GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - On March 21, river runners from five Western states, Canada, Japan, and Chile will launch five homemade boats, replicas of important historical designs, attempting a twenty-four day self-guided traverse of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.
The replica boats represent a snapshot of river running in Grand Canyon during the 1950s and 1960s, just before Glen Canyon Dam took control of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.
A trip through Grand Canyon is a lifetime dream for many boaters, and these days 30,000 people run the river each year as members of self-guided, commercial, scientific and/or government trips. But fewer than 2,000 people ever ran the Colorado River before Glen Canyon Dam, and Dave Mortenson is one of them.
Mortenson's father, who was on the pioneering river runs of the 1950s and 1960s, introduced Mortenson to Grand Canyon whitewater on a 1962 river trip-the last year it was possible to run the Colorado in its wild state. Largely because of this early experience - he was fourteen at the time - Mortenson came up with the idea of building replicas of the historic Grand Canyon boats.
Mortenson talked some boatbuilding friends into constructing accurate replicas of the original boats, even retaining the original color schemes. Two of the boats represent 1950s improvements of the earlier cataract boats, a style that would soon be replaced by the dory design. The other three boats are replicas of the first three Grand Canyon dories, a new style of big whitewater boat that established the standard for hard hull boat design still used to run the Canyon's world-class whitewater even today.
Grand Canyon river guidebook author Tom Martin is one of the replica boat builders and just finished writing a book on the original boats.
"These five replica boats are beautiful, historically significant and very innovative," Martin said. "While two of the original boats can be found in Grand Canyon National Park's special collections, only one is still intact. The wreck of another is stored there, while the other three were sunk or otherwise destroyed."
Martin said all five replicas belong in a museum collection, but were built to run the Colorado River.
"We may hit rocks with our replicas, flip them, or spend a lot of time repairing them, but as with the originals from a half century ago, they were built to run the river," he said
Martin's book, Big Water, Little Boats, will be out in May.
This is not Mortenson and Martin's first attempt to run the Colorado with replica watercraft. Last year, three 1950s era replica boats successfully made the run. And, after researching the 1950s and 1960s Grand Canyon river runners for the last six years, Mortenson's group was able to match photographs taken on the 1950s river trips to locations they found in 2011.
"The water they were running on in 1957, at 126,000 cubic feet per second, was the highest ever run by anyone," Mortenson said. "This big water level was ten times higher than today's typical water levels."
Since the Colorado has never run that high again, Mortenson's party was able to find the original campsites from the 1957 trip, untouched for over fifty years.
The 2012 trip will also match historic photos to current conditions, documenting changes along the river caused by Glen Canyon Dam. Although Glen Canyon Dam is often seen as a tragic mistake, flooding one of the Southwest's most beautiful canyons, it could have been much worse.
Mortenson said that the 1960s dories were used as part of the successful fight to stop the construction of additional dams in Grand Canyon. The two 1962 dories replicated were the boats that Mortenson said "helped save the Grand Canyon." While the 5 million people each year who visit the Grand Canyon may know little about the historic boats and the people who built them, Mortenson recognizes their importance.
"I grew up knowing these early river runners, their boats and their efforts to save the Grand Canyon," he says. "Thanks to them, we will run the river and hopefully honor their legacy."