Monday, September 2, 2019

First Women To Travel The Colorado River Through The Grand Canyon

By Kristy McCaffrey

In 1938, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter became the first women to descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Elzada Clover

Elzada Clover was a botany instructor and assistant curator of the botanical gardens at the University of Michigan. She believed the Grand Canyon would reveal many species that would help to round out their collection. Originally, she had planned to descend the canyon by pack mule, but after meeting river runner Norm Nevills, he convinced her that a boat trip would be better. He proposed a 660-mile trip from Green River, Utah, to Lake Mead. If successful, it would make Clover the first botanist to catalog plants along the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter

Clover invited 24-year-old Lois Jotter, a close friend and former roommate of Clover's who was a graduate student in botany at the same university, and Eugene Atkinson, a zoology major. Also accompanying them were Bill Gibson (a commercial artist from San Francisco hoping to further his photography career) and Don Harris (a USGS engineer).

Three boats were constructed for the expedition—sixteen feet long, four feet across the stern, five feet amidship, and tapered to a pointed bow. The boats were called the Wen (Norm Nevill’s father’s initials), the Botany (in honor of the expedition), and the Mexican Hat (a rock formation in Utah near where Nevills lived).

By 1938, several men had navigated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, but only one woman had attempted it. Unfortunately Bessie Hyde had disappeared with her husband Glen before finishing, and while it was never clear what happened to the couple, it’s believed that they drowned somewhere near Diamond Creek.

The trip launched on June 20, 1938, on the Green River, with plans to reach Lake Mead by the end of July. It wasn’t easy, but they succeeded, the trip taking 43 days. It would be Elzada Clover’s only trip through the Grand Canyon. She often gave talks about her adventure, as well as spoke to her classes about being the first woman to run the Grand Canyon. A complete report of her and Lois’s botanical findings appeared in the November 1944 American Midland Naturalist under the title “Floristic Studies in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and Tributaries.” Clover led an active life until her death in 1980 at 83.

Lois Jotter returned to Michigan to complete her Ph.D, during which time she married. She stepped back from academics to raise two children but following her husband’s death in 1963 she joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina as an assistant professor of botany. In 1984, she retired. Lois returned to the Colorado River in 1994 to participate in a Legends Trip, a group of “old-timers” whose purpose was to compare river conditions before and after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. In 2013, she died at the age of 99.

Though the botanical collections were not as comprehensive as originally planned, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter made history by becoming the first females to successfully descend the Colorado River through its major rapids.

Come along with Texas Ranger Nathan Blackmore and Emma Hart as they journey through Grand Canyon in 1877.
Click here to learn more about THE SPARROW.

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Licha said...

Wow, these are some Brave ladies! Thank you for this blog, I enjoyed reading this and learning from it. Have a Great week . God bless you.

Licha said...

These are some Brave ladies! Thank you for this Blog, I enjoyed reading it and learning from it. Have a Great Week. God Bless you.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Licha,
They were definitely brave! I didn't share all the details but they had some hairy moments on the trip. Thanks for stopping by!

craftydr said...

Thank Kristy for such an interesting article. Those two ladies both at University of Michigan, my home state makes it even more exciting to me. Can you imagine making that trip back in 1938 or even now? I guess I can't.
I guess they were newer pioneers in comparison to those on wagon trains going west.

Elizabeth Clements said...

What an interesting post, Kristy. Brave ladies, for certain. Their diarieis, if they kept any, would make fascinating reading. Going to the Grand Canyon is still on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing your research.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi craftydr,
It would have been a bit scary, I'd imagine. The rapids would've been far worse than they are today. They lined the boats from shore through them quite a bit for safety, but it was still dangerous. Thanks for stopping by!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I'm not sure if they kept diaries, but I imagine they did. They were more interested in the plants though lol. Making history was secondary.