The River is Mine

John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers and the Grand Canyon

by Ardian Gill

A few years after the end of the Civil War, ten men in four boats set out to explore a thousand miles of river, from Wyoming to the Gulf of California, a route previous explorers and even the Indians consider to be impassable. The are a pick-up crew of rough frontiersmen, trappers, a newspaper editor, a demented ex-army captain, a teenager, an overweight Englishman, all led by a one-armed botany professor and ex-army major. Only a few know how to row!

One hundred days later, six half-starved men in two boats emerge at a Mormon camp in Nevada. They have experienced rapids, falls, fire, flood, fights, attempted murder, near drownings, and ambush by hostile Indians, all amid vistas of surpassing beauty. In the course of the journey they must not only struggle with the awesome power of the river, but each man must make an internal journey that changes him forever.

Ardian Gill’s fictional re-creation of the conquest of the last great unknown territory in the United States is a first person account in the voice of one of the crew, based on the letters and diaries of the men who survived and those who didn’t to “put the reader in the boats, on the water, in the squalid camps.”

In the words of one reviewer, “Read this novel for the adventure, for the character studies, and for the satisfaction of how ordinary men can uplift us by their determination and physical courage.”
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Read an excerpt...


It fell to me to wake Major. He was staying in a room over Jake Field's saloon, instead of in tents down by the river with the rest of us. I couldn't see the room was much improvement, though. Plain rough-sawn boards we'd have cut up for firewood back in Massachusetts. Nailed up green, too, I guess, cracks between them you could put your thumb in if you had no better use for it. Just one small window, high up, so you couldn't slip away without paying Jake for the room, I suppose, glass so dirty you wondered how the sun could stand to come through it. He slept pretty sound, did Major, and I hated to wake him, so I just watched him for a while. It may sound like a dull thing to do, but when I was in the army up to Fort Bridger I can tell you it was duller, made watching Major sleep seem lively as a parade. He had more hair on his chin than he had on his head, a plentiful beard, full as moss on a cypress, while the top was wanting in the front, near as far back as his ears. But I had to get on with it. "The boats are down, Major," I said, and shook him just a touch. He woke up with a snort, like a colt tugging at the reins and maybe rearing up a little. Had his feet on the floor in a jiffy, reached out quick and tipped some water from the porcelain pitcher on the wash stand into the basin, and with his head almost in it, brought up some water to his face, then with that same hand ran his fingers

I knew the No Name would have trouble, being half swamped and far to the right. Howland was standing in the stern, his flowing beard blowing up into his face, trying to steer with the big sweep oar, while Seneca rowed at the forward oars and Frank Goodman at the aft pair, though Frank was flailing more than rowing, looking over his shoulder, saying something I couldn’t hear.

When we’d beached the Maid next to the Emma Dean, I looked back to see Oramel with the steering oar hard over to turn to the left and the other two men pulling with all their might trying to get the No Name across the strengthening tide. They got her bow turned at last but now she was broadside and the tide snatched her. I was yelling and beckoning, Dunn was yelling and waving his flag, and Howland was yelling, “Good Christ in heaven, row!”

When Sister came around the bend, Andy started to yell too. If yelling helped, we would have rescued her, but the No Name broached and began to move sideways downstream, ever faster. Frank stood as if to jump out of the boat, but Oramel pushed him down just as the boat struck a rock and they were both tumbled into the boat’s bottom. In the moment that her forward motion was arrested by the rock, the water rushed in from behind, totally swamping her. The boat pivoted on the rock then, giving Frank and Oramel time to get back to their oars, but the long steering oar snagged on another rock and was yanked out of Oramel’s hands.

The boat headed bow first downstream and dove over a short fall near the clift on the right, and I saw the oars get ripped from Frank’s hands and then from Seneca’s, the oarlocks torn from the hull. The spray and foam made it hard to see but I could make out that Seneca and Frank were hanging onto the gunwales for dear life while Oramel clung to the stern. Totally helpless, they entered the next fall, which was longer, maybe forty feet long, narrow and filled with rocks. The No Name struck a boulder with her port bow so hard she was stove in, the solid oak plank reduced to splinters. She spun around in a half circle, then struck another rock amidships on the starboard side with such force the boat broke in two, plunging Seneca and Frank into the freezing water.

They somehow clambered back in and the three of them were huddled in the stern section which was mostly submerged from their combined weight. They clung to the boat’s remnant as it was knocked from rock to rock like a caroming billiard ball, the waves washing over them again and again. I kept losing sight of them but they continued to be battered that way for two hundred yards or so when the boat collided with another boulder and Frank and Seneca were again thrown into the water. I thought they were done for, but somehow they hauled themselves aboard again, just before the wreck plunged over a six foot fall that would surely have drowned them had they been in the water.

The water pooled briefly at the foot of the fall and there was a sandy island shoal on the left, a sea of spray and foam beyond. Howland yelled something, and Frank dove overboard. The pool was deep, and he sank from sight. Oramel jumped next and in a few strokes made the little island and pulled himself onto the beach. Seneca clung to the hull until he was only thirty feet from a big, boiling fall and certain death. Oramel was yelling and motioning for Seneca to jump. Seneca made what Jack later said was “the best leap I ever saw by a two-legged animal.” He said Seneca made the shoal just at its bottom tip only seconds before the remains of the No Name dashed against a massive boulder, broke into a dozen pieces and disappeared in the maelstrom below.

When I looked to see what happened to Frank, I saw that the river had carried him to a whirlpool near the clift on the right. He was circling around in it, bobbing up and down in a fashion that would have been comical if it wasn’t so serious. Finally he was thrust against a barrel-sized rock not far from the island and got his arms around it, the waters of the whirlpool smashing against the clift and circling back around him like a coiling rattlesnake.

Seeing Seneca was safe, Howland ran to the upstream end of the island, nearest Frank, who was suffering from the cold and seeming like he was about to be torn from the rock into the stream. Howland found a long pine root in a pile of driftwood and pushed it acrost to Frank who let go the rock and grabbed it, and Oramel pulled him in like he was a snagged log.

Praise for The River is Mine...

Although many have written of Major Powell's 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers, few put the reader in the boats, on the water, in the squalid camps. In The River Is Mine Ardian Gill comes closer than any before to portraying who Powell and his men really were, and what was going on day by day, hour by hour as difficulties mounted, rations diminished, and tempers wore razor-thin. A valuable contribution to river lore, and a great read regardless.
—Brad Dimock, Author of Sunk Without a Sound: The Tragic Colorado River Honeymoon of Glen and Bessie Hyde

Ardian Gill's new novel The River is Mine tells the story of John Wesley Powell's 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers and the Grand Canyon. It is the adventure of ten men shooting rapids and painstakingly carrying and lining heavy wooden boats through cascades, cataracts and waterfalls. The action is breathtaking and invigorating, the story straight-forward and clearly told. Written as a fictional expansion of the actual diary of one member of the expedition, the action is always front and center, but enriched by the interplay among the men, who include journalists, farmers, trappers, and Civil War veterans. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the narrator's changing view of the head of the expedition — the brilliant, narrow-visioned, intrepid, one-armed Major Powell. Read this novel for the adventure, for the character studies, and for the satisfaction of how ordinary men can uplift us by their determination and physical courage.
—Meredith Sue Willis, Author of In the Mountains of America and Deep Revision