Descending the Grand Canyon

by Edward Eggleston

The Colorado River is the strangest river in the United States. For hundreds of miles it runs through channels in solid rocks. These channels are often thousands of feet deep. In some places the rocks rise straight up like walls. These walls are quite bare. There are no trees and no grass on them. There is not even any moss to be seen. The bare rocks are of many colors. When the sunlight strikes upon them, they are as beautiful as flowers and as gorgeous as the clouds, we are told.

These deep cuts, through which the river runs, are called canyons. The longest of them is called the Grand Canyon (see frontispiece). It is about two hundred miles long. In some places it is more than a mile and a quarter deep. The river runs at the bottom of this deep ravine. It rushes over rapids, and plunges over falls. Sometimes there is a little strip of rock like a shelf at the edge of the river. In many places the walls of rock rise straight from the water, and there is no place where a man can put his feet.

Major Powell resolved to go through this canyon in boats. No boat had ever gone down this deep, dark channel. Two men, running away from Indians, had once gone into it on a raft. The raft was dashed over rapids and waterfalls. The provisions of the men were washed overboard. One of the men was drowned, and the other at last floated out at the lower end of the canyon more dead than alive.

Being a man of science, Major Powell wanted to find out about the Grand Canyon. He knew that it would be a fearful journey. He and his men might all be lost, but they made up their minds to try to go through.

They did not know how long the canyon was. They had already passed through the other canyons above, and had suffered many hardships. They knew how wild and dangerous such places are, but whether they could ever get through this great and awful gorge they did not know. But they got into their boats, and started down the long passage. The sun shines down into this narrow gorge only for a short time each day. Most of the way the walls are too steep to climb.

The boats shot swiftly down the river. Sometimes they ran over wild rapids. The men had many narrow escapes. The boats bumped against the rocks, and some of the oars were broken. New oars had to be made, and, to do this, the men had to find logs that had drifted down the river. Sometimes Major Powell and his men had to have pitch to stop the leaks in their boats. To get this, they had to climb up thousands of feet of rock to where some little pine trees grew.

They could not see far ahead, because the river was not straight, and the side walls of the narrow gorge shut out the view. Sometimes they would hear a loud roaring of water ahead. Then they knew they were coming to a waterfall. If there was any room to walk, they would carry and drag their boat round the falls. If there was no shelf or shore on which to carry the boats, they had to let them float down over the falls, the men on the rocks above holding ropes tied to the boats. Sometimes they could not even do this. Then they had to get into the boats and plunge over the falls among the rocks. They had hard work to keep off the rocks.

More than once a boat got full of water. The men had to let the boat run till they got to a wider place, where they could get the water out.

Their flour was spoiled by getting wet. Their bacon became bad. Much of their food was lost overboard. They usually slept out on the rocks by the side of the river. Sometimes they slept in caves. Once they sat up all night on a shelf of rock in a pouring rain.

All day they had to work, to save their lives. At night they had to sleep on cold rocks without blankets enough to keep them warm. The great rock walls on either side of them made an awful prison. They could not tell how far they had gone, nor did they know just how far they had to go.

At last the food ran short. The men were tired of musty flour. They had lost their baking powder, and they had to make heavy bread. They thought that even this bad food would give out before they could reach the end of the canyon.

But one day they came to a little patch of earth by the side of the river. On this some corn was growing. The Indians living on the bare rocks above had come down by some steep path to plant this little cornfield. The corn was not yet large enough to eat. But among the corn grew some green squashes.

Major Powell's men were too near starving not to take anything they could find to eat. They took some of the green squashes and put them into their boats. Then they ran on down the canyon, out of the reach of any Indians. Here they stewed some of the squashes, and ate them.

When they had been fifteen days in this great canyon, they had but a little flour and some dried apples left. They had now come to a place where one could climb up out of the gorge. But they did not know how far they were from the end. Three of the men here resolved to leave the party. They did not believe that there was any hope of running out of the canyon in the boats alive. They took their share of the food and some guns, and bade the others good-by. They climbed up out of the canyon, and were soon after killed by Indians.

One of the boats was by this time nearly worn out by the rocks. As there were not enough men left to manage three boats, this one was left behind. Major Powell, with those of his men who were still with him, went on down the awful river. The very next day they ran suddenly out into an open space. They had at last got out of the Grand Canyon, which had held them prisoners for sixteen days.

They went on down the river, and the next day after this they found some settlers drawing a seine or net to catch fish in the river. These settlers had heard that Major Powell and his men were lost, and they were keeping a lookout for any pieces of his boats that might float down from above. Food of many kinds was sent from the nearest settlement to feast the hungry men who had so bravely struggled through the Grand Canyon.