Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 25, 2010

Down the Great Unknown


J. W. Powell, circa 1869

One of an interpretive ranger’s tasks is to bring the park, and its history, into clear focus for visitors. Here in Canyonlands, John Wesley Powell’s post-Civil-War expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers is a gripping story, begging to be told. The 20-minute talk I am preparing has me VERY excited; my entire being resonates with the relevancy of this 141-year-old journey. This talk is gonna be FUN.

In a nutshell, this bold, strong-willed, single-minded, one-armed 35-year-0ld recruited nine mountain men to accompany him down a previously-unexplored river system. Any with knowledge of the area felt it was a suicidal mission. He funded the trip out of his own pocket, getting only a little assistance from friends in government positions. Not one of the boatmen had any whitewater experience. Only one life jacket existed for ten men. They took provisions for ten months, just in case they had to over-winter, but due to a river accident lost 1/3 of it near the beginning of the trip. Having no maps of the area, they battled constant anxiety over whether the river would drop out from under them, like Niagara Falls, or whether a more gradual descent would take them to their final destination. Their flour turned moldy (too many times getting wet) and their bacon went rancid. No game was to be found by the hunters among them. Malnutrition and exhaustion added to the relentless anxiety. One of the nine dropped out abruptly after five weeks, stating that he had “already had enough adventure to last a lifetime.” A thousand river miles lay before them, and there was not one white settlement within 100 miles of their boats. Nobody even knew where the confluence of the two rivers lay for sure, as regional maps simply read, “UNEXPLORED.” Disaster after disaster befell the crew over their 99 days afloat.

That was the summer of 1869. As I have reflected on the relevancy of this trip, and how to assist visitors in connecting to it, I began to ponder the universality of Discovery. It seems every culture is driven to explore and to push beyond the edges of what is known and what is safe. There are always individuals who have a more expansive vision that takes them beyond their own provincial neighborhood. And then… I thought of 1969.

Exactly one hundred years TO THE DAY of Major Powell’s arrival at the confluence of these two great rivers that meet in our park, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The nearly quarter-million miles that that mission had to travel was no more amazing than Powell’s thousand miles. It was all a Great Unknown, even if Apollo 8 and 10 had traveled around the moon for data collection and reconnaissance. In both expeditions, there were more questions than answers. There were incalculable risks. The Eagle had less than 30 seconds of fuel left by the time it touched the lunar surface; Powell’s emaciated group was barely recognizable when they passed through the Grand Canyon and finally arrived at an outpost. It will be my challenge to bring home the dangers and the successes of these parallel expeditions into the unknown, and then to charge each visitor with undertaking their own mission of discovery and exploration in our national parks.

My boss got goosebumps when I told her my interpretive plot twist. I think that’s a good sign. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only a few days to string this all together…


Leave a comment if you have suggestions or ideas to help me…


  1. I can only assume that this will be out on a CD very soon. Please send us a copy as soon as it is available . . .

    Comment by Leroque's Legacy — June 25, 2010 @ 7:51 am | Reply

  2. Exactly what one would look for in the evening, sitting around a campfire, with the Park Ranger in her story telling role. You don’t do campfires in Canyonland, do you?

    Comment by Mom — June 25, 2010 @ 1:50 pm | Reply

    • No, no campfires. And since we have only a 12-site campground, no evening programs, sadly! I must wholeheartedly agree that this tale is fit for the flickering firelight mode. Can’t you just see the ranger spinning her fables of daring and bravado and disaster and tragedy?

      Comment by kath56ryn — June 25, 2010 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  3. Ranger Kathryn,
    Sounds like a great talk. I hope someday to cross trails with you and hear your story. I have been a huge fan of J W Powell ever since I read about him in Wallace Stegner’s book, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Good luck. I have since come to learn what an incredible person he was; a “man ahead of his time”. And your tie in with the modern world is very interesting.

    Comment by ChrisJx — June 26, 2010 @ 5:57 am | Reply

    • The more I read about Powell, Chris, the more fascinating I find him. He was far ahead of his peers in realizing the bigger picture (Manifest Destiny, Indian relations, etc.) PLUS he was one of those rare visionaries who could move mountains with his charisma and enthusiasm. “Renaissance Man” is a good start but woefully inadequate. I have great respect for the man. Thanks for commenting!

      Comment by kath56ryn — June 26, 2010 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

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