The following excerpt is from the book: CANYON COUNTRY EXPLORATIONS & RIVER LORE: The Remarkable Resilient Life of Kenny Ross, by Gene M. Stevenson. The book was written about Kenny Ross, one of the forgotten personalities on the Colorado Plateau whose major influence on river running in the Southwest had been previously overlooked.
The following story concerns the several river trips Kenny Ross made taking photographer Eliot Porter and others down Glen Canyon in 1961 that led to his famous photo album book “The Place No One Knew.”
As the construction of the Glen Canyon dam proceeded in 1960, everyone who had been down through these river canyons wanted to see Glen Canyon one more time before it was flooded. Kenny also received more and more enquiries about Glen Canyon trips from newcomers as the cold hard reality was sinking in with the general public.
By the winter of 1961 Kenny’s new advertisements promoted trips that launched from Hite as well as his normal SJ&C trips [i.e., San Juan River from Bluff to confluence and lower Glen Canyon] for the last chance to see the lower part or all of Glen Canyon. By the end of the 1962 river season the lower canyon of the San Juan River had begun to show the effects of rising lake water and the drowning of rapids and river current. River enthusiasts who had run Cataract Canyon or the SJ&C trips with Kenny knew their days were limited before the encroaching dead waters of a lake drowned out their beloved rivers and rapids. Few river runners had taken the time or interest in floating the placid stretch of the Colorado River from Hite down to the confluence with the San Juan. So running rapids was not particularly the sales point it had been; instead it was experiencing the beauty and serenity of a canyon that would soon be drowned; it was going away fast and would soon be gone! Forever!
The mandatory takeout at Kane Creek had shorted forty-six miles off the original SJ&C trips to 179 miles rather than the 225 miles. The distance from Hite to Kane Creek was 124 miles. Regardless of which trip any potential participant chose, Wild Rivers Expeditions was as busy as conceivably possible during these early years of the 1960s [see map].
THE CANYONS NO ONE KNEW
Eliot Porter1 (the famous photographer) and his son, Stephen, scheduled a regular ten day, SJ&C trip in June to photo-document the San Juan River and lower Glen Canyon before it was completely inundated. Details of that trip are scant, but Doug recalled that Eliot was a bit demanding. He also recalled that he and Stephen, who were close in age didn’t get along too well. Kenny and Doug ran a two boat rowing trip and Eliot was so overwhelmed with the lower San Juan River canyons and Glen Canyon that he needed to schedule a follow-up trip so he could photograph all the scenery. The first trip went from Bluff (Sand Island) to the Kane Creek take-out; a distance of 179.0 river miles, but only 37.6 miles in Glen Canyon on the Colorado River. Several photos from that first trip that were taken by Eliot using a hand-held 35 mm camera while riding in Doug’s boat are in the photo album book.2
The second Eliot Porter trip took place in late August, 1961 and launched from the old Hite Ferry crossing in White Canyon and took out at Kane Creek again, a distance of approximately 124 river miles. Don Ross launched that trip, but wasn’t sure who picked them up. Doug continued running San Juan dailies during this time. Kenny Ross and Gene Foushee3 ran the boats and Eliot brought along friends and family including artist Georgia O’Keeffe, and fellow photographer Todd Webb.4 The details of that trip are described below. Eliot returned almost immediately with Georgia and Todd Webb on a motorized run from Wahweap with Art Greene’s Canyon Tours, Inc. to Rainbow Bridge, but found that he still needed to return a third time with Kenny to complete the task at hand. All the trips were supported by the Sierra Club.
Kenny’s third trip included only himself with Eliot and Georgia. Eliot had not been satisfied with his summer pictures due to any number of factors, including: high sun angles, the hot summers and monsoonal rainy weather, and possibly the distractions of the group in August, or his motor boat trip in early September. By then he had seen enough of the canyons to know what he wanted to focus on. Plus, the low sun angle in late fall provided him the most ideal lighting for scenic photography in the southwest. For whatever the reason, Eliot scheduled a fall trip with Kenny. Art Greene at Wahweap Marina rented Kenny one of the motor boats for that follow-up trip in late October. The threesome took the boat upstream to various spots in Glen Canyon below the San Juan River confluence so that Eliot could finish photographing the canyon and Georgia came better prepared with her art supplies. They camped at Music Temple for three days and crossed the river to Hidden Passage. It was during this third trip that most of Eliot’s finest photos were beautifully captured in the photo album book “The Place No One Knew.” but three river trips were definitely led by Kenny Ross in the summer and fall of 1961. Unfortunately, Kenny wasn’t acknowledged by name in the book and only referred to as “a guide.”5
THE SECOND GLEN CANYON TRIP
Of the three trips led by Kenny Ross, the second was the best documented, thanks to Todd Webb and his photos as well as his journal, all of which has been graciously provided by the Todd Webb Archives, Portland, Maine USA. But Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t bring her paints or any canvas on this trip as she was just going to “take a vacation.” Georgia regretted her short-sightedness and ended up making sketches in a small borrowed notebook – Todd Webb’s notebook! She also made some sketches on brown paper grocery sacks using campfire charcoal. She had a camera with her and she took some photos. Both a paper sack drawing and two or three photos from Glen Canyon (the only photographs ever exhibited by Georgia O’Keeffe) have been on display along with her masterpiece floral collection in her museum in Santa Fe.6
The following information has heavily relied on Todd Webb’s journal.7 Following the first reconnaissance trip Eliot knew he had to see all of Glen Canyon, so a trip was planned with Kenny to launch from the old Hite Ferry landing and float the full permitted distance down to Kane Creek.8 The group consisted of twelve passengers altogether; nine folks comprising the Porter-O’Keeffe party and three others unidentified. Kenny, Gene Foushee and a young swamper rounded out the group to fifteen in total for two 10-man LCR boats with one motor. Kenny had designed a way for the two boats to be lashed together side-by-side and then an eight foot long two-by-six transom board was bolted across the stern motor-mounts to which a motor could be attached for the long flat water run down Glen Canyon. The tandem boats were rowed, or steered, with a boatman handling one oar on either side of the two boats. The motor was mostly run to negotiate the riffles and occasional small rapids or when upstream winds slowed the float trip.
THE TODD WEBB JOURNAL
Monday, August 21, 1961: Todd Webb left Tesuque, New Mexico with Paul and Tish Frank in his Jaguar sports car at 8:30 AM and had an uneventful drive to Bluff, Utah. They arrived shortly before Georgia, Doris and Marshall Girard and in another hour the party was completed with the arrival of Eliot, Stephen and Kathy. They all stayed at the Recapture Motel. Kenny had the boats, food and gear ready to go and they were all given waterproof bags and did some of re-packing before going to bed.
Tuesday, August 22, 1961: The entourage of passengers, boatmen and all the boats and gear left Bluff before noon and rode in the two trucks and station wagon enroute to Hite.9 Once they arrived they unloaded the truck; “a herculean task” and got the boats in the water and inflated. Todd Webb wrote:
We took the long hard road to Hite Ferry. Most of us rode in the back of Ross’s truck, picking up a sun and wind burn and enjoying the magnificent if desolate country. Hite is nothing now but a measly little ferry and no population at all. There were some uranium mines nearby but since they were condemned for Powell Lake everyone moved away. We had quite a good stew for dinner and laid out our sleeping bags on a ledge overlooking the muddy river.10
Wednesday, August 23, 1961: After an early morning dust storm that “sent sand flying and everyone appeared for the ham and egg breakfast gritting their teeth” the boats were finished getting loaded for what would “be home away from home for the next eight days.” Todd continued:
In less than an hour we ran our first rapids and at a critical point, the prop hit a rock, broke the shear pin and the lashed together boats spun crazily out of control, finally wedging against huge rocks with white water foaming on all sides. Ross reassured everybody and with a new pin in place we muscled the two heavy boats off the rocks. A few minutes later another rapids cost us another shear pin, but without any excitement. Then we started to make the rapids runs under oars and we had no more trouble. Actually, the rapids were mild and I am sure any of them could have been run in a canoe. At noon we stopped on a bar and everyone tried the Colorado for a swim. A bit thick with mud but the day was hot and soon after four we found a fine campsite. The meals have been plain and with the continually blowing sand everything is gritty. We all seem to sleep well.
Thursday, August 24, 1961:
Everyone up at five and after a good breakfast we are on the river before eight o’clock. In five minutes the water pump on the motor gave out and we traveled on oars until we came to a fine spring of running water. Took several hours to repair the motor and while waiting a party passed. We had lunch and were on the river again by one. Made a stop at Warm Spring Canyon and we explored it. Marshall and Chris went swimming and Eliot and I photographed. Another mile downstream we made a fine camp on the upper end of Olympia Bar just under the beautiful tapestry wall. It was a lovely spot. Marshall and I decided to entertain with a beach fire. As we were about to light up – the sky suddenly darkened over the cliff and a minute later there was a deluge, scattering everyone to tend their bedding. An hour later the rain slackened and the poncho clad crew gathered around with all kinds of advice while Marshall tried to kindle his fire. With his last match he got it flickering and with much huffing and puffing there was at last a good blaze. By then the rain stopped and it was nine o’clock – an hour past bedtime and everyone yawningly said goodnight.
Friday, August 25, 1961:
Had a good sleep if a little damp around the edges. In spite of the rain the water in the river had dropped four inches during the night and our two great rubber boats were high and dry at the edge of the mud bank. We had to unload them and then manhandle them to deeper water while the rock hunters plied their trade to the last minute. We had a passing line to get all of our gear out to the boats. It was sort of fun and we were on the river by nine o’clock. [We] stopped soon after to explore an old placer mining camp on the lower end of Olympia Bar and the rock hunters had another picnic. Eliot found the most coveted rock to date last night on upper Olympia Bar. It is a flat, round black beauty that everyone agrees is venerable. Had an easy afternoon, running Bullfrog Rapids and having a hard time finding a campsite. [We] finally made a landing on Gretchen Bar; a tough stony landing place and only a fair place to bed down. All were tired and it was hard to stay awake until moonrise so we could see the total eclipse of the moon. Just before the almost obscured moon rose over the mountain the Echo satellite made its deliberate way across the heavens.11 I just managed to stay awake and see the moon. [Emphasis mine]
Saturday, August 26, 1961:
Up at dawn – a good breakfast – soft boiled eggs, toast, cereal, grapefruit and coffee. Hard loading job on the rocky shore but finally away by 8:30. Made slow time – running a long series of shallow rapids and time and again we were over the sides pushing off sand bars and rocks. Had lunch with the usual fun and good natured bantering. Hot dogs broiled on sticks, cheese and pickles. The afternoon good with several shear pins sacrificed to some piddling rapids. Made Navaho Canyon12 for a fine camp. Up a narrow canyon there was a clear cold waterfall where all could bathe in turn. It was a real treat after days of bathing in muddy Colorado water. Dinner of macaroni and cheese, a can of spring-cooled beer and a fire to light the bed-making preparations.
Todd’s journal is interrupted with his comment dated October 13, 1961 where he noted that Georgia had borrowed his notebook for a sketch pad and he never got it back until she returned it November 9, 1961 (See photo with Georgia using Todd Webb’s notebook as sketch pad). The remaining notes were recorded in a separate notebook and some of his comments appear to conflict with observations he made earlier. For example his entry under the date August 27, 1961 mentions “quite an exciting evening with Echo 1 and the total eclipse of the moon” when it is noted that they saw the Echo1 satellite and partial eclipse of the moon on August 25th. [See endnote #11] He does write that “the best part of the trip was still to come.”
Sunday, August 27, 1961:
Good ride in the morning stopping at Hole-in-the-Rock for a sunbaked lunch. Several good rapids. Stopped at Hidden Passage, a most delightful and spectacular canyon and then at a lesser place called Music Temple where I found and photographed names carved in the rock by members of the 1871 Powell party. Made a fine camp at the mouth of Forbidden [sic] Canyon and all to bed early after what seemed like a good Mexican dinner.
Monday, August 28, 1961:
Up soon after four in bright moonlight so the Rainbow Bridge walkers could make one way in the cool of the day. Walked the first mile or so with them and the canyon did look interesting. Georgia, Tish and I passed up the trip.13 It is now 11:30 and we have a fine, quiet and restful morning mostly trying to stay in the shade of the willows or the cliff. Even borrowed Kenny’s mirror and shaved and I feel cleaner for it. Our rest has been a welcome change and the sun beats down unmercifully on the walkers. About three o’clock the tired travelers began to drift in and in spite of dehydration and sore feet they all felt Rainbow Bridge was worth the effort of twelve weary miles of hard waking.14 Doris finally came in just before dark and soon after dinner the weather became very threatening and by bed time it was on the verge of rain.
Tuesday, August 29, 1961:
Not much sleep for anyone; blowing sand one minute and light rain the next. A bedraggled looking crew this morning. Started off in the rain – all of us bundled in ponchos and the like. At the first stop there was a general digging for as yet unused sweaters and jackets to keep out the biting cold. Had lunch under an overhanging north-facing wall out of the rain. Built a fire to warm and dry ourselves by. By three o’clock the rain had stopped and a bright blue sky replaced the overcast. Tomorrow will be our last day on the river and we hope for good weather and a fine camp tonight. Everyone seems well and happy in spite of the weather trials and tribulations of last night and today. Soon after lunch we visited Dungeon Canyon and I made some photographs of Georgia that I am anxious to see.
Wednesday, August 30, 1961:
RANK DANK BANK CAMP – or CAMP DREADFUL
Our last day on the river and what a dilly of a beginning. At 3:30 AM the sky suddenly opened up and spilled tons of wet, wet water on our peacefully sleeping party. There were only minutes of warning – thunder and lightning – but so ominous looking that I rolled and packed my sleeping bag. I was just about finished with my packing when the rain came in torrents of the largest drops I have ever seen. I got into my poncho and sat on my pack covering my head with my plastic ground sheet which was very transparent. The lightning flashed – almost in my lap it seemed and I sat there thinking about Tyler Dingee who was killed by a lightning bolt a few weeks ago. I had wet feet and a wet behind but really managed quite well. By 5:30 the rain let up and the wettest, coldest looking crew you can imagine gathered around with all kinds of friendly advice about starting a fire with soaked wood. Finally with the aid of a bit of precious gasoline we managed to get some wood burning and proceeded to have a fine breakfast. This being our last morning of camp we were at liberty to eat all we could. Marshall set a record of eight eggs and God knows how many pieces of cornmeal mush. We were off by eight and even though we ran out of gas and had a limping motor, thanks to the stout rowing of Georgia and Eliot we made landfall at Kane’s Creek by noon. And got to Page and slept in bed after drinks and a dinner – and a bath of course.15 Good, good trip and wonderful company.
Todd Webb closed his typed notes (after finding the original notebook) by saying:
It was a dandy trip and the people could not have been more congenial. Tish, Eliot, Georgia and Marshall were standouts for me. But everyone was just fine. I have made quite a book of prints. Georgia had a party for the survivors and their loved ones at her house. I showed the book and Eliot showed his fine color slides.
Georgia O’Keeffe and Kenny Ross struck up a cordial friendship during the course of their two trips together as Kenny really enjoyed the strong smoky flavor and aroma of the Lapsang souchong tea she brought with her. She sent Kenny a tin of Lapsang souchong tea several weeks after the last trip was over thanking him for such a wonderful time. Don Ross still has the tin can.
GENE M STEVENSON has over four decades experience as a “river runner” including Grand Canyon, Cataract Canyon, and the San Juan River. He worked twenty-five years for Wild Rivers Expeditions as a professional river guide, principally on the San Juan River where he refined his boatman’s storytelling skills. He has authored or co-authored over forty-five peer-reviewed geological papers and abstracts and conducted numerous geological field trips and seminars. He earned his Bachelor in Science in Geology from Fort Lewis College and his Master of Science in Geology from Northern Arizona University. He resides in Bluff, Utah.
- Eliot Furness Porter (December 6, 1901 – November 2, 1990) was possibly Ansel Adams most famous student. Eliot moved past black & white photography to color and perfected a lab technique of five-color separation that brought praise to Porter’s medium of color photography.
- Contrary to Eliot’s narrative dated 1987, in the beginning of his 1988 book, this trip that launched from Sand Island and proceeded down the San Juan River was not a group trip; it was just the four of them. The photograph labelled “star bar” in The Place No One Knew, is actually “Starr Bar” named by Kenny in honor of Buddy Starr and located on RR about three miles above Clay Hills on the San Juan River.
- Gene Foushee ran overland FWD scenic trips and filled in occasionally for Kenny when he needed a boatman. Gene and Mary Foushee moved to Bluff in 1959 and built the Recapture Lodge. Gene was from North Carolina and had come west as a young geologist working for a vanadium/uranium company. He met Mary in Grand Junction and as the uranium boom gradually became a bust, they decided to stay and make a go of it by opening a motor hotel for the ever increasing tourist crowd. At first their lodge (called Recapture Court) only consisted of a few rooms, but over the years Gene kept adding rooms and it has become one of the iconic motels in Bluff. It still has the quaint charm and warmth that Gene and Mary endeavored to make beginning in 1959. Both Gene and Mary passed away in May, 2017 – they were both 88 years old.
- Georgia Totto O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887 – March 6, 1986); her charcoal sketches were exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer and modern art promoter, at an exhibition in New York without her permission in 1918, but their meeting led to their marrying in 1924. Georgia was best known for her rather sensual paintings of enlarged flowers; she has been recognized as the mother of American modernism. Her works are exhibited at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, NM. Todd Webb (September 5, 1905 – April 15, 2000) was an American photographer and developed a strong friendship with Georgia O’Keeffe soon after moving from New York to Santa Fe in 1961. He later moved to Portland, Maine in the 1970s. His estate is managed by Betsy Evans Hunt who serves as the Executive Director of the Todd Webb Archive.
- See introduction (p.6-7) in Porter, Eliot, 1988, The Place No One Knew; Commemorative Edition 1963, Peregrine Smith Books, David Brower, ed; 184 p. There is no mention of Kenny Ross by name as the river guide. In Don Fowler’s book “The Glen Canyon Country” (2011) he mentions on p.240 that Tad Nicols also took Porter and his family through Glen Canyon on his boat on a photographic trip with reference to an interview of Nicols (see Boatman’s Quarterly Review, 2000, vo. 13, no. 2), although there are no supportive photos as illustrated here. If there were other real river guides, then Porter may have simply merged all his guided trips and unfortunately did not mention individual guides by name.
- Don Ross verified the paper sack drawings were on display when he visited the museum in the late 1980s
- Three pages of typed notes were provided by the Todd Webb Archivist, Betsy Hunt. The notes were transcribed from his field notebook he had with him for the trip. His earliest entry is dated August, 14, 1961 where he mentions unrelated items and that he was beginning to make preparations for the upcoming river trip. The notes follow day-by-day events from August 21 through August 30, 1961 and a comment dated November 9, where he finally got the notebook back from Georgia who had used his notebook to do some sketches.
- All down river float trips had to take their river boats out at Kane Creek landing and then drive an unmaintained rocky road some 25 miles to where it intersected Highway 89 on west side of Glen Canyon Bridge.
- Don Ross recalled that the “big truck” was a 1947 vintage Dodge flatbed with wooden sideboards; the vehicles also included the old Chevy station wagon (Georgia probably rode in it) and a red GMC Ford pickup truck that Kenny had purchased from a worker at the defunct White Canyon mill site.
- The White Canyon mill site, store, and town were a short-time enterprise built at the mouth of White Canyon; the old Hite ferry crossing was just downstream from the mill and abandoned houses.
- Todd mentioned observing Echo 1 (a bright satellite) and a total eclipse of the moon on two dates – Aug 25 and again on Aug 27. Checking lunar cycles on website and Echo 1, I found the following: actually a partial eclipse happened on the 25th and was visible from Moab, so probably also in Glen Canyon; the Echo 1 satellite was the first experimental passive communications satellite; it was a metalized balloon satellite measuring about 100 ft in diameter and acted as a reflector of microwave signals. The low altitude and metallic composition made for quite visible conditions, particularly if away from ambient city light pollution. And August 26 was a full moon.
- “Navaho Canyon” is more commonly known as Long Canyon or Navajo Creek located at the top of Big Bend on RR about 68.3 miles below Hite Ferry launch point.
- The fact that Georgia and Todd passed up the hike to see Rainbow Bridge suggests their return a few weeks later with the motor boat group, as Todd Webb collection has a number of images in this same batch as the Kenny Ross trip and clearly shows the motor boat group camping at mouth of Forbidding Canyon; no motor boats were noted in the Kenny Ross August trip.
- He refers to twelve mile hike, but the round trip was actually a nine mile hike.
- It was common practice for Kenny and crew to spend the night in Page, Arizona before making the long drive back to Bluff and would stay at the Page Boy Motel. Don & Doug Ross are pretty sure that’s where they all spent the night; the Page Boy Motel still exists today at150 N Lake Powell Blvd, Page, AZ 86040.