The author of the guidebook, Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route, shares why he wanted to retrace one of the greatest expeditions of all time and what makes some of the canyons he explored so special…
When he was young, Mike Bezemek wanted to be a backpacking or mountaineering guide. So later, when the opportunity presented itself, he signed up for a Grand Canyon backpacking trip with the Outdoor Adventures Program at UC Davis. It’s that trip, surprisingly, where Bezemek’s love affair with paddling began.
“On that trip, we hiked down to Hance Rapid and camped,” he recalled. “We did a layover day there, and got to watch some Grand Canyon river trips come through. They were just hooting and hollering and having the best time of their life.”
It was that moment when he remembers thinking, “That’s what I want to do.”
Bezemek went to raft guide school the following spring and became a guide on California’s South Fork of the American River with aspirations of taking his guiding career to Grand Canyon. But that dream was quickly crushed when a back injury after his first season prevented him from going all in.
“I was able to get back to being a raft guide, but I wasn’t able to get back to rowing for a long time,” he said. “I couldn’t really haul a lot of gear, so I stopped guiding overnight trips and just became a paddle captain.”
Eventually, about five years after his injury, Bezemek transitioned away from being a guide and began to focus more on whitewater kayaking and writing. But the opportunity to get back to Grand Canyon and paddle the Colorado River eluded him for nearly 15 years.
During this time, Bezemek relocated to the Midwest and began diving into his writing career. Today, he’s a contributing editor for Canoe & Kayak and the author of four books, including his latest title, Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route.
Read on to find out more about the book, what inspired Bezemek to take on a full retrace of the historic John Wesley Powell expedition and what makes these hidden canyons in the West so incredible.
Q: What inspired you to become a “Powell route pilgrim” as you call yourself in the book?
A: I had this real intense desire to get back to Grand Canyon, to run the river. After I realized that it probably wasn’t going to work for me to be a commercial guide, I still wanted to get back there.
I put in for the lottery a couple of times, and so did my friends, but we always tried for peak season slots, like June. We were all teachers so eventually on one of our kayaking trips I said, “Hey, what if we go in the winter?”
So that’s what we did. We planned it all out, looked at our schedules, and then I submitted the application, and got the trip. I proposed that we do the trip as a “fresh eyes descent,” which meant that none of us on the trip had been down the canyon. Some people call them a “PFD,” or personal first descent, but this would be a PFD with fresh eyes.
We all got really excited about this idea and I said something early on like, “It will be like John Wesley Powell going down there, seeing it for the first time.”
So here I am saying all this big, lofty stuff about our fresh eyes descent, and how it’s going to be like John Wesley Powell, but I don’t know enough about the expedition, so I started to read books. Each book I read, I’m getting more and more excited about the whole thing. I was like, “Man, this story is amazing. It’s way better than what’s portrayed in Powell’s book.”
I decided I don’t want to just go down Grand Canyon, I want to do the whole route.
Q: You weave an easy-to-digest narration of the historic 1869 John Wesley Powell expedition into the book. For those who don’t know the story, what made it such a legendary adventure?
A: The expedition is definitely one of the greatest American adventures. The whole story is incredibly dramatic. There’s this blank spot on the map, and Powell wants to fill it in. But the team wasn’t river runners. They were damaged civil war veterans and mountain men who basically showed up on the recently-built railroad, and they’re figuring it out as they go. It’s got an almost slapstick quality to it, this kind of haphazard adventure. What happens is nothing like what they expected, which is like a lot of river trips in a way.
One of the reasons I researched and wrote the multi-part retelling was to figure out what exactly happened. I had to read so many darn books because not all of the books are accurate, which is very interesting. Powell in his own account is really convoluted—he combined his first and second expeditions—and he gets a ton of stuff wrong.
Q: Do you think the John Wesley Powell route still offers one of the greatest wilderness river adventures in the U.S.?
A: It’s this long, continuous stretch of one canyon after another. I’ve never really seen anything quite like that. It passes through parts of the U.S. that are still considered to be some of the most remote in the lower 48.
Within the Powell route, there are probably 10 different hidden canyons. From Red Canyon, below Flaming Gorge—that one is well-known to fishermen but lesser known to river runners—to the backhaul section in Glen Canyon above Lee’s Ferry. They’re hidden from common knowledge, and sharing these canyons with readers was a big motivation for writing a book on the whole route.
Another thing about this adventure is that except for some reservoirs, a lot of the route remains relatively similar to what the expedition experienced – from the scenery to the physical challenges of going down the river. You can follow along with that 1869 adventure.
Q: What’s one of the “hidden canyons” along the route that stands out to you?
A: I think of inner-Desolation as a hidden canyon. It’s just so awesome. And there’s a story there, which is hard to go into quick, but basically it was owned by a few ranching families which helped preserve it as it was. So inner-Deso is like this hidden river museum. A lot of people will spend three to four days in this inner 30 miles just because it’s that cool.
Q: What stretch of river would you recommend to somebody who’s looking to do a shorter multi-day trip, but wants to experience the full magic of these canyons?
A: For whitewater, I think the Lodore trip is probably the best. It has Grand Canyon-like qualities that would make it a really good proving ground for someone who’s thinking, “Maybe I want to go tackle longer whitewater trips like a week in Desolation or Grand Canyon, which takes anywhere from one to three weeks.”
Q: Paddling the John Wesley Powell route isn’t your typical guidebook. What makes it different?
A: What ties this collection of canyons together is a story. So it’s a narrated guide that tells the story of 1869, and gives all the information that you need to go experience the route for yourself.