The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons

Powell, John Wesley
Year Published: 

"One of the great works of American exploration literature, this account of a scientific expedition forced to survive famine, attacks, mutiny, and some of the most dangerous rapids known to man remains as fresh and exciting today as it was in 1874.

What started as a scientific expedition through the last uncharted territory of the continental United States turned out to be a harrowing adventure for John Wesley Powell and nine other men who set out to explore the Colorado River in 1869. Their story, recounted from Powell's journals, is as exciting today as it was when first published in 1874. Photos & line drawings.

John Wesley Powell, for better or worse, made the American West what it is today. He was the primary founder of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that has vandalized the West, and of the United States Geological Service. He also completed the last great feat of exploration on American soil when he and his cohorts undertook the voyage that is the main subject of this book. That the book combines two voyages into one epic adventure is not widely known, but it does not detract from the narrative to any meaningful extent.

Powell's narrative of the so-called Grand Canyon voyage is simply, yet powerfully, written, even carrying touches of the poetic. It is easy to sense his feelings of awe and wonder, particularly in exploring the canyons themselves. Powell never put his main function, scientific discovery, out of mind until the race through the Grand Canyon became one against the calendar as well as the power of the river. Even then, his writing evidences a sense of charity and concern toward his men.

Powell's narrative evokes many vivid memories of the beauty and timelessness of the country he explored, particularly his writings on the now-vanished Glen Canyon. It seems a pity, somehow, that much of what he saw is buried under stagnant, polluted reservoirs, the worst of which ironically carries his name. Would this brilliant, feeling man approve? I do not think so.

The growing recognition of the role native Americans have played in our country's history and development would find a more sympathetic vein with Powell, and his studies of ethnography and acclimatation to the arid habitat by native Americans may prove a more lasting memoir. These parts of the book should be read with equal care.

As to the canyons themselves, Powell would be the first to tell you that the artificial plug of stone at Page, Arizona, is only temporary, and that, as with the volcanic debris at Lava Falls, the river will soon have its way again."

4.5 of 5

Info and links for a newer edition (May 2003)