Bryan Brown didn’t fit that description when he plunked his kayak down into the waters of Wyoming’s Wind River Range and began to paddle away. But anyone who sets out to retrace John Wesley Powell’s 1869 voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers is bound to take on the legendary explorer’s appearance sooner or later.
In Brown’s case, his clean-cut features gave way to a scraggly beard and unruly head of hair over the course of 70-odd river days and roughly 2,400 miles, as evidenced by before-and-after photos from the trip.
“I look 20 years younger in the beginning picture,” he said. “It’s been a hard trip.”
But it was one that he needed to make.
The 57-year-old Los Angeles man set off on his voyage as a tribute to his younger brother Bruce, who spent about seven years planning a route that would eventually become the first leg of a two-part trip.
The Browns first laid eyes on the Colorado River more than four decades ago, and the sights they took in from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon made a lasting impression on them.
“We said, ‘That’s it. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to run that river when we’re older,’” Brown said.
They also found inspiration in a National Geographic story about the “somewhat rough and striking figure” named John Wesley Powell.
Years later, Brown encouraged his younger brother to map out a trip the two of them could take together, although he knew that Bruce would never be able to join him.
His younger brother lived with a rare form of early-onset muscular dystrophy, and he suffered from chronic pain until he passed away last October.
Still, Bryan believes their shared dream gave Bruce a reason to live.
“I (encouraged him) because it kept my brother alive a lot longer,” he said.
“Astounding acts of kindness and generosity”
Brown regrets that he didn’t begin actual preparations for the trip while his brother was still alive. But with his wife Sandy’s help, he finally brought their childhood dream to fruition this summer.
At every point along his journey, total strangers took Brown by surprise with their simple acts of kindness and generosity.
In one case, a woman who saw burn-like marks on Brown’s feet went two hours out of her way to drive him to the nearest pharmacy in Yuma, Ariz., where a phoned-in prescription was waiting for him.
It turned out that Brown developed a serious infection when his feet came into contact with heavily polluted agricultural runoff along the Lower Colorado.
The woman was so concerned about his condition that she waited by his side as the pharmacist filled the prescription, and she insisted on driving him back to his stopping-off point.
Brown wanted to pay her for her troubles, but she refused to take his money; she even declined his offer to buy her lunch.
“It’s a kindness that I will wait all of my life to repay,” he said.
A conservation success story
Brown picked up one key insight during his trip: He believes that much of the river basin is still in “pretty good” ecological health.
It’s pressured in some places, he said — especially along the Arizona-California border. But every day he paddled downstream, Brown saw encouraging signs that conservation efforts are flourishing.
Wolves roamed the upper reaches of the Green River country, river otters bobbed their heads above the water and clapper rails poked their beaks through the mud in search of their next meals.
“We are trying hard, and it’s working,” he said. “(But) we need to try harder. We can do better.”
Cataract Canyon, in particular, is a heart-stopper, he said.
“It has exceptional wilderness characteristics to it,” he said. “You cannot see it and fail to understand the power it had on the Fremont Indians 800 years ago, or for rafters 24 hours ago.”
He has equally high praise for much of the Colorado Plateau surrounding Moab. “This whole section that you’re living right in the middle of is the most remote, unique and remarkable place on earth,” he said.
Permitting hurdles too high
In spite of all the positive experiences he had, Brown remains frustrated by the rules and regulations that limit recreational activities at Grand Canyon National Park.
Brown hoped to travel through the Grand Canyon section of the river with the current, in season and by paddle. But every time that he approached National Park Service officials for their permission, he received the same cordial, professional and firm response: “No.”
In order to paddle through Grand Canyon National Park, self-guided paddlers like Brown have to apply for permits through a weighted lottery system.
However, anyone who hopes to travel through the Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Cross section is limited to one non-commercial or commercial trip per year, and that person may not change, trade or defer a permit.
Brown was well aware of the park’s unique lottery system, but he chose not to participate because he didn’t want someone else’s opportunity to go to waste.
He based his decision on several factors. For one thing, he knew that he wouldn’t have a chance to cancel ahead of time, since his journey would take him through extremely remote areas where cell phone coverage is unavailable.
He also anticipated delays due to bad weather, and sure enough, “biblical” conditions in places like Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area forced him to stick close to the shoreline.
“You get a few days of wind and all of a sudden, you cannot make the deadline,” he said.
Brown hoped that park service officials might grant him an exemption to the Grand Canyon’s rules, based on his unique situation. But he ultimately had to settle for the next private trip he could find.
Once he cleared that section of the river, he picked up his kayak and continued to paddle down the Lower Colorado on his own. But even after he reached Morelos Dam, he still had a long way to go.
The second leg of his journey took him back upriver, from the Colorado’s headwaters near Rocky Mountain National Park to its confluence with the Green.
He set off with the hope that Grand Canyon officials might reconsider their decision. But they held firm to the park’s rules — much to Brown’s dismay.
“The permitting system is so complex that John Wesley Powell could not make this happen today,” he said. Brown has since received invitations to join groups of private boaters heading down the Grand Canyon, but he can’t tag along without violating the park service’s rules.
“It is statistically not possible without accommodations from the National Park Service or the Department of Interior to travel with the current, with the season and by paddle,” he said. “It cannot be done.”
From his perspective, those rules undercut the spirit of exploration that made America great.
“It’s a profound experience,” he said. “But if trips like this cannot be done any longer, we have lost something essential to the American psyche.”
Although he wasn’t able to complete the Grand Canyon section on his own, Brown believes there are no modern-day precedents for his journey.
He can think of a few people, including the late author and backpacker Colin Fletcher, who completed similar trips by paddle, foot or motorized boat.
But the number of people who have made unsupported trips is even smaller. “There’s just not a long line of people waiting to do this,” he said.