Meet Martin Litton, Grand Canyon Dories Founder

12 Min. Read
Meet Martin Litton, Grand Canyon Dories Founder

If you have a soft spot in your heart for rivers, then chances are Martin Litton is on your list of heroes.

He first floated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1955 — the 185th known person to follow in explorer John Wesley Powell’s footsteps. Not long after, he founded Grand Canyon Dories and has since led scores of trips on the Colorado. In 2004 he broke his own record becoming the oldest person to row the entire Grand Canyon at the age of 87.

Lifelong environmentalist and wilderness activist, the now 95-year-old Litton continues to speak mostly with his actions. He’s currently on the Advisory Committee of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a former travel editor for Sunset Magazine and he fought alongside fellow activists David Brower and Edward Abbey against dam proposals and the logging of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument.

How were you introduced to rivers?

At one point, I learned that a river trip — a Norm Nevills river trip, called Mexican Hat Expeditions — in 1952 was going to be running Lava Falls on a certain day. I don’t know how I found that out, but Esther and I had already taken the Toroweap Leap, that is where you step off the rim of the canyon and the whole side of the canyon starts moving with you as you go down to the bottom (to the river). We had done that and had actually climbed out at that point by Lava Falls. Don’t ever try it, it’s horrible, but at least I knew the way down and I’d decided to make a newspaper story out of it for the Los Angeles Times.

So I went over there, and a couple ladies who had gone down the river with Mexican Hat Expeditions found out about it and wanted to go with me. So we drove over there to the Toroweap Overlook (as it’s called), above Lava Falls, and we went down the so called trail. There is no trail, but as one of the ladies said, “From the moment we stepped off the rim, it was always a question as to which would reach the river first — us or the topography,” because everything moves when you move down that slide. So anyway, we got down there and I photographed what they did — they lined Lava Falls, they never ran it in those days. There was also a big cabin cruiser, a motorboat, in-board that was there being driven by Bob Rig of the Rig Brothers — that boat ran Lava Falls. So that big boat ran Lava Falls and I’ve got movies of that and stills. Those pictures of that run appeared in the Los Angeles Times, along with the article about what they were doing.

That really got me acquainted with the river because these people who ran the river with Nevills were about the only ones doing it and would always have big barbeques afterward and show all their slides. And those barbeques would be out in the San Fernando Valley somewhere, in a backyard, at night, and they would show the slides — everybody would show every picture that he or she had taken on the entire river trip. So you sat out there all night, eating and drinking and watching slides. And one of the people I met doing that, who had not been on the river at any time that I was associated with it, was P.T. Riley. He got in touch with me by phone later having met me there at this party, and wanted me to go down the river with him and row one of his boats that he was building out of fiberglass.

He knew I’d been on the crew rowing at UCLA, as if that would’ve had anything to do with skill on the river, it really wouldn’t, but as a result of that, even though I couldn’t row on the first trip because I’d had a bad accident with a horse and dislocated my shoulder. My arm was strapped to my side for the entire trip, 21 days; so I couldn’t row a boat on my first trip through the canyon. I was a passenger, and Esther went, she was a passenger, and there were a total — I think — of nine people on that trip taking these boats that P.T. Riley had made, which turned out to be [laughs] not very good boats. That started me.

Which river trip stands out most in your mind?

Maybe the second one which was the first time I rowed the boat all the way through with Esther, but actually until we got into dories — when we were no longer running those ridiculous little boats — we didn’t have great river trips because any trip in which you line a rapid and don’t run it can’t be really 100 percent great. We have to be able to handle all the rapids in the Grand Canyon, nothing from the shore, everything happens on the river, the boat makes it through and you hope you’ll be right side up at the other end, and we usually are.

What’s special about a dory?

Anyone who asks that question, what is special about a dory, has obviously never gone through the Grand Canyon in a dory. A dory is a shape that belongs on the river; it started in the ocean, conquered the waves of the ocean, and now conquers the waves or crashing water of almost any river. A dory is made for people to be in, it has the right shape. And in a Grand Canyon dory, you have the right places to put things, including yourself. The oarsman is accommodated as if the dory were made for him (or her), and it just belongs. I could describe the shape of a dory, which is a row boat, doesn’t have to be a row boat, it could have a motor on it, but ours never did; a boat propelled by two oars in the hands of a single oarsman because the decisions that are made as to the strokes you take and how you do the rowing have to be unanimous. The only way you get a unanimous decision is to have just one person making that decision, and the boatman (the oarsman) is responsible for what happens in the river because he/she is the one propelling and guiding the boat.

They show their utility, they say to you, “I belong on big waves; I’m stable, I’m sturdy, I’m wanting to go, and I respond to the oars beautifully,” that’s bragging, in a way, “and I’ll go where you want me to go, and I’ll carry what you want me to carry.” That’s what the dory does no matter how the water behaves.

How have modern-day dories evolved?

It’s hard to know how a dory evolved into the shape that it is now; although, you can say conditions caused that to happen. People wanted to go fishing in rough water in the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans. Gradually, they developed boats that were — more or less — self-righting (certainly were stable, as stable as you could get in big waves) and that were easy to maneuver, easy to row and that would move with pretty good speed. And gradually we came into the shape of what we call a dory. We say that the best representation of that was in Portugal, in the ocean fishing boats. Gradually that went West into the United States and we had fishing boats in New England that were similar; self-righting almost, very stable, easy to row, they moved readily when asked to, and so we got an Indian name, though I don’t know the evolution of the name dory exactly, but they say it’s an adaptation of an American Indian word, duri from the Caribbean Sea.

Then it became dory in New England and of course many, many fishing boats in New England are dories, rowed with oars (some are motored, of course, out into the ocean). When they moved west, we called them dories, eventually, but they were first called drift boats, mostly in Oregon where there are lots of runnable rivers and they were used for fishing, floating with the current of a river. Such as the Rogue River or the Mackenzie, and we ended up with a boat very similar, though not as big as the Grand Canyon dory. A Grand Canyon dory has to be bigger because it has to carry passengers through the canyon, not just one or two fisherman, and it has to be able to carry a load. It has to be able to haul all the equipment and all the supplies that are going to be needed on a trip of two or three weeks through the Grand Canyon which is going to take, well, time, obviously! And two or three weeks going through the Grand Canyon you need a hefty amount of supplies, so you put them in the dory, and once you close up the hatches, you hardly know they’re there. It just runs beautifully.

Why did you choose George Wendt and OARS to carry on the dory legacy in the Grand Canyon?

The word got around, somehow, that I had other things to do. Grand Canyon Dories was doing alright, but that someone else could be owning it and managing it, yet I wasn’t willing to let it go just as a river running company and into some other hands in which it would run differently.

Things were going on in my life that demanded my attention and my presence more. I didn’t really want to stop what I was doing there, but owning Grand Canyon Dories was just too much fun. I couldn’t be having fun all the time, you know you’re not supposed to be happy in this world [laughs], and so I was ready to give up something that had made me very happy and which I’d enjoyed greatly. One of the conditions of the sale was that it would always be dories, and it would always be oar powered and they would run the trips the way we had run them. George happily signed up for that, there wasn’t a great deal of money involved. It could’ve gone higher if I had accepted some of the propositions I had from others, but George was the one I had faith in to do it right. He was doing it right with his oar-powered trips anyway, he just needed a little bit of an upgrade and that upgrade would be dories.

It said it on his license plate, “WE ROW,” and that meant that he was an advocate for rowing, so that gave him a pretty good place in my heart as one of those who wanted Grand Canyon Dories, who wanted to buy Grand Canyon Dories.

What is the most important issue facing us today?

The obvious, most important issue is numbers of people. The earth is already terribly overcrowded and overcrowding causes people to move around. In our case it causes people to move from Mexico to California, and [chuckles] we’re overcrowded. It’s the most important issue on the earth — movements of people, and growing numbers of people.

What is one thing you wish you had accomplished?

I wish I had accomplished some things in conservation that I did not. We could’ve stopped Glen Canyon Dam and we didn’t, but we didn’t try hard enough. We tried very hard in Grand Canyon dams and even harder in Dinosaur National Monument dams — those were our first big issue, and we beat them. Those were said to be necessary for the development of the West. Well we didn’t get them built, we fought against them, and they turned out to be unnecessary.

What are your favorite books about rivers?

What comes into my head immediately, and if I were to think longer I might find more, but a great book as far as the rivers are concerned (especially the Colorado River) is, Time and the River Flowing by Francoise Leydet. He’s one of the greatest writers in history that had a few problems that he couldn’t overcome, but when he did sit down and write a book it was a masterpiece. The amount of work that went into that is not only amazing, but the result is amazing. Time and the River Flowing: Grand Canyon by Francoise Leydet. Another one that he did was called, The Last Redwoods about saving the redwoods, and as a result of that book, more than any other thing, we obtained Redwood National Park.

Who are some of your heroes?

What’s heroic about having a good time? That’s what you’re doing when you’re in the Grand Canyon. Maybe not every minute, if you end up out of the boat and in the water, and the boats upside-down, you don’t feel heroic at that time.

What about conservation role models?

It certainly included David Brower who was the greatest conservationist of all time, that doesn’t limit him to the Grand Canyon though, I’m speaking of worldwide events. Dave Wegner, he worked for the Bureau of Reclamation and his job was to persuade the river runners and other conservationists that there could be dams in the Grand Canyon damming up the Colorado River in a way that would be acceptable. We said, ‘No, it will never be acceptable to put any dams in the Grand Canyon.’ And gradually, this guy from the Bureau of Reclamation who was trying to persuade us to accept dams in the Grand Canyon, came around to our side of the issue. He became a conservationist and brought the Bureau of Reclamation around in a way, and he himself more or less would not let them do what they wanted to do. As a result of that, partly, we didn’t get the dams. Dave Wegner stayed with the government and is involved in conservation within the government now in Washington D.C., he has a very responsible position, and the Bureau of Reclamation as you know doesn’t have any more ambitions about dams in the Grand Canyon, partly because we – as a group of people – talked Dave Wegner out of the idea.

[Paraphrasing Wind in the Willows…] “There is nothing, absolutely nothing quite so much worth doing, as simply messing about in boats.”

Martin Litton photo courtesy of John Blaustein

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