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Woman of the River: Georgie White Clark, Whitewater Pioneer

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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.

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1 Swimming Rapids in Grand Canyon, 1944-1945

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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 backpack which held a malt can containing a light jacket, sugar candy, powdered coffee, dehydrated soup, and their cameras and film. They had asked the sheriff in Peach Springs to ship the rest of their clothes back to Boulder City. After a hot twenty-mile hike down to the Colorado River, they were faced with a rampaging, debris-filled stream at the height of spring runoff. The swift current carried along trees and other driftwood the rains had washed down from side canyons. Lashing waves crashed against the shore rocks with an ominous roar.2 And, as happens with all floods of this kind, the air was filled with the pungent odor of rotting vegetation.

 

2 Rafting the Rapids, 1946-1947

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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 alone (at least I didn’t think I could at the time) and Harry was the only person who would go with me.

After awhile I came to admire his determination and drive, but I was never romantically attracted to him, nor was our relationship physical. Harry simply needed someone to hike with him and be on hand in case of an emergency—so did I.1

As time passed Georgie and Harry began to look back and glorify the swim down the Colorado River of the year before. They had a tendency to forget the pain and remember only the good parts. By winter they had decided to tackle the river from farther up and to try a different method. They spent the winter months planning another expedition.

 

3 From Passenger to Boatman, 1948-1952

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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 bearing his name. Major Powell also floated past its mouth on both his 1869 and 1871 explorations of the Colorado River unaware that it was a major tributary. A year later in 1872 the Thompson-Dellenbaugh survey party at first took it for the Dirty Devil, then realizing their error, took credit for its discovery. It proved to be the last river to be discovered in the contiguous United States.2 Even at this time in 1948, very few Anglos had traveled down the Escalante.

 

4 Taking Passengers through Grand Canyon, 1953

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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 hours in a Jeep with Dan Manning and Neal Magelby, both of Richfield. Georgie and Harry were dropped off at the top of Hole-In-The-Rock; after a little looking around, Manning and Magelby headed back to Richfield.

From this point in 1879, 250 Mormon pioneers from the Cedar City and Panguitch areas had blasted and prayed their way across this most isolated, wildly eroded “slickrock” wilderness in the dead of winter to settle the town of Bluff, Utah. Here at Hole-In-The-Rock, a narrow slit in the rim of Glen Canyon more than a thousand feet above the Colorado River, Georgie and Harry encountered the first signs of the powder-blasted, hand-built dugway made seventy-three years earlier.

 

5 The Triple Rig Is Born, 1954

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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 of these places for themselves, so she decided to make it a commercial venture. She worked hard, bought more equipment (including three ten-man war surplus rafts), and rounded up passengers for another trip through Grand Canyon.1

Whitey was along for this trip, his first through Grand Canyon. Among others who came were photographer Walter Blaylock, Esther Flemmer (again), Roger Bowling, and John M. Goddard, a well-known world traveler and one of the first three men on record to traverse the entire 4,200-mile length of the Nile River. Goddard would make a movie of the trip to be shown on a lecture tour as well as on television adventure programs.

 

6 Branching Out to New Rivers, 1955

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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 River, and Hell’s Canyon of the Snake River in August and September. Motion pictures of previous trips were shown on request to groups and individuals to interest potential passengers.

This year Georgie also began to experiment further with three ten-man rafts tied together. These rafts were quite maneuverable with oars, but even more so with a small motor; and with the motor pushing the rafts, the trip was speeded up by several days. Linking the three rafts together was a real breakthrough, but was only for the more adventurous souls. She could now run all the rapids without portaging, though there was still the danger of one raft folding over onto the others. She wanted to be able to take families with children and older people.

 

7 Controversies, 1956

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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:

Biographical Information on Georgie White,

“Woman of the Rivers”

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 or woman.

Now in her early 40’s she is a self-made sportswoman whose love of the outdoors has led her from pier plunges into Lake Michigan as a child in a North Chicago tenement district to personal conquest of the western United States’ ruggedest rivers, including the mighty Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

 

8 Glen Canyon Dam and a Clash of Personalities, 1957-1958

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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 shoreline of Lake Mead and be seventy-six miles longer. Conservationists had pushed for the dam in Glen Canyon as an alternative to one proposed for Dinosaur National Monument, a decision most of them would soon regret.

Scaling of canyon walls at the dam site began in August 1956. By the 1957 boating season, a coffer dam and diversion tunnel were in place and boaters had to leave the river at Kane Creek (above the dam site) rather than at Lee’s Ferry. This would be the takeout point until 1963 when the dam was completed and the reservoir began to fill.

 

9 Exploring Mexican Rivers, 1958-1959

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Always looking 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 countryside, the group found the entire terrain flooded. They would later find roads washed out, telephones out of commission, telegraph wires down, and people marooned on high spots hoping desperately for help. More than thirty thousand people were believed to have been left temporarily homeless.

The pilot tried desperately to maneuver out of the storm, flying up several valleys only to be forced back the same way he had come. Fuel was getting low and they were looking for a known emergency landing field. When they finally located it, it was one big lake with the runways completely inundated.

 

10 Dead Man in Cataract and Other New Experiences, 1960-1961

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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 Cataract Canyon with a party of thirty-five. She was asked to watch for the missing pair. Among Georgie’s passengers was Father John Finbarr Hayes, a twenty-eight-year-old Catholic priest, who had gone through Grand Canyon with her the year before.

Georgie was leading the party in her big boat when they came to placid water below Dark Canyon. It was Sunday, about nine o’clock in the morning. The party had been on the alert for the bodies of the two lost men, and as they drifted along Georgie spotted something unusual in a mass of floating driftwood. She knew instinctively what it was even though the man’s body was arched over with only the top curve of his back above the water. Both his head and his feet were submerged.

 

11 Runaway Rafts, 1962

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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 is.”1

On May 14, 1962, Georgie left Lee’s Ferry for another Grand Canyon trip. Shine Smith was there to see them off, along with an elderly Navajo medicine man named Many Songs, who blessed the boats. L. C. B. “Mac” McCullough said, “We think he may have cursed them [the boats], the way we had trouble.”

On the evening of May 22 Georgie landed on the sandbar at Tapeats Creek. The party’s second set of boats landed there as well. But an oarlock on the third boat broke as they were attempting to land, and it was swept a mile further downstream before the crew could bring it ashore. They decided there was daylight enough left to tow the boat back up to Georgie’s camp. So young Art Gallenson stayed on board to fend it off the rocks while the rest of the group pulled on ropes from the shore. Gallenson wrote:

 

12 Exploring Canadian Rivers, 1963

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Early in June 1963 Georgie made a trip through Cataract Canyon. There were thirty-seven passengers in all, plus Georgie and her dog, Sambo, 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 came up to meet the backside, we were all lifted off our seats and slammed back down again, twisting and turning, and wondering if our fingers were going to be able to keep holding on. Art and I knocked heads together, even though we were sitting 4 feet apart in different sections of the boat. He said he had been a steeplejack in earlier years and didn’t think the rapids of the Colorado could offer anything more exciting than that. Wonder if he still holds that opinion.

 

13 More of Mexico, 1963-1964

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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 for men only, yet the champion is a woman, and not a very big one at that. It isn’t fair to us men.1

From the journal of Delphine Mohrline Gallagher, we learn more details of that trip.2 In Mexico City on August 14, it took one whole day to get the rubber boats loaded on the truck from the attic where they were stored and to get Georgie’s other baggage off the plane and through customs. At 8 P.M. they were finally on their way for the five-hour truck ride to the town of Mexcala, where they would enter the Balsas River.

 

14 High Jinks, 1965

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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 poultry and rabbits presented to youngsters for pets at Easter. In a reply dated March 4, 1965, the Senator agreed with her that “many of these children are too young to understand their responsibility toward pets of this type and lack the maturity of control which should be exercised in handling them.”2

Whitey continued to have severe drinking problems. He would be on the wagon for a while and then try to catch up when he fell off. During his drinking binges he was not always reliable. Georgie tried to be a stabilizing force for Whitey, but that in itself may have contributed to the problem. The rafting company was now Georgie’s, and she controlled the purse strings.

 

15 Disaster on a Mexican River, 1966-1967

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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 the Sierra Club, who rather than remain on the defensive mounted a counter-offensive. In April 1966 they sponsored legislation that would enlarge the park to include the entire canyon and would specifically prohibit any dams or diversions between Lee’s Ferry, where the canyon begins, and the Grand Wash Cliffs, where it ends.

Other conservationist groups followed suit. Hugh Nash, editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin, wrote:

 

16 Divorce, 1968-1971

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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 the boats up. They were perfectly good when we walked off and left them. The boats weren’t bad. They were upside down.”1

In July 1968 Joan DeFato made her first of many trips with Georgie. She wound up doing a dozen trips with her, about half of them as a passenger and the others as a helper. On the 1968 trip, Georgie only took the big boat, and she was the only crew. A man called “Bouncer” (George Price) was the only person on the boat who had taken the trip before, so Georgie had twenty-one rookies. She ran the boat all day, then made the meals with help from passengers to open the cans. When she got up in the morning, Georgie would gas up the boat, change the spark plug, go around and jump on all the sections. If they were not as hard as she wanted, she would pump them up by hand. She did all this herself; she had just a fantastic amount of energy. Joan said:

 

17 Changing Faces and Changing Rules, 1972-1975

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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 were eroding these beaches. In order to determine what effect this increase in use was having on the resource and visitors’ experiences, the Park Service decided to limit 1973 and subsequent use to the 1972 level.

Georgie was just getting used to being regulated by the National Park Service after having had a free run of the river for so many years when:

In December 1972, the NPS announced without warning its plan: the number of persons allowed to float the river would be reduced until the total dropped to almost one-half of what the allocation was in 1971 (96,000 passenger days); and there would be a 25 percent cutback of outboard motors on the river in 1974 and each subsequent year until 1977, when all motors would be eliminated. Only oar-powered floats would be allowed.2

 

18 Georgie’s Effect on Passengers, 1976-1979

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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, “Is this woman nuts?” Then, as he learned more of her history, he realized what an incredible person she was. He enjoyed being stationed there because he got to talk to her so often. From the beginning he and Georgie became fast friends. They shared the same birthday and exchanged cards or telephone calls on that day.1

Tom told of an incident that occurred during the motor-oar controversy, while the Park Service was still trying to phase out motors. Georgie had been edgy and worried about it. A private trip was waiting to use the ramp to launch, but Georgie was rigging her boats and taking up the entire area. She told them, “I’ve got my stuff here, and when I’m done you can bring your gear in and rig your boats.” This did not sit well with them, and they complained to Workman.

 

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