In the mid-nineteenth century, much of the Southwest was unknown territory – a blank space on U.S. maps labeled “Unexplored.” Reports from a few hunters and Native Americans told of an enormous canyon carved by the Colorado River. In 1869 geologist John Wesley Powell set out to find the canyon and ride the river between its walls. Powell started on the Green River with four boats and a handful of companions. They got a hint of what was to come when foaming torrents tossed one of the boats against a boulder and dashed it to pieces.
Several days later, Powell – who had lost an arm in the Civil War – decided to climb a cliff to get a view of the water’s current. Eighty feet up, he found himself clinging to a rock with no good foothold, and nowhere to go. His climbing partner took off his pants and lowered them to Powell, who made a life-or-death lunge for the waving cloth, grabbed hold, and scrambled to safety.
The explorers floated into the Colorado River and its huge canyon. Three-thousand-foot walls loomed overhead. Traveling west, they passed carved arches and spires. At times they battled whirlpools and craggy falls. They ran short on food and supplies. Then they came upon a stretch of monstrous rapids.
Three of the men decided to climb out of the canyon and walk back to civilization. They were never seen again.
The rest decided to take two boats and run the terrifying rapids. They dashed into the boiling tide, disappeared in the foam – and then reappeared, the men still clinging on.
On August 29, 1869, three months and a thousand miles after they started, the boats floated into open country. Powell had accomplished one of the most storied journeys in American exploration: the first expedition through the Grand Canyon.