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
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.