Learning to row, from the pros
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“Want to learn how to row? Go to the experts.
On the 24th of May in 1869, O.G. Howland set out with his brother Seneca on the Green River in Utah with eight other men, each a member of the historic Powell Geographic Expedition. Led by American naturalist John Wesley Powell, the expedition aimed to complete a cartographic and scientific exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, traveling into stretches of river and canyon that no white men—and in areas, even no Native Americans—had ever set eyes on. Some three months later, Howland, along with his brother and expedition member Bill Dunn, lay dead on a plateau overlooking Separation Canyon, shot full of holes by Shivwits Indians. Days earlier, after a mutiny that led Howland and his two companions to abandon the expedition, the men climbed 700 feet out of the granite-lined canyon, en route to a Mormon settlement they estimated to be at least 75 sun-bleached, barren, desert miles away.
It was Howland who oared the No Name, one of four wooden dories comprising the expedition, into the rapids at Disaster Falls—the first notable whitewater the group encountered after more than 60 relatively placid, playful river miles on the Green. The No Name, which led the expedition and was carrying the lion’s share of the group’s rations and scientific instruments, was sucked into Disaster’s currents. The river’s turbulent flows ripped Howland’s oars from his locks and slammed the boat into a rock, careening it downstream through the rapid and crashing the dory broadside into a boulder, splitting the hardy craft clean in two. Howland and two others were swept into the river, disappearing downstream beyond the view of their companions. Though all three survived, the accident claimed the No Name and one third of the expedition’s rations, with months of river still ahead.
After the incident, Howland wrote in his journal that “a calm, smooth stream is now a horror we all detest.” Many weeks later, after relentless downriver scouting, endless portages, dangerous and precarious sessions spent lining the dories through unrunnable sections of river, and ceaseless battering at the hands of the Green that left the men feeling like they had cheated death one too many times, they called it quits. The parting, according to Powell, was a solemn one, in which “each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.” Less than two days from when the rest of the group would safely reach the Mormon settlement near Grand Wash Cliffs, Howland and his cohorts scaled the walls out of Separation Canyon rather than risk another hundred yards on the river.
Over a century and a half later, this past August, I set out on the Green as part of a convoy of 13 would-be rowers split across five boats. Our group would retrace much of the expedition’s steps, beginning in an upriver canyon Powell had affectionately named Flaming Gorge, traveling through the Gates of Lodore—where the river had long ago claimed the No Name—and taking out at Split Mountain.
As countless anglers and rafters and boaters did during the pandemic, I’d brought a raft in the door a few months prior. Yet, when the trip began, it’s fair to say I was little more than a greenhorn on the oars. I’d muddled my way through a handful of scattered hours in the rower’s seat in years past, and I’d spent the early summer months intently manning my craft whenever the opportunity arose. But this was freshman rowing—bathtub rivers like the Delaware and Connecticut, with a few riffles and small rapids under my belt on tame sections of waterways like the Lehigh, which are big enough to instill a sense of pride in new oarsmen, but present little in the way of hazards and true challenges.”
The full article can be found here.
Photo Credit: Original Author