Entering the Gates of Lodore

Rachel St. John & Louis Warren*

June, 1 2019 

We are joining the expedition at the Gates of Lodore. In his report of the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, John Wesley Powell conjured this romantic recollection of his first night in the Canyon of Lodore on June 8, 1869, almost exactly 150 years ago:

At night, we camp on the right bank, on a little shelving rock, between the river and the foot of the cliff; and with night comes gloom into these great depths.

After supper, we sit by our camp fire, made of drift wood caught by the rocks, and tell stories of wild life; for the men have seen such in the mountains, or on the plains, and on the battle fields of the South. It is late before we spread our blankets on the beach.

Lying down, we look up through the canon, and see that only a little of the blue heaven appears overhead a crescent of blue sky, with two or three constellations peering down upon us.

I do not sleep for some time, as the excitement of the day has not worn off. Soon I see a bright star, that appears to rest on the very verge of the cliff overhead to the east. Slowly it seems to float from its resting place on the rock over the canon. At first, it appeared like a jewel set on the brink of the cliff; but, as it moves out from the rock, I almost wonder that it does not fall. In fact, it does seem to descend in a gentle curve, as though the bright sky in which the stars are set was spread across the canon, resting on either wall, and swayed down by its own weight. The stars appear to be in the canon. I soon discover that it is the bright star Vega, so it occurs to me to designate this part of the wall as the “Cliff of the Harp.”[1]

This scene captivated us with its description of the romance and beauty of camping under the stars after an exciting day on the river—an experience that we anticipate soon enjoying ourselves. But it also caught our attention because this is the first time in his report that Powell mentioned camping gear—specifically a blanket.

  In the weeks before the trip, we had returned to Powell’s report to see what he had had to say about the clothes and gear he and his men carried on their 1869 expedition. Amidst the rich descriptions of geology and landscape and the harrowing accounts of running rapids and struggling to survive, our interest in gear might seem somewhat trivial and surprising. But it was a topic that seemed increasingly relevant as we began the final preparations for our departure. Although the real work of planning has been (thankfully!) in the hands of the expedition leaders and the crew, even those of us who have been recruited to contribute historical insight have been thinking about and planning for the expedition for almost two years now. Our early work focused on research and writing—visiting archives at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the Huntington Library in San Marino and re-reading Powell’s writings and some of the many histories written about him. But with the expedition drawing close, we had had to focus on the practical side of things, accumulating sleeping bags and pads, warm wool socks and beanies, lightweight rain gear, and waterproof dry-bags in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and bright colors until our living room floor resembled the parking lot at an annual REI sale.


Surveying our gear and double-checking our to-bring list, we couldn’t help reflecting on how differently—and more efficiently—equipped we are than Powell and his men. The last one hundred and fifty year have witnessed a revolution in camping gear and outdoor-wear and we are without a doubt its beneficiaries. The key has been, to quote that famous line from “The Graduate,” “plastics.” Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists and manufacturers have developed a wide array of petroleum-based synthetic materials that we now rely on to make outdoor gear that is waterproof, breathable, and light. We’re each packing two sets of breathable, fast-drying long underwear made from Capilene®—Patagonia’s trademarked polyester blend.[2] We have waterproof rain jackets made from Gore-Tex®—a fabric made from stretched polytetrafluoroethylene invented by Wilbert L. and Robert W. Gore in 1969—and hats that look like straw but are made of OmniShade® material that have UPF 50 ultraviolet light protection to protect us from the sun.[3] The leak-proof dry bags that will ensure that our clothes, bedding, and books are dry after a day in the rapids are made of TobaTex.[4] We will sleep snugly in light-weight sleeping bags insulated with SpiraFil™ LT polyester fibers.[5]


By contrast, Powell and the other 1869 expedition members largely relied on wool to keep themselves warm, leather to protect their bodies, and heavy rubber or canvas, perhaps oiled or waxed, to shed water from the river and rain. Although neither Powell nor his men, who provided their own clothes and camping gear, left a complete list of the clothes and camping gear that they packed, scattered references in the expedition’s records reveal that they set out with blankets and rubber ponchos along with the pants, shirts, underclothes, shoes, and hats which would have been standard at the time.[6] We can also get a sense of what they might have carried from the 1877 book How to Camp Out written by John M. Gould. A Civil War veteran (like Powell and some other members of the expedition), Gould’s ideas about camp life were shaped by his wartime experience. Gould insisted that campers “must take a rubber blanket or a light rubber coat,—something that will surely shed water, and keep out the dampness of the earth when slept on.” [7] He also recommended “a woollen blanket,—a good stout one, rather than the light or flimsy one that you may think of taking,” noting that by sewing a light lining on it that a camper could create something like what we know as a sleeping bag or insulate the blanket by laying “what spare clothing you have, and your day-clothes, between the lining and blanket, when the night is very cold.”[8]  

Although we don’t know if any of Powell’s men sewed themselves lined blankets, we do know that they had blankets. As noted above, Powell first mentioned blankets when recounting his first night camping in the Canyon of Lodore. One hopes that Powell slept well, for the next day, on June 9, 1869, the expedition entered what they would later name Upper Disaster Falls. In one of the most harrowing incidents of the expedition, the “No Name,” along with three men and valuable provisions, was swept over the rapids and broken in two against a rock. Although they were able to rescue the Howland brothers and Frank Goodman, the “No Name” and most of its provisions were a loss.[9]

A month later blankets appeared again. On July 11, the expedition encountered another rapid in which another boat was swamped, throwing Powell “some distance into the water.”[10] While the men and the boat made it through unscathed, Powell reported that:

Our rolls of blankets, two guns, and a barometer were in the open compartment of the boat, and, when it went over, these were thrown out. The guns and barometer are lost, but I succeeded in catching one of the rolls of blankets, as it drifted by, when we were swimming to shore; the other two are lost, and sometimes hereafter we may sleep cold.[11]

By August 17, the situation had become dire. “The little canvas we have is rotten and useless;” Powell recorded, “the rubber ponchos, with which we started from Green River City, have all been lost; more than half the party is without hats, and not one of us has an entire suit of clothes, and we have not a blanket apiece.”[12]

As we embark on our own leg of the journey, we certainly anticipate that our gear will stand up better and be less liable to loss under the conditions of our 21st-century expedition. Moreover, we’ll be able to enjoy many more comforts along the way. Light-weight camp cots and inflatable sleeping pads and pillows will make for a comfortable night’s sleep after our days on the river. We’re also bringing collapsible wine glasses and an insulated wine bag that the abstemious Powell might have frowned upon. Of course, that didn’t stop his men either. Although Powell had prohibited alcohol his men smuggled a keg of whiskey onto the “No Name.”[13] It was one of the few things that they were able to recover from the wreck in the Canyon of Lodore. And, after that disaster, even Powell was forced to admit that although they had “taken it aboard, unknown to me,” “now I am glad they did, for they think it will do them good, as they are drenched every day by the melting snow, which runs down from the summits of the Rocky Mountains.”[14] We’ll be sure to raise a glass to Powell and the other members of the expedition as we gaze up to see the stars appear in that crescent of blue sky beyond the canyon’s walls, snugly swaddled in Capilene® and SpiraFil™.


*    The authors want to thank Rachel S. Gross, Phoebe S.K. Young, and Annie Gilbert Coleman who are in the process of writing books about the history of outdoor clothing and gear, camping, and outdoor guides respectively and who provided helpful suggestions for this blog post.

[1] John W. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1875), 23. Available online at https://pubs.usgs.gov/unnumbered/70039238/report.pdf

[2] https://www.patagonia.com/capilene-polyester-baselayer.html

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gore-Tex; https://www.rei.com/product/878990/columbia-global-adventure-packable-hat

[4] https://www.nrs.com/product/55010.02/nrs-110l-bills-bag-dry-bag

[5] https://www.rei.com/product/107472/marmot-trestles-0-sleeping-bag

[6] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 89.

[7] John M. Gould, How to Camp Out (1877), 16. Available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17575/17575-h/17575-h.htm

[8] Gould, How to Camp Out, 19

[9] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 24-26.

[10] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 48.

[11] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 49.

[12] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 89.

[13] Powell reported that it was a “three gallon keg,” but Sumner estimated it at 10 gallons. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 26. Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 167; Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1964), 65.

[14] Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, 26.