If We Had a Boat: Green River Explorers, Adventurers, and Runners by Roy Webb. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986, xi+194pp., $14.95.
River running seems to be moving into a kind of middle age. Well- established as entrepreneurs in the recreation, self-discovery, and hell-raising-good-times industry, those who bounce well-heeled tourists in rubber rafts down fast-moving rivers are now expanding into river trips emphasizing self-confidence, self-assertion, teamwork, and other marketable skills of the '80s. I've even heard of river-running companies that describe their trips as tax-deductible investment seminars so that their clients can write off their costs (roughly $100 per day plus transportation to and from the river).
Another side to this inventive maturity is the burgeoning number of books that focus on the history of river running in the U.S., with Utah playing a lead role in all such discussions--for it was here, on the Green River, that modern river running began. Starting perhaps with Pearl Baker's biography of Bert Loper (Trail on the Water, 1969), this self-reflective movement among the white-water gang has included Georgie White's autobiography Thirty Years of River Running (written with Duane Newcomb) and, most notably, David Lavender's recent River Runners of the Grand Canyon (1985).
The inaccessibility of the Colorado and Green Rivers, along with the size of their rapids, has made them among the most popular rivers for recreational river runners since before World War II. But they exerted their magic long before that, beginning in 1776 when they were visited by Dominguez and Escalante. They were followed by such notables as General William H. Ashley and Kit Carson, and--most remarkably--by Major John Wesley Powell and his nine- man crew, who left Green River, Wyoming, in the spring of 1869 and managed to float, line, portage, carry, and drag their twenty-one-foot oaken boats through the entire length of the Grand Canyon.
What may not be apparent to those who have not been on a white-water river trip is the very sense of historicity that these rivers carry. It's a clichZ among river-running diehards to talk of how the river constantly changes yet remains the same, but there is truth here, too. The canyons and rapids and cliffs that we pass on the Green or the Colorado carry the names invented by Powell and his crew, ranging from the Canyon of Lodore (named after a sentimental nineteenth-century poem) to the Dirty Devil River, named after itself. The more adept storytellers among the river guides regale their passengers with narratives of Ashley and Carson, Fremont and Powell, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the early commercial river runners, too: Bus Hatch, Norman Nevills, Bert Loper, Harry Aleson, and Georgie White herself, with her leopard-skin bikini and her army boots.
Roy Webb's solid history of the Green River adds another volume to the developing inquiry into the history of these rivers and, by extension, into the fascination that they hold for humankind. Dangerous, unpredictable, untameable except by dams, difficult or impossible to use for agriculture or industry, nearly undrinkable, the Green and the Colorado nevertheless have a lure that surpasses shore-bound understanding. Some of that attraction is hinted at in Webb's general summary of the early explorers, mountain men, traders, and surveyors who prowled the shores of the Green and essayed the first white-water experiments upon it.
The book's most interesting and original segments are the last four chapters, in which Webb investigates the increasing use ofthe rivers for recreation and adventure, notably in the 1909 and 1911 trips of Julius Stone and of Ellsworth and Emery Kolb. He also traces the early technology and techniques that would subsequently allow relative neophytes to pass some of the most ferocious rapids in the world, have fun doing it, and be glad to pay for it in the process. He describes the long-neglected Nathaniel Galloway, who thought up the high prow design still seen in the Grand Canyon dories and who invented the stern-first, row-the-boat-backwards technique to keep control in wild water. Webb also traces the post-World War II innovations of Bus Hatch, one of the first to adapt the rubber pontoons and assault rafts used in the war to Western rivers--a development that ultimately led to the complex web of permits, fire pans, and porta-potties necessitated by the increasing number of commercial trips. Webb covers the enormous controversy over the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument, which was never built, and Flaming Gorge Dam, which was.
This is a workmanlike book that tantalizes as much as it informs. What is notably absent here is a sense of the lives and personalities of the people who have lived along the banks of the river, who have given to it names, legends, and a host of local characters. Webb barely mentions the wonderfully named "Green River Suck," the eccentric hermits Pat Lynch and Amos Hill and Dutch John Honselena, and the ranchers and homesteaders in Browns Park, Island Park, and other settlements along the river. Nor is there much about the ranching sisters who moonlighted as cattle rustlers, or about the dinosaur hunters and the great bone parade from Vernal to Salt Lake City, or about the Ute Indians, through whose reservation the Green passes. And although he does cover the achievements of Galloway and Hatch and other river rats, he rarely attempts to communicate what they were like as people, or why these rivers had such a hold on them. Still, this book is a valuable summary of the Green River's history and its importance. Oddly enough, a river that was best known as one of the gathering places of the mountain men may be best known in a hundred years as the cradle of recreational white water tourism.