right?

Not really. Nathaniel Galloway was the first guy to figure this out successfully.

In both technique and design, Galloway (1853-1913) transformed whitewater boating while it was still in its relative infancy. He entered the scene shortly after John Wesley Powell became a national sensation. Powell and his crew ran their infamous expeditions down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869 and 1871-1872. His book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons/em>, was printed in 1895. [This more famous version was an edited re-issue of the first draft book he published in 1875.] Though their trips were rife with portages, flips, fear, and disaster, the team established the river running standards du jour for over 20 years. Namely, oarsmen faced their bodies upstream and pulled back straight and hard into the rapids. Neither their boats nor their techniques were conducive to lateral maneuvers. A boatman’s field of vision was limited to what he could see over his shoulder. Skilled as they were, running blind presented its own set of obvious hazards.

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Galloway wasn’t an armchair analyst. His initial interest in rivers was fueled by capitalism. He was a trapper and prospector from Vernal, Utah, and he suspected that the canyons of the Green River were rife with beaver and gold. To lay claim on these riches, he learned to row a boat and followed the example set by the Powell oarsmen. Some dates are conflicting, but he was out practicing on the Green River as early as 1891. In short order, he realized opportunities for improvement. These would not only would change his motivations for river running, but would also establish his legacy as a pioneer of modern whitewater rowing.

Nathaniel Galloway Historical Badass Grand Canyon River Museum

First, he simply turned around. Galloway faced downriver so he could see the obstacles in front of him and navigate more easily through them. Better visibility was clutch, but that meant he couldn’t power through features with a pull stroke. And here’s where the trapper from Utah got Zen with it: Galloway shifted rowing mentality from attempting to overpower the water to working with the current.

This requires harnessing the power of the ferry angle. To ferry a boat is to intentionally utilize the current in order to move to a destination. By changing the angle of the boat in relation to the current, you can navigate your boat laterally and either speed up or slow down the boat’s travel downstream. While the Powell team set up straight (for the most part) and powered through, Galloway became a master of the upstream ferry. He’d row face forward into a rapid, then pull upstream with a ferry angle that allowed him to avoid rocks and nasty holes. To this day, the Galloway method is known worldwide to mean face downstream and use the current wisely.

This new style of rowing demanded a new kind of boat, and Galloway didn’t waste any time in designing it. The Galloway boat is one of the most direct predecessors of the modern-day river dory. Compared to the lethargic boats on the Powell expeditions, Galloway’s design had a flatter hull (from chine to chine) and a more pronounced rocker shape (i.e. the curve of the hull from bow to stern). His boats were much more maneuverable, nimble, and lightweight. They were the top choice for guides until rubber rafts made their way to the rivers after World War II.

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In 1896, Galloway embarked on a full run of the Green River in a boat of his own design. The next year, he tested his boat and technique down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. At the finish of this successful run, orders were coming in far and wide for new Galloway boats, and most boatmen were rowing face forward.

It’s unclear when he ditched his trapping and mining goals for a life dedicated to the pleasures of the river. In 1909, Galloway was commissioned to oversee the building of four Galloway boats and to lead a three-month trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, from Wyoming to California. By all accounts, this was the first river trip in the West to be undertaken purely for pleasure. And, in the end, that contribution to the history of river running may be on par with all Galloway’s other innovations in whitewater rowing.

Photos courtesy Grand Canyon River Museum

Contributing editor Brook Sutton lives in Durango, Colorado.