George Young Bradley was ecstatic on July 16, 1869. "Hurra! Hurra! Hurra!" he wrote in his journal that day. "Grand River came upon us, or rather we came upon that suddenly."
Bradley was one of 10 members of the John Wesley Powell expedition that had left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869. The first 53 days of their expedition took them down the Green River, to its confluence with the Colorado, then known as the Grand River.
Piloting heavy wooden boats, Powell and his team became the first people to navigate through the Grand Canyon. They gave names we still use today to features such as Gates of Lodore and Glen Canyon. Powell described the geology, topography and Native American ruins they encountered in great detail. But it wasn't easy.
By the time they reached the confluence with the Grand River, they'd already lost one boat and many of their provisions in a wreck at what they called Disaster Falls. They'd survived the Gates of Lodore and a variety of smaller rapids.
They'd had their last contact with the outside world two weeks earlier, when they stopped at the mouth of the Uintah River. Powell and two others had hiked to the nearby Uintah Indian Reservation, mailed letters for crew members and replenished some of their lost provisions. One of the team members, Frank Goodman, left the expedition there.
By July 16, they were more than halfway through their 98-day journey, although they had no way of knowing it then. Nor did they know what lay ahead — the great rapids in Cataract Canyon, in Glen Canyon and in the Grand Canyon itself.
But they did know that the confluence of the Green and Grand rivers was a key point on the journey. Bradley was surprised that the junction of the two rivers didn't produce the sort of tumult that occurred when lesser streams flowed into the Green.
"At last without warning … in broke the Grand with a calm strong tide very different from what it has been represented," Bradley wrote. "We were led to expect that it was a rushing, roaring mountain torrent."
The confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers now lies within the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park, southwest of Moab, Utah.
Jack Sumner, Powell's second in command on the expedition, was also pleased at arriving at the confluence. But he was dubious about the claims of one Colorado newspaper editor who said he had staked out a town site where the two rivers met.
"Where he had his Burgh is more than I can say," Sumner wrote in his journal, "as it is apparently endless Cañon in three directions — up the Grand, up the Green and down the Colorado." Everything below the confluence of the Green and Grand was called the Colorado River in those days.
Sumner also noted that the canyon walls around the junction were 1,250 feet high and there was "not timber enough within ten miles to supply one family six months."
Powell, the one-armed scientist and surveyor, was more pragmatic in his description of the confluence:
"The lower end of the canyon through which the Grand comes down is also regular, but much more direct," he wrote. "Down the Colorado the canyon walls are much more broken."
Powell said the team could see the snow-clad peaks of the La Sal Mountains when they looked up the Grand River.
The expedition spent four days at the confluence of the two great rivers, resting, taking scientific observations and repairing boats and other gear.
On July 20, Powell and Bradley explored the Land of Standing Rocks, today within the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. They hiked deep into the rock formations.
"We wander among these corridors for an hour or two, but find no place where the rocks are broken down so that we can climb up," Powell said.
Eventually, they worked their way carefully up through a crevice and discovered "a world of grandeur … spread before us" when they looked down upon the Colorado River.
Despite having restocked two weeks earlier, their provisions were running low again. Sumner reported that he "examined our stores and found we were getting very short as we were compelled to throw away 200 pounds of flour that had got wet so often it was completely spoiled."
Still, they relaunched their boats on July 21, and soon found themselves in the rough water of Cataract Canyon.
That afternoon, Powell's boat, the Emma Dean, was swamped. Powell, Sumner and William Dunn were tossed into the river.
"We cling to the boat, and in the first quiet water below she is righted and bailed out; but three oars are lost in this mishap," Powell wrote.
That day, Bradley said they faced repeated portages in which they lowered the boats through the rapids while hanging onto ropes from the shore.
There would be many more portages, including around the massive Lava Falls, one of the largest and most well-known rapids in the Grand Canyon.
But they also rode through many rapids. On Aug. 21, just below Bright Angel Creek, Powell stood up on the Emma Dean, hanging by a leather strap with his one good hand.
"The boat glides rapidly where the water is smooth, then, striking a wave, she leaps and bounds like a thing of life and we have a wild, exhilarating ride for ten miles, which we make in less than an hour."
By then, their rations were nearly gone, and they were uncertain how much farther they had to go to reach the Virgin River, where they knew Mormon settlements were nearby. There was also near mutiny among some of the crew members.
The combination of these factors led three members — O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca Howland and William Dunn to leave the expedition on Aug. 28, hike to the top of the canyon and attempt to march westward to civilization.
The bodies of the three men were discovered a few weeks later, apparently killed by Shivwits Indians.
If they had stayed with the expedition just two more days, they would have reached the mouth of the Virgin River with their companions.
Powell and his brother, Walter, left the expedition there and traveled to St. George, Utah, then back east.
Sumner, Bradley and two others restocked their provisions and continued down the river to Yuma, Arizona. By then, any jubilation they had once felt was long gone.
"I find myself pennyless (sic) and disgusted with the whole thing," Sumner wrote.
A variety of events are being held this summer to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Powell trip. One group of scientists, authors and students is re-creating much of the journey in the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, or SCREE. Find out more about the trip and other anniversary events at www.powell150.org.
Sources: "George Y. Bradley's Journal," and "J.C. Sumner's Journal," edited by William Culp Darrah, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. XV, 1947; "The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons," by John Wesley Powell; "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," by Wallace Stegner.
Bob Silbernagel's email is firstname.lastname@example.org.