People have run the Grand Canyon in all sorts of boats, from wooden dories to rafts, kayaks, and the occasional open canoe. Two guys even swam 278 miles through the canyon back in 1955. But nobody had entertained the idea of running the Grand on a bundle of tule reeds until Tom Martin pulled a permit for this past December.
Martin is a river-running historian who can talk for hours about dead explorers and their oddball craft, all the way back to John Thomas Moss, a prospector who claimed to have ridden a log raft through Grand Canyon eight years before John Wesley Powell’s celebrated descent of 1869. But Martin had never given much thought to who came before the surveyors and gold-seekers, until he read an account from the 1890s of a long-abandoned reed boat in the upper canyon, near the Nankoweap Granaries.
Both men are confident that people on boats made of tule reeds could have, and likely did, make the trip through the Grand Canyon and other stretches throughout the Colorado river system.
And then it clicked. The Mohave and Cocapah people on the lower Colorado River were masterful boatmen, and the Hopi and Navajo have stories of mythical heroes riding downriver. Who’s to say indigenous people didn’t run the Grand Canyon hundreds or even thousands of years ago?
Martin decided to test the theory by sending an old friend down the Grand on a boat made of tule reeds (Schoenoplectus acutus), which grow wild throughout the Colorado basin. “My wife and I boogied down to Blythe and harvested some of the stuff and dried it out in the backyard,” he said.
Martin lashed the dried reeds into bundles, and the bundles into a boat about 10 feet long, with a curved prow and square stern. For raft-building techniques, Martin turned to YouTube..
“This isn’t rocket science,” he says. “I can build a whisk broom, and that’s what this looks like. There are some beautiful traditional indigenous boats out there, but there are some crappy ones too. I figured I can build a crappy one and if I failed, nobody would know.”
Martin absolutely expected to fail. So did his designated test pilot, Peter Brown, a 64-year-old tree-ring researcher out of Fort Collins Colorado. The pair has known each other since high school in Southern Arizona, where they explored abandoned mine shafts and other youthful hijinks, with Martin usually leading the way. “He was always more adventurous,” Brown says. “I was the more cautious one.” This time Brown would take the sharp end, while Martin piloted his handmade wooden dory.
Brown had rowed the canyon six times in the last dozen years, but he came to rafting late and had never so much as sat in a kayak. Now he was holding a double-bladed paddle and straddling a craft that looked more like a kayak than anything else, with close to 300 river miles and dozens of big water rapids ahead. He figured he’d ride Martin’s whisk broom until it disintegrated, then finish the trip on a raft.
“The first big rapid is Badger, six or eight miles downriver,” Brown says. “I thought if it made it through Badger that’d be one thing, but then the next one is House Rock which can be quite tricky.” Sure enough, Brown flipped and swam through a pair of notorious holes at the bottom of the rapid. But then he threw a leg over the raft and kept paddling. “At that point I thought, ‘Hey, this thing’s going to make it,’” he says.
Brown had stumbled upon an inelegant but highly effective river-running technique. In the rapids Brown would dangle his feet on either side for stability and keep his hips loose as the boat rocked right and left below him. He later learned that the Peruvian fishermen who famously ride reed boats through head-high surf use a similar technique in rough water, straddling their caballitos de totora, or reed ponies, like so many nautical cowboys.
Brown’s mount wasn’t particularly quick or maneuverable, but it was surprisingly well suited to the Grand Canyon’s big water and wide-open lines. Where a lightweight kayak would bob across waves and get recirculated in holes, the heavier reed boat submarined to safety. And unlike a raft, remounting was a cinch. Brown avoided what obstacles he could and plowed through the rest. If he got bucked off, he simply held onto the boat until the end of the rapid and climbed back on.
“You ask yourself what does a successful run of a rapid mean, and I go right back to the old timers who say if you can scramble back and get on the oars by the tail waves, that was considered a good run,” Martin says. “And Pete did that, every damn rapid.” In fairness, he also ran plenty of them clean, including Hermit, Bedrock, Crystal and Dubendorf. He didn’t shy from the meaty lines either, going right at Lava Falls and getting creamed by the V-wave that regularly smashes 18-foot rafts.
After the first few days Martin and the others stopped worrying about Brown, who was safe and comfortable in his life jacket and drysuit, and began to fret about losing the tule boat if it ever left Brown’s grip. The russet-colored craft was hard enough to spot in the Colorado’s chocolate flow with Brown on board; without him it could disappear downstream in an instant. So in his morning safety briefings, Martin started reminding his crew to save the tule boat first, and pick Brown up later.
Martin put this theory to practice below Phantom, where the river takes an S-turn and spins off two powerful toilet bowl eddies. Brown got bucked and wound up in the first one, he and the reed boat spinning at opposite sides of the eddy. Seeing this, Martin drove his dory into the eddy to save the tule.
“Pete’s already got a plan,” Martin recalls. “He swims to shore and when the tule comes around he jumps out and grabs it, climbs back on and paddles out of the eddy. And then there’s only one fool left in the eddy.”
To keep the boat from becoming waterlogged, they hauled it ashore each afternoon and propped it on end to dry, the same way the Peruvians stable their caballitos. It took four people to haul the boat out after a day of paddling, Brown says, but in the morning it would be light enough for him to drag to the river alone. The curved bow slowly drooped, but to Martin’s surprise and Brown’s delight, the lashings held and the little tule craft stayed together all the way to Pearce Ferry, 30 days and 280 miles below their put-in at Lee’s Ferry.
Throughout the trip, Martin and Brown recorded a series of conversations about the tule boat and its journey for the Grand Canyon Historical Society’s Oral History Project. The historian Martin wanted a detailed record of the first reed boat descent of the Grand Canyon in hundreds or thousands of years, if not the first ever.
But Martin had never given much thought to who came before the surveyors and gold-seekers, until he read an account from the 1890s of a long-abandoned reed boat in the upper canyon, near the Nankoweap Granaries.
Both men are confident that people on boats made of tule reeds could have, and likely did, make the trip through the Grand Canyon and other stretches throughout the Colorado river system. Perhaps Mohave or Cocapah people who travelled upriver to trade made tule boats to ride home through the Canyon. People from earlier cultures could have run the river at any time in the roughly 13,000 years that humans have lived in and explored the North American continent.
They may not have thought much of it. The Grand Canyon we know is full of formidable rapids, because at the standard flows released from Glen Canyon Dam the whitewater is both powerful and somewhat technical. But before the dam went in 60 years ago, the Colorado regularly swelled to four or five times that volume—a level that washes out most of the big rapids, Martin says. “At those flows you would breeze through the Canyon in that tule boat in five or six days, and the rapids would be nothing because they’d be buried. We did it at lower water in this poorly made boat, this whisk broom,” he says. “You can’t prove it, but I bet it happened.”