Paddling the Powell Route: An Interview with Mike Bezemek
Adventure Through Time
John Wesley Powell is an idolized historic figure in the river community out west. He is an explorer, soldier, geologist, best known for his expedition through the Colorado River Basin and majestic Grand Canyon in 1869. Hundreds, thousands, of people follow in his footsteps each year – or paddle strokes rather – down sections of the river his company passed through on their arduous first expedition through territory then unknown.
Mystery still surrounds the Powell Expedition, river guides spin tales of its exploits and volumes of text build the legend surrounding the one armed geologist. But few out there have experienced the Powell route through the eyes of Powell and his crew quite the way Mike Bezemek has, and he details his “fresh-eyed” experience in his new book, Paddling the John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Green and Colorado Rivers. Cataract Oars was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview the author/river enthusiast and get his take on the man, Powell, and the route that made him a legend.
An Interview with Mike Bezemek
Phil: Tell us a little bit about your book.
Mike: Well, I call it a color-photo narrated paddling guide. Basically, it blends elements of a traditional guidebook, a narrative nonfiction book, and coffee table book. My book offers all the info needed to select and plan the many trips available along the thousand-mile Powell route, plus a few hundred extra miles above and below on the Green and Colorado Rivers. There are dozens of trips, from day trips to multi-day expeditions. Some of these trips are famous while others are barely known to many paddlers. But interwoven throughout the book is an entertaining paddler’s retelling of the 1869 expedition, so that boaters can learn about this dramatic but often funny story of the route while they’re exploring it. And there are many pages of color landscape and action photography, much of my own work, plus some killer shots from some of the top current photographers to explore the route.
Phil: What were your biggest challenges putting this book together?
Mike: The hardest part was sorting through all the overwhelming information and research, from presenting all the access locations and permit situations and possible paddling trips, to sorting through the many source materials and accounts of the original expedition. And then fitting it all together into a single volume, organizing everything was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done.
Phil: How did you stay engaged in the Powell saga as you sorted through all the research?
Mike: One of my favorite parts was of course running the sections of river along the route, many of them multiple times, and then comparing my experiences to what I was reading about the original expedition. Imagining which events happened where, what changed and what stayed the same.
Phil: If you had to describe the Powell route in 3 words, what would those 3 words be and why?
Mike: Adventure history comes alive. It’s four, I cheated, sorry. But that’s what it is, one of the greatest adventure stories from, not just river history but American history come to life—that is, if you know the story of 1869 when you’re down in those canyons and having your own adventures.
Phil: In your eyes, what does your book add to the narrative of the Powell route?
Mike: The Powell story and the route have become kind of hard to follow, I think, for a few reasons. First, there’s all this misinformation about the story of 1869, and a lot of mystery about what exactly happened, which was being glossed over by writers presenting their opinions as facts. My book presents the controversies openly so that readers can decide for themselves and in that way get involved in the mystery and do a little detective work of their own. There are also so many books about the expedition, so I give an overview for how one might get started wading through more of the history. Next, the route itself has become pretty complex, too, with different agencies, permits, shuttles, and sections—some sections almost entirely forgotten and others, like Grand Canyon or Cataract Canyon, known all over the world. My book helps someone with curiosity about this route and this story slide into it on their own terms. I give info for DIY paddlers who want to show themselves down, but also info for those who might want to join guided trips for parts of the route.
Phil: Which books on Powell did you find most influential in your research?
Mike: Early on in my research, I came across Michael Ghiglieri’s First Through Grand Canyon, which collects into one book all of the original 1869 journal entries and letters written during the expedition. I started with these primary source materials, reading them while out paddling the same sections or after the trips. From there, I went to the later accounts, including Powell’s book and others, like those by Marston, Stegner, and Dolnick. Like others have noted, I found a lot of inaccuracies in Powell’s book, which was written years after the trip and both mixed up events on accident and exaggerated others for dramatic effect. Many of those errors have subsequently carried forward into later retellings, so I looked for as many different versions of the 1869 story as I could find, studying the contradictions and variations. Then I went back to the original accounts, made during the actual expedition, and tried to figure out which events and moments could be reasonably confirmed. I leaned most heavily on the journal entries and letters, but took those with a grain of salt because all the crewmen liked to exaggerate a bit, when constructing my retelling.
Phil: Is there someone on the Powell Expedition that you find yourself relating with more than any other? How so?
Mike: Well, the most complete and interesting journal entries are made by George Bradley, and it’s tough not to like this guy. He loved running the rapids, he wanted to portage less and run more than Powell let them, and he’d stare at waves and holes kind of wondering what would happen if he rowed a boat through. It was Bradley that accidentally rowed the biggest rapid ever run at that time, and that’s how the remaining six men got out of lower Granite Gorge.
Phil: What do you hope your readers take away from this experience?
Mike: If you know the route, the story will be even more interesting. If you know the story, then the route will be even more interesting. If you know both, you are going to be the most interesting person in the world at the campfire. Because both the story and the route are unreal when it comes to drama, whether scenery or history.
Phil: What are some of the most exciting aspects of the Powell route for you?
Mike: The variety along the route, from the changing geology of the canyons to the nature of the river, from flatwater floats to awesome whitewater rapids. The Powell route is long and challenging, which creates excitement about completing each section. There will be flatwater, bring your endurance A-game and patience. There are some great rapids, but they’re spread out so you have to plan for both making miles and then running rapids when the time comes. There is great camping, but maybe bring goggles for the blowing sand. There are amazing side hikes, but you have to deal with desert wilderness. Plants want to poke you, bugs and animals want to bite you, rocks want to fall away under your feet or on top of you. It never rains, until it’s suddenly flooding. For some people, this will sound miserable. But for adventurers, they’re like, oh that sounds exciting. I’m the same.
Phil: How would you say that seeing the route for the first time with “fresh eyes” enhanced your journey?
Mike: Yeah, the unguided personal first descent is my favorite type of trip. It’s harder, and more effort, than having someone show you down, and it’s not suitable for all paddlers on all sections of river, depending on each person’s abilities and comfort level. You have to read water, scout more often, probe rapids, study maps, hunt for camps. You have to do some research to not miss the highlights, and a few times you may still walk up a different trail than intended. But for those up to the challenge, I think this approach really does enhance the experience. Everything is new and interesting and exciting. There’s no crusty veteran barking that it was better last year, or saying, don’t go hiking up that trail cause it ain’t worth the time. Who knows, maybe there’s something that dude doesn’t know about up there. That’s happened to me and friends countless times when we’re out there, stumbling onto things like hidden waterfalls and rock arches that aren’t listed on maps or that we’ve never heard about. The Powell route is particularly suited to this type of fresh eyes exploration because the challenges vary from section to section, there’s flatwater or whitewater, lake or river, short or long trips. And the difficulties are cumulative but not overwhelming in any one category, meaning that it’s the totality of features that makes the trip challenging, but each individual component is actually quite manageable when you know what you’re getting into.
Phil: After learning more about Powell, how has it change the way you view him?
Mike: Well, he’s a more complicated figure than the traditional legend communicates. He tends to either be unquestionably celebrated or mercilessly trashed as incompetent. The truth is sort of in the middle. He was definitely unprepared for the expedition, but there weren’t any precedents to follow. He did not particularly enjoy the river running as much as his men, but he also had to watch out for safety, equipment, and scientific objectives. He was definitely a tough guy, but maybe not the finest TL. He was very smart, very forward thinking, but possibly not when it came to logistics and rations planning. More than anything, he was just the dude that gave it a shot. Powell kind of leveraged the attention the country paid to the expedition into bigger and better things, many of them incredibly worthwhile and noble pursuits, like geographic surveying, watershed science, and preserving native cultures and languages.
Phil: What would be your recommendation for anyone wanting to experience the Powell route the way you did?
Mike: I hope that the book sets up readers to experience the Powell route the same way I did, if that’s their goal. You can decide which sections you want to explore. Plan the logistics. Introduce yourself to the story with a more accessible and shorter retelling of 1869. Figure out which additional books you might want to read. And then you just go, and you’re out there, on the route, and it’s all yours to experience.
Phil: What’s next for you?
Mike: I plan to continue developing my concept of the color-photo narrated adventure guide with other historic routes and a few ideal regions. Not just with history, but also science and conservation stories. And probably with a multi-sport approach, so not just paddling, but also hiking and biking. That way, readers can have amazing adventures while also discovering fascinating stories about the areas they’re exploring.
An Experience for Everyone
Mike’s book gives everyone the ability to experience history and adventure up close and personal. He’s put together the blueprint. If you’ve been waiting to get out on these routes, the logistics just got easier and the experience just got richer. It may be time to get your gear and put in.