campus map campus directory The University of Utah Home Page
Students Future Students Faculty & Staff Alumni & Visitors

About Continuum Advertising Advisory Committee Archives Contact Us Continuum Home Faculty/Staff Subscribe

related websites

Alumni Association Marketing & Communications University of Utah Home

  Continuum Magazine


River Runner

River Runner

Recalling a lifelong fascination with our wild waterways.

by Roy Webb

There I was, walking back to the beached boat after scouting Lava Falls—again. I’d done this how many times? Twenty? Thirty? It’s hard to keep track, but no matter how many times I’ve run Lava, the feeling I get at the top of the falls never changes.

On the one hand, scouting the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls—or any big rapid, for that matter—is a true “Zen” experience, one of seeing deeply into the nature (and danger) of things. As you return to the boat, tighten every strap on the boat frame, make sure nothing is loose, cinch your life jacket so tight you can’t breathe, relieve yourself one more time, and perform whatever little rituals bring you comfort before you push off from the safety of the shore, you’ve never felt more alive. Every one of your senses tingles; you feel the brush of air on your skin, hear your heart beat, and perceive the colors of the canyon and river as preternaturally vivid.

On the other hand, your mind is filled with technical details, which are essentially an ineffective shield against mind-numbing fear. After all, Lava Falls is the biggest runnable whitewater in the continental U.S, and certainly the best known and most-feared rapid in the Grand Canyon.

With 37 feet of total drop in about a hundred yards, Lava is one of those rapids that has its own unique vocabulary: the Bubble Line, which is where your boat’s left tube should be upon entering the rapid; the Ledge Hole, a churning maelstrom that spans the middle of the river, which is most definitely where you don’t want to be unless you can make the apocryphal Dory Slot through the middle of the hole. Then there’s the V-Wave, just below the right side of the Ledge Hole. If you enter the run correctly, you have to immediately straighten your boat and hit the V-wave bow-on, but even then there’s no guarantee that the 15-foot waves won’t just flip your boat end-over-end, leaving you to wash up onto the Big Black Rock—sometimes called The Cheese Grater—at the bottom of the rapid. And finally, you encounter Son of Lava, the rapid immediately following, which has flipped more than one water-laden, out of control boat and smashed it against the canyon wall following a bad run of Lava Falls. If you do make a good run (defined as “right side up” or “in the boat”), just downstream is Thank God Beach, where you can pull in, bail your boat, then jump around releasing that fear, consuming any potables saved for the occasion, yelling and hugging your surviving companions for the sheer joy of being, once again, “Alive Below Lava!”

So why do I still do it? Why subject my pudgy, academically inclined, middle-aged body once again to the punishment and risk of running expansive, dangerous rapids? Because for me, life has always been about rivers. I grew up in New Mexico in a housing development bordered by the San Juan River. My childhood friends and I spent all of our free time in the nearby cottonwood and willow bottoms, where we rode our bikes, built forts, and played army. Later, it was a place to get away from parents to drink a stolen beer, smoke a furtive cigarette, or kiss a girl for the first time. But always there was the river inexorably flowing by. Sometimes it was brown and swollen, sometimes it was clear and cold. Where did it come from? Where did it go? Those questions stuck with me even after I moved away, and rivers have been a leitmotif in my life ever since.

Roy Webb and fellow adventurers plunge into the Grand Canyon’s Lava Falls, the biggest runnable whitewater in the continental U.S.

In 1977, I found myself working as a summer seasonal in Dinosaur National Monument, near Vernal in eastern Utah, where I was offered the chance to accompany the river rangers on a patrol through the Lodore Canyon, a particularly scenic section of the Green River. Not having much else to do and needing the overtime pay, I went along, helping clean campgrounds and dig holes for pit toilets. The work was hard, but it was a great experience. I started to learn how to read water and row a boat. But the highlight of the trip was when I spent a night huddled under a rocky ledge in the middle of a thunderstorm—the apocalyptic kind that can only occur in the desert, where the clash of thunder and lightning seems to rend the sky apart.

After I got back (safely) to park headquarters, I turned to reading accounts of earlier river runners in the little library there, and I had the first of two epiphanies. It occurred while I was reading the standard works on river history—accounts written by John Wesley Powell, William Manly, Julius Stone, Ellsworth Kolb, and other early explorers of the Green and Colorado rivers. I felt the years drop away and realized I’d encountered the same experiences they’d had: sand in my food, being nervous at the top of a big crashing rapids, feeling exhilaration after a successful run, witnessing a desert deluge, and glorying in the ever-changing view of canyon, sky, and river. That sense of connection with those early river explorers is renewed every time I step onto a boat and push off down a wilderness river.

The second epiphany turned me into a river historian. While working on a B.A. in history at the U, I was forced to take time off to earn enough money to continue in the program. So I spent one winter employed with the BLM at a historic ranch in Brown’s Park, an isolated valley on the Utah-Wyoming border. There, I had no real outside contacts—my nearest neighbor lived on a ranch 12 miles away; I had no TV; my radio received only one station from Rock Springs, Wyo., which offered up nonstop country-western music; and the party-line phone didn’t work if it had rained or snowed. Oh, and the nearest paved road was 30 miles away. As a result,

I spent a lot of time philosophizing, writing in my journal, reading, and listening to Joni Mitchell albums. My only real companion—besides a cat named Stickerbush, who had come with the house, and the herd of deer that had come with the pasture—was the Green River, just 50 feet from my back porch. I spent many hours, days, and the occasional night watching it flow by or walking along its banks.

At one point during that lonely winter, I had to make a trip to Salt Lake City, and, somewhat starved for conversation, I stopped by the American West Center on the U of U campus to visit my former professor, C. Gregory Crampton, who taught history (1945 to 1980) and had spent much of his life photographing American Indians and landscapes in the Southwest. I babbled away to him about the history of the ranch and Brown’s Park until he finally interrupted and said, in that erudite, calm voice of his, “Why don’t you write about this?” In reply, I stammered something like, “I couldn’t…,” “I don’t…,” “I’m not…,” but he persisted in telling me that I could and should. His confidence in me was the impetus for my concentration on river running history, which has resulted in four books and more than 100 articles, along with lectures, consulting, and, best of all, many river trips.

A few years later, I wrote a paper about the history of river running on the Green River for a seminar I had with history professor Roger Paxton. About the same time, the University of Utah Press was soliciting manuscripts, so I submitted my paper, which transformed itself into my first book, If We Had a Boat (1986). In the process of writing it, I got to know Don Hatch, son of Bus Hatch, the founder of Hatch River Expeditions. One day, as I was visiting with Don at the Hatch boatyard in Vernal, he said, “I’d sure like to see something written about my dad.” From that came my second book, Riverman: The Story of Bus Hatch, which I wrote during graduate seminars with history professor Brigham D. Madsen.

After the publication of Riverman, I taught a class on river history through the U’s Continuing Education. One of my students was Dee Holladay, founder of Holladay River and Bike Expeditions. At the end of the class, Dee asked me if I’d like to offer history-oriented river trips on the Green, Yampa, San Juan, and Colorado rivers. I said I would. That eventually led to my doing the same kind of trips in the Grand Canyon, many friendships with long-time guides and boatmen, and a much-valued Guide Membership in the Grand Canyon River Guides Association.

By this time I had accumulated so many stories, clippings, and notes from interviews with old river runners—river history up to then had largely been an oral tradition—that they jelled almost naturally into another book, Call of the Colorado (1994).

Roy Webb (manning the oars); Michael Noe (far left), science librarian at the Marriott Library; and Denny Huffman, former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, plunge through Warm Springs Rapid on the Yampa, the last undammed river in the Colorado River system. Says Webb, “Warm Springs holds particular meaning for me—I almost drowned there in 1980 and only approach running it with the greatest trepidation.”

This obsession with rivers has spilled over into my work in the Special Collections Department at the Marriott Library. With the support of department director Greg Thompson MA’72 PhD’81, I started tracking down old river runners to conduct oral histories and to ask them about their records and photographs. As a result, the library has become a center for river-related research, with collections including papers, photos, and films from river runners such as Bus, Don, and Ted Hatch; Charles Eggert, a photographer and conservation activist; Nathaniel Galloway, an early Colorado River explorer and boatman; and Norman Nevills, a pioneer of commercial river-running in the American Southwest. The Nevills papers included his diaries, written on the river in the 1930s and 1940s, which provided the basis for my fourth book, High, Wide and Handsome: The River Journals of Norman D. Nevills (2005).

When the library’s photo archives began to appear online in 1995, some of the first images displayed were of early river runners. Now the J. Willard Marriott Library has one of the most comprehensive online collections of photographs documenting the history of the Green and Colorado rivers in the country.

These days I don’t go on as many trips as I used to; family- and job-related obligations keep me away from the Green and the Colorado rivers for longer periods than I like. But every time I see a river, any river, I still ask myself those same questions that haunted me on the banks of the San Juan so many years ago: Where does the river go? Where did it come from? No matter the answers, I’ll always take comfort in knowing that whatever direction my life might take, there’s always one more river to run.

— Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is the Multimedia Archivist in Special Collections at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Return to Summer 2007 Table of Contents