Kayaker Completes Memorial First Descent of Entire Colorado River Watershed

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Indiana’s Bryan Brown recently completed a solo, 2,400-mile paddle down the entire length of the Colorado River Watershed, encompassing the Green and Colorado Rivers. When Brown’s brother Bruce passed away in 2012 from Muscular Dystrophy, he wanted to create an adventure to memorialize him that Bruce would have been right alongside to enjoy.

For Brown, 57, this source-to-sea descent was the perfect idea. Completely solo and unsupported, Brown says he only lost four toenails along the way. Following strict Leave No Trace practices, he didn’t build any fires.

The paddle started at the source of the Green River near Jackson, Wyoming, in early June. The first leg of the trip — following John Wesley Powell’s historic 1869 journey, and completing the journey Powell had in mind — ran to the United States/Mexico border near Yuma, Arizona. “The first leg (from Green River Lakes, Wyoming, to the U.S./Mexico border) was for Brother Bruce. This leg retraced John Wesley Powell’s trip and a good deal more. Powell started at Green River, Wyoming — well below Green River Lakes — and stopped at roughly what is now Callville Bay Marina on Lake Mead (four of his men continued on to Yuma),” said Brown.

The second leg of the trip picked back up at Rocky Mountain National Park at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers and ran southwest of Moab, Utah. He paddled his 62-pound, 10-foot expedition kayak through the entire length of the sections, with the exception of the Grand Canyon, due to permitting issues. “In spite of herculean efforts, I could not get a permit for this section, and I was finally forced by the calendar to transit it on a commercial permit on a motorized raft,” says Brown of skipping the Grand. “I picked up my kayak at Pearce Ferry, hitchhiked to South Cove on Lake Mead and paddled upstream from South Cove as far as the current would allow before turning south again and completing the trip to the Mexican border. The National Park Service will not allow boaters to use Pearce Ferry as a put-in.”

“The second leg of my trip (the portion from Rocky Mountain National Park to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers) was for me,” explained Brown. “This leg established an historic benchmark for solo, unsupported, self-propelled travel (roughly 2,400 miles) in the Colorado River watershed. The ultimate goal of this portion of the trip was to allow me to see first-hand what the state of this embattled watershed really is. I found some cause for optimism there.”

To put the journey in perspective, according to Brown, “At roughly the same time I was finishing my trip, marathon swimmer Diana Nyad completed her swim from Cuba to the U.S. on her fifth attempt. Her trip was about 100 miles and took roughly 53 hours. My trip, by contrast, was roughly 2,400 miles and took 100 days — 24 times the mileage of Nyad’s effort, and 50 times the duration of her trip. I completed it on my first attempt.”

Trials and tribulations were common for Brown on his undertaking. Ranging from Class II to Class V waters, he experienced approximately 400 rapids through multiple stretches of rivers making up the watershed. However, during long stretches of mental and physical exhaustion, Brown was able to enjoy the bountiful wildlife that surrounded him — along the riverbanks he saw wolves, otters, deer, bighorn sheep, pink Grand Canyon rattlesnakes and rare birds like the clapper rail.

Brown ended the journey reflecting on the beauty he observed, thinking about his brother, and cringing at the sight of his six remaining toenails. He also suffered from near-crippling tendonitis in his left forearm, and a broken rib along the way.

In the end, the paddle was the longest possible journey in the primary Colorado River drainage composed of three waterways: 1) the Green River (from Green River Lakes, Wyoming, to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers), 2) the Upper Colorado River (from Rocky Mountain National Park to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers), and 3) the Lower Colorado River (from the confluence to wherever the water runs out — generally the U.S./Mexico border).

Brown paddled everything possible along the way including the major impoundments such as Lake Powell and Lake Mead — everything except the Grand Canyon — with 2,400 miles being a conservative estimate due to the fact that he had to hug the shorelines of the giant reservoirs for safety.

“Yes, I believe I accomplished what I set out to do,” Brown said. “I didn’t tell many people what I was doing…however, whether they knew or not, people on the river could tell that I was engaged in something unique, and they absolutely knocked themselves out to help.”

“Occasionally, I ran into fishermen or boaters with trucks and local knowledge who would help me find a safe put-in below a dam. Not one person ever asked for — or accepted my offer of — money for helping me get around a dam,” he said. “I called this River Magic, and I will spend the rest of my life repaying it.”

–Aaron H. Bible