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Woman Of The River

Woman Of The River: Georgie White Clark, Whitewater Pioneer

Richard E. Westwood
Foreword by Roy Webb
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Woman Of The River
    Book Description:

    Georgie White Clark-adventurer, raconteur, eccentric--first came to know the canyons of the Colorado River by swimming portions of them with a single companion. She subsequently hiked and rafted portions of the canyons, increasingly sharing her love of the Colorado River with friends and acquaintances. At first establishing a part-time guide service as a way to support her own river trips, she went on to become perhaps the canyons' best-known river guide, introducing their rapids to many others-on the river, via her large-capacity rubber rafts, and across the nation, via magazine articles and movies. Georgie Clark saw the river and her sport change with the building of Glen Canyon Dam, enormous increases in the popularity of river running, and increased National Park Service regulation of rafting and river guides. Adjusting, though not always easily, to the changes, she helped transform an elite adventure sport into a major tourist activity.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-368-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, History

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Roy Webb

    The first time I met Georgie was in 1986 on my first Grand Canyon trip. I had heard of her, of course, having been a student of river history for a couple of years by then, but I didn’t know her to see her. Not knowing what to do, and not wanting to get in the way as the crew rigged our boat, I walked down the ramp to where a huge pontoon raft was moored. I walked around it, marveling at the intricate lacework of ropes. Then I noticed, standing in the water on the other side, a little,...

  2. 1 Swimming Rapids in Grand Canyon, 1944–1945
    (pp. 1-16)

    Georgie White and Harry Aleson stared at the raging, silt-laden Colorado River. The awesome beauty of Grand Canyon would be lost on the pair for the next four days as they fought the swirling brown water. It was June of 1945, just a month after V.E. Day, and the two had decided to swim the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon from Diamond Creek¹ to Lake Mead.

    From Boulder City, Nevada, they had taken a bus to Peach Springs, Arizona, on U.S. 66, where they stripped down to swimsuits, tennis shoes, and shirts. Each wore a life preserver and a...

  3. 2 Rafting the Rapids, 1946–1947
    (pp. 17-30)

    For the first few months after her swim with Harry Aleson in 1945, no one could have talked Georgie into swimming that river again. She and Harry still went hiking in and around the Grand Canyon, checking out old mines and other interesting places. Georgie wrote:

    I knew there were a lot of questions about my relationship with Harry. After all, I was married and spending weeks and months out on the desert with another man. The truth was that after seeing Harry’s pictures I became determined to explore the desert and the canyon country for myself. I couldn’t hike...

  4. 3 From Passenger to Boatman, 1948–1952
    (pp. 31-44)

    In February 1948 Georgie wrote to Harry: “I am open to any and almost all trips. That is what I live for and one summer to the next certainly seems long. Does it to you?”¹

    Over the next few months Georgie and Harry made plans to go down the Escalante River. They arrived at the small town of Escalante in southern Utah on May 24 and bought provisions for the trip. Both the town and river are named for Fray Silvestre Vélez de Escalante of the Domínguez-Escalante expedition of 1776. Oddly, Escalante neither saw nor came close to the river...

  5. 4 Taking Passengers through Grand Canyon, 1953
    (pp. 45-52)

    In the winter of 1952–1953, Harry Aleson organized a hiking trip that would attempt to follow the old wagon road made by rugged Mormon pioneers in the winter of 1879–1880 on their trek from Escalante to the town of Bluff, Utah.¹ By the time Georgie arrived at Richfield, Utah, on April 10, 1953, all who had signed up for the hike had dropped out except Harry. When asked if she wanted to call it off, Georgie replied, “I didn’t come from L.A. for nothing.”²

    They left Richfield in a snowstorm on Saturday, April 11, and traveled for several...

  6. 5 The Triple Rig Is Born, 1954
    (pp. 53-60)

    By now Georgie’s passion for Grand Canyon and running the rapids of the Colorado River was in full flower. Not only was there the excitement of running the rapids, but there was the magnificent scenery of Glen and Grand Canyons, and so many delightful places to stop and explore: Hole-In-The-Rock, Music Temple, Rainbow Bridge, Vasey’s Paradise, Redwall Cavern, the Nankoweap ruins, the Little Colorado River, Deer Creek Falls, Havasu Creek, Elves Chasm, Tapeats Creek, and Thunder River, to name a few. Georgie wanted to share the canyon experience with as many others as possible and let them discover the beauty...

  7. 6 Branching Out to New Rivers, 1955
    (pp. 61-75)

    In 1955 Eisenhower was in the White House, Stalin was dead, and the Korean conflict was over. But things were hectic as ever for Georgie. Her schedule that year was quite ambitious. It called for two trips through Glen Canyon in April, a San Juan River and Glen Canyon trip in May, two Glen Canyon trips in June, and “The Mighty Grand Canyon” in July, about which she noted, “Only 216 people (as of 1954 figures) have made this trip.”¹ She planned another Glen Canyon trip in August, also runs on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Big Salmon...

  8. 7 Controversies, 1956
    (pp. 77-86)

    Beginning in 1956 Georgie left her fall and winter months open for film lectures covering her more spectacular adventures. The following is an information release put out by Georgie in March 1956:

    Mrs. Georgie Helen White, little publicized for many years despite her numerous achievements, is a modest, but effervescent, easy-talking woman who only now is approaching the threshold of a hobby-turned-career, river running.

    One of the nation’s foremost woman adventurers, she has done more in a few short years to make this country’s most dangerous rivers and canyons accessible to the average citizen than any other person living, man...

  9. 8 Glen Canyon Dam and a Clash of Personalities, 1957–1958
    (pp. 87-98)

    In April 1956 President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill that would forever alter the character of the Colorado River between Cataract Canyon and Lake Mead. By that legislation the Bureau of Reclamation was authorized to build Glen Canyon Dam fifteen miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry between the dark-stained orange walls of Navajo sandstone. Controlled flows below the dam would eliminate the scouring floods of springtime and the deposition of new sand on the beaches alongside the river, but beautiful Glen Canyon would be buried under a lake.

    “When completed, the seven-hundred-foot-high dam would create a lake with double the...

  10. 9 Exploring Mexican Rivers, 1958–1959
    (pp. 99-109)

    Always lookiing for new rivers to explore, Georgie had for some time been considering a trip in Mexico. The first such expedition was finally set for the fall of 1958. The party would include Lillian Lasch, Paul Kelly, Marshall Bond, Jr., Frank Rich, Jr., and Orville Miller. They had planned to explore the Rio Papigochico Aros, but that didn’t pan out, as the river and surrounding area were inundated by a tropical storm.

    On the flight into Mexico the party encountered continuous torrential rains. On all sides were nothing but clouds. When they finally dropped low enough to see the...

  11. 10 Dead Man in Cataract and Other New Experiences, 1960–1961
    (pp. 111-122)

    On May 22, 1960, Albert Q. Quist of Salt Lake City was leading a two-boat, twelve-member party through Cataract Canyon. About noon, after running three rapids, one of the twenty-four-foot rafts slammed into a rock and hung up there, pitching four of the men into the river. Quist and his son, Clair, made it safely to shore about three-quarters of a mile below, but the other two men, Leon Peterson and Keith Howard Hoover, both of Provo, Utah, could not be located and were presumed to be drowned.¹

    Two weeks later Georgie embarked at Green River for a trip through...

  12. 11 Runaway Rafts, 1962
    (pp. 123-127)

    At the end of a Glen Canyon trip in May of 1962, Georgie made a difficult landing on a silt and mud bar at Kane Creek. They arrived one day early because dam construction and high water had backed the river into the mouths of some of the canyons they planned to visit. Whitey was late arriving and had been drinking heavily. He and Georgie had an argument, and it almost became a fist fight. It was a disagreeable ending to a fine trip. Georgie told Tony (Sylvia Tone), “Running the rapids in Grand Canyon is no problem, but Whitey...

  13. 12 Exploring Canadian Rivers, 1963
    (pp. 129-136)

    Early in June 1963 Georgie made a trip through Cataract Canyon. There were thirty-seven passengers in all, plus Georgie and her dog, Samba, who made a number of raft trips with her before the Park Service decided dogs should not be allowed on the river.¹

    Delphine Mohrline was riding on the little boat when they came to Satan’s Gut. She saw the rapid at close range and began to wonder whether it was not a waterfall instead. The drop looked tremendous. She said:

    Over we went into this trough about 12 feet deep—the front side carne up to meet...

  14. 13 More of Mexico, 1963–1964
    (pp. 137-148)

    In August 1963 Georgie’s wanderlust took her on another trip to the Rio Balsas in Mexico. The party of seven included a man named John (last name unknown), Orville Miller, Ivan Summers, Allan O’Brien, Ellis L. Spackman, Delphine Mohrline, and Georgie. In an article about the trip, Spackman said:

    Georgie is one of the most extra-ordinary women in America. I am sure you have seen her pictures on TV. She has taken more people down more rivers than anyone else. She has been instrumental in working out the technique. And she hasn’t lost a client yet.

    It is obviously designed...

  15. 14 High Jinks, 1965
    (pp. 149-159)

    The Grand Canyon was Georgie’s special place, and she began to spend more and more of her trip time there. In 1965 her schedule called for two Havasu Canyon hikes, one Cataract Canyon run, five trips through the Grand Canyon, one on the Nahanni River in Canada, and one on the Usumacinta along the border of Mexico and Guatemala.¹

    Georgie was a champion of animal rights, even though she didn’t spend much active time in the movement. In the spring of 1965 she wrote to California State Senator John G. Schmitz in support of a bill for the protection of...

  16. 15 Disaster on a Mexican River, 1966–1967
    (pp. 161-178)

    In 1966 the Bureau of Reclamation had a bill introduced in Congress that would allow it to construct two hydroelectric dams in the Grand Canyon.¹ The proposed Marble Canyon Dam would be located above the Grand Canyon National Park boundary, and Bridge Canyon Dam would be in the lower part of the gorge near Mile 235. At that time only a fraction of the Grand Canyon was included in the existing Grand Canyon National Park. Bridge Canyon Dam, as proposed, would extend a reservoir thirteen miles into Grand Canyon National Park.

    The integrity of the park was threatened according to...

  17. 16 Divorce, 1968–1971
    (pp. 179-188)

    In 1968 Georgie and Orville returned to Mexico and tried the Rio Grande de Santiago again. They found part of one of the boats from the 1967 trip on the bank near a village and it still said “Georgie” on it. Orville said, “So when we showed up with additional boats saying ‘Georgie,’ there was a lot of excitement. And they had a party for us.”

    The local people had cut up the boats and used them to patch knotholes in their canoes and make soles for their shoes. Orville said, “I thought it was a shame that they cut...

  18. 17 Changing Faces and Changing Rules, 1972–1975
    (pp. 189-198)

    By 1972 a multi-million dollar commercial industry had been built up to accommodate tourists who wished to boat on the wild rivers of the nation. On the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon alone tourism had increased from 70 users in 1955 to 16,432 in 1972.¹ Campsites on the Colorado were usually narrow sand beaches, and in many parts of the canyon they were very limited. The large number of people visiting scenic spots and heavily used beaches posed problems of congestion, disappearing firewood, and disposal of human waste and kitchen refuse. Furthermore, fluctuating clearwater releases from Glen Canyon Dam...

  19. 18 Georgie’s Effect on Passengers, 1976–1979
    (pp. 199-207)

    Park Ranger Tom Workman first met Georgie in May of 1976 when she was sixty-five years old. Her light brown hair was stiff and tangled from long contact with river silt, and her dark, tanned skin hung in loose folds around her knees and elbows. Her face was seamed like the rocks of the canyon she loved. But the muscles underneath that skin were tough as rope, and those turquoise eyes flashed with authority.

    Workman was the first National Park Service ranger to be assigned to the Lee’s Ferry ramp area. He said when he first met Georgie he thought,...

  20. 19 Georgie Breaks an Arm, 1980–1982
    (pp. 209-216)

    In 1980 Tom Vail was a passenger on one of Georgie’s small triple rigs. The raft required three boatmen, but when they launched from Lee’s Ferry, there were only two. One of the boatmen had not shown up. After they pushed off, Chuck Kane, the trip leader, asked Tom if he wanted to row. Tom later said, “He probably asked me because I’d brought the most beer, so I must be the most qualified. I said, ‘Sure, that sounds like fun.’” So Tom rowed a triple rig on that trip.

    Halfway through the canyon Kane’s group double-camped with Georgie. Chuck...

  21. 20 The Year of the Big Water, 1983
    (pp. 217-226)

    Lake Powell began to form behind Glen Canyon Dam on March 13, 1963. The lake reached “full pool” at the 3,700-foot spillway level on June 22, 1980.¹ Then, heavy precipitation in the Rocky Mountains in the winter of 1982–1983 and rapid snow melt in the spring of 1983 caught the Bureau of Reclamation completely off guard. Therefore, they did not draw down the water level in Lake Powell far enough to take care of the heavy runoff. During June water was surging into the reservoir at the rate of 111,480 cfs, and releases from the dam reached 92,000 cfs,...

  22. 21 Tragedy at Lava Falls, 1984–1987
    (pp. 227-238)

    By 1984 Georgie, now at age seventy-three, had made some concessions to age. She seldom led hikes in the side canyons but remained with her boats, and she avoided most of the nighttime partying enjoyed by the boatmen and passengers. Soon after supper, while others sipped the traditional blackberry brandy and coffee, Georgie would slip away to her raft to unroll her pad and sleeping bag. By 8:30 P.M. she would be asleep. But her love of the rapids was as strong as ever.

    In August 1984 Ray and Norine “Nori” Abrams embarked with Georgie for a trip through the...

  23. 22 Another Tragedy, 1988–1989
    (pp. 239-246)

    In 1988 Karen Smith went on her first Royal River Rats trip, although not on Georgie’s boat. She was one of fourteen passengers on an S-rig on which Marty Hunsaker was the boatman and trip leader. They got into a some trouble at Crystal Rapid. The current caught them, as Karen later said:

    We were going to the right of Crystal and the current caught the boat and Marty was at the helm and he was holding the boat motor sohardthat he broke the handle off of the motor trying to get us out of there. We went...

  24. 23 Birthday Party, 1990
    (pp. 247-260)

    Georgie’s loves, the things that kept her coming back to the Canyon, were the rapids, the river, and the river community.

    Carol “Fritz” Fritzsinger was a young boatwoman working for Dick McCallum of Expeditions, Inc., in 1990. Fritz said she thought Georgie just acknowledged her as another woman running the river. Once she was leading a trip that was preparing to launch at Lee’s Ferry at the same time Georgie was there. Georgie came over to her and said, “Now, you tell your boys that they need to get out of my way. I’ve got a big boat and, you...

  25. 24 Final Run, 1991
    (pp. 261-268)

    By the 1990s it is estimated that two and a half million people annually are boating on the wild rivers of America with commercial outfitters, spending over $250 million in the process. Two Eastern rivers, the Natahala in North Carolina and the Ocoee in Tennessee, account for five hundred thousand rafting passengers each year. This and the growing number of private trips form a big slice of adventure tourism today.¹

    In the Grand Canyon, where trips are limited by the NPS, gross sales by licensed outfitters amounted to $21.8 million, compared to $86.3 million for land-based concessions.² “These days it’s...

  26. 25 Memorials for a Legend, 1992
    (pp. 269-278)

    Georgie sold her business to Bill George, owner of Western River Expeditions in Salt Lake City, Utah. Lee McCurry said, “She thought the world and all of Ted Hatch and of Bill George. But she had said, back in ’86, ‘If I was ever to sell to anybody, it would be Bill George, because I know he’s got the money to buy me out.’”¹ Georgie sent the following letter to her clients:

    Dear River Rats:

    After a lifetime of adventures and 47 years of leading white water expeditions on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, I have turned my valued...

  27. Appendix: Georgie’s Boatmen and Helpers
    (pp. 279-281)