Tucson Chapter February Meeting Summary: Glen Canyon Talk!

by Brittney Bates

For the February, 2016 Tucson Chapter Meeting, Dr. Doug Hamilton gave a very engaging presentation on his rafting trip down Glen Canyon in April 1962, 1 year before the canyon was flooded by Glen Canyon Dam. The talk was attended by 33 guests from a mix of consulting firms, government agencies, and students from the UA.

Dr. Hamilton titled his talk “Echoes from the Past: A Glen Canyon Voyage” and began by recounting some of the challenges John Wesley Powell encountered on his historic journey down the canyon in 1869. Powell led the first scientific expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers. He and a small group of men began their 3-month trip on the upper part of the Green River. They had four boats loaded with 10 months of food supplies and large number of scientific equipment. The group ultimately traveled 930 miles along the rivers. When the rapids were too dangerous to row through, they either rope-lined the boats, or hand portaged the boats. When portaging, Dr. Hamilton noted, the men had to entirely empty three of the four boats due to these boats being made from solid oak. The fourth boat, named the Emma Dean after Powell’s wife, was made from pine and thus was not as heavy. This was Powell’s personal boat. The physical toil required to travel down the river was truly monumental.

Dr. Hamilton also related a humorous story of when Powell, while climbing a canyon wall to take a barometric reading, found that he could not go up or down and was left hanging by his one good arm. A member from his party used his “drawers” to haul Powell up to safety. It should be noted that Powell had use of only his left arm during this entire journey. His right arm had been partly amputated during the Civil War due to a minie ball. The exploration party ended their journey at the mouth of the Virgin River on August 30th. Just a few days shy of their journey’s end, three men from Powell’s group hiked out of the canyon, due particularly to a series of rough rapids they did not want to traverse. Unfortunately, these three men were killed before they made it out of the wilderness — likely, what has been speculated by historians, as a case of mistaken identity, by local Indians. Otherwise, no one died or was seriously injured during this extraordinary journey — a credit to Powell’s leadership and persistence.


View down Glen Canyon as photographed by Dr. Hamilton.

Ninety-three years after Powell’s voyage, Dr. Hamilton and his wife, Shirley Hamilton, along with a few other people photographed the canyon on a 6-day rafting trip down Glen Canyon from Hite, Utah, to Page, Arizona. They began their trip by flying from Page to Hite over the beautiful scenery of Canyonlands. Their river guide, Ken Sleight, an avid conservationist, took them on a “no-frills” ride on inflatable rafts down the canyon. The character, “Seldom Seen” Smith, from the book Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey was loosely based on Sleight. Dr. Hamilton noted that the trip was especially pleasant due to having little to no whitewater, allowing little distraction from enjoying the scenery. This fact was much appreciated by Powell along this stretch as well.

Dr. Hamilton’s group stopped to explore several side canyons among some 80 side canyons along the Glen Canyon. He highlighted five of his favorite stops: Dungeon Canyon, Hidden Passage, Hole in the Rock, Music Temple, and Rainbow Bridge. He also saw many other geological wonders, Indian ruins and petroglyphs along the way including a petroglyph of a six-finger hand.

Dungeon Canyon and Hidden Passage were both beautiful scenic side canyons that were originally explored and named by Powell, but are now submerged. Hole in the Rock is the location where, in 1879, early Mormon settlers blasted a narrow side canyon wide enough to allow wagons to pass down to the Colorado River to cross to the San Juan. The path was so steep that the wagons had to be lowered backwards with the wheels locked and the mules were used to hold the wagons back. The wagons crossed the river on rafts, and a road was built on the other side. The labor done by these early settlers is still visible along the canyon walls, and even today, one can still see signatures that the Mormon travelers left at “Register Rock.”

Music Temple, now flooded, was a natural sandstone amphitheater where, according to Powell, a single 1-second note would last 11 seconds. Powell wrote of this natural wonder “It was doubtless made for an academy of music by its storm-born architect; so we name it ‘Music Temple.” This side canyon was a one of the most popular spots along the canyon before it was flooded.

Rainbow Bridge as photographed by Dr. Hamilton

Rainbow Bridge as photographed by Dr. Hamilton

The last side trip Dr. Hamilton spoke of was Rainbow Bridge, a national monument and a sacred site to the Navajo People. This bridge was not discovered by Powell, and its existence was not well known until the early 1900s. Dr. Hamilton was able to climb on top of the bridge using a series of ropes. The natural sandstone bridge, created by Bridge Creek, spans 234 feet and is reported to be one of the highest natural bridges in the world (natural bridges are distinguished from arches by the fact that there is running water below a bridge). From the top of the bridge, Dr Hamilton described the view as truly “awesome” and “fantastic,” in the full weight those words can convey. From the top, one is surrounded by steep red canyon walls, but where the canyon opens the impressive face of Navajo Mountain can clearly be seen. Current day visitors can still see the bridge by boating into the side canyon docking, and hiking 2 miles to the bridge.


Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Cables attached to towers on rail track on either side of the canyon allowed a large bucket containing concrete to move and dump concrete to build up the dam. In the photo you can just make out people oiling the wheels that conveyed the concrete bucket.

Dr. Hamilton ended his rafting journey near the construction site of what would be become the Glen Canyon Dam. Major work on the dam began in 1956 and continued until 1966. One year after Dr. Hamilton’s trip in 1963, water impoundment behind the dam commenced. Over the next 14 years, Lake Powell slowly submerged Glen Canyon and all its side canyons. The sites first described by Powell and later photographed by Dr. Hamilton are now underwater, and likely will never quite be as they were.

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