By Roy Webb
Photos Courtesy Special Collections Dept., J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
The people of Grand Junction, Colorado, were used to seeing all kinds of things floating in the Colorado River through town; trees, parts of fences, a dead cow or horse. So no one took much notice when a tanned young man paddled up to a beach in a battered, much repaired folding kayak in the summer of 1933. The kayak was grandly named the ROB ROY, and the paddler was Harold Herbert Leich, a sometime-hobo, deck hand, and/or appliance salesman–a “larking college student,” as he described himself. A few weeks earlier he had set off on an adventure he had long dreamed of, running the whole length of the Colorado River, from Grand Lake to the sea. While he didn’t quite make it all the way to the sea, he did have experiences that he never imagined, that stuck with him to the end of his life.
First descents are something that river runners pay attention to. Today it’s hard to find a creek, let alone a river, that hasn’t been boated, so it’s surprising to learn that the upper Colorado River from Grand Lake, in Rocky Mountain National Park, wasn’t successfully run until 1933.
Leich, born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1909, had already led a life of adventure and travel by the time he set off down the Colorado. He had grown up by the White River in Evansville watching paddle-wheelers plying their trade along the river, and paddling homemade boats in the sloughs. After college at Dartmouth, he signed on as a deck hand on an intercoastal freighter, sailing up and down the east coast and eventually through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the west coast. In between jobs, he rode the rails all over the country, living in hobo jungles and dodging the railroad guards. During his travels he “spent all of his time and none of his money” in local libraries and had found Lewis Freeman’s Down the Yellowstone. Freeman was a prolific travel writer and river runner of the 1920s, and his account gave Leich the idea of returning to Indiana by boat, down the Yellowstone. In a home-made 10 foot punt, that’s exactly what he did, from Livingston to Miles City, Montana. From there he rode the rails home.
But a couple of years as a traveling appliance salesman left him restless. Leich found his next adventure in another of Freeman’s books, Down the Grand Canyon. As he read everything he could find about the Colorado, he learned that no one had ever boated the upper river, from Grand Lake; he resolved to be the first. “The truth of the matter,” he wrote, “is that I was drugged—bewitched—by a roaring golden river 2,000 miles away.” With a “battered folding rubber kayak” he hitchhiked to Grand Lake, where he spent a few days conditioning, knowing that the trip through the canyons below would be an arduous one. Finally on July 21, 1933, he loaded the ROB ROY, as he had named his boat, paddled across Grand Lake, and started down the Colorado.
He wasn’t the first to try; “Captain” Sam Adams, an erstwhile river runner and fast talker, had led an expedition of four boats in the summer of 1869. His trip ended in near-disaster with all boats wrecked in a short distance, and Adams hadn’t even tried the rapids of Gore Canyon. Leich was lucky; despite a few spills and some time spent re-building the wooden frame of the kayak after a particulary rough ride, he made it all the way through Byers and Gore Canyons, through Glenwood Canyon to Grand Junction. His experiences as a hobo had taught him to travel lean, and his earlier trip down the Yellowstone had given him a sense of how to read water. In Grand Junction he replaced the worn-out kayak with another homemade, square-ended punt, this one 13 feet long and named the DIRTY DEVIL. His first test of the new craft was Westwater Canyon, which hadn’t been navigated until 1916. Like many modern river runners, Leich said of Westwater “Things happened so fast that I could not have given a detailed account of the rapids the next day. Time after time the DIRTY DEVIL approached bottlenecks in the chasm where the river disappeared in a smother of foam.”
But the DIRTY DEVIL proved to be rapid-worthy, and after another few days Leich found himself in Moab, where he stopped to re-supply and repair his boat and gear. On August 24th, with his boat laden with melons and fresh corn, he set off. The long, curving miles from Moab to the Confluence passed quickly, but there were monsoon storms almost every day, with winds and lightning. He reached the junction of the two rivers and plunged ahead through the first rapids. Things went well; he bumped a few rocks but his experiences on the Yellowstone and the upper Colorado had taught him how to read water and run and rapid, and he made steady progress. “One after another the cataracts dropped away down the canyon.” He reached Rapid 27, not far above Gypsum Canyon, and decided to camp below it. Just above, though, the DIRTY DEVIL ran onto a submerged boulder and was stuck fast. Leich tried frantically to free it, but the current kept pushing it under; realizing there was no way he was going to rescue the boat he tried to rescue some food and gear. His duffle bag with all of his food was washed away, but he was able to grab a rubber bag that contained matches, cameras and film, and some clothes; then he had to swim the rapid to get to shore. Finally reaching the rocky bank, he had lost his hat and one shoe, but had kept the rubber bag. “This was truly a judgment on my arrogance; I was learning a bitter lesson in humility. And so ended the light-hearted adventures of the Rover Boy, ‘With Gun and Camera through the Western Wonderland,’ and began a grimmer tale, a paradox called ‘Shipwrecked in the Desert.’ “
Leich knew he was about 20 miles above Hite, the first place he might hope to find help or at least food. Discarding one of his cameras and all but one roll of his unexposed film and some other items, he took two socks out of his bag and put them on one foot, and started scrambling down the rugged banks. He was happy to find some onions and his raincoat floating in an eddy, so he gathered driftwood and made a big fire to dry out his clothes and warm up. The next day he found more food from his mishap, a couple of cantaloupes, four small onions, some oranges, and some sandy lumps of butter. He gathered all of it and kept going; he had little choice at this point. At least he had plenty of water to drink, with the Colorado on his left hand. The next few days were incredibly difficult; sometimes he had to slog through knee-deep quicksand, or climb above the river on bighorn sheep trails to get around sheer cliffs. He filled his rubber bag with air and, wearing his life jacket and using the bag as a float, swam many of the lower canyon rapids including Dark Canyon, then known as “the biggest ride in the Cataracts.” Finally, after several days of the most arduous scrambling, floating, and hiking, he reached Hite, Utah, where he found…nothing. Hite had been abandoned for some years, and all he found were old cans and crumbling buildings. He spent the night in one of them, after a supper of half an onion.
“Had I stumbled into Hite 30 or 40 years before, my troubles would have been over.” But by 1933 Hite was the proverbial middle of nowhere. There was nothing there, save some empty buildings and a little-used, primitive ferry. At one time Hite had a population of a few dozen people, a post office, a store, people passing through; but that had been in the late 1800s, when the gold booms were sputtering on and off in Glen Canyon. Now, thirty years later, it was deserted. Leich had reached some signs of civilization but he was far from safe. Down the river it was 180 miles to Lees Ferry. It was calm water and he could have rustled up a boat or built a raft at Hite, but there was little food to be found on the way. To the south, the prospects were even worse; eighty miles of incredibly rugged canyon country with no idea where to find water. The only option was wait for someone to come along, or hike to the north, to Hanksville, Utah. Hanksville was still fifty rough, hot, dry miles away, but at least he had a vague idea how to get there; follow the wagon tracks that wound up North Wash through the desert.
He found a kerosene can and a mason jar at Hite, and filled them with Colorado River water, and set off. He tried shooting doves, magpies, and even a snake with his revolver—“I…visualized a delicate morsel of snake meat for lunch”– but missed every time. But, he was relived to discover, there were water holes and springs in North Wash. Slowly he trudged north, through the sand and the heat, and after a few miles he was heartened to see cattle tracks, then the tracks of a horse and a dog. He knew if there were cattle there must be water, and he might catch up with the herders. Sure enough, later that day, “startled by the clattering of hooves, I looked up to see two men approaching on horseback.” They weren’t cowboys, but prospectors on their way to Hite. They gave him a can of peas from their scanty supply, and that night he heated the can, “devoured the peas and drank off the warm juice. I had never tasted anything better.” The prospectors had told him about a vanadium mine to the north, so he headed for it by moonlight.
On he walked, musing on his circumstances: “Was I right in seeking the solitary, wandering life of a would-be junior Olysses?” His ruminations were interrupted when he almost bumped into a cowboy, who stuck out his hand and said “My name’s George Waldamont.” Leich told him his sad tale, so Waldamont took him over to a loaded wagon; there he met two more prospectors on their way to Hite, where they planned to build a boat and float through Glen Canyon looking for gold. After a supper of salt pork, corn, potatoes, skillet bread and coffee, Leich tried to sleep but the rich food and the coffee kept him awake: “My stomach seemed surprised that its vacation had ended.” The next day the prospectors continued south, Leich resumed his trek the other direction. Aiming for the mine, he missed the trail and just kept headed north, navigating by his compass across the hot plain, the Henry Mountains slowly passing by to his left. Now out of North Wash, he began to feel the heat and the sun, but kept trudging, one foot in front of the other. He was spared from a dry camp when a truck appeared, coming toward him. The driver gave him a drink of water and told him he was about nine miles from Hanksville. Despite exhaustion and thirst and the coming nightfall, he determined not to stop until he reached the town; finally, about 10PM, he came to an irrigation ditch and could see lights in the houses ahead. He’d made it.
Hanksville was a tiny hamlet of about a dozen families, but to Leich, it was “paradise.” Resting for a few days, he got to know the people who eked out an existence through irrigation and ranching, and was able to get a ride in a 1929 Dodge sedan that was headed across the desert to the north, to Green River, Utah. It took them two days, including stops to repair the oil pan, fix a leak in the gas tank, and a night in a ranch on the San Rafael River, but at last they reached town and Harold could finally relax; from here he could ride the rails home to Indiana. Although “for several years afterwards, in the late winter, I would draw plans for a new cataract boat and write up a grub list, but I never made the break again.” Leich went on to a successful career in business and later in the Civil Service, raised a family, and became a well-known expert in the field of wastewater management, and passed away in 1978. He might have never come back to the Colorado, but he never forgot it either; relying on the diary he had salvaged from his wrecked boat, he wrote down his experiences in a lengthy manuscript. His closing words speak to how much being cast away on the Colorado affected him: “Today the canyon country seems as dim and shimmering as a Utah mesa fifty miles away on the noonday skyline. Like a Maxfield Parrish painting, filled with fair dreams and purple fantasies, the memory of the Colorado fades away to the far horizon.”