My God, It’s Waltenberg! A Conversation with Martin Litton

24 Min. Read
A Conversation with Martin Litton

The talking head interview that appears in the short film, Martin’s Boat, was the very first one in a collaboration that later became known as “The River Runners Oral History Project,” conducted by Grand Canyon River Guides and housed at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library.

I recorded Martin’s interview at the OARS boat house in Flagstaff on the evening of October 10, 1992.  Also present were OARS/Grand Canyon Dories boatmen Kenton Grua, Denice Napolitano, and Bronco (Bill Bruchak).

Martin was 75.  He had just gotten off an OARS/Dories trip with Bronco and was now looking forward to getting a hip and knee replacement.  He would continue to run the river for another 15 years.

Kenton Grua, following in Martin’s footsteps, started Grand Canyon River Guides (GCRG) in 1988 to give working boatmen a voice in the management of Glen Canyon Dam.  GCRG helped get the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which mandates concern at the dam for the downstream resources, passed by Congress.

My friends at GCRG, including Kenton, assigned me the task of recording oral histories because I had recently become a sound recordist and had just finished work on my first couple of movies.  I rented a fancy camera for the interview with Martin and ran it myself and was mortified at the quality of the video when I got it home and saw it on a color monitor.  Now that Martin is gone, the picture quality doesn’t seem so bad.  The River Runners Oral History Project today includes more than 120 interviews.  Grand Canyon River Guides—steadfastly supported by OARS and other Grand Canyon river companies for almost 30 years—is still going strong.

I’m really proud of OARS for building the Marble Canyon and making Martin’s Boat to help carry on the story of what Martin did at a key time in history and what the dories really mean to everyone who runs the river in Grand Canyon today, regardless of what kind of boat they’re in.

An except of Steiger’s conversation with Martin Litton follows. The interview was originally published in The News—now known as the Boatman’s Quarterly Review—Volume 6 Number 1, winter 1992-1993.

Martin Litton rowing a dory in the Grand Canyon

My God, It’s Waltenberg!

We caught him red-handed at the dory warehouse in Flagstaff, in the fall. He was sitting in the Ootsa Lake sponging his hatches out, just off a Grand Canyon trip. 75 and still doing it. His third trip in two years.

“Golden trip,” he said, and Bronco laughed.

“You should’ve seen this guy pulling in,” (Bronco had been the trip leader and now he demonstrated in pantomime as he spoke.) “Here’s Martin, he rows into shore and throws his sand stake and the stern line over his shoulder, kinda aims them at the nearest passenger…’Here, tie me up!’ he says.”

Martin Litton grunted. Scowled at Bronco for passing secrets. Georgie Clark did it until she was 82, but she didn’t have to jump off and tie her boat up either. She didn’t have knee surgery pending and her boat was a little more stable, too. Last year Martin got sucked left at Bedrock. He flipped after he got over there and it wasn’t pretty when he came out the other side. Took a lot of C-clamps and duct tape to fix that one. But here he comes again, back for more. Indefatigable. Don’t think he doesn’t know what a golden trip is, though, or that it doesn’t mean something to get through clean, no matter how many times you’ve pulled it off. They’re tippy little boats and they make a bad sound when you hit a rock. Only a certain kind of person…touched, would think of starting a company that ran a fleet of them.

Wooden dories named after lost places. Who but a crazy man would dream up such a thing?

We sat Martin down and cranked up the old tape recorder for about two hours, trying to find out. It wasn’t enough. Nowhere near enough time to do more than grab a faint sketch of one man’s part in a very big story.

Martin Litton

He grew up in the Depression. First saw the Grand Canyon in 1939, when he was 22-years-old. Became a glider pilot in WWII, landing troops behind enemy lines in the thick of the European invasions. Hiked in at Toroweap in ’51 and took photos of the Rigg brothers lining Lava Falls on a Mexican Hat trip. Met the Hatch boys up in Utah around ’52, when they were teenagers learning to be guides. Wrote articles on Dinosaur for the LA Times and got enlisted by the Sierra Club because of what he said, the photos he’d taken. He ran the Grand in wooden boats with Pat Reilly in ’55.

According to David Brower, Martin Litton saved the Grand Canyon. Turned the Sierra Club board of directors around at a critical moment in the Marble Canyon Dam fight.

“Oh, that. Well, I don’t consider that to be the thing that saved the Grand Canyon,” Martin said. “But I know the thing you’re talking about…”

“The problem was, the Club figured it would lose, you see. The government had all the high-powered lawyers on its side, and all the politicians…the dams were a foregone conclusion. They were calling it the Marble Canyon Dam. They didn’t want people to realize it was going to be in the Grand Canyon, and they could easily confuse people across the nation by saying Marble Canyon Dam and Bridge Canyon Dam instead.”

“The Sierra Club wanted to look strong and tough, and in control. So the President stood up before the board of directors, before the whole Club for that matter, all who were there, and he said ‘The Club must be adamant. We must insist there be elevators in the dam so that tourists can get to the bottom for the wonderful trout fishing that will be created there.’”

“Well, that sent me into a fit of rage. I stood up and, expressed myself and…Brower gives me credit for causing the vote to go not for elevators but against any and all dams in the Grand Canyon. But he’s just being generous, really.”

Grand Canyon | Photo: Monty Pollack

“What did you say that changed their minds?”

“I suppose I acted horrified that the Sierra Club could pretend to be on the side of saving the earth and still acquiesce in the damming of the Grand Canyon…as it had in Glen Canyon, without really knowing what it was up to there. But here it had a chance to know. It knew what was going to come and was avoiding the issue.”

“It was much the same with the SST when that was under consideration: that it would be built and all our airlines would be SST’s. I knew we didn’t want an SST and yet the board of directors squabbled over whether it would fly over the wilderness or over the cities. I said ‘Why don’t we say what we mean and say it shouldn’t be here at all? We don’t want it. Vote against it. We can’t always prevail but at least we don’t have to take the compromise position to start with.’ So finally after hemming and hawing around about it, the board voted that no SST be built in the U.S. and none ever was. I had a terrible time with John Oakes—one of the owners of the New York Times—he was on the board then. He said ‘We’d look ridiculous if we said no SST, because we all know it’s coming. Why do we want to be on the losing side all the time?’ I said ‘We don’t want it to come, do we?’ He said ‘Well, no.’ I said ‘Well, you’d better vote with me.’ He said ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’ But when the vote came, he did.”

Litton is a complicated man. Irascible, opinionated, irrepressible. “They were very one-sided,” he says of his articles on Dinosaur which caught the Sierra Club’s eye in the first place. “That is, they told the RIGHT side.”

Grand Canyon Dories | Photo: Jerry Eisner

Asked “Why use dories?” He says, “Anyone who looks at a dory and has to ask why…will never understand.” Then he rambles for twenty minutes non-stop about their virtues, never once touching on their unique disadvantage (which comes to mind every time you hit a rock in one). He was against motors in the ’70s and according to one of his original boatmen, no one on a dory trip was allowed to bail in sight of a motor trip. Everybody had to sit still and smile till the motors went by, even if they sat in water up to their belly buttons.

He is not a saint. Rumor has it he’s been known to take a drink every now and then; known to scare people half to death barnstorming around in his airplane; known to admire a beautiful woman or two. Rumor has it that he was not the greatest small businessman who ever lived, or the most organized.

But something about him is special, almost larger than life. And sitting in a room with him, asking him to relive the old battles, you can feel that.

He’s right about the dories of course. Most boatmen who see them don’t have to ask why.

Litton conceived them after rowing an open drift boat on the McKenzie River. He called Pat Reilly in ’62. “Let’s go run the Grand.”

“We don’t have any boats,” Reilly said. (He’d abandoned his in disgust during the high water years of the late-’50s.)

“Oh yes we do,” Martin said, and they ordered hulls from Oregon. Which, once they got them decked over, became the first dories to run the Grand Canyon. One of them (Reilly’s) resides at the South Rim today.

Slowly the boats evolved. Reilly packed it in eventually but Litton kept going. His fleet matured and grew, and finally each boat began to take on her own special identity.

Martin Litton working on an early dory

“At first they were named after various things. Pat Reilly had one named after his wife Suzie and I had one named after the place I came from and so forth, but very shortly after I acquired the whole dory thing it occurred to me we weren’t even noticing the places we were despoiling. So I thought: people ought to be reminded of what we have injured on this earth and how we have hurt it unnecessarily. We shouldn’t be able to just walk away and think there’s something else waiting. So those places we’ve spoiled or destroyed seemed appropriate names for boats, and also places that we see going, going, not quite gone. We need to be reminded of them too. Lake Tahoe, for example. It’s really beyond repair yet people still think it’s beautiful and want to go there. We ought to be reminding them that it’s not what it was. Other places that are hurt badly but are still worth a fight…the dories should be, I felt, used to help, to remind people we’ve got to get to work on this. Mono Lake is an example of that. We had dories named for places in other parts of the world, not just our own country. Other places are down the tubes too.”

“So was that why you really started the company?”

“Oh, I never intended to be a commercial outfitter. I had a job I thought I’d probably end up getting my gold watch from. I was senior editor at Sunset Magazine, finally. Which was a really pointless place for me to be, but it was comfortable. It wasn’t helping the world but on the other hand I could use the medium of Sunset—and the access it gave me to things and places—to do the things I thought I should do. Like trying to get a Redwood National Park and all that. I just…was running the river for fun, for pleasure. But more people, more friends wanted to go and sometimes there were three or four trips a year and I could only go on one or two of them. So my oldest son or Francois Leydet would lead trips. Word of mouth spread and after awhile it wasn’t even friends anymore. Eventually people I didn’t even know were coming and I thought: well we’ve got to start getting people to pay for the cost of these trips or we’ll be in the poorhouse. So I began to set a price on it. It kind of crept up on me without my realizing it was happening. But it did, and in late 1968 I was having somewhat of a feud with the management at Sunset and one day I said, ‘That does it. I quit.’ And walked out. Threw away my security blanket and what was left was the dories. And, uh, it just blossomed and grew. I didn’t do much to cause that, but…that became the main thing that we did.”

“How was that better for the world than editing Sunset?”

“I don’t know what impels one to want to show people the Grand Canyon…to help them see enough so they could care more, I suppose. Have them on that river. Let them feel its life. The way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace. It has tremendous force and appeal. It’s not just a physical force but…it has an appeal about it that…I can’t describe. But getting people on that river means they can understand it, and that was part of the motive. Part of it was that I liked to be there. And people who were becoming my friends liked to be there, and it’s hard for me to say no. I don’t have any willpower that way. Maybe I didn’t want to say no.”

A Conversation with Martin Litton

You have to hear Litton talk to really appreciate him. His voice is warm and gravelly, mellifluous. He is a world-class charmer and in light of all he’s seen and been and done, it’s nice to realize he’s mortal too. It wasn’t a grandly inspired plan or a vision from God he’s been operating under. He just got sucked into this thing like the rest of us. Couldn’t say no. And the finer moments? For him too, they just…happened along the way.

The tape rolled on. There came a point in time where the interviewer began to panic. Litton—warts and all—was something all right, and the history of the dories was too, but we were just blasting by the bulk of it at warp speed. “Hit the high spots,” Karen Underhill (the NAU archivist) had said. “Go for the most important things. Don’t assume you’ll get another chance.” But what were those? Words of wisdom? Pointers on how to deal with boating in the ’90s?

He has changed his mind about motors. Worked against them for many years but now realizes if you’re going to see the numbers the Park wants down there, you have to have them.

“If those same numbers are going at the pace of an ordinary rowing trip, it means crowding. If people don’t want to spend a lot of time there, let them get in and get out. Leave more of the Canyon for those who prefer to stay longer.”

“How are we doing otherwise?”

“Well, trips seem to have gone from the simple camping trip to the cruise-ship mentality: how much stuff can you take with you from civilization and have it there all the time? All these things are appreciated by the guests but on the other hand I keep thinking maybe they’d appreciate more having their trip cost cut in two. It’s hard for people to afford these trips and the cheaper you can make them, the better…given safety and nourishment and all that. Letting nature be the main focus rather than how well you ate, or how much this and that you had along the way. Maybe to bring these points home it would be interesting for people, no matter how long their trip is, to have one John Wesley Powell day. On which we assume that at that point we have just what Powell had: a very little bit of wormy bacon and flour that’s been reduced to gruel…a few dried apples and all the coffee they can drink. Really the most important thing is the majesty of the Canyon. And what it does to people’s lives to be away from their normal routines for awhile. Even a short while.”

Grand Canyon - Nankoweap | Photo: Monty Pollack

One hears this comment and has to wonder how much Martin really knows about normal routines, or the good it might do to get away from them. The early days on the river were anything BUT routine. They never ran Lava Falls at first—didn’t dream of it. One party (not a trip Martin was on) gave up trying to line it at a particularly bad stage and just let their boats go. Hiked out and hitched a ride around to the lake to pick them up. They found one boat still floating and Georgie towed another one out upside down. All the hatches had blown off it and the cameras were gone and people on the trip thought Georgie had stolen them. “Ridiculous,” Martin said. He’d flown them around looking for the one Georgie didn’t tow, anyway.

When Martin finally got around to running Lava, plan A was to drop straight over the ledge. (Who knew? Rumor has it that Martin found the slot completely by accident one time. Got out there and wasn’t quite sure where to go and just…slipped through.)

One particularly bad day dawned at Crystal shortly after it was formed in ’66.

“We got there with four dories and one old basket boat raft and it looked bad. I thought I could see the way to go but I didn’t want to damage boats if I could help it, and I also didn’t want others to damage boats and then feel bad about it…so I told them I would take all the boats through.”

“Well I took the first boat and went into the big hole, went up on the crest and turned over. And the boat went upside down through the rock garden, oh, kind of pushing me along as it went. And ripping its decks off. And its bow. And its stern. And everything. Tearing itself up generally and the gear kind of oozing out through all the open places that were torn out. Anyway it ended up down there and I ended up with it. Way down at the bottom of the rapid. So I couldn’t right it and I just tied it up there and went back to get another one. Flipped the same way and this time the boat drifted left over to the sheer wall near the bottom. Its decks were all ripped up too. Bow and stern torn to pieces and I couldn’t get it back across the river so I tied it there to some little chip of rock or something. Then I swam back across the river and headed up to get the third boat. Then a fellow named Ned Andrews, a boatman with us, wanted to accompany me. Now that’s really crazy. Saw two boats go over and wanted to ride in the third one. Thought maybe he could help. So he got in the boat and we went down and turned over the same way…there we are, two of us swimming instead of just one. But we got down and tied the boat up and went back and I was ready to take the fourth boat but before I got up there Curtis Chang got in and took it through and flipped the same way I had. So we had four upside down boats all wrecked down there. And then Charlie Stern took the raft through and he flipped that and he was down clear to Tuna Rapid before he got ashore.”

Martin laughs. “So we got down to Bass believe it or not that night by some miracle, I don’t know how. I guess we still had oarlocks. And it was dark. I landed first, went as fast as I could. So I grab a flashlight and run up along the little cliffs there above Bass camp trying to beckon the guys in because I wasn’t sure they knew where they were or that they could find their way in. I’m trying to wave the flashlight two hundred yards upstream from the camp and still hope they’ll make it in at the camp.”

“So that was a pretty wild night. And we spent a couple of days patching boats. Something you don’t want to repeat. I mean, it’s worth the effort to run Crystal, right?”

Grand Canyon Dories: Crystal Rapid

“Of course a lot of people don’t remember that the year Crystal was formed so was House Rock. House Rock used to be just a little tiddly sort of thing until that fan pushed it all over on the left side, same as Crystal, right up against those cliffs. You never had any trouble. It was a straight shot…so that was a big year for…that rain fell, what? 15 inches in some few hours up on the plateau. Tore out everything along Bright Angel Creek, too. That was a big year…1966.”

“When you looked over the edge that first time back in the ’30s did you ever think you’d stay this long down there?”

“It never occurred to me I’d go on the river. Nobody was going then. There had been trips, but they were considered very special expeditions. You know, heroic kinds of things. You might as well go to the North Pole or something.”

“Well, where do we go anymore? Are we running out of space?”

“In the world?”


“We have. We’re due for the lemming effect. We’re halfway in it now. There get to be so many of these animals and finally they can’t stand it anymore—they run off a cliff and commit suicide…I don’t think we can stand each other.”

“Well…where does the Grand Canyon fit now, then? In the ’90s?

“Many people…make quite a thing of how the Grand Canyon experience, going down the river, has changed their lives. And I don’t just mean the people who got married as a result of a river trip or swapped mates or whatever they did—but how the experience has somehow opened their eyes to something bigger and greater in life. It’s made their lives…better. They understand…the whole universe better because of having been in the Grand Canyon and isolated from other things. Having time to think. A river trip has sometimes, it’s been called ‘The Voyage of Life.’ The famous series of paintings from the National Gallery. Oh, who painted them? It’s about a voyage down this river of life. It begins with a little baby in a little floating cockleshell, shaped like a swan, you know, floating into this canyon and then the paintings go on and the party ages. You see the roughness of life by the rapids in the river and so forth. The obstacles and all that. And that’s where you have a young man able to grip all these things and master them, the problems of life. It’s all related to a voyage down a river. And then you see suddenly the calm and the sun shining through the clouds and this old, old man comes out of this canyon onto the calm water. And it’s amazing how like a Grand Canyon trip that is. Wish I could remember the name of the painter. Thomas…Thomas Cole. That’s it. C. 0. L. E. It’s a wonderful American series: The Voyage of Life. We put phony names on these paintings…how did we start it? Well, something about leaving Lees Ferry…I can’t remember. But then in the rough part, where it shows the tempest and the great rushing waves and all that, we titled that painting ‘My God, it’s Waltenberg!’ and the last one, the voyage is ending in peace and serenity. We called that ‘Lake Mead at Last.’ I know this is all silly, but you get silly. On the other hand there’s something very fine and ennobling and serious about the whole experience. It is a microcosm of life when you go down that river. You start, a kind of a lighthearted effect and the challenge isn’t so great at the beginning and then it develops and develops and you find yourself able to cope with it and finally you’ve done it. You’ve done the whole thing.”

There was a way that Martin said the last part. You knew he wasn’t talking about just the river. It got to us, and the silence stretched out for quite awhile.

“You better tell one more,” Bronco said finally. “Tell that Waltenberg story.”

“Oh, that,” Martin said. “Well, Pat Reilly used to sit in his boat…of course in the old days you didn’t wear the life jacket until you were coming to a rapid. You waited until you had some reason to put the thing on. And Reilly would sit there in the boat ahead of me and when he’d come to a rapid he would stand up and put his life jacket on and then I’d get up and put my life jacket on too. Everybody else would. So this day he was sitting in the boat paying no attention to the river, just making notes. He kept long extensive notes about every little thing. What time he brushed his teeth, you know, all these things…what happened that day at mile this and mile that, what he observed, what was there, what he hadn’t observed the last time and so forth, so on. We got to going down the river this day and the water was nice and calm and I never did anything unless there was some indication from him…and all of sudden in front of us he jumped up! Grabbed his life jacket and put it on! He was yelling ‘My God! It’s Waltenberg!’ We were coming to Waltenberg Rapid and he hadn’t noticed it, you see… “

Legendary Boatman Martin Litton | Photo: Rudi Petschek

The interview wound down. Finally we were out of gas. Frustrated at all we’d missed. “We’ll do it again, ok? Next time get it right. Start at the beginning, maybe go through the whole thing chronologically.”

“Sure,’ Martin said. “Call me.”

A handful of us gave him a lift to his plane the next morning because Coby Jordan had cautioned us not to miss the experience. We got to the airport and sure enough, she was a beauty. A 1949 Cessna 195 tail-dragger. Pure Humphrey Bogart. Enormous radial engine, little bitty windshield, clean glorious all-American lines, just like the old cars from that time too. Classic. The country’s finest haul: Martin fired her up and blue smoke belched and billowed out of the engine. A lot of smoke. It streamed past the fuselage and out across the airfield while the engine caught and spluttered and finally gathered itself into a roar. (Martin had warned us about this in advance. Something to do with oil dripping whenever she sat idle.) We stood off to the side and watched the old girl warm up and settle down, all choked up over something we couldn’t really describe. Finally the smoke thinned a bit and Martin throttled back long enough to toss a comic aside out the window at us.

”Ah yes! She roars to life with a burst of fire and glory!”

He squinted at the horizon, then turned back toward us.

“Those were the days,’ he said. “When men were men, and women were glad of it!”

Vroooooom. He was back on the throttle and moving once again, off down the runway.

Photos: Martin Litton – Rudi Petschek, Martin running rapids in a dory – Rudi Petschek; Martin as a glider pilot in WWII – The Litton Family; Scenic Grand Canyon – Monty Pollack; Dories in the Grand Canyon – Jerry Eisner; Martin working on an early dory – The Litton Family; Martin laughing – Rudi Petschek; Nankoweap – Monty Pollack; Crystal Rapid – Justin Bailie;  Martin in Prudhoe Bay – Rudi Petschek; 

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