Grand Canyon What River
He first floated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1955 — the 185th known person to follow in explorer John Wesley Powell’s footsteps. Not long after, he founded Grand Canyon Dories and has since led scores of trips on the Colorado. In 2004 he broke his own record becoming the oldest person to row the entire Grand Canyon at the age of 87.
Lifelong environmentalist and wilderness activist, the now 95-year-old Litton continues to speak mostly with his actions. He’s currently on the Advisory Committee of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a former travel editor for Sunset Magazine and he fought alongside fellow activists David Brower and Edward Abbey against dam proposals and the logging of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument.
How were you introduced to rivers?
At one point, I learned that a river trip — a Norm Nevills river trip, called Mexican Hat Expeditions — in 1952 was going to be running Lava Falls on a certain day. I don’t know how I found that out, but Esther and I had already taken the Toroweap Leap, that is where you step off the rim of the canyon and the whole side of the canyon starts moving with you as you go down to the bottom (to the river). We had done that and had actually climbed out at that point by Lava Falls. Don’t ever try it, it’s horrible, but at least I knew the way down and I’d decided to make a newspaper story out of it for the Los Angeles Times.
So I went over there, and a couple ladies who had gone down the river with Mexican Hat Expeditions found out about it and wanted to go with me. So we drove over there to the Toroweap Overlook (as it’s called), above Lava Falls, and we went down the so called trail. There is no trail, but as one of the ladies said, “From the moment we stepped off the rim, it was always a question as to which would reach the river first — us or the topography, ” because everything moves when you move down that slide. So anyway, we got down there and I photographed what they did — they lined Lava Falls, they never ran it in those days. There was also a big cabin cruiser, a motorboat, in-board that was there being driven by Bob Rig of the Rig Brothers — that boat ran Lava Falls. So that big boat ran Lava Falls and I’ve got movies of that and stills. Those pictures of that run appeared in the Los Angeles Times, along with the article about what they were doing.
That really got me acquainted with the river because these people who ran the river with Nevills were about the only ones doing it and would always have big barbeques afterward and show all their slides. And those barbeques would be out in the San Fernando Valley somewhere, in a backyard, at night, and they would show the slides — everybody would show every picture that he or she had taken on the entire river trip. So you sat out there all night, eating and drinking and watching slides. And one of the people I met doing that, who had not been on the river at any time that I was associated with it, was P.T. Riley. He got in touch with me by phone later having met me there at this party, and wanted me to go down the river with him and row one of his boats that he was building out of fiberglass.
He knew I’d been on the crew rowing at UCLA, as if that would’ve had anything to do with skill on the river, it really wouldn’t, but as a result of that, even though I couldn’t row on the first trip because I’d had a bad accident with a horse and dislocated my shoulder. My arm was strapped to my side for the entire trip, 21 days; so I couldn’t row a boat on my first trip through the canyon. I was a passenger, and Esther went, she was a passenger, and there were a total — I think — of nine people on that trip taking these boats that P.T. Riley had made, which turned out to be [laughs] not very good boats. That started me.
Which river trip stands out most in your mind?
Maybe the second one which was the first time I rowed the boat all the way through with Esther, but actually until we got into dories — when we were no longer running those ridiculous little boats — we didn’t have great river trips because any trip in which you line a rapid and don’t run it can’t be really 100 percent great. We have to be able to handle all the rapids in the Grand Canyon, nothing from the shore, everything happens on the river, the boat makes it through and you hope you’ll be right side up at the other end, and we usually are.