Georgie White made her last trip through the Grand Canyon in 1991, just before her 80th birthday, dressed in a full-body leopard print leotard. Her first Grand Canyon river trip looked a little different. In June of 1945 she hiked into the lower canyon six miles above Diamond Creek and swam nearly 60 miles to Lake Mead with Harry Aleson, who would become a legendary river runner in his own right. They wore tennis shoes, nylon jackets and bulky kapok life jackets, and each carried a malt tin packed with provisions—hard candy, powdered coffee, and dehydrated soup. The river swept them into all the way down to the lake, where Georgie emerged on the fourth day with a river-running obsession that would last the rest of her life.
Commercial rafting was in its infancy in the 1940s, and though the place attracted its share of pioneering women, the canyon had never seen anyone quite like Georgie White. In 1946, she and Aleson hiked back into the canyon where they built a log raft modeled on the one James White claimed to have taken through the Grand Canyon in 1867, two years before John Wesley Powell’s celebrated first descent. The river was raging with 48,000 cfs of June runoff, and the log raft never made it out of the eddy. Instead Georgie and Aleson went to their Plan B, swimming and floating the river on a small U.S. Army Air Corps rescue raft they had packed in.
Over the next few years Georgie and Aleson experimented with larger neoprene rafts, and in 1952 Georgie became the first woman to row the full length of Marble and Grand Canyons. In the aftermath of the Second World War, surplus rafts and bridge pontoons could be had for a song. Georgie assembled a modest feet of them and launched her own company, Georgie’s Royal River Rats, in 1953. Soon she lashed together three surplus bridge pontoons and mounted an outboard motor on the stern. Thus was born the G-rig (the G is for Georgie), precursor to the large motor rafts that opened the Grand to large-scale commercial operations.
Georgie called her personal rig the Queen Mary, and spent much of the next four decades perched at its stern, the tiller in one hand and (according to a Los Angeles Times account from 1984, when she was 73) a can of Coors beer in the other. She first came to the Colorado after her 15-year-old daughter Sommona Rose had been struck by a car and killed when they were biking together in 1944. Around that time she met Aleson at a Sierra Club talk in Los Angeles, and accepted his invitation to explore the canyon as a way to process the grief her daughter’s death. From that heartbreak grew a love for the canyon never waned. “I fell in love with the river, married it, and I don’t plan no divorce,” she famously said.
Georgie 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, she proclaimed, but you could only be a Royal River Rat if you’d run the Grand Canyon. Georgie would initiate her clients at the end of each trip by smacking them on the ass with a paddle, cracking a raw egg on their head and handing them a blackberry brandy. They also got a pin.
Her trips were notoriously bare bones. Georgie herself was famous for subsisting largely on beer and canned tomatoes, and didn’t pack much more than that for her paying clients. Georgie’s guides used to joke that she did her grocery shopping with a big magnet, walking into a store and seeing what cans stick. According to a profile by writer Kate Savage, Georgie would throw a bunch of cans into a pot of boiling water, where the labels would slough off as the food warmed. Every client would get a can and eat whatever was inside.
Georgie gave about the same degree of attention to safety as to cooking. That’s according to her critics, who are nearly as numerous as her admirers. Georgie’s company had the first helicopter evacuation from Grand Canyon in 1959, and the first death on a commercial trip, in 1972. In 1984, another woman died after Georgie drove her G-rig through the Ledge Hole in Lava Falls. When National Park Ranger Kim Crumbo met the trip to transport the woman’s body, Georgie allegedly complained he was taking too long. As Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers tell it in Over The Edge: Death in Gand Canyon, Crumbo said “Georgie, you just killed this woman, now you want me to hurry up and hide the body?” Georgie stared Crumbo in the eye and said, “You’re damned right I do. Now get her out of sight before you scare these new people.”
The Park Service reportedly wanted to pull her permits, but they didn’t dare. For all of her rough-edged banter and fend-for-yourself approach to river-running, Georgie was a legend. In her signature style she’d carried more people through the Grand Canyon than any living guide—some 12,000 people according to her own records—and most of them revered her. The G-rig’s massive carrying capacity made it possible to take large parties down the river, which in combination with her no-frills style allowed Georgie to seriously undercut the competition. In the 1970s, she was charging $300 for a ten-day canyon trip, while other outfitters were asking three times that much. 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. firefighters as guides because they worked cheap and were good at following directions.
White’s increasing notariety made her something of a public figurehead for commercial rafting. Her 1961 Grand trip with then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was featured in Life magazine, and she later appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1958 she ran Cataract Canyon at flood with Sports Illustrated writer Joel Sayre, who penned a memorable description of Georgie and the adventure: “Georgie White, a middle-aged Los Angeles housewife married to a retired truck driver, is the only female professional boatman on the Colorado River. Among specialists in comparative fluminology, the Colorado, because of its raffish and unstable behavior, is regarded as the most dangerous river in the world. Therefore, running boats down it can scarcely be classified as a ladylike pursuit. But Georgie runs her boats, and, though she was not gently nurtured when young, she is a lady in the true sense of the word—full of fine instincts, warmhearted, generous and brave.”
Though she never shied from the spotlight (see: leotard, leopard print), Georgie shared little about her personal life. Details of her pre-river days are vague or fantastical, often both, and seem to vary with her audience. She told people she was born in Chicago, though her true birthplace was Oklahoma. And her given name wasn’t Georgie, but Bessie. More on that in a moment.
She came to Chicago as a girl, where in Sayre’s credulous and entertaining rendition, “at the age of 14 she went to work as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy owned by several hoodlums of moderate prominence.” At 16 she married Harold Clark, a “good-looking assistant elephant tender who was in Chicago with Ringling Brothers” and had become a regular at the establishment. When the circus shut down for the winter they moved to New York City, where Georgie fell in with a group of six-day bicycle racers in Central Park. She’d never been on a bike, but the racers taught her and Harold to ride and set them up with a pair of old racing bikes. The couple promptly rode them to Los Angeles, where they settled and Georgie, then 17, gave birth to Sommona Rose.
It’s a good yarn and probably mostly true. The marriage to Harold didn’t last, and Georgie later married James White, a long-haul truck driver 15 years her senior who would manage Royal River Rat’s ground operation while Georgie was on the river. Though much of Georgie’s early life is difficult to trace or verify, the death of her daughter at the hands of a drunk driver is painfully real. She refused to press charges—“Revenge don’t get you nowhere,” she told Sayres—and instead sought solace in the lower canyons of the Colorado with Harry Aleson, opening the longest and grandest chapter of her extraordinary life.
She ran the Grand Canyon and many other rivers for 45 years, only selling her company in 1992, the same year she died of stomach cancer at age 81. Nearly a decade later, in 2001, 24-Mile Rapid in the Grand Canyon was renamed Georgie Rapid in her honor.
After her death, Georgie left one final mystery. Recall that Georgie shared her birth name with Bessie Hyde, who famously disappeared in the canyon while honeymooning with her husband, George, in 1928. In Georgie’s Las Vegas trailer after her death, friends reportedly found in her underwear drawer a copy of Bessie Hyde’s marriage license and a pistol, fueling speculation that Georgie and Bessie Hyde were one and the same.
The fate of Bessie and George Hyde is one of the great mysteries of Grand Canyon lore. It’s spawned many theories, among the most pervasive of which is that Bessie killed George and hiked out alone to start a new life. Historians have cast doubt on this explanation. More likely, Georgie planted the document knowing the rumors it would stir when found. “Maybe,” writes Savage, “she wanted to take people on one more ride.”