Navigating Unsettled Waters: Old West Meets New West in Women's Colorado River Boating Narratives


  • Paul Formisano



In the foreword to Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico (1914), Owen Wister, the famed Western writer, describes Ellsworth and Emory Kolb’s historic voyage down the Colorado River in language ripe with Western overtones. He writes:

Every youth who has in him a spark of adventure will kindle with desire to battle his way also from Green River to the foot of Bright Angel Trail; while every man whose bones have been stiffened and his breath made short by the years, will remember wistfully such wild tastes of risk and conquest that he, too, rejoiced in when he was young (…) This place exerts a magnetic spell (…) Bend after bend this trance of beauty and awe goes on, terrible as the Day of Judgment, sublime as the Psalms of David.” (ix, xi)

For Wister, this journey recalls the longings of bygone days, the freedom to explore, and the heroic struggle between man and nature evident in the Kolb’s voyage through this dramatic landscape. It also entrenches the river running narrative as a sub-genre of the Western, making subsequent Colorado River Westerns heavily steeped in mythic landscapes, nostalgia, and perilous adventure for the male subject.