Remembering the Grand Canyon’s Legendary Protector

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, furnace-like 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.

On shore, it all made sense, but as we slide over the lip of Lava Falls, mile 178 of 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.

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Navigating Hermit Rapid by dory on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon; Photograph by Pete McBride

I’m running last in a flotilla shadowing the maiden voyage of a wooden 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 such dory trips to exist today, Martin Litton.

As we plunge into the blind abyss ahead, I am comforted by one story that echoes throughout river folklore. Martin Litton, the man who pioneered the first runs down Lava Falls in dories, was notorious for going with the flow and “letting the river decide.”

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

I could use that angelic friend of Martin’s now. A less than silvery path lie 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.

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Martin Litton’s preferred river boat, the dory; Photograph by Pete McBride

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 that feared compromise.

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

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. He died a year ago on November 30, 2014. The conservation/dory legend had rowed onward.

But last spring, I was invited to meet the spirit of Martin through many 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 dory passion forward.

For two weeks, I follow the newest dory member—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 guide himself, who learned the trade from his father Regan (another Litton protégé) 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.

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An aerial video of dam-free Marble Canyon in the Grand Canyon; Photograph by Pete McBride

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.

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 myself 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.

But 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, boatman and passengers readily celebrate the man who started it all–and fought 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.

Over the next year, photographer, writer, and filmmaker Pete McBride will be walking the length of the Grand Canyon with author Kevin Fedarko. Their story will appear in an upcoming edition of National Geographic magazine. See McBride’s dispatch “6 Painful Lessons I Learned by Hiking the Grand Canyon.”