In November 1937, Haldane “Buzz” Holmstrom sat in the sand below Lava Cliff, the last substantial rapid in Grand Canyon. He’d come nearly 1,000 river miles in a boat he built in his mother’s basement, starting on the Green River in Wyoming, into the Colorado, through the powerful whitewater of Cataract Canyon and the wondrous Glen Canyon, as yet undammed. He continued into Grand Canyon, a place of profound beauty and fearsome rapids that only a handful of river-runners had yet descended, seldom without mishap and never, until now, alone.
The filling station attendant from tiny Coquille, Oregon, knew he would soon be lauded as the first person to solo the Grand Canyon. It should have been a moment of triumph, but as the 28-year-old Holmstrom mused in his river journal about “the last bad one above me,” he turned contemplative.
“I had thought once past there my reward will begin, but now everything ahead seems kind of empty and I find I have already had my reward in the doing of the thing,” he wrote in a looping hand, wholly and happily in the river’s thrall: “The stars, the cliffs and canyons, the roar of the rapids, the moon, the uncertainty and worry, the relief when through each one, the campfires at night, the real respect of the rivermen I met and others.”
When the bow of his dory kissed the concrete wall of Hoover Dam on Thanksgiving Day 1937, it was national news. Radio broadcasts and newspapers picked up the story, and a breathless Saturday Evening Post feature soon landed in three million American mailboxes. “Lone Voyager Conquers Colorado,” crowed the headline.
Holmstrom didn’t see it that way.
“Some people have said ‘I conquered the Colorado River.’ I don’t say so. It has never been conquered and never will I think. Anyone who it allows to go through its canyons and see its wonders should feel thankful and privileged.”
Holmstrom was still a novice river-runner by modern standards, with just four significant trips to his name. He’d run the Rogue near his home in southern Oregon in 1934 and again in 1935, Idaho’s Main Salmon and Snake the following year, and now 1,100 miles down the Green and Colorado. But in that relatively short period of time he’d developed the sort of river wisdom that can take a lifetime to acquire.
On the beach below Lava Cliffs, Holmstrom knew already that the river was not an adversary to be conquered. It was something to be listened to and understood.
“I think this river is not treacherous as has been said. Every rapid speaks plainly just what it is and what it will do to a person and a boat in its currents, waves, boils, whirlpools, and rocks—if only one will read and listen carefully. It demands respect and will punish those who do not treat it properly. In some places it says, ‘Go here safely if you do it just this way,’ and in others it says, ‘Do not go here at all with the type of boat you have.’ But many people will not believe what it says.”
Immersed as he was in the rhythm of the canyon, Holmstrom knew the river had been kind to him. Now he vowed not to lose sight of that simple truth. “I think my greatest danger is ahead, that I might get swellheaded over this thing,” he wrote. “I am going to try to keep my mouth shut about it, go back to work in the old way, and have it only for a memory for myself.”
And so as news of his exploits spread across the country, Holmstrom went back to Oregon’s Coast Range, where he’d been born in a logging camp in 1909. Went back to work for Silver Dollar Eddie, the gas-station impresario he’d boarded with in high school, when his own family could spare him from the farm.
Holmstrom’s father had emigrated from Sweden as a teenager and worked in the logging camps and farmed a small plot of land until his health failed him. He’d courted Holmstrom’s mother in a rowboat and built several more when Holmstrom was a boy. A creek ran behind the property and when it flooded in the winter and spring Holmstrom and his older brother would run it in makeshift boats or plain logs. The old man died when Holmstrom was 17, leaving him a cedar-lined box of tools: chisels and saws, a bit and brace, planes and a draw-knife for shaping the contours of boats. The family later moved into a little house in Coquille with a dirt-floored basement and, for the first time in Holmstrom’s life, electric power. In the summer of 1934, when he was 25 years old, Holmstorm strung a bare bulb from the basement’s low ceiling and began to spend his evenings building a boat.
His plan was to take it 100 miles down the Rogue River, from Grants Pass to the ocean. The route includes the so-called Wild and Scenic Section, now a classic whitewater stretch. It kicks off with Class V Rainey Falls and includes several more tricky rapids, but Holmstrom wasn’t privy to those details. Most of what he knew about the river came from the Zane Grey novels he’d read, or local hearsay.
“He had heard the stories of impassable rapids, all-day portages, unseen rocks that would tear a hole in one’s boat,” according to his biography, The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom. The book is a collaboration by Vince Welch, Cort Conley, and Brad Dimock—experienced boatmen all. Dimock is also a boatbuilder of some renown, so the trio’s assessment of Holmstrom’s design is interesting to say the least.
“He was building a flat-water boat, low sides, no decking, shallow draft—better for fishing and floating than whitewater,” they write. “The boat he built was not suited for whitewater, certainly not the Rogue.”
Holmstrom worked on it all through the summer of 1934. When it was finally ready and he’d pulled together a camping outfit—most everything he needed, minus a tent—it was already November, a cold, rainy, miserable time in the coastal mountains of Oregon. Holmstrom couldn’t wait to get on the river, as his mother Frances recalled years later.
“Haldane left town with the old open Dodge roadster and his first attempt at a boat on the trailer, in a howling tempest, the streets running like rivers,” she wrote.
On the Rogue, Holmstrom learned whitewater by trial and error, discovering on the fly how to read water, and listen for the river’s plain speech. He sat facing downstream and learned intuitively to angle the boat across the current while rowing, a fundamental river skill known as a ferry. He learned to catch eddys, avoid holes and square up to waves, and at the end of five wet, cold glorious days he reached the ocean at Gold Beach.
The next year he built a new boat and ran the river again, this time with a friend. The year after that he built a third boat for a solo descent of Idaho’s Main Salmon and Snake rivers. With each trip, his river skills and boat designs improved.
The boat he took through the Grand Canyon in the fall of 1937 was a nimble craft, decked fore and aft, and far narrower than a rafts or the wooden dories that Martin Litton later popularized. Dimock has built a replica, and in his experienced hands it handles the likes of Hance and Granite with aplomb. The craft cost Holmstrom $20 to build. He drove to Green River, Wyoming with $100 in his pocket, leaving the balance of his life savings, $17, in the bank.
When he started in October 1937, only 10 parties had run all the way through the Grand Canyon, and fewer still had done so from above the confluence of the Green. As it happens, there were two parties on the river that fall. A group of geologists from Caltech and three boatmen had put on ahead of Holmstrom. He caught them near the end of Grand Canyon, at Diamond Creek.
“This was the first time that two expeditions had ever encountered each other in the Canyon,” geologist Ian Campbell later wrote to river historian Otis “Dock” Marston. “We knew from radio reports that he was following us, but we had no idea as to what success he was having single-handedly negotiating some of the worst rapids.”
Nor did they know what to expect when Holmstrom’s boat came around the bend. Holmstom had asked about joining the Caltech expedition, but the team had passed him over. Now he’d run the river solo and proved them wrong. As Holmstrom rowed toward the beach, Campbell braced for an earful. Instead, Holmstom greeted them with a smile.
“Although Colorado River boatmen are somewhat by way of being prima donnas and are apt to be correspondingly jealous of each other,” he wrote to Marston, “nevertheless Buzz had made friends with every one of us within a few minutes of his arrival.”
Holmstrom was thrilled to see other people, and perhaps too in tune with the river to hold a grudge. With his trip nearing an end he was confronting what river-runners call re-entry—the abrupt transition from river life to the less-pleasing rhythms of modern society—and confessed cheerfully that he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get back to Oregon. The geologists were so taken with Holmstrom, and so distressed at his thin provisions and battered gear, that they took up a collection. He turned it down.
Holmstrom had never sought fame or fortune, and counted himself lucky to have run the Green and Colorado solo. “I know I have got more out of this trip by being alone than if a party was along as I have more time, especially at night, to listen and look and think and wonder about the natural wonders rather than listen to talk of war politics and football scores,” he wrote.
But the very next fall he repeated the route, recreating his solo descent for Amos Burg’s cinema camera. Holmstrom rowed his wooden skiff while Burg followed in an inflatable raft, recording the first descent of Grand Canyon in what would soon become the default craft on the Colorado and other western rivers.
Burg called his 20-minute short film Conquering the Colorado and penned an over-the-top script that was anathema to everything Holmstrom thought about rivers and river-running.
Holmstrom always felt the Colorado had allowed him to pass through its canyons. “The River probably thought, ‘He is such a lonesome, ignorant, unimportant and insignificant pitiful little creature, with such a short time to live that I will let him go this time and try to teach him something,” he wrote.
Surely he shared that philosophy with Burg in their nearly two months on the river together, but the film’s staccato narration tells it differently.
“Buzz was now a superman, with superhuman strength! He defied the river to do its worst! He was master! He was stronger than the river!” It wasn’t true, but apparently it’s what Burg’s audience wanted to hear. The short earned an Academy Award nomination, and Burg later bought a yacht with the proceeds. Holmstrom never saw a dime.
He was back at the service station in Coquille when the next big river trip came up. A well-to-do widow named Edith Clegg had read about his Grand Canyon exploits, and asked him to guide her on a boat trip across the United States in 1939, linking rivers from the mouth of the Columbia to New York. The proposed route would take them upstream through Hell’s Canyon on the Snake, a powerful stretch of whitewater Holmstrom knew from his 1936 descent.
The idea was preposterous on its face, but Clegg was offering $150 a month and months of river time. He accepted, supervising the construction of two skiffs and recruiting three other boatmen to up-run the canyon (“two dandy fellows and another I’m pretty sure about,” he reported in a letter to his patron). The boats carried small outboard motors, which the men packed on their backs around the biggest rapids. Then they dragged the boats through the steepest whitewater with ropes. One of the boats and two of the men dropped out after the Snake, while Holmstrom and Clegg continued down the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers, up the Ohio and Allegheny, along the Erie Canal, and down the Hudson to New York City.
Afterward, Holmstrom continued to work on rivers as a boatman for the Bureau of Reclamation, surveying rivers and dam sites. When war broke out he enlisted in the Navy, serving as a carpenter’s mate on torpedo boats in Europe and the Pacific. He was discharged in late 1945 and went back to work on the river.
In April 1946 he was hired to build and run boats for a survey of the Grand Ronde River in northeastern Oregon. In camp on the second day out, he borrowed the cook’s .22 rifle and a single cartridge and walked downriver. The cook found him four hours later with a bullet wound above his right ear. Gone, at age 37.
Top photo: Holmstrom on the Colorado in 1937, in a screenshot from a 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary.
For more on Holmstrom’s paddling life, grab a copy of The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom, by Vince Welsh.