“Narrating Adventure down the Colorado River”: A Talk by Marsha Weisiger

Erstwhile’s Sara Porterfield reviews a recent lecture given by Marsha Weisiger on her research-in-progress.

Raft guides, doing what they do. (Photo credit: author's own)

Q: How do you know a raft guide is lying?

A: His lips are moving.

Boaters, professionals and recreational alike, are notorious showmen and -women who are known for their tall tales and ability to entertain a crowd. This, it turns out, is nothing new. 

Marsha Weisiger’s research for her upcoming book Danger River, on which she lectured last Wednesday at Fort Lewis College’s Center of Southwest Studies, investigates how those who have rafted the Colorado River system in the American West narrated their experiences. From John Wesley Powell’s 1869 journey to a 1975 Playboy article by Edward Abbey, Weisiger finds that boaters are conscious of living a story as they float down the river, and, quite often, make a show of the experience for their future readers safely ensconced in armchairs back home. Take, for instance, the 1928 expedition run by Clyde Eddy, which included a film crew and resulted in a published account titled Down the Worlds Most Dangerous River—certainly an attention-grabbing title. As if a film and a book with such a flamboyant title weren’t enough to garner attention, Eddy brought along a dog named Rags (a rescued Airedale from Salt Lake City) and a bear cub named Cataract—if only to say that they were the first dog-and-bear duo to float the Green and Colorado.

Early morning light, Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. (Photo credit: author's own)

Early morning light, Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. (Photo credit: author’s own)

Weisiger explores not only the theatrical antics of river runners, but also to the differences in how women and men experience and narrate the river. University of Michigan botanists Dr. Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter became the first women to raft the Green and Colorado rivers in 1938. Clover was the lead scientist on an expedition to study the flora of the Grand Canyon, and they floated from Green River, Utah through to Lake Mead, provisioned and guided by outfitter Norm Nevills. Unlike the men whose accounts Weisiger examines, Clover and Jotter found themselves excluded from the predominantly male world of whitewater rafting. Despite Clover’s position as the lead scientist and organizer of the expedition, the title of the journey was, and remains, the “Norm Nevills Expedition.” Jotter and Clover found themselves relegated to cooking meals and scrubbing boats. The men on the trip had little patience for their botanical studies, often cutting them short and rushing them through the scientific research that was the basis of the trip.

Following the character of Weisiger’s first book, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (2009), this “story about stories” promises to see the history of river running, generally relegated to the popular press, in a way that reveals the complexity of the seemingly simple act of floating down a river. As any boater will tell you, it’s the stories that make the trip. And as any historian will tell you, it’s those stories that make history.

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