Down the Great River
May 20, 2014 | by Elizabeth Wason
Three scientists stood outside the Kraus Natural Science Building at 4:30 P.M. on a June afternoon, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues for perhaps the last time in their lives. They planned to travel through the Grand Canyon by boat on the Colorado River, in an era when their survival was a possibility, not an assurance.
This was 1938, and the threat of dismemberment, disappearance, and death matched the pitch of general excitement about exploration and adventure—not only for this expedition, but for all. Just the previous summer, Amelia Earhart had vanished with her airplane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most of the southwestern United States remained an unknown desert—the perfect place for an unassuming botanist from Michigan to risk her life conducting the first botanical survey of the Colorado River.
Elzada Urseba Clover held a master’s (’32) and Ph.D. (’35) in botany from the University of Michigan, finishing her doctorate at 39 years old. Clover became assistant curator at the U-M Botanical Gardens and taught botany at the University. Her great love was cacti, and she suspected that the Grand Canyon area contained plant specimens that the Botanical Gardens lacked. She didn’t know, of course, what kinds of plants grew there—no botanists did.
Clover was particularly interested in how plant species were distributed across the Grand Canyon landscape. The few people who visited the region came for geological exploration or gold, not for plants. So when Clover bumped into a boatman who was eager to collaborate on a botanical expedition down the river, she immediately began planning logistics.
Clover admitted in her journal, “I felt guilty asking any other woman to share the physical and mental punishment which would be ours.” Nevertheless, she invited her teaching assistant in the Department of Botany, Lois Jotter (’35, M.S. ’36, Ph.D. ’43), to join the expedition. Clover and Jotter were former roommates; Clover reasoned that Jotter was agreeable in close quarters and could help with the plant collections, camp cooking, and photography. At 24 years old, Jotter was studying at U-M for her Ph.D. “I think I’ll never get such another chance,” she wrote in letters to her father before the trip. “Also has some element of danger,” she added, which greatly appealed to her.
Clover and Jotter were flippant, even macabre, about their upcoming adventure. “[I]t seemed like the easiest way to handle being warned that you were probably not going to come back,” Jotter said.
The completion of their expedition would mark the first time that any woman came through the canyons alive. Ten years before, a young man and woman took a rafting honeymoon through the Grand Canyon and disappeared; neither their bodies nor their boat were ever found. No other woman had even attempted the trip. The risks terrified Clover and Jotter, yet they anticipated thrills; Clover insisted that she’d prefer to die doing something exciting.
A Dangerous, Foolhardy, Crazy Exploit
The pair of botanists stuffed their equipment into the car of Gene Atkinson, a young U-M zoology graduate student (Clover had enlisted him to help row the boats), and the three scientists drove away from campus toward their launching point on the Green River, north of the Colorado River.
Clover, Jotter, and Atkinson met up with the other three members of the expedition crew near their starting point in Utah: Norm Nevills, a skilled boatman hoping to leverage the publicity from this expedition into a river-running career of his own; Bill Gibson, an artist from San Francisco invited to film and photograph the trip; and Don Harris, a U.S. Geological Survey employee recruited to row.
Nevills designed and built the boats with some construction help from Harris. Each wooden boat was 16 feet long and weighed 600 pounds, with waterproof hatches to safeguard plant specimens and camping gear. With electricity unavailable at the launch site, Nevills and Harris inserted all 2,000 screws in each boat by hand—a total of 6,000 screws for three vessels.
The handmade boats did not touch water until the assembled crew embarked. “When we got into the boats, I wasn’t even sure they were going to float,” Jotter said. But they had no problems with a few practice laps before launching. “I was really quite relieved,” Jotter recalled.
Many had called the trip a dangerous, foolhardy, crazy exploit, but the first few days of boating along the Green River turned out to be downright enjoyable. They spent the days moving with the current, singing and sunning on the boat decks. At one of their campsites, the crew found a large, flat rock that served as a kitchen table, “and later [a] living room for harmonica players Elzie and Don,” Jotter wrote in her journal, “and still later as Elzie’s and my boudoir,” with the help of a couple of air mattresses.
One seven-mile bend in the Green River swung out widely and skirted a 500-foot-tall ridge. Clover, Jotter, and Nevills decided to hike to the top of the hill so they could view both sides of “Bowknot Bend.” They may have clambered more than climbed; on the way up, sizable rocks crashed onto Jotter’s head and cracked her helmet. From the top, the three photographed Atkinson, Gibson, and Harris as they appeared at the other side of the ridge rowing the boats.
A Great River with a Hundred Personalities
Farther on, the crew reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. There, “the character of the river changed, and slowly we realized the force of the Colorado,” Jotter wrote. “You could hear the noise of the first series of rapids. Ominous is the wrong word, but we were all pretty serious.”
Cataract Canyon was the “graveyard of the Colorado,” the place where the expedition would be “cut off from any hope of getting out in case of accident, illness, or fright,” wrote Clover. With more than 60 rapids in that first 45-mile stretch after the confluence, Cataract Canyon averaged more than one rapid per river mile. Giant waves collided loudly enough to stun the crew to silence. They watched turbulent whirlpools eject logs and tree trunks at 20 or 30 miles per hour and witnessed landslides that sent giant boulders crashing into the river.
Members of the crew hiked downstream to assess whether and how they could pass the rapids. During this reconnaissance, Harris spotted one of the boats careening down the river—without any passengers. He shouted and raced across rocks toward the remaining boats, calling frantically for Jotter to join him in chasing the errant vessel. They leapt into a boat and unthinkingly paddled straight into the roiling water, dodging jagged boulders. They plowed through seven rapids before coming to rest in an eddy near a sandbar.
With no sign of the runaway boat, Jotter and Harris were discouraged and exhausted by the chase. The boat carried one-third of their supplies, enough to put the crew in danger of starvation on the river. So they were jubilant and relieved when they found the missing boat, miraculously intact, stuck in an eddy at the far end of the sandbar.
Their success, both in retrieving the lost boat and in tearing through the rapids unharmed, encouraged the crew. But the expedition continued cautiously. “It’s a great river with a hundred personalities, but it is not kind,” Clover wrote.
To pass impossibly dangerous rapids, the crew either lined or portaged the vessels. Lining, a process of pulling the boats without passengers over rapids, allowed the crew to control the boats from shore using rope and brute strength. Portaging was even more physically strenuous. The process involved emptying the boats of all equipment, then carrying the cargo downriver across rocky terrain. The 600-pound boats were lifted and maneuvered overland, downstream of obstacles in the river. At a particularly hazardous rapid, the crew struggled for four days trying to pull the boats up and over a 60-foot cliff at a 45-degree angle.
Meanwhile, the crew dealt with other discomforts. Personality rifts among the crew and beckoning jobs led to the departure of Atkinson and Harris, who were replaced hastily with two more men—willing adventurers Lorin Bell and Del Reed—who happened to be close to a supply stop at the expedition’s halfway point.
The climate fluctuated between “hot as Hades” during the day to “colder than hell” in the evenings. When fresh water from natural springs was unavailable, the crew left buckets of river water overnight to let the silt settle to the bottom before drinking. Most of the time, they would just drink from their helmets, which sometimes led to a clay film in the mouth and throat, along with stomachaches.
Meals were sufficient and palatable most of the time. But after a boat overturned, the crew was forced to salvage their food with limited success. Grape-Nuts—a fixture in the food packs of adventurers during the early 20th century because they were lightweight, nonperishable, and nutritious—were “dried in aggregates, like great big marbles,” Jotter said. Hammering them into smaller pieces was futile. Even when dried, the lumps remained wet at the center and molded, leaving Jotter with a lifelong aversion to their taste.
Amid discomforts, the crew couldn’t help but notice beauty on the river. One of Clover’s favorite memories was singing “Moonlight on the Colorado” while floating under a gorgeous moon. “The night was so beautiful that I couldn’t sleep,” she wrote.
Keeping the Mind on Mere Plants
Clover and Jotter collected just a fraction of the botanical specimens they sought. They were busy beating the rapids, staying fed, avoiding rattlesnakes, finding decent campsites, and only then, as Jotter described it, “snatching as many specimens as possible in the time between landing boats and falling into bed.” There just wasn’t much opportunity to hunt cacti and dry them in the plant presses that Clover and Jotter carried in the boats. Clover despaired in her journal, “You’ve no idea how difficult it is to keep the mind on mere plants when the river is roaring and the boats are struggling to get through.” But she and Jotter diligently alternated the collecting and cooking duties at camp, sometimes pressing plants until well after dark.
In addition, preserving plant specimens in transit was tricky. On windy days, Clover had to swing her leg over a plant press to keep it from flying off the boat deck. Specimens got wet in the rain and the river, and keeping them dry required creative solutions. “I had a bad time, had to dry plants in Lois’s pack,” Clover wrote. “The work is difficult under these conditions.”
Moreover, although the boats ran the rapids capably, their waterproof hatches were too small to accommodate many bulky, spiny cacti. The botanists had to send the specimens they gathered back to Ann Arbor when the expedition stopped twice to replenish supplies.
Oddly, Clover also voiced suspicions (in her journal and in letters to Jotter) that their boatman and trip co-leader, Nevills, deliberately misplaced some of the plants they collected, although what may have motivated him to lose the plants intentionally remains open to speculation.
The expedition crew also explored the cave of an extinct giant ground sloth, and Clover examined ancient sloth dung that had preserved the undigested remains of nine different plant species. Cactus spines embedded in the poop provided insights about the animal’s diet and the potential mode of dispersal for plants in the area.
All told, Clover and Jotter managed to discover several new cactus species. The representative specimens are held at the U-M Herbarium to this day. Echinocereus decumbens, E. canyonensis, Opuntia longiareolata, and Sclerocactus parviflorus were previously unknown, and Clover grew specimens of these cacti at the Botanical Gardens upon her return. She became a key collector of the gardens’ oldest plants, although the Grand Canyon specimens in particular have not survived through the years.
When the expedition ended, the strong camaraderie of the crew tapered off as they separated. Clover felt regret as the last rapid came into view. “No more would we have that feeling of uncertainty and expectation,” she wrote. “People who have not fought with such elements can’t realize how petty and trivial are the things two-thirds of us do in civilization. What a shame to have to get back.”
The Challenges of Civilization
The botanists returned to civilization, although they didn’t necessarily stay there. Lois Jotter finished her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and later spent decades as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. More than 50 years after the seminal expedition through the Grand Canyon, Jotter returned for a trip on the Colorado River with other historic river runners (and modern amenities) when she was 81 years old. She died in April 2013 at age 99.
Elzada Clover took another short trip on the San Juan River and collected fossil plants in Texas before heading back to Michigan after the expedition. Upon her return to Ann Arbor, Clover entertained large, diverse, and widespread audiences with tales and film footage from the adventure. She conducted research and taught in the Department of Botany and the Biological Station until 1967. Her plant specimens strengthened the collections of both the U-M Herbarium and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Clover chased cacti and adventure in the deserts of Guatemala, Mexico, and Haiti for the rest of her career, zipping around waterways by motorboat into her 80s. She died in 1980 at age 83.
Photos courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Library/University of Utah.