Finding Place in the Archives: What River Running & Research Taught This Historian


The Yampa River at Harding Hole, seen from Wagon Wheel Point at sunset. Photo: Sara Porterfield

Erstwhile’s Sara Porterfield reflects on a summer spent researching the rivers she knows well and the valuable role personal experience plays in academic study.  

This year marked the first summer in over a decade that I did not spend days and nights floating on and sleeping next to the rivers of the Colorado River Basin. I was about as far away from my typical summer employment as a raft guide as I could get. Instead of my usual perch on the back of a boat, I sat in climate-controlled archives. Instead of waking up at four a.m. to hike to the canyon rim of the Yampa River to watch the sunrise spread over the high desert, I ran flights of library stairs in between sifting through boxes of archival material. Instead of scouting rapids with names like Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls, I studied the accounts of the river runners who had given those rapids their nerve-inducing names. Instead of worrying that a miscalculation on my part—a paddle stroke a half-second too late, a rock I didn’t see—could endanger my passengers, I worried that my research and writing wouldn’t measure up.

Though I may have been far from the actual rivers, I ran them over and over in my mind while sitting in the chilly air conditioning of the Huntington Library, the American Heritage Center, and the Marriott Library. The river runners’ accounts I unearthed in these libraries transported me to places that had come to feel like home after eleven seasons guiding on the Green, Yampa, and Colorado rivers. During this process I encountered two rivers: one composed of documents stored in archives, one constructed by my lived experience of place. As historian Annie Gilbert Coleman identified in her essay “River Rats in the Archives: The Colorado River and the Nature of Texts,” the rivers of the Colorado Basin exist in these two forms; indeed, as Coleman observed, “how we feel the river can be textual, how we read and write about it can be sensory.”[1]

Searching through the archives put me back into familiar situations encountered on these desert rivers, both challenging and comforting. Some of the texts I encountered recalled stressful moments, sending my adrenaline surging and heart pounding though I was seated safely on a chair instead of a rubber raft. In a letter from 1955, Don Hatch, one of the first commercial river guides in the country, described to river historian Otis “Dock” Marston a recent run through Hell’s Half Mile, a Class IV rapid in Lodore Canyon on the Green River, located in northwestern Colorado. [2] The run hadn’t gone exactly as Don planned:

I about got dunked in Hell’s Half with a 10 man [raft] last season. It was low water and I went into the deep hole formed [by the] two huge rocks in the center. The rocks broke my frame (plywood) and the water stood my boat perpendicular to level, about like flipping a coin whether I fell one way or the other. By chance I flopped the right way and found my boat completely helpless because of the level load of water. I must have bailed a good thirty minutes and was completely exhausted. What caused all this: At the entrance of Hell’s, I missed just ONE stroke with the oars that would have put me to the left of the hole. By the time I lifted my oars again I was “caught.”[3]

I know those “two huge rocks” in the middle of Hell’s Half Mile. I’ve been hung up on them, parked in the middle of the river, having, as had Don, miscalculated my boat’s speed and trajectory and run it right into and halfway over them. Like Don, I had been lucky: my boat hadn’t been pinned too badly on the rocks (which would have required ropes, pulleys, and a good deal of luck to un-stick) and I was able to push us off by standing on one of the rocks, hoping the boat wouldn’t float away too quickly once freed and leave me stranded. Like Don, I had felt that moment of uncertainty when it was possible for everything to go very, very wrong and the wash of relief when the coin didn’t flip that way. Unlike Don, there was a crew of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists watching me from shore—and yes, there is a video.


Hell’s Half Mile in the exceptionally high water year of 2011. Photo: Sara Porterfield

Other texts invoked the tranquility and beauty of the desert canyons. The 1954 National Geographic article “Shooting Rapids in Dinosaur Country” described the usual thrills of a multi-day whitewater trip (though nothing as hair-raising as Don’s run through Hell’s Half Mile a year later) along with the quieter moments. Journalist Jack Breed wrote:

Drifting down toward Steamboat Rock, we lounged on our sleeping bags, looked up at the ribbon of blue sky visible through the canyon’s lips, and contemplated in silence the ever-changing contrast of highlight and shadow on the cliff walls. No engine sputtered to break the spell; only occasionally did an oar splash the surface.[4]

The light tan Weber sandstone that forms Steamboat Rock and the walls around Echo Park would have been luminous in the late afternoon light as Breed and his party floated the Yampa to its confluence with the Green River in Echo Park. Breed’s passage brought me back to my own silent floats into Echo Park. Hell’s Half Mile lies only seven miles above Echo Park, and the Yampa’s biggest rapid, a Class IV named Warm Springs, sits only four miles upstream from the confluence. Floating into the languid waters of Echo Park dissipates any remaining adrenaline from Hell’s Half Mile and Warm Springs, dissolving the nervous energy of the biggest rapids of the trip and replacing it with a sense of deep calm. The warm sun on closed eyelids, the small sounds of the quiet splash of a paddle in an otherwise vast stillness: all invite a sense of ease and a moment of reflection.


Echo Park at the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers. Steamboat Rock is the sandstone wall on the right, the Yampa enters from the left and the Green from the right. You can see the two differently colored rivers mingling just upstream of the island. Photo: Sara Porterfield

At the time of Breed’s trip, for which he hired Don’s father Bus Hatch as guide, the proposed Echo Park Dam threatened to flood the rivers’ confluence and the whitewater in Lodore Canyon, upstream on the Green, and the Yampa’s canyon. This possibility undoubtedly occupied the thoughts of Breed and his party as they “contemplated in silence,” carried along by the combined current of the Yampa and Green. Due largely to the efforts of the Hatch family Echo Park dam was not built, a decision that set a precedent for barring development in national parks and sparked the modern American environmental movement, though the ghost of the dam-that-almost-was haunts every river runner who floats into the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. My lived experience of the special kind of stillness and beauty in Echo Park, one I can feel in my bones even now as I sit at my desk on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, was with me, just a memory away, as I traveled through the archives and down my remembered rivers this summer.


Bus Hatch inscription alongside those of other historic river runners in Signature Cave on the Yampa River. Photo: Sara Porterfield

And so I spent the summer living in two places: the physical world of musty boxes, quiet reading rooms, and old documents and my remembered world of sun and sandstone, whitewater and quiet starlit nights. The two rivers I encountered forced me to confront the dilemma that comes with writing academically about well-known and -loved places where personal experience and emotion often seem to conflict with the detached authority of the historical voice we feel we must cultivate. The question is, then, as posed by writer Terry Tempest Williams: “how to write as clearly as one can from the heart and still be credible?”[5] As one whose academic work aligns closely and often inextricably with the landscape where I most deeply feel a sense of place, I often grapple with Williams’s question.

I believe the answer lies in creating meaning and memories of both the textual and physical rivers, knowing that the experience of one is enriched by that of the other. Through the experience of place we encounter a world not unlike that of the people we study. Instead of relying exclusively on the words of Hatch or Breed or any of the other river runners I encountered, my own experiences on the rivers give my analysis of these documents a depth not available if I didn’t know these rivers well. And the next time I float through Lodore Canyon or down the Yampa, I will do so with the words, handwritten and typed on paper, sitting in dusty boxes far from sunlight, of those who have gone before me to guide my experience.



[1] Annie Gilbert Coleman, “River Rats in the Archives: The Colorado River and the Nature of Texts,” in Rendering Nature: Animals, Bodies, Places, Politics, ed. Maugerite S. Schaffer and Phoebe S.K. Young, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 192.

[2] The accepted whitewater rating system runs from Class I (moving water with a few, small waves) to Class VI (generally called “unrunnable,” though some Class VI rapids have been run by a daring few). Class IV is described as “long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require complex maneuvering in turbulent water. The course may be hard to determine and scouting [studying from shore] is often necessary”—in other words, a technical rapid not for beginners. See for an excellent description of whitewater classification.

[3] Letter, Don Hatch to Otis Marston, December 16, 1955, Otis Marston Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino California, box 88 folder 5.

[4] Article, Jack Breed, “Shooting Rapids in Dinosaur Country,” National Geographic, March, 1954, p. 379, Otis Marston Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, box 362, folder 6.

[5] Terry Tempest Williams, Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 12.

One thought on “Finding Place in the Archives: What River Running & Research Taught This Historian

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading 2020: A Sampling of Erstwhile’s To-Read List | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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