Martin’s Boat

by Pete McBride on January 19, 2016

martinlitton
It is just past six a.m. and the dawn rays are kissing a frothy spray dancing above the rapid ahead. The wind and hundred-plus desert temperatures are still sleeping. That reprieve of gusty, furnacelike heat tempers my nerves little. My mouth is desert dry thanks to adrenaline coursing through my body. I try to focus on the sage advice the silverback boatman shared minutes earlier.Martin Litton running Lava Falls

On shore, it all made sense, but as we slide over the lip of Lava Falls, mile 178 on the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon, everything is more chaotic. It is my first time rowing a raft down this storied section of river. That alone is enough to send my heart into a fear-filled dance, but what complicates things is that rowing is secondary to making a short film about a river legend I’ve never met.

I’m running last in a flotilla shadowing the maiden voyage of a fiberglass dory—built amidst sweat and love over the last year—down this undammed 277-mile stretch of the “American Nile.” The goal is that this boat and the footage will remind many of the spirit of a guy who enabled river trips like this to exist today—Martin Litton.

We slip over the first cresting wave of Lava and see the river angrily detonating before us. On river left is “death and destruction,” as Martin once described the left line, and on the right, “eternal darkness.” Somewhere in the middle is a “silvery path,” but somehow, amidst the predawn scout, the filming and my nervous over-thinking, something has gone wrong.

When describing Martin Litton, many boatmen say, “he carried an angel on his shoulder,” which often rescued him from rapid ruin, even when he flirted with it.

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Evening in the Grand CanyonI could use that angelic friend of Martin’s now. A less than silvery path lay ahead. I’m way off course.

In 1939, Martin Litton first peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon. “It never occurred to me,” he said in a TV interview years later, “that I’d go on the river…you might as well go to the North Pole.” But a mere decade later, while working as a writer for the Los Angeles Times, he documented an expedition negotiating Lava Falls. By 1955 he was back, rowing a fiberglass cataract boat and by 1962, he’d imported Oregon drift boats, the original dories, to the canyon.

Despite the logistical advantages of inflatable boats (Martin preferred the aesthetic of dories) in 1971 an accidental river company blossomed—Grand Canyon Dories. With it came a deep voiced, wild boatman named Martin with an angel on his shoulder.

While many in the Grand Canyon know of Martin for his dories and legendary river tales, I grew up knowing him for something else. In the late 60s, Martin played a role in keeping the Grand Canyon free from two colossal dams—Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. His impassioned speech to the Sierra Club board triggered David Brower to fight the Bureau of Reclamation.

Having grown up on the Colorado River and following its water challenges from the headwaters in Colorado to its dry delta in Mexico, the story of the Marble Canyon Dam defeat—was the quintessential David and Goliath. And as Brower put it, “Martin was my conscience” that steadfast fighter who refused to compromise.

I always wanted to meet Martin. I knew he was aging but when someone rows a dory through Lava Falls at the age of 87, you expect them to stick around for a while, possibly forever.

MLrunningGrand

But sure enough, right when I was thinking it was time to meet this river-running legend and appear at his doorstep, Martin was gone. The hero of the Grand Canyon had rowed onward.

But last spring, I was invited to meet the spirit of Martin via some of the people who knew him best—his friends and river family—the boatmen and women who worked with him, grew up in his boathouse and carry his passion for the Grand Canyon forward.Dories in the Grand Canyon

For two weeks, I follow the newest dory in Martin’s fleet—a sculpted piece of artwork dubbed The Marble Canyon built in honor of that place Martin helped save. In Litton fashion, the boat carries a name of a special place, either gone or protected. Duffy Dale, the boat builder and second generation dory guide himself spent five months crafting the dory to perfection. To remind passengers and boatmen to come, a wild-eyed photo of Martin resides inside the hatch.

We glide and splash downstream, past the dam-free Marble Canyon dam site, the roaring twenties, and row the shadows of the inner gorge. Around each ancient oxbow, I see glimmers of Martin’s spirit joining us, in the eyes and smiles of those that loved him.

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When we reach Lava, I watch Martin’s early boatman—Andre Potochnik, Mark ‘Moqui’ Johnson, make the line easily. The next dories do the same. Duffy plunges the Marble Canyon right down the seam, perfectly.

With my less experienced rowing skills at the helm, we slip over the lip last and it is clear Martin’s ‘silvery path’ is too far right. I’ve cheated the left line too far left. ‘Death and destruction’ lies ahead. Our raft slams into the entrance wave and immediately stops, reverses, and turns sideways nearly throwing me and my two film crew from the raft. My right oar shoots skyward and I vanish into an angry churn of whitewater foam. Flipping is imminent.

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Dories in the Grand CanyonBut perhaps the grandfather of dories, that white-bearded river giant, decided to watch that morning. Or maybe it was his angel. But something, somehow, stalls the flip, spins us back left, and carries us toward that silvery line…backwards with one oar. The “eternal darkness” of the ledge hole passes and we crest the shoulder of the Chub and Big Kahuna waves and come out soaking, stifled and screaming with joy.

Downstream, boatmen and passengers readily celebrate the man who started it all—and fought to keep the river flowing so our little boats could crest its waves. And with each mile, I think more how I wish I’d met Martin, but feel lucky to know and see his spirit alive and well on the river with the dories of the Grand Canyon.

 

 

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I guess you can call it a Grand beat down. I knew it would be hard, but not spirit-crushing hard. Our plan to walk the Grand Canyon as a sectional thru-hike would be a lengthy, logistical monster of sorts. Our food would be weighed by the ounce. Almonds and prunes would be rationed and counted per day. Caching supplies via hiking, raft trips, and possibly even mules is a jaw-dropping jigsaw puzzle that rested our food (and lives) on the digits of GPS coordinates in a place with dodgy GPS coverage. Oh, and the permits … there are a lot when you are dealing with nine Native American Reservations and one of the most regulated national parks in the world.

Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river. Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river.

So the hiking part seemed simple—comparatively. I don’t mean to suggest that I took it lightly. On the contrary, I trained for three months climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado with a heavy pack. Writer Kevin Fedarko did similar in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona. The two of us have also worked in challenging predicaments on assignment before—dusted by avalanches in Nepal’s Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest, deported from the oven-like heat of Djibouti in the horn of Africa while covering a story on narcotic trade. We even tromped across bug-infested tundra of the Canadian Arctic without losing our sense of humor.

Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river. Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river.

I’ve never claimed to be a fitness fanatic or an outdoor expert, but I have reveled for decades in the challenges of expeditions that often lead toward the “pain cave.” So walking 600 miles across the desert landscape of the Grand Canyon would be daunting and humbling, but kinda fun and, of course, stunning. I’d hiked chunks alone before, boated the Colorado inside the canyon’s abyss multiple times, and even bushwhacked the same river’s dry, forgotten delta at the end. So this wasn’t my first rodeo. So I thought.

Beyond the adventure, this grand stroll would serve as a powerful backbone to document the hidden wilderness between the rim and the river that is so rarely seen or even known, but also remarkably under pressure by multiple entities looking to cash in on the canyon’s grandeur.

Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river. Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river.

Of those that have hiked the entire canyon, only 12 have completed it nonstop so far, and just 12 have completed the jigsaw hike over time via sections. For comparison, 12 have stood on the surface of the moon, 5,000 atop Everest. Some call it the Everest of thru-hikes when comparing to other long walks like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the Grand Canyon has one major difference. Unlike others with “trail” in the name, there is NO trail through the vast majority of the Grand Canyon, excluding a few short sections on the south rim and even less on the north. There are also no towns, limited water, no cell coverage until the West, little sat phone coverage and a daunting 5,000-plus-foot vertical climb out if things go wrong (the potential list is long). I frankly think “the K2 of thru-hikes” is a better description (less traveled, less supported, more technical).

Adventurers walk the length of the Grand Canyon, roughly 600 miles. Adventurers walk the length of the Grand Canyon, roughly 600 miles.

 

In late September we set off from Lees Ferry and clawed our way West. And just days in, let’s just say, a few things went wrong. To my surprise it happened remarkably quickly, too. Fedarko and I shadowed a team led by canyoneering guru Rich Rudow doing a 56-day thru-hike. We planned to join them for just 15 days, but left even sooner due to unforeseen challenges that a sweltering September heat wave helped instigate (temps soared well above 100 degrees F for a week).

But during what I’d call an intense thrashing (physical and psychological) some valuable lessons emerged… for the next legs:

1. The Canyon respects no one. Period. It doesn’t matter how many “rodeos” you have done.

2. Weight kills. I never counted ounces before, but now I am fanatical. Ounces make pounds and pounds slow you down, creating more time between water access—and water is life. As thru-hiker Andrew Holycross told me, “You quickly learn to carry what you need, not what you want.” One problem, when documenting for Nat Geo. You need (and want) professional cameras, and solar panels, and batteries, etc.. This adds 10 to 12 pounds that other trekkers don’t worry about. That creates the question: Where to shave weight elsewhere—food, clothing, underwear?

Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river. Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river.

 

3. Salt is key. And a lifesaver. Hyponatremia is a term I didn’t know when I started (rookie), but now I understand it too well. It’s not fun. Due to exertion, heat and sweating too much (I sweat like a pig), you deplete your salt levels too far and often make the situation worse by drinking excessive water thinking you are dehydrated because your body stops urinating to preserve salt. Dr. Tom Myers, a thru-hiker himself and first father/son team to hike the Big Ditch, told me after I limped from the canyon, I was close to flapping around with seizures and ending in a coma. Luckily, when I neared the unconscious phase, before seizures (wobbly and tunnel vision, two days after full body cramps), I was slightly restored thanks to some packs of soy sauce (high sodium). Thanks, Rich Rudow.

4. Blisters: Take ‘em seriously: I’ve never had problems before with my leather feet, but they can be the bane of your existence if they fester. Mine did, thanks to high temps, endless fine-grain sand filling my shoes and acting like sandpaper for miles of angled trail-less, exposed hiking. Despite bandages, moleskin, cutting away chunks of flesh, even duct tape wraps, nothing beat the sweaty infection recipe. One of my heel blisters infected its way to the bone, but I ignored it as I was too focused on not falling. Kevin endured worse. Not fun.

Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river. Marble Canyon seen while walking the length of the Grand Canyon, over 600 miles, to highlight secret beauty between the rim and the river.

5. Cactus: Avoid. Hiking gaiters help (we purchased some for this next leg). But if you can’t avoid them—impossible, really, during miles of trail-less desert terrain—then extract needles with aggression. I had a few cactus kisses and didn’t remove needles with enough vigor. Two weeks later, they worked into my ankle joint and required surgical removal. Also, not much fun.

6. Enjoying the “Grand” relates directly with how prepared you are (without adding weight–see #2). If you prepare properly, the canyon and its magical, secret world of ancient rock and wonderous wildlife, may speak to you (amidst occasional pain caves). If you are ill prepared, then expect the canyon scream. My ears (and ego) still hurt from 60 miles of canyon screaming on our first leg.

Just 540 miles to go… prepare, prepare, prepare. Back to the scale to weigh ounces.

Aerial view of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon - above Marble Canyon. Aerial view of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon – above Marble Canyon.

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