History of Utah River Running

By Richard Quist

Many of the rivers and river canyons of the United States (and indeed the entire world) have historically been used for various "means to an end" purposes such as settlement sites, early migration routes, avenues of exploration and transportation routes. River running as a pure recreation form is a relatively new phenomenon, the genesis of which can be traced back to the early 1930s to two Utah towns, Mexican Hat and Vernal.

River Running History Four major drainages of the Colorado Plateau, The Green, Yampa, Colorado and San Juan Rivers, all contain extensive evidence of very early occupation by Native Americans. They left behind a variety of structures, artifacts and the mysterious pictographs and petroglyphs still visible today on canyon walls. It is clear that these early inhabitants also used some of the canyons as migration routes through otherwise impassable landscapes.

Our country's history is rich with the stories of the explorers who used rivers as their highways. The early explorers inspired further exploration driven by the fur trade. In April of 1825, General William Ashley launched the first recorded exploration of the upper Green River. The Gold Rush frenzy of the 1840s and 1850s brought others who, laboring under the misconception that the Green River flowed into the Pacific and searching for an easy, painless route to California, launched several misguided expeditions down the river in their attempt to get to the gold fields. The 1869 and 1871 explorations of Major John Wesley Powell and his crews yielded journals and letters that provided the first comprehensive information about the Green River and Colorado ( then called the "Grand") River systems.

As the new century began, river runners such as Nate Galloway, Julius Stove and the Kolb Brothers, driven largely by desire for pure adventure, began developing and testing different kinds of river boats and methods of negotiating whitewater.

The 1930s were the turning point in the story of human use of the river. All the threads of the past and future of river running came together in that pivotal decade. Boat design, the type of trips, the people who ran the rivers all began to undergo a change. The mid thirties also saw the advent of commercial river running and by 1940 there was more than one outfit "piloting dudes" down the river. A few of the colorful characters of this period include Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom who built his first boat out of a cedar tree he cut in Oregon, Amos Burg who is credited with running the first inflatable rubber raft on the river, and the DeColmont/DeSeyne party from France consisting of Bernard DeColmont, his young bride Genevieve and their friend Antoine DeSeyne. This Gallic trio had plied their 15 foot folding kayaks on many rivers in the Europe and had come to Utah to run "the most wonderful river in the world."

Two of the earliest attempts to sell river outfitting services to the public were undertaken by Bus Hatch and Norman Nevills.

River Running History Bus Hatch was born in 1907 and raised in Vernal, Utah close by the Green River. As a boy, he and his friends were naturally attracted to the river, floating portions of it on "old inner tubes and logs." By 1936, he and colleague were running 10 day trips, charging about $65.00 per person. Two of Bus' sons who accompanied their father on the early trips have continued in the business, and are passing on to yet a third generation the legacy of Bus.

In 1920, the W.E. Nevills family settled in Mexican Hat, Utah near Monument Valley. Son Norm helped his father operate a tourist lodge there and, as an adjunct to the family's income, worked to outfit geologists and prospectors with gear and boats for trips down the San Juan River. In 1933, Norm fell in love with, courted and married a young tourist from Oregon. For a honeymoon river trip, Norm knocked together a boat (legend has it that the materials came from an outdoor privy and a pig pen) and the happy couple floated 60 miles down the San Juan. Thus began Nevills' commercial river running business that included trips on the Green all the way down to the Colorado and on through Grand Canyon in addition to the main staple of San Juan trips.

Following the end of World War II, the commercial recreational river trip outfitting seeds planted by Bus and Norm began to sprout, bud and ultimately flower into extensive enterprises. With every increasing numbers of tourists visiting Utah and northern Arizona, other early river enthusiasts like Harry Aleson, Georgie White, Bill Belknap and Don Harris identified opportunities to realize a profit from doing something they already loved to do. The post war availability of neoprene inflatable life rafts, 10 man assault rafts, bridge building pontoons, and a "whole pile" of other surplus "stuff" that could be easily adapted to the sport of river running was quickly taken advantage of and put to use in accommodating the annually increasing numbers of folks wanting to float the canyons of the Green and Colorado.

River Running History In the winter of 1954, a small group of part time, some time and "wanna be full time" Utah outfitters gathered in Salt Lake City and formed the Western River Guides Association. The name "western" was probably decided on over "Utah River Guides Association" because several of the founders had ties to and experience in running some of the rivers in Idaho, but it is doubtful if many there that day had a vision of what recreational river running was destined to become. Utah was just the beginning!

The river canyons of Utah that were so forbidding and challenging to the early explorers are largely still here. A couple of them have been drowned out by high dams, but the outfitters of Utah Guides and Outfitters - UGO can still provide the thrill of discovery and the beauty and the peace these river canyons offer.

For more information on the colorful and fascinating history of the exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, check out the following books:

If We Had a Boat, Roy Webb, University of Utah Press
River Runners of the Grand Canyon, David Lavender, Grand Canyon
        Natural History Association and University of Arizona Press
Trail on the Water, Pearl Baker, Pruett Publishing Co.
Photographed all the Best Scenery, Jack Hillers
Diary Of The Powell Expeditions, Don D. Fowler, University of Utah Press

Call of the Colorado, Roy Webb, University of Idaho Press

Information courtesy of Utah Guides & Outfitters Association.

Back to top Print this page E-mail this page