Canyons of the Colorado

Powell wrote Canyons of the Colorado a quarter century after his travels, and it is not, as it appears, a straightforward transcription of a diary of the first trip. For the most part it adheres to facts, though there are several instances where, for example, the drop of a rapid is exaggerated by a factor of two or three. The most memorable exaggeration is when he describes Redwall Cavern as being large enough to accommodate a crowd of 50000.

Later chapters in the book give a lot of detail about Native American life, the natural history of the region, and the flavor of life on the frontier.

Whether the exaggerations and inaccuracies in his account should damage Powell's reputation for integrity is a complex question that is highlighted by the book Colorado River Controversies, by Robert Brewster Stanton.

Stanton's main concern is the description of the splitting of the company at Separation Rapid. Did William Dunn, O. G. Howland, and Seneca Howland leave because they were cowards? Or did they leave because Powell was a stilted martinet? Powell achieved a small bit of fame, and the other three are microscopic historical footnotes. It doesn't matter.

The desert dust reminds you that they are all equally dead. But behind the dust, the strange static time of Canyon preserves them in silence, like Jurassic flies frozen in amber.

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