Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom - The Humblest Hero
By Brad Dimock
I am writing this as I lay in my sleeping bag, and this is the only paper I have up here. I had no intention of writing a letter now but it is so beautiful here right now I must tell someone about it..."
These words were penned in Red Canyon, on the shore of Utah's Green River. They were not written by someone known as an artist or a writer, but by a poor young Oregon gas station attendant engaged in a feat that would soon bring him national fame. In a wooden boat, he built himself, he was rowing from Green River, Wyoming to Boulder Dam in Nevada. In another month and a half of steady labor, he would be the first to run this thousand-mile stretch of white water alone.
"...I am camped on the left bank of the river and have my sleeping bag in a little level place I scooped out in the sand among the rock. The fire is flickering up and down behind me and throwing flashes of light on a mountain cedar tree just above me. It has many dead limbs on it and looms up kind of ghostly, but pretty too".
Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom had come to the Green and Colorado Rivers not to achieve fame, but to fulfill a private quest. He was born and raised in the logging camps of southern coastal Oregon, and had been in and around boats all his life. When Buzz was a young teenager his father had died, leaving him and his brother Carl to support their mother and two younger siblings on the family farm. When the farm proved unmanageable, the family moved to Coquille, the county seat. Buzz took a job at the local filling station; a job he held on and off for the rest of his life. A more unlikely candidate for one of America's greatest white water boatmen would be hard to find. Yet suddenly, at the age of twenty-five, young Holmstrom began designing, building, and rowing white water boats.
In 1934, he soloed Oregon's Rogue River, flipping twice in his premiere voyage. He never flipped again. In 1935, he ran the Rogue again and the following year he soloed Idaho's "River of No Return", the mighty Salmon. For each trip he created a new boat, improving on his previous designs. In early October 1937, he arrived alone in Green River, Wyoming in a ten-dollar Dodge towing his latest boat, quietly launched it, and headed downriver.
"...Just beyond the mesquite and almost over me is a big pine tree outlined clearly against the sky with many stars twinkling through its branches and over here the stars really do twinkle".
Since John Wesley Powell had first explored the river in 1869, only a few dozen trappers, miners, scientists and adventurers had braved the Green and Colorado's white water. Not all had survived. Holmstrom's trip would be the fifth to do the entire Wyoming to Nevada route. It was an outlandish thing to attempt alone, and one reason he was so quiet about his intentions was his fear of someone trying to stop him. Yet he was not attempting the trip unprepared. He had memorized everything written about the Green and Colorado. His rowing technique was modeled after Vernal, Utah trapper Nathaniel Galloway, who had pioneered flat bottomed boats in rapids, facing downstream and rowing to slow his speed and maneuver around the rocks and waves. Holmstrom's earlier trips had given him skill and confidence in rapids, and he headed down the Green with a surprisingly realistic idea of what he was up against.
He evaluated each rapid, and more often than not, ran them. In Red Canyon, shortly below today's Flaming Gorge Dam, he found Red Creek Rapid too rock-studded to attempt. He dragged and lined his boat around the worst of it, and continued. In his journal he explained:
"...I hated to break down and portage, as I have not done so before, but what I am trying to do is see how far I can get, rather than how many I can run. If there are many more long portages, about half my stuff is going overboard".
At camp that night, with most of his formidable journey still ahead, he found himself obsessed not with the toil and danger ahead, nor with any pride over his progress so far, but with the astounding beauty and power that surrounded him. In his letter home he continued:
"...I can hear that miserable Red Creek rapid roaring back up the river and the voice of another downstream but it doesn't sound so unfriendly. Little waves are slapping on the sides of the boat, the compartments act on the principle of a drum".
A few days later Buzz entered the Green's infamous Canyon of Lodore. He lowered his boat around parts of Triplet Falls and Disaster Falls, and ran Hells Half Mile and the rest of the rapids without incident. After stopping for supplies in Vernal, he continued through Desolation and Gray Canyons, stopping to resupply again in Green River. At each stop he would look up anyone with river experience, riddle them for information and stories and continue on.
On October 28, Buzz reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, deep in what is now Canyonlands National Park. Although he recalled Powell's descriptions of the fantastic views from the canyon rim, he was too anxious to take time for the climb. Just ahead lay Cataract Canyon, the famed "Graveyard of the Colorado".
This forty-mile stretch of river had some of the most ferocious rapids on the Colorado, but with over a hundred miles of calm water above and below it, many miners and trappers had been lulled to their sudden death in the decades since Powell's journey.
By evening, Holmstrom had run the first five rapids and calmed his nerves. The next day he worked his way through what is now called Mile-Long Rapid and the first two Big Drops. At Big Drop Three, he was about to run when he noticed a fang of rock in the route he had picked. Sensibly, he aborted the run and, alone, dragged his five-hundred-pound boat through the boulders along the shore, launching again below. He finished Cataract without further problems and raced through one-hundred-sixty miles of Glen Canyon. It was now early November, days were getting shorter and the water was dropping. He rowed every daylight hour. At Marble Canyon, Arizona he climbed to the rim of the gorge, caught a bus to Flagstaff and spent his last dime on food. Back at the river, he loaded his boat and rowed on.
Marble Canyon is usually considered a part of Grand Canyon, home of the most notorious rapids of the Colorado. For the next two-hundred-fifty miles, Buzz would put himself to the ultimate test. He allowed himself two weeks to make the 86 miles to Phantom Ranch in Grand Canyon. After scouting each rapid with the expectation of another portage, he shrugged, got back in his boat and ran them. In only four days he reached the beach at Phantom Ranch.
After a final hike to the Rim to speak with river-runner Emery Kolb, he descended to the river and pressed on. He ran every rapid until he got to Lava Falls. Although he felt there might be a way to run it, caution again forced him to the Herculean task of a portage through the rocks.
Two days later he caught up to another river party, the Carnegie Institute/Cal Tech geology trip, the first meeting of two river parties in Grand Canyon. After a night of exchanging tales, Holmstrom went on, running the final two major rapids, as he had the others: alone. Separation and Lava Cliff Rapids, now beneath Lake Mead, were infamous in Powell's account, and had caused grief to many boaters since. Yet upon inspection, Buzz found viable routes and ran each successfully. At the foot of Lava Cliff, he pulled into camp, having successfully accomplished his solo run of the rapids. Yet something gnawed at him. He wrote:
"...Camp on right at lower end rapid... with the last bad one above me, the "Bad Rapid", Lava Cliff, that I have been looking for, nearly a thousand miles. I had thought once past there my reward will begin, but now everything ahead seems kind of empty and I find I have already had my reward - in the doing of the thing. The stars and cliffs and canyons, the roar of the rapids, the moon, the uncertainty, worry, the relief when thru each one, the campfires at nite, the real respect and friendship of the rivermen I met and others...This may be my last camp where the roar of a real rapid is echoed from the cliffs around and I can look at the stars and moon only thru a narrow slit in the earth. The River and Canyons have been kind to me, I think my greatest danger is ahead, that I might get swellheaded over this thing. I am going to try to keep my mouth shut about it, go back to work in the old way and have it only for a memory for myself. I have done no one any good and caused a few people great worry and suffering I know. I think this river is not treacherous as has been said. Every rapid speaks plainly just what it is and what it will do to a person and a boat in its currents, waves, boils, whirlpools and rocks, if only one will read and listen carefully. It demands respect and will punish those who do not treat it properly. Some places it says, "go here safely, if you do it just this way", and in others it says, "do not go here at all with the type of boat you have", but many people will not believe what it says. Some people have said, 'I conquered the Colorado River.' I don't say so. It has never been conquered and never will. I think, anyone who it allows to go thru its canyons and see its wonders should feel thankful and privileged. I know I have got more out of this trip by being alone than if a party was along as I have more time, especially at nite, to listen and look and think and wonder about the natural wonders rather than listen to talk of war politics and football scores. A perfect nite, every star in the sky lighted up brighter than usual, still, the moon comes up later now."
Buzz Holmstrom rowed steadily across the rising waters of Lake Mead for the next four days, hitting the concrete face of the dam with a deliberate thunk, and returned home to Oregon. As much has he hoped to avoid fame, his tale spread and he was featured the following spring in the Saturday Evening Post and a host of radio shows. He abhorred the publicity, but succumbed to the remuneration it offered him. After all, he had a family to support. In 1938 he returned to the Green and Colorado, repeating his journey for a film, and ran every rapid without a single portage.
Yet what makes Holmstrom most significant in today's world of river running is not so much his astonishing prowess as a boatman, but his humbleness and deep appreciation of the power and beauty of the river. In his journals and letters he cut to the essence of what today's river experience is, or should be, about. It is not man against nature. It is man (and woman) overwhelmed by nature. In his 1937 letter to his mother, he concluded,
"A whiff of smoke from the dying campfire blows over here once in a while but I don't mind. I can see the rim of the Canyon walls on both sides of the river, black and jagged against the starlit sky. Well Mamma, I wish you were here and I believe if you were, you would say it is pretty good too.
Brad Dimock is a veteran river guide, having run the Green and Colorado Rivers for nearly thirty years. He is co-author of the new award-winning biography, The Doing of the Thing: the Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom, available at bookstores everywhere, or online at www.fretwater.com.
Information courtesy of Utah Guides & Outfitters Association.
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