In the annals of Grand Canyon boating and conservation, Martin Litton is a unique force of nature, a tornado of ungovernable passions, soaring eloquence, and stiff-necked defiance quite unlike anything else that's ever blown through one of the most storied locales in American adventure.
Born in Gardena, California, in February 1917, Litton grew up exploring the California wilderness, served as a glider pilot in World War II, and started taking trips down the Colorado back in the fifties, eventually becoming the only outfitter to guide the river's ferocious rapids exclusively in the frail wooden boats known as Grand Canyon dories.
The run is a maelstrom of huge waves and sharp pour-overs that sound like the afterburners of an F-16. ""Do you know what the greatest pleasure in life is, J. As every Grand Canyon guide knows, this pronouncement by the river-loving Water Rat is potent stuff: the closest thing dirtbag boatmen have to an Apostles' Creed.
B.," Litton calls out, "when things get all calm like this, it means the river's backed up by something. During these ordeals, he spends half his time pretending to complain about absurdly minor discomforts, the other half awash in a lather of angst over rapids like the one we're about to enter."I'm afraid it is," replies Litton, who's clad in a straw hat, an indigo shirt, and black suspenders—an ensemble that makes him look like an Amish farmer gone to sea. There are 80 of these named rapids, a dozen of which serve up some of the biggest whitewater in North America.
And in this case, what it's backed up by is an absolutely pile of boulders called Dubendorff.""Jesus, we're coming up on Dubendorff? And though Litton and Blaustein know that Dubendorff, which marks the midpoint of most canyon trips, doesn't rank among the worst, it's not to be taken for granted. But before we enter the mother of all rapids here, I'm sure you're about to tell me."Among a few other small vices, Litton delights in reciting scraps of literature; today's offering comes from Kenneth Grahame's 1908 classic, ," he declares, "absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Well, damn.
He has fought for all sorts of restrictions to protect fragile landscapes, yet he loathes any government agency that musters the temerity to tell him where he can go and how to behave when he gets there.
He inspires great loyalty, but his former employees describe him as the sort of mercurial boss who could switch in a heartbeat from charming to curmudgeonly to nitpicking.
The canyon's signature attribute is a frigid river tumbling through a savage furnace of sun-blistered rock—a theater of hellish beauty whose sublime charms are matched only by the concussive force of its harshness.