Last of the Desert River Rats

 

 

I came out of my room at one of the
lodges near Lees Ferry, Arizona and there he stood in the parking lot. Eyes
crinkled. Hair white.  Faded blue,
quilted coat with duct tape on the sleeve. As a young man he had walked
thousands of miles through canyon country, often alone. As a tour guide, he had
found one of the rarest and most valuable of all prehistoric Southwestern
artifacts. At 96 this January he is alive and feeling well. Kent Frost of
Monticello, Utah–last of the old-time desert rats and river runners.

His
friend and driver Marian Krogmann from Fruita, Colorado, introduced me, and we
went into the lodge for breakfast. Over a cup of coffee, Frost told me his
story. Raised in a hardworking Mormon family on a dryland wheat farm south of
Monticello, Frost wandered west early on into the slickrock following both
Anasazi and cowboy trails.

Restless
and bored with farming, in the late 1930s he rowed as a boatman on the San Juan
River for Norman Nevills and Mexican Hat Expeditions. Frost wanted to explore
Glen Canyon so he took off with his cousin and walked from Monticello to Hite
in five days. He remembers, “We went real light—dried fruit, raisins, and
apricots, jerky. I didn’t like carrying a rifle so I got pretty good shooting
rabbits and squirrels with a .38 Special.” They had no sleeping or camping
gear. Frost explained, “I learned from the Navajo people to build a fire and
sleep by it where there was an overhang in the rocks, which helped reflect heat
down on my body.”

The boys
met prospector Art Chaffin and he built them a boat to float through Glen
Canyon. When food ran low Frost shot a beaver, which was inedible, but it made
good bait for catfish. By 1947, he was working for Nevills rowing through the
Grand Canyon and impressing guests by picking rattlesnakes up by their tails.
Then Kent had an idea. He would do on land what Nevills did on water—he would
introduce tourists to the Southwest.
Kent Frost’s Canyonland Tours became the first four wheel drive tours
into Canyonlands ten years before its national park status in 1964.

His jeep
tours went “back of the beyond,” and in 1958 for $25 a day Frost provided all
food, tents, sleeping bags and air mattresses. The next year he led the
reconnaissance trip into the Needles with Stewart Udall, who as Secretary of
the Interior would work with President John F. Kennedy and Congress to create
Canyonlands National Park.

Frost knew
the country well. Katie Lee wrote in All
My Rivers Are Gone
, “Kent has jeeped, hiked, walked, floated, crawled,
hung, climbed, swung, waded or swum about every crevasse in Southeastern
Utah.”  The famous photographer Joseph
Muench took Frost’s first commercial jeep trip, and Ed Abbey used Kent as a
guide for his book Slickrock: Endangered
Canyons of the Southwest
.

By jeeping
into the Needles District and Chesler Park long before paved roads existed,
Frost helped create a market for Canyonlands tourism. Writers and photographers
then publicized the area so it could be protected.  Frost was written up in Arizona Highways, Desert Magazine, Four Wheeler, Natural History, the Sierra Club Bulletin, and Sunset. Sierra Magazine described him at 65 as “still a slim 150 pounds of
spring steel—agile as a goat, unflappable, good-humored, always innovative. A
superb outdoorsman.”

Krogmann,
his friend of over 30 years who backpacked with him into the Escalante,
explains, “We’ve done a lot of exploring together. He taught me how to see. To
take time and look at things instead of moving too fast in the country.” It was
just that technique of slow and careful observation that allowed Frost to find
an extraordinary Anasazi scarlet macaw feather sash, written up in National Geographic in November 1982,
and now displayed at the Edge of the Cedars State Museum in Blanding, Utah. In
perfect condition, the sash is 800 years old.

Director
Teri Lyn Paul states, “The sash is extremely rare–not another one has ever
been found.”  The Scarlet Macaw is a warm
weather parrot from equatorial Mexico. Finding this sash of yucca fiber ropes
covered with feathers attached to a buckskin strap and overlaid with a
tassel-eared squirrel pelt was extraordinary. Within the bright red feathers is
a thunderbird shape of iridescent blue macaw feathers that could be a clan
symbol. “Maybe the feathers were traded from the south (northern Mexico
perhaps) as loose feathers, or maybe they were traded on the yucca cords,”
Director Paul muses “It is an object of special meaning and beauty. We are
privileged to be able to care for it as part of the museum collection.”

Frost and
his clients found the sash when they were resting in an overhang on BLM land.
He moved his feet and exposed the sash—which was in a bundle. In July 2006 he
permanently donated the feathers to the Edge of the Cedars Museum, which
qualifies as a federal repository for archaeology. “I was going to sell it,”
Frost said over coffee, “but I decided it would be better to keep it in the
country where I found it.”

The old-timers
who knew the canyon country are almost gone now. They knew it not from riding
ATVs or using maps and GPS units, but rather the old way, walking, on foot
across the desert.  By being an expert
guide Kent Frost helped Americans explore, appreciate, and protect what is now
one of the most popular national parks in the Southwest. He also found and
donated one of the rarest of all Ancestral Puebloan artifacts.

In 2004 the
Glen Canyon Institute presented him with the David R. Brower Award named after
the former president of the Sierra Club. Frost has also been inducted into the
River Runners Hall of Fame at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum at
Green River, Utah. Frost’s photos and diaries are archived at the University of
Utah.

That’s
quite a legacy for the son of a wheat farmer. Kent smiled at me as he put his
coffee cup down, “I’ve had an unusual life.”

 

Andrew
Gulliford is a professor of History and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis
College in Durango. He hikes and explores near Bluff. He can be reached at
Gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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