Float Your Boat: Grand Canyon Rafts, Then and Now
The four boats used on the 1869 Powell expedition were made of oak and pine and poorly suited for running Grand Canyon rapids.
The four boats used on the 1869 Powell expedition were made of oak and pine and poorly suited for running Grand Canyon rapids. There are no surviving pictures or illustrations of the boats, but historians have pieced together information from journal entries.
The boats were water taxis, called Whitehalls, originally designed to ferry passengers between large ships and the harbor. Powell had a boat builder customize the Whitehalls for running rapids but the additions only made things worse. He added large, sealed compartments at the front and back of the 22-foot long boats to store supplies and to add buoyancy. Instead, the extra mass made the crafts difficult to steer and easier to capsize. The wooden boats also soaked up water and were brutally heavy to portage around more than 100 rapids. Powell revised his design on the second 1871 expedition to include a mid-ship compartment, steering oars, and a captain’s chair.
The Grand Canyon was run in wooden boats until 1952, when Georgie White not only became the first female commercial river guide but also the first in the Grand Canyon to introduce “soft boats” in the form of 10-man inflatable life rafts. Today, Grand Canyon river trips are mostly done in self-bailing rubber rafts that are 18 feet long, 8 feet wide, hold up to 11 passengers, and bounce off rocks. They are loaded with ice chests stocking cold beer and steak, something Powell never could have imagined.
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