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Historic River Running Boats at Glen Canyon Visitor Center

photo: historic river running boat
Historic river running boat

I started out thinking of America as highways and stateliness. As I got to know it better, I began to think of it as rivers. Most of what I love about the country is a gift of the rivers. America is a great story, and there is a river on every page of it.
      - Charles Kuralt, CBS television journalist and storyteller

The words of Charles Kuralt inspire the visitors to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center at Glen Canyon Dam and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to consider the story of one of the world’s great rivers. The newly opened special exhibit, The Colorado: River of Possibilities, is the story of converging values between natural aesthetic beauty and American growth and progress. Throughout our relationship with the river, passions over water access and use have roiled over the boulders of politics, science, and the public conscience.

The exhibit, which centers on two of the historic boats to run the Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons,is an Arizona Centennial Legacy Project cosponsored by the National Park Service’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Reclamation’s Glen Canyon Field Division.  This is the second such special exhibit, following the extremely popular dinosaur display that was in place for the past year.

One of the displayed boats is the Marble. It was one of four wooden boats built in the early 1920s and used by the U.S. Geological Survey to survey the Colorado River basin to identify potential dam sites. The Marble was used in expeditions of the Green, San Juan and Colorado Rivers, including Cataract, Glen and Grand Canyons. It was a Galloway style boat, measures 18 feet long and weighs 800 pounds empty.

Nathaniel Galloway is the father of modern whitewater rowing techniques. He designed flat-bottomed boats that would work in shallow waters and had greater ease of pivoting. Also, he was the first to face downstream, viewing the rapids rather than the in traditional back-to-the view of previous boaters.  By facing the rapids, he could pull upstream to slow his momentum and better move back and forth around obstacles. He revolutionized whitewater boating with boats like the Marble.

photo: historic river running boat
Historic river running boat

A second displayed boat is a sport yak used in Grand Canyon is 1963. During that time period, bigger inflatable boats and dories couldn’t make the journey due to low river levels following the closing of gates at the newly constructed glen Canyon Dam to begin filling Lake Powell.  The sport yak would handle the lower flows of that time period.

The exhibit introduces the concept that the Colorado River is routinely visited by explores of every kind who seek to experience her waters and reap her treasures. While those visitor’s experiences may be limited in duration, the memories taken home are powerful.  Reclamation and the National Park Service share the desire for the exhibit visitors to learn more of the history of the river, as seen through the eyes of the early boat expeditions, and to appreciate and consider the wide range of issues and benefits that come with water development and management coupled with the values and experiences of the lands and riverine environment of the Colorado River.

Those complexities are well spoken to in the words of the two agency directors. Reclamation’s Commissioner, Michael L. Connor, is quoted as saying, “Reclamation’s role, whether it be here or elsewhere, is to deliver water, generate power, and protect and restore the environment.  Those are the three big areas we work in and they are areas that are not separate from each other. We have to do each one of these well.”

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said, “…the beginning of the National Park System coincides with the waning days of the Western frontier. It seemed like America could sense the force of its own ambition and realized it needed to step back, think, and set aside a portion of its natural character and its cultural memory before it was too late.”


Last updated: May 17, 2012