One day in a recent June, four of us took off on a drive of more than a thousand miles—from the village of Palm Desert in southern California to the town of Green River in eastern Utah. Our purpose was to join Georgie White for her forthcoming rapids shoot down Cataract Canyon.
There are two Cataract canyons in the Southwest, and they are as different from each other as two places could be. The one in Arizona is a tiny enclave hidden away in a hard-to-reach part of the vast Grand Canyon. A couple of hundred Havasupai Indians dwell there in idyllic content, weaving a few baskets, growing a little fruit, now and then slaying a deer and tanning its hide to buckskin, and from time to time yawning or gently scratching themselves. No doubt you have heard the song, From the Land of the Sky-blue Water, that the late Charles Wakefield Cadman wrote to salute their bliss. By the corniest kind of coincidence, the car we were riding in belonged to Al Cadman, a nephew of Charles Wakefield, and Al was driving it.
The other Cataract Canyon, in Utah, is just below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. None of the four of us had ever been there, but we had all read or heard that this Cataract was anything but idyllic, its waters far from sky-blue. Boatmen were said to rate it one of the toughest stretches in the whole Colorado system. This Cataract was supposed to contain ferocious white water all the way, and it was the one we were heading for.
Half a dozen or so of the rapids Georgie White takes you into on her three-week, 300-mile run down the Colorado from Lee's Ferry through the Grand Canyon are certainly ferocious. Their shooting, however, doesn't last more than a few minutes for each, and between these occasional ferocities there is plenty of calm water for her passengers to recover in. But one of our quartet had been told by somebody that, in contrast to the Grand, Cataract Canyon embraced a supergigantic nightmare of a rapid that stretched 41 miles virtually nonstop.
This report of a 41-mile-long rapid was a sample of the manner in which men often encourage one another while traveling to white water that is unknown to them. I contributed to our panel a heartening statistic I had recently encountered. Between 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell's expedition first traversed Cataract, and 1927, when Clyde Eddy's party of 11 college boys, a hobo, a mongrel dog and a cub bear made it (but only by the skin of their collective backsides), the canyon's raging torrents had killed about 30% of all those who had ventured to fight their boats through them.
Greg Hitchcock, who manages office buildings in Pasadena, Calif. and is a crack photographer of outdoor subjects on the side, and Al Cad-man and I had been on the Grand Canyon run with Georgie in past summers. Our quartet's other, and senior, member was Randall Henderson, the publisher and editor of an excellent monthly, the Desert Magazine, which is well known on the Coast. For almost half a century he has lived in and explored desert areas throughout the Southwest and down into Mexico, and his command of desert lore is exhaustive. Although 70 years old, Randall is still an expert cliff scaler and summit reacher. He also knows his way around in white water. Ten or so years ago he made the Grand Canyon run with the late Norman Nevills. But Randall had never before been on one of Georgie's trips.
We were traveling northeast, and when we got to the Colorado we stopped to find out the score at Art Green's Marble Canyon Lodge, which is seven miles from Lee's Ferry, where the rivermen start their Grand Canyon runs. Art told us that the river was at 150,000 second-feet. (In hydrography, a second-foot is the flow past a given point of a cubic foot of water in one second.) It was the highest the Colorado at this given point and season had been in years. Greg Hitchcock and I checked with each other. When we had pulled out of Lee's Ferry on my first Grand Canyon run with Georgie, the river had been at about 15,000 feet. There was 10 times as much water in the Colorado here now as there had been then.
Well, that, I told myself, was the end of the 41-mile-long rapid. The Colorado would no doubt be as high in its upper reaches, and water as high as this buried the rocks so deep that it washed rapids out. Right now down at Lee's Ferry they were tuning up motorboats to make the Grand Canyon run, and they would run it at full throttle. So, running Cataract Canyon would be different from running it under normal conditions. We'd probably tear along at a great rate and maybe almost level with the tops of the cliffs. It might be good fun, and at least it would be unusual. After taking a few beers against the heat of the day, we drove off, heading for Green River, 225 miles upstream. Then Greg and Al and I started to fill Randall in on all we knew about Georgie, because he was going to do a story on her for Desert. I will try to summarize the fill-in in my own words.
Georgie White, a middle-aged Los Angeles housewife married to a retired truck driver, is the only female professional boatman on the Colorado River. Among specialists in comparative fluminology, the Colorado, because of its raffish and unstable behavior, is regarded as the most dangerous river in the world. Therefore, running boats down it can scarcely be classified as a ladylike pursuit. But Georgie runs her boats, and, though she was not gently nurtured when young, she is a lady in the true sense of the word—full of fine instincts, warmhearted, generous and brave.
She was born in the slums of Chicago and lived in them until she was about 16. Almost the only happy memory Georgie has of her childhood is swimming in Lake Michigan, particularly during storms. Whenever it thundered good and loud and she could sneak off, she would hurry to the lake and throw herself in its waves.