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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Spanning the Mighty Colorado at Lee’s Ferry

Story and photos by Mark Swint

Okay, here’s the problem, it’s the latter half of the 1700’s, and you’re an explorer trying to make your way to the fabled territory of California. You’ve already battled your way into and through the Rocky Mountains and are now winding your way through the relatively kinder high deserts of present-day Utah and Arizona. Though all is going pretty well in this arid wasteland, you are stopped dead in your tracks by this seemingly endless river, which has cut a gorge anywhere from 800 to 3,000 feet deep! Everywhere you go it’s the same, spectacular, but shear, treacherous red sandstone walls hemming in a mighty river - a river not like the relatively tranquil Missouri or Mississippi. Not a nice, navigable river with sandy banks and gently flowing currents which both drop less than 700 feet in 2,000 miles. Here you are faced with an angry river, flowing relentlessly through narrow canyons and over massive boulders, grinding through sandstone and churning up silt and gravel. This is a river laced with rapid after rapid, each of which waits to devour any feeble vessel that dares challenge its dominion. Of course, running the river isn’t the point, since you can’t even figure a way to get down to the beast. And worst of all, it just keeps going and going forever.

Such was the barrier to westward development and exploration that faced the early explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries. From present day Wyoming to Arizona, travelers were stymied by the river once called Grand and it’s companion, the Green, merging below Moab, Utah into the mighty Colorado. In Arizona, the river gouged one of the most spectacular geologic formations in the world, the Grand Canyon. With walls almost a mile high, the Grand Canyon divided the state and isolated the northern portion called the Arizona Strip.

The first non-native explorers to tackle this land were the famous Catholic missionaries Friars Dominguez and Escalante who’s 1776 expedition turned into a quest to find a crossing of this mighty river. They had left Santa Fe, New Mexico in an attempt to find a northern route to missions established in Monterey California. Their journey took them far north, around the river and into Utah. At Utah Lake (Provo, Utah) they turned south to reach the latitude of Monterey, eventually finding their way to present day Cedar City. Here they were stopped by an early winter storm and, knowing they were still many hundreds of miles away, desired to return home. The long and circuitous route that had got them there was unacceptable for such a late return, so they decided to challenge the barrier that was the Colorado Gorge. Following the Grand Canyon along the Arizona Strip, they searched for a place to cross. Led by vague descriptions from itinerant Indians, the Fathers knew there was a place to ford the river somewhere to the northwest. They made their way to what is now known as Lee’s Ferry. They quickly realized this was not the ford spoken of by the Indians and feared they had walked into an inescapable box canyon. In a bit of ironic humor they named the place San Benito – a monk’s robe of penance – and added the moniker that stuck for a few years – Salsipuedes, from the Spanish for "Get out if you can!" In desperation, two men from their expedition took off all their clothes, carried them over their heads, and plunged into the river to see if it could be crossed. They quickly lost their clothes and finally climbed out on the other side, naked and too exhausted to explore the area. They eventually made it back but Dominguez and Escalante knew it was too treacherous a crossing for the party.

Shortly thereafter, the party made its way on a treacherously narrow path up the face of the Vermilion Cliffs and, after an arduous journey over rough gulches and gullies, found themselves at Wahweep Creek. Here they found the ford the Indians had talked about, and it was from here that they made their way back to Santa Fe. The place became known as the Crossing of the Fathers and, though perilously steep, it was for 100 years the only place to cross the Colorado River. The crossing was located about 40 miles north of Lee’s Ferry and about 25 river miles above Glen Canyon Dam. The site is in the middle of what is now called Padre Bay, under hundreds of feet of Lake Powell water.

Though the crossing was used by a few intrepid souls for the rest of the 1700’s, the trip and the area were just too forbidding for most people and almost no settlement or exploration was conducted until the mid 1800s. The Spanish crown ignored the region (this was all part of the Mexican territory) and no attempt was made to establish Catholic missions in present day Utah or Colorado, primarily because of the difficulty in traveling the area.

The first serious consideration given to the area occurred as a result of the westward migration of the Mormon pioneers in 1847. Shortly after settling in the Salt Lake Valley, Mormon president Brigham Young set about taming the wild territory and establishing routes to California. The Mormons were remarkably successful in establishing the first permanent colonies throughout Utah, southern Colorado, and southern Nevada (including Las Vegas), as well as parts of southern California. They were also deeply motivated to do missionary work and, as the Indians had a special prominence in the Book of Mormon, Brigham wanted contacts established with them. Of particular fascination to the Mormons were the Hopi Indians who lived southeast of the Colorado River. Brigham Young called a man already famous for his effort with the Indians, Jacob Hamblin, to visit the Hopis.

In 1858, Hamblin and his party of twelve set out and, with the help of a Piute Indian named Naraguts, unknowingly retraced Dominguez and Escalante’s steps. They found the Crossing of the Fathers and made their way to Hopi land. Their mission was largely unsuccessful but Brigham Young commanded them to return. Because of the lack of cordiality of the Indians, Jacob and his men were forced to carry enough food and supplies to last the winter. The Crossing of the Fathers was treacherous enough for a man or horse, but wagons full of supplies were out of the question. Some of Jacob’s men explored a little farther south and found the Paria River just above Lee’s Ferry. "Here," they wrote, "we spread out our meat, ate a hearty supper – sang songs – hobbled the animals and went to bed. Plenty of water, grass, and Cottonwood at this place." Hamblin realized that if a ferry could be built at the place where the Paria entered the Colorado he could get his men and supplies across much faster and save considerable travel and exertion. Accordingly, they made a crude raft for the attempt. It was a disaster! A few men made it across, the horse drowned and the raft was lost. The men returned to the Crossing of the Fathers for their journey but they remembered the Paria and knew that it would be tamed one day. Later, in 1870, Jacob Hamblin settled in the "Pareah" valley, in part to establish a garrison against Navajo incursions that had begun to plague the settlers.

A year earlier, in 1869, Major John Wesley Powell ventured into the area. At the time, he was a professor of Geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. As a Union soldier, he had lost one arm in the Battle of Shiloh, but this didn’t slow him down much. He was discharged from the army as a Colonel but used the title "Major" for the rest of his life. Powell made the exploration of the Colorado his life’s goal and, in turn, the river made him famous. Later, while planning his second journey Maj. Powell met with Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. Young not only pledged his full support for Maj. Powell’s next expedition, but also offered to go with him for part of it. Among those who accompanied the men was Jacob Hamblin, who served as a guide. Another man on the expedition was John Doyle Lee.

Lee had gained some notoriety as one of the instigators of the infamous "Mountain Meadows Massacre" in southern Utah in 1857. Ever since that time he had been under heavy scrutiny by the law and was anxious to find a safe haven. He liked Major Powell and on this trip had many deep conversations with him. During their journey, Major Powell recognized the value of a ferry and the Paria confluence and John D. Lee was quick to ask Brigham Young if he could stay there and serve to establish a ferry. The isolation of Paria’s Ferry was welcome relief for him and several of his nineteen polygamous wives.

Paria’s Ferry quickly became known as Lee’s Ferry and John D. Lee operated it until March 1877 when U.S. Marshals finally caught up with him and conveyed him back to Mountain Meadows where he was executed by firing squad for his involvement with the massacre. The ferry, however, continued operating until 1928, providing the only southern passage for travelers on their way westward to California or south to Arizona. It quickly became a major focal point for commerce and transportation of goods across the southwest.

Interest in a dam across the river had first been proposed by Major Powell in 1890 and the idea gained momentum with time. Powell had also written, in 1870, of the need for a railroad bridge and even identified a place a bit downstream of the ferry for such a site. The ferry provided a service but was far from safe or reliable. Storms, winds, and floods all affected Lee’s ferry and its history was marked by accidents and drownings. In 1881, taking a cue from Powell, the Arizona Northern Railway Company selected a site at Lee’s Ferry for a bridge. Site work was begun and approaches were graded before economic conditions forced a halt to the work. Talk of a bridge continued for years, and Arizona’s Coconino County kept hope alive that a bridge would one day be built. That dream was fulfilled in 1927 as work commenced on a bridge after the U.S. Bureau of Indian affairs pledged $100,000 that would connect the Navajo Reservation with the rest of the country. The State of Arizona provided the $290,000 balance. The bridge was completed in 1929. The Ferry continued in operation until June 7, 1928 when, during spring runoff with the river running high, an accident occurred and the boat and its cargo were lost. With the bridge nearing completion, the decision was made to forego a new ferry. Its loss was felt immediately by the fact that for the rest of the project, managers needing materials on the far side of the bridge had to send them on an 880 mile journey around the Grand Canyon and through Needles California just to cross the 800 feet to the other side of the river. The significance of the new bridge was manifest at its dedication on June 14,1929 when more than 5,000 people attended the ceremony in this remote and sparsely populated corner of the country. The event was graced by the presence of five western state governors and Heber J. Grant, then president of the Mormon Church.

In time, the bridge, originally called Grand Canyon Bridge, was renamed Navajo Bridge and was used heavily by travelers on Highway 89. As time passed, however, need for a new bridge arose. The new Navajo Bridge, 150 feet downstream, was completed in 1995 after a 19-month project. Today the original bridge is a footbridge open to the public. Each year thousands of tourists walk across it and peer down the 467 feet to the Colorado River. It is one of the "must do" items on any visitor’s list.

Lake Powell has created a dramatic increase in visitors to the area, and while most visitors stay on or near the water, there are many who venture out to see the breathtaking scenery of the surrounding area. One of the most spectacular sights in the area is the towering and majestic Vermilion Cliffs, which rise to 3,000 feet above the valley floor around Lee’s Ferry. Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, a few miles west of the bridge, sits at the base of the imposing cliffs and offers guests trips on horseback and on foot in and around these mountains, as well as guided fly-fishing and river rafting trips. The lodge has its own 3820’ dirt airstrip across the road for fly-in visitors.

Marble Canyon Lodge sits right in Lee’s Ferry just a few hundred yards from the bridges. It also has a very nice paved airstrip, just across the street. Owned and operated by the Foster family since 1961, the lodge has been around since the first bridge opened in 1929. Now days, David and Barbara Foster run a very good rafting, guiding and fishing business from the lodge, along with a trading post and restaurant. The town also has a post office, laundry, and gas station/convenience store.

Much of the business at Lee’s Ferry/Marble Canyon centers on the river. Each season thousands of river runners spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend up to eight days running the river through the Grand Canyon. This is a far cry from the old days when, from 1900 to 1950, only 18 parties ever challenged the mighty Colorado. Not all of them were successful.

One great blessing bestowed upon the area by the 1965 completion of Glen Canyon Dam is the "tail waters" that flow from the lake. Because of the dam, the water comes out cold and clear with an almost constant temperature of 47 degrees and a flow that fluctuates on a daily basis within controlled limits. As a result, the Cutthroat and Rainbow trout that inhabit the waters flourish. The aquatic growth enjoys the steady water, and natural food is readily available for the world-class trout. Though the waters have not been stocked for five years, the river is full of trophy fish and, since the waters between the dam and Lee’s Ferry are accessible only by boat, the fishing pressure is limited and reasonable to sustain the population.

My fishing buddy Chris Tuckfield and I rendezvoused at the Marble Canyon Lodge recently for a day of guided fishing. We both flew into the Marble Canyon Airstrip and spent the night in very nice accommodations at Marble Canyon Lodge. At 6:00 am the next morning we were up and outside in front of the office where we met our guide Dave Trimble, a young but very able fishing guide who was to be our host for the day. Dave had everything ready, including a fresh supply of midges, scuds, and dry flys for our days adventure.

We set out, boat in tow, for the launch site a few miles from town. Dave did everything as we stood around feeling like helpless tourists. Not to worry though, that’s the plan. The outfitters do everything for you, including rigging you up for the specific water you’re going to fish and tying on the particular flies they think will work that day. These guys are good too! After a breathtakingly beautiful ride up several miles of some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen (Dave says many people say the boat ride alone is worth the whole trip) we stopping at a spot several miles up from the landing. Dave rigged me up first and had me go over to fish a small riffle feeding into the main body of the river. He had not even returned to rig Chris up when I set my first strike. I pulled and something big pulled back. Immediately I knew I had a bigger fish than I was used to catching. I fought the thing for about five minutes before finally landing a beautiful 17"-18" Rainbow! Two casts later and another one was on the line. This is how it went for the whole morning. When Chris, who was having similar luck, and I finally surrendered a few hours later we had both literally lost count of how many fish we had caught! We were tired and our shoulders ached. We needed a rest.

Dave could see that we knew how to fish so after a break he asked if we wanted to move up stream and try for some "hogs." Silly me, I thought that was what we had been catching ,but Dave had something else in mind. We motored up to the base of the dam where, once again, Dave rigged me up and sent me to a spot on the rocks where I was to stand and fish. On the second cast the water exploded in a silver streak and my line went ripping downstream. The drag on my reel sang as almost three-quarters of my line peeled out. After finally slowing the great beast down, a battle ensued for what seemed like an hour, though I’m sure it was really only eight to ten minutes. As the fish moved into some deeper, calmer water, we could see him. I would have sworn I had a Salmon on the line. Ultimately the victory was mine. He was much too big for my cute little fish net, so we had to use the boat net. He was bigger than that too, but we managed to land the 22"-23" Rainbow. I was exhausted, so I took some time to shake out my shoulder while Dave and Chris went back to rigging up Chris’s line. After a minute, I got my line straight and cast in once more. Again a splash and a silver streak, and the ordeal started all over again. This one was small though – only about 21". What more can I say? I have pictures! And I had a sore shoulder for a few days. But then I ask you, what’s a little muscle soreness for the greatest day of fishing I have ever had?

When I ponder the experience I had at Lee’s Ferry that day, I am struck by the completeness of it. The trip to Marble Canyon is worth the journey by it self. The geography and the geology are mythic in their scope. Wild Bighorn Sheep and Condors give the nature lover something to seek. The place reeks of history, only a little of which I have been able to touch upon, and the adventure to be had, whether it be running the grandest river in the country or fishing the finest fishery in the west, is above comparison. Will I be back there someday? You can count on it. The majesty of Marble Canyon and the adventure of Lee’s Ferry are worth the trip.

Mark Swint is a senior captain for United airlines, flying 767 and 757 aircraft based in LAX. For fun, he flies his Cessna C-185 and Beech Baron B-55. Mark is also a licensed A&P, and has just finished restoring a 1946 Aeronca 7AC. Mark has been a writer for many years, including a two-year stint in Hollywood and London working in the screenwriting business.

The Marble Canyon Airstrip is located at N36.48.45 W111.38.48. Its identifier is L41 and it is 3715’ long and paved. The runway is 3/21 and the airport sits at 3603’ elevation.
Marble Canyon Lodge can be reached at 800-533-7339 or 929-355-2245. Dave and Barbara Foster will be happy to make any arrangements you might need. River running is generally in the summer but fishing and eco-tourism are good all year long. Their web site is Cliff Dweller’s Lodge is five miles west on Hwy 89. It has a 3820’ dirt strip located at N36.44.4 W111.46.0. The identifier is AZ03 and it sits at 4217’ elevation. They can be reached at 800-433-2543. They offer river rafting and guided fishing trips as well as eco-tourism.
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