The Old Man and the River


Water running over rocks,

Normal people don’t come here

--Martin Litton On the Grand Canyon


No one is likely to insult Martin Litton by calling him normal, average, conventional, reasonable. Not in describing his life, not when considering his ideas. So on this particular workday it is no surprise to find the old man rowing his boat with big, meaty, sunburned, liver-spotted hands: gliding onto a sand beach of the Colorado River beneath the naked cliffs of the canyon, the Grand Canyon--a place so vast and timeless as to mock the ambitions and trifling exploits of all but a very few people.

Martin Litton is one of those few and, in some ways, the most extraordinary of all.

He is 80 years old now, with a lavish belly and a mane of gossamer white hair. In the name of a new and unimaginably audacious conservation campaign and for the sheer wild hell of it, he has just finished rowing a 17-foot dory down 258 placid and furious miles of the Colorado River from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

Perhaps for the last time.

Champagne corks pop into the afternoon sky, and a fierce smile answers on his leathery face.


As he has been doing for decades, he maneuvered his fragile boat into, and out of, the maelstrom of Colorado River rapids, and he lumbered by foot up the precarious ledges of the side canyons; once again he has come here to renew his enduring love affair with nature, to sleep on the hard ground and to raise his booming, uncompromising voice on behalf of wildness.

Those of us who have trailed along during this 19-day adventure--four journalists, other paying guests, the boatmen and our camp cook--gather around. Sunburned, sore, tired, dirty, bruised and inspired, we cheer.

A scattered few thousand people--river runners, canyoneers, desert rats, tree huggers, romantics and perhaps some of his adversaries, the champions of development--will understand the poignancy of this moment.

For others, a story is warranted. . . . Because Martin Litton is the grand old man of the Colorado River. And one of the most remarkable of 20th century American conservationists.

A Prejudice Against the Old

Let us begin with this generalization: American culture is hard on its old.

By 80, more than half of us are dead. Too many of the survivors dodder, no longer just retirees but classified as The Elderly. Mostly, they are not asked for their wisdom or leadership because they are not regarded as having much of it. The world moves too fast. The young know what is up, not the old.

Yes, a youthful lawyer may look with esteem at the venerable judge, or an aging actress may bring the Academy Awards crowd respectfully to its feet. But running big rivers, scrambling over canyon boulders, sleeping among scorpions, rowing against the howling wind--these are physical endeavors. Lobbying the Congress, courting contributors and journalists, stirring up public fury and arguing the cause of conservation in three places at once--these demand energy and wiliness of a different kind.


“Martin Litton exemplifies a philosophy that life is one great adventure, or nothing at all,” says one of our voyagers, Don Frew of Newport News, Va.

Life also carries obligation. This young boy who explored the mountains and canyons of Southern California grew into an indignant young man who wrote letters to the newspaper demanding that natural treasures be left unspoiled. Later, his letters became freelance news features, and he touched off conservationist crusades, including a pioneering campaign against litter.

By midlife, the combination of immovable views and a growing reputation as a Colorado River runner earned Litton special stature. In particular, he motivated idealists with his call to fight and never yield. In later years, when other environmentalists were kicking themselves for the compromises they made, Litton could say, “I told you so.”

Because he refused to deal, his influence has always been strongest inside the conservation movement. A voice not of reason but of righteousness. Also, it should be added, a voice that can be cantankerous, brusque, even harsh and irritating. Still, his endorsement, his appearance at the scene of a development flash point, sends a signal of priorities to the larger environmental community.

Insofar as is known, he is the oldest to row himself down the Grand Canyon. Old Bert Loper tried it on his 80th birthday in 1949 but died in a rapid at Mile 24 1/2. His remains were found two decades later.

“Eighty, hell,” Litton jokes at the end of a day’s rowing, pouring himself a mug of Irish whiskey. “I did it at 79, and nobody said anything. And next year, if I go again, I’ll be doing camp chores with everyone else. But 80, big deal. The significance is trivial. People say you’re the oldest guy to row the canyon. Well, I’ve been that for 20 years. How many 60-year-olds do you see doing this?”

When Litton was born in Gardena, Gen. John Pershing was pursuing Pancho Villa across the border into Mexico, and the czar was deposed in Russia. America’s entry into World War I was only weeks away.

Litton would not run the Grand Canyon for 38 more years, not until 1955. He would become the 185th person known to have made the journey.

Today, as grandiose as it sounds, 20,000 people run the canyon annually, due in measure to Litton’s love of the place and his iron resistance to building dams along it.

47 Major Whitewater Rapids

We launch our trip under a gloomy gunmetal sky, low clouds tearing across the desert. Rain blurs the horizon. There is a blustery chill to the wind.

Awaiting us downstream are 47 major whitewater rapids, some of the most storied in the world. The river is running high and, as always, frigid.

Normally, float trips start at Lee’s Ferry near Page, Ariz., Mile Zero on river maps. Because this is a commemorative journey, we launch 15 miles upriver at the base of Glen Canyon Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation, with an admirable sense of irony, has allowed this privilege even though the stated purpose of the voyage is for Litton and others to argue that the 34-year-old dam should be mothballed and Lake Powell behind it drained. Goodbye, bureau.

This would be the greatest development rollback in the history of the American West, surely a preposterous idea. But no longer nearly as preposterous as it was just a few years ago. For Martin Litton, it’s only right and logical that we start “fixing our mistakes. Before it’s too late.”

It’s an old refrain on behalf of beautiful places.

In October 1935, The Times published a letter that read, in part, “The people of the entire state should rise up against the destruction of Mono Lake. Mono Lake is a gem--among California’s greatest scenic attractions.” It was signed Martin Litton, then 18.

Today, wearing a blue crusher hat and a flannel shirt, Litton clambers down scaffolding at the concave face of the 700-foot dam. He steps, unsteadily, into his dory.

He is the man who brought the double-ended Northwest river dory to the Grand Canyon, for reasons that were both aesthetic and contrarian. In the years after World War II, inflatable rafts came into vogue. And motorized tours in giant inflatable “baloney boats” gained popularity. Against the grain, Litton founded the guide service called Grand Canyon Dories, utilizing nimble and colorful hard-shell boats with a single oarsman amidships and passengers fore and aft. Although he sold the company to an associate, it remains the most elegant of the canyon’s commercial outfitters.

First, we drift on flat currents through the Navajo sandstone ramparts of what remains of Glen Canyon. Seeing us off is another of the great figures of modern American conservation, David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club.

Now too fragile to attempt the river himself, the 84-year-old Brower has spent the 1990s expressing mea culpa for acquiescing to Glen Canyon Dam 35 years ago in a trade-off to protect Dinosaur National Monument from two planned dams.

“I’ve worn sackcloth and ashes ever since. . . . The fact is, though, that Glen Canyon is still there. With that thought in mind, I’ve turned from regret to restoration,” Brower recently wrote.

He promises that if he sees the lake drained and the canyon reemerge, “I’ll go quietly.”

We camp at Mile Six below Lee’s Ferry. It rains all night. Tents leak, and sleeping bags wick up water like sponges.

In the morning, rain changes to snow. Fat, sticky flakes.

In a few weeks, the annual campfire season will be closed. For now, we are grateful for the iron fire pan and a lump of driftwood, and we thaw our toes like wrinkly marshmallows against the flames.

A mile and a half downstream is our first named rapid, Badger Creek.

Our run is straightforward and shockingly wet.

Corny Conciliator of the Campfire

“A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke

A woman is only a woman

But a good cigar is a smoke. Kipling. Do you like Kipling? Have you ever Kippled?”

We laugh. Corny suits Litton. He’s been making camp with strangers for almost half a century and can transform a group into an easy family in days. His witticisms come from Shakespeare, from Dorothy Parker and the river runner’s musty store chest.

Stories tumble from him nonstop. Old canyoneers he has known. Bad days in the rapids. Comic clients. His early years in Southern California. The “vicious, wicked and evil” forces of development. Want another gin and tonic? Unlike many of today’s younger environmentalists, Litton is not flawed with earnestness. And unlike so many zealots in the cause, he is foremost and always an outdoorsman.

When he was a 16-year-old student at Inglewood High School, as he tells it, he read a book about an attempt on Mt. Everest. He jumped in the family’s 1927 Essex and drove to Mt. Baldy. “I was fired up.”

He waded through deep snow in city clothes and made it to the summit. His mountaineering career “was satisfied.”

Also at Inglewood High, he took a typing class. By chance, students were assigned to transcribe pages of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 account of exploring the Colorado River canyons:

We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown. . . . We have an unknown distance yet to run, and unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah well! We may conjecture many things.

How the words inflamed a young imagination.

“It was wonderful,” Litton recalls. “Any kid would think so.”

Down in these grand, gloomy depths we glide ever listening. . . .

House Rock Rapid, the Roaring 20s

Day Three: More rain. Litton is drinking red wine from a box at 8:15 a.m. and looking downstream at the first of the big ones.

“Right below us is the most challenging rapid of the day,” he says.

Is he nervous? After all, he flipped his boat twice last year. Or is he just feeding our anticipation?

House Rock Rapid, followed by the Roaring 20s--a series of medium-sized drops from Miles 20 to 27--leave us cold, sopping, exhilarated.

Singer Carole King, who is along for the first leg of the trip, organizes everyone into a circle to wish away the rain.

The next day breaks clear. We rise to camp sounds: the hiss of a propane burner, last night’s beer cans being smashed flat, ammo cans jangling, the pump-suck of the water filter, the rattle of nylon. The crunch of sand in your mouth with morning coffee.

High above, the vermilion walls of the canyon are glazed in snow. Lower down, yellow fields of flowering brittle-bush. Seasons in collision. The territorial flute song of the canyon wren is not meant as a welcome, but we selfishly regard it as such because it is so beautiful.

This a landscape of hallucinatory vertical surfaces rising from a baseline of a single writhing horizontal. The river runs green, strong, deep and swirling. Its rumble is a lullaby. Except when its rumble becomes a roar.

Downstream we stop at an epic undercut in the sandstone, Redwall Cavern. Guitars appear from the holds of the dories. We gather in a half-circle. Carole King sings. “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Tonight You’re Mine.” We dance. Even Martin Litton dances.

A View of Comet Hale-Bopp

Night Six: From deep in the gorge, our aperture on the sky is a narrow slot. But comet Hale-Bopp and its flaring tail appear just after sunset. And Orion. And Mars. And the tiny flicker of a meteor. And nervous, squeaking bats silhouetted against the stars.

“We haven’t seen any real Grand Canyon whitewater yet,” says Kenton Grua, a legendary canyon man and the trip leader. This is his 29th year as a boatman.

His message: “Tomorrow we’ll see some.”


“I’m a little apprehensive about today,” says Litton.

This time he is not speaking for effect. He chooses a stouter life jacket. And he attaches a rope ladder to the gunwale of his boat. At 80, he figures he’ll need a foothold to get back in if he washes out.

Of the rapids ahead, he says: “They’re horrible. Or beautiful. Depending on if you make it. . . . This is a terrible place. There is no place like it.”

Unkar. Hance. Sockdolager. Grapevine. Zoroaster.

Familiar names to canyon runners. Troubled, icy waves of water. And exaggerated, loopy waves of emotion: anxiety followed by elation.

“I’m beginning to think I’ll make it,” says Litton at day’s end. He is flirting innocently with a tall graphic designer from New York who is half his age.

From his pocket, he produces a vial of nitroglycerin tablets.

“Here.” He shakes one into the woman’s palm.

She laughs and puts it in her mouth. She reports a burning sensation on her ears. Maybe Litton is correct, normal people don’t come here. Or if they do, they don’t act normally.

Of course, we haven’t seen anything yet.

A River Encumbered With Myth

In this century, the Colorado River, America’s third longest, has been encumbered with a heavy slurry of emotion, myth, hope, despair, science and politics--an allegory for colliding visions of the West.

Beginning with construction of Hoover Dam in 1928-34, the muddy stream, as historian-writer Wallace Stegner observed, watered development and “remade the map of the West.” Laws, compacts and court cases ladled out shares of the river like so much pea soup among the seven states of the mountain, south and coastal West. Southern California took a big drink--and then some.

But one dam did not quench the desire for water, electricity, progress. There were so many deep and seemingly perfect canyons waiting to be plugged.

Two sites were identified over the years in what is now an expanded Grand Canyon National Park. Bore holes and tailings still mark the test sites for these dams. Litton was an early and instrumental voice in arousing public resistance, and many believe that he deserves foremost credit for today’s free-flowing river.

“You have to understand, he came from a generation tempered by the Depression and World War II. Most of those guys came out and wanted to develop the country. Martin Litton was one of the earliest and strongest voices to say no, when it was not the norm to say no,” explains Lew Steiger, a 25-year boatman and Prescott, Ariz., filmmaker.

For every dam thwarted, others rose. There are now 14 major impoundments on the Colorado and its tributaries and 40 smaller ones. Each raindrop from its mountain watersheds is “used” 17 times--for irrigation, hydropower, recreation, drinking.

One of the dams in particular has long galled conservationists.

Just upriver from the Grand Canyon, the 200-mile-long Glen Canyon, reaching from southern Utah into northern Arizona, had been envisioned as the centerpiece for a vast Escalante National Park. That was in the 1940s. After the war, the park proposal faded in the heady push to build the West.

The last bucket of concrete was poured in Glen Canyon on Sept. 13, 1963. Today, Lake Powell has a shoreline longer than the coastline of California, Oregon and Washington combined.

In recent years, and now with greater vigor, conservationists raised the question: Is it possible, worthwhile, justifiable, necessary to reverse “progress” and empty its lake for the sake of nature? For our own sake?

The idea was laughable in 1975 when Edward Abbey wrote his comic bombast about blowing up the dam, “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

It is not entirely laughable now. Except for a few die-hards still pushing for construction of one more great Western dam, the Auburn Dam on California’s American River, the era of the river tamers seems spent. On the Elwah River in Washington state, there are plans to bring down a dam. On the Columbia River, on the Sacramento and here on the Colorado, water managers are being pushed to operate dams in consideration of nature, not just for power and water consumers.

Glen Canyon is more vulnerable to challenge than most. It does not store water for irrigation or drinking, except for a small amount used by residents of Page, Ariz. Its primary uses are three: the generation of up to 1,380 megawatts of electricity during peak demands, as a sediment trap to prolong the life of Hoover Dam downstream, and as a vast flat-water recreation area. But it is also, and importantly, a holding tank for the share of the Colorado belonging to the upriver states--a dowry that these states are not using, but which none wants to forfeit.

Traveling with us this trip is the man who knows as much about the dam, its benefits and consequences, as anyone: Dave Wegner. For 14 years, he was the Bureau of Reclamation’s chief environmental scientist in the region. Last December, frustrated by government policies, he quit and joined the conservation movement seeking to mothball the dam and drain Lake Powell.

His conversion has brought enormous credibility to the conservationist cause.

“All we want is a public debate,” he says. “This dam was built without hearing from the public. It’s time we all had a say.”

Dreaded Day Eight

Day Eight. When I rowed my own 14-foot raft through the Grand Canyon in 1981, we called this “dreaded Day Eight.” Sixteen years has changed the mood of foreboding not at all.

I am in the bow of Litton’s boat. Lew Steiger, former president of the Grand Canyon RiverGuides, is in the stern. And as we enter the narrow, ominous gorge below the small resort at Phantom Ranch, trouble.

Caught in a riffle, Litton runs aground on some small rocks. His emotions seem to sag, and ours surely do. Ahead is the ugliest rapid on the river, Horn. And the fastest flowing, Granite Creek. And the biggest waves, the 30-footers at Hermit. And then, the most dangerous of all, Crystal--where a flip spews swimmers into a vast and violent uproar of bone-crunching rocks. “That damn thing scares me to death,” says Litton.

We horse the boat free. Litton wonders if he should give up the oars.

No, says Steiger.

Litton negotiates Horn in craftsmanlike fashion. We stop and scout Granite Creek. It looks big and awful, and the ground seems to shake underfoot. Litton runs it perfectly, a big square toothy smile on his face.

We approach Hermit. A video photographer has joined us. Usually this is just a fun ride over giant roller-coaster waves.

Floating on the smooth pool above the rapid, we are first in line to size it up.

Steiger: “It looks big.”

Litton: “It doesn’t look good.”

Steiger: “It looks really big.”

There is a tongue of mirror-slick water above the rapid. A hungry tongue. It sucks us down. The mind shifts into slow motion. Water looms up and surrounds us. These are not roller-coaster waves but vast “V” waves rising on either side of us as we descend into the fury. At the very bottom of the “V” is a hole, as if someone has pulled a cork out of the bottom of the river. And beyond the hole rises a three-story chute of water that appears to stand up vertically.

Litton’s boat Sequoia slams into the bottom of the hole. We are inside a canyon of thrashing water. Then everything is frothy green-brown and cold, the roar of the rapid suddenly muffled. The wave clamshells us. The video photographer washes out, another member of the “Martin Litton Swim Team.” The power of the water yanks the oars from Litton’s hands.

With Steiger in the back and me in front, our weight high-sided against the waves is all that can keep us upright. That and luck.

There is light--and thunderous noise--again now. And we are hurtling up the face of the three-story water chute. Then down again, and up, and down once more. Five monster waves in total. We are upright, the boat full of chilled water. Perhaps 15 seconds have elapsed.

We bail, retrieve the photographer and stop on a sand beach to dry ourselves in the sun. Against all company rules, Litton medicates our egos with Irish whiskey.

On the quiet water below, I row Martin Litton’s dory with Litton in it. I will forever be trying to squeeze that into campfire conversations with other river runners. It would be like dropping word that you played a trumpet solo with Tommy Dorsey once.

‘Conservative in the True Sense’

“I am a conservative,” the old man says. “A radical conservative. I’m a registered Republican. That used to be the party of conservationists. I am a conservative in the true sense of the word. Conservative, quite obviously, comes from the word conserve.”

At UCLA, Litton started a conservationist club. As a circulation agent for The Times, he wrote freelance articles about the growing abundance of highway litter, about a threatened grove of sugar pines, about a dam proposed on the Yampa River.

He became travel editor of Sunset magazine.

“I traveled a lot. But no matter what else I saw, this remains the greatest experience on Earth. Are there deeper canyons? Yes. Tougher rivers? Yes. But none of them can compare to what you have here: a river that is almost, but not quite, at the limits of navigation. It’s full of exhilaration--the prospect of one exciting moment after another. And the realization of contact with the beauty of the Earth. It’s all here. It’s a major order of experience.”

And where did this appreciation for the wild begin?

Hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains as a boy, perhaps.

Or maybe it was Malibu Canyon that made the young Litton a radical. He went to World War II as a glider pilot. He flew in the invasion of Normandy. Malibu Canyon lingered in his thoughts as “heaven on Earth.”

“I came back, and they had put a road through it. Just so you could get to the coast from Highway 101 in 18 minutes.”

Anger. He feeds on it. You must be furious to battle so hard so long.

“What is wilderness? It’s mankind’s acknowledgment that there is a higher value, a higher purpose. It ceases to be wilderness when we’re here. But we are its stewards. It is vital to our souls. It is the source of much of our inspiration.”

In past years, he worked up his rage against a proposed road in the Sierra Nevada from Porterville to Lone Pine, a fight that culminated in creation of the Golden Trout Wilderness.

In 1964, he began Grand Canyon Dories, which he managed for more than 20 years.

He joined the campaign for the North Cascades National Park and was a leader in a long struggle to establish Redwood National Park. He argued for greater protection of Hell’s Canyon in Idaho. He fought against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Central California, his most bitter defeat.

“The Sierra Club gave it away,” he says, sighing. “It was our last chance for a national park on [the] Central Coast. We had to fight not just developers but our own club. People said we should be reasonable, not extreme.

“Bull. You can’t be constructive. You can’t be reasonable. You can’t be too extreme. . . . In a compromise, both sides lose. I wasn’t against that plant because it was nuclear. I was against building anything there.”

Today, he lives in Portola Valley. And his anger is worked up chiefly by threats he sees to California’s giant sequoia trees and the Santa Monica Mountains.

“It doesn’t take many voices to make things right. Just strong voices.”

But it’s more than places and beauty that heat his blood.

“Between you and me, I’m not too worried about this canyon. In 100,000 years, there will be no evidence we were here. It will all be washed away. What I’m worried about is life. And those things we’re doing to extinguish life.”

The Proposal to Drain Lake Powell

So why drain Lake Powell now?

Foremost, conservationists argue, to restore 185 miles of submerged Glen Canyon, the rival to anything in the region for slick-rock beauty.

But, also, the Grand Canyon downstream would return to a more natural state of wildness. About this, former Bureau of Reclamation chief scientist Wegner is a floating symposium.

Because Glen Canyon Dam is designed to hold back the Colorado’s natural muddy sediments, it flushes clear water into the Grand Canyon. Hungry water, they call it, and it scours away the tiny beaches that are the footholds of canyon life, not to mention essential way-stops for river campers.

A year ago, under Wegner’s direction, the bureau unleashed a mini-flood to stir up sand on the river bottom and rebuild some of the beaches. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt proclaimed it a success.

Today Wegner is shocked to see that the new beaches have eroded away.

“I’m astounded,” he says.

Without the impoundment of Lake Powell, annual high-water spring floods and low-water autumns will rebuild the beaches permanently, Wegner says.

Also, because Glen Canyon releases water from the bottom of the reservoir, the river runs unnaturally cold. This has altered the kinds of fish and aquatic life that can survive in the canyon. A warmer flow would reverse that and perhaps save some threatened species, Wegner says.

Overall, the wilderness of the Grand Canyon would thus be closer to real wild, and not, as writer Edward Abbey called it, “the domesticated, well-regulated conveyor belt for baloney boats that it is today.”

But no one denies that other consequences would be vast, particularly on the houseboaters, fishermen and water skiers who use Lake Powell. All the region’s power consumers would pay more. Lake Mead would fill up with silt and become obsolete sooner. And even river runners of the Grand Canyon would suffer because of potentially unnavigable high and low seasonal water flows.

To Wegner and Litton and the other purists, the price is worth paying to set the example for wilderness priorities in the 21st century.

Lava Falls: The Steepest Drop

Day 15: Our emotions are conditioned like the biceps of a weightlifter. Spirits flex, stiffen and release with each rapid. It now seems perfectly ordinary to live by the alternating current of adrenaline and lassitude. Isn’t this the way people lived for most of our evolutionary history?

The last of the big ones--and the biggest of all--looms. We arrive at Lava Falls just before lunch. This is the steepest drop in the canyon. More boats flip here than anywhere else. Lava is a maelstrom, and at high water there is no way but straight into the gulp.

Someone has timed how long it takes a boat to go from top to bottom: 13 seconds.

Slam, bounce, roar, slosh. It’s over.

The Grand Canyon could not have been engineered more perfectly for river runners. After Lava, the pace winds down. Each day we enjoy more languor. After all, wilderness is not just about space and vista but time. Here we live entirely in the present. There is no concern for yesterday, no worry of tomorrow. Only the river running over rocks.

The temperature has warmed. Runoff from side canyons has turned the river into chocolate. In the afternoon, we look for shade. Most of us have given up tents; we sleep on mats and rub the sand off in the morning.

Spring brings flowers. The ocotillo appear to be bursting into flame with red pyres on the tips of their spindly arms. Prickly pear show off in yellows and purples. Globe mallows and monkey flowers spread wing. Migrating ducks and mountain bluebirds travel the highway of the Colorado.

River days are interspersed with hikes into the amazing and ever different side canyons--the aquamarine calcium waters of Havasu Creek, the windblown waterfall at Deer Creek, the limestone labyrinth of Matkatamiba Canyon. At Elves Chasm, Litton leads a climb up vertical cliffs, holding a sandwich in one hand and inching along with only toeholds overhanging an 80-foot drop.

They say that three days in the Grand Canyon are too many; three weeks not enough. People are talking and writing less in their journals now. They are staring more into the melodramatic cliffs, where nearly 30 cake layers of rock are exposed--a billion years of geologic history sliced open by the river. And they are reflecting.

Harriet Burgess reflects on Martin Litton. She runs the American Land Conservancy in San Francisco and has worked with Litton for more than 20 years.

“I’m just repeating what other people say when I tell you he is my conscience. I feel he tells the truth.”

Ote Dale, a 49-year-old boatwoman and artist, reflects on the canyon. “It’s my life. This is it, it’s my life. It’s everything there is to me and has been for 26 years.”

She knows the sand beaches where her children were conceived. She points to the rock outcropping where she was married up on the rim. Her friends decorated the altar with flowers in bailing buckets. The Grand Canyon has the power to fix someone in place for a lifetime.

“From the very first moment I came into this canyon,” she says, “I knew it was where I belonged.”

Dale’s husband, Regan, boatman and manager of Grand Canyon Dories, contemplates Litton. “There won’t be many people who can understand, really, what it takes for him to do this at 80. Last year, he flipped in Crystal. I thought that was going to do him in. But he rebounded. I’ve seen young boatmen who got beat up there, and it changes them. They back away. But it doesn’t seem to scare Martin. He’s had an angel on his shoulder for a long time.”

Bonnie Lockwood of Indianapolis watches the 6 a.m. sun kiss the upper rim of the canyon and spill down the face of the cliffs, igniting blazes of saffron and scarlet. “How can this place not change you forever? It has me.”

Litton reflects on the West’s epic struggles over the Colorado. “It’s not those who give up the water who lose. It’s those who take it. Look at Southern California. It was nature’s paradise on Earth. Now look at it.”

So how about it, old man: Is this your last trip down here?

“It could be. I don’t have an opinion on that. It could be your last trip too,” he replies.

Boatman Jeff Pomeroy raises his hands to the river and cliffs: “Most things in life are not enough. This is enough.”


Riding the Colorado

From Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead, the Colorado River courses through some of the biggest whitewater in America.