Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Braving the Grand Canyon’s Rapids

Host Lale Arikoglu sits down with science journalist Melissa Sevigny to retrace an adventure of a lifetime.
Braving the Grand Canyons Rapids

You can listen to our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify each week. Follow this link if you're listening on Apple News.

In 1938 two women botanists broke with convention and set off on an expedition trip along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon that would see them risk their lives over rapids in the name of research. Two years ago, science journalist Melissa Sevigny retraced their adventure, whitewater rafting the same rapids and sleeping under the stars to learn more about who these women were—and why their work still influences the scientific landscape of America today.

All products featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu and welcome to a new episode of Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. Before we begin, we're asking for your feedback on our show. We'd love to know what stories you'd like to hear, what you've enjoyed the most and the least. So go to Apple Podcasts and leave us a review.

This week's show is about two adventures along the Colorado River. The first in 1938 and the second in 2021.

Melissa Sevigny: I never imagined doing a trip like that, but I had to. I had to follow in the footsteps of these two women and find out what they experienced when they went on that journey in 1938.

LA: Science journalist Melissa Sevigny lives in Flagstaff, Arizona and grew up in Tucson, meaning the Grand Canyon was never too far away. But she'd only ever seen it like a tourist, so her decision to go down to the river level and run rapids in a two-person rubber boat was definitely not something she'd tried before.

MS: I was going to have to run the Grand Canyon. That was not on my radar. It was never on my bucket list. You just really went into that trip with a, a, a fair amount of imposter syndrome. I'd never run a river before, I'm not a botanist. I felt very intimidated by the whole concept of being able to contribute to this scientific expedition I was on and be useful and not lose my head if something went wrong.

Where I grew up in the desert, I would think of rivers as being dry riverbeds, you know, rivers of sand. And it, it never really occurred to me as a child that you could put a boat on a river and go on a boat trip. So this was the first time that I've, I've done a river trip, this trip through the Grand Canyon of Arizona.

LA: I have to admit I have lived in the US for a little over a decade now and I have still never been to the Grand Canyon, and I've never seen the Colorado River. Which I actually think is the case for also many Americans who were born here. The country is so vast and it's just feels like it's almost mythologized now as this great natural thing that you can go see and experience. And you got to know it very well.

MS: Most people see the Grand Canyon from the South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park South Rim. And if you see a photograph of the Grand Canyon, that's probably where the photo was taken, right. You see all of those banded colors and all of these layers. That's kinda the classic Grand Canyon view. And the incredible thing is if you're standing on the rim looking down, it's actually quite hard to see the river. You know, you hear about this powerful river that carved the Grand Canyon but it's way, way down at the bottom, a mile down. And it looks like just this little silver thread.

LA: Melissa's book, which came out earlier this year is called Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon. Melissa retraces an expedition where two women mapped the ecosystem of the Colorado River. She researched 1938 newspaper stories disparaging Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter. Reporters called the schoolmarms, but they were academic botanists with a thirst for exploration.

MS: I wanted to have the experience of actually working on a Grand Canyon trip so I would, I would have a better idea of what it was like for Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter, who were trying to collect plants while getting their boats down the river. So I joined up with a botany crew in 2021. We went down the river and our job was to weed. Our job was to weed the Grand Canyon, which sounds a little silly but the Grand Canyon has non-native plants that don't belong there, that disrupt the ecology. And we were looking for one in particular called verbena grass.

It sounds like it might be small and easy to weed, but it can actually grow to like the size of a Christmas tree. And it take a little bit of effort to find them and get them out. And so I was on a, a six person crew. We had three boats and, uh, and we rowed through the Grand Canyon for two weeks looking for this grass and weeding it out.

LA: You're doing this volunteering, you're looking for this weed. How as you're doing it or are you also for your book and for your research, channeling Lois and Ezelda?

MS: Yeah, I really did feel like I was channeling them. I had this little notebook in my pocket that, um, it's a Rite in the Rain notebook. It's supposed to -

LA: Oh, I have that notebook. I use that. I used it for the Amazon trip. [laughs]

MS: It's nice. It's supposed to like kinda not wash away when it gets wet. I have to say it's, it's right in the rain. It's not right in the rapid and, uh, I got soaked going through the rapids and a lot of the words washed away. Um, and because of that every night I would stay up late with a flashlight and I'd copy it into a bigger notebook and just make a lot of notes. You know, I had marked down on my, my map of the Grand Canyon places where these two women, Elzada and Lois saw or experienced certain things. And when I got home my, uh, I actually kind of went through it and I typed up the bits that I thought I could use.

LA: I'm gonna get more to that story in a bit because it is truly fascinating. Um, but I wanted to know a little bit more about your experience first. I mean it's an extraordinary journey. I don't think many people get to do that. And also, I didn't, I don't think I quite understood how big, this sounds really silly, but like how big the Grand Canyon is not in, in the depth but in the, the length of it.

MS: Yeah, it's, it's huge. Um, it takes about two weeks on an oar trip so a trip where, where they're rowing the boats with oars to get through the Grand Canyon. It just keeps going and going.

LA: And you were using oars.

MS: Well, not me personally, but my boatman, the person who was rowing my boat was using the oars. Yes. Yeah, so they weren't very big boats so these kind of rubber rafts and there would be two of us in a boat, one person rowing and me, um, bailing. My job was to ... One of the boats didn't, uh, didn't bail itself so I had to bail it with a, with a bucket any time we went through a rapid.

LA: I was gonna say, what is bailing because in my head it's sort of very much like a pirate's at sea throwing water out.

MS: Yes, that's exactly what it is. We would go through a rapid, the boat would fill up with water and as we were still going through the rapid I would get the bucket and I'd toss all that water out. Because it makes the boat very heavy and hard to maneuver.

LA: Were you comfortable on the rapids? Did they feel scary?

MS: I was terrified. I, I'd never done anything like that before.

LA: I'm kinda actually honestly relieved to hear you say that because you were speaking about it with such authority and confidence I was like, oh God, I'm such a weed 'cause I would be terrified.

MS: No, I was terrified. I think it was good that I was terrified because, um, I'm sure Lois and Elzada must've been terrified too. Like they were going down the river at a time when, you know, hardly anybody had done this trip and there weren't really good maps and there were these clunky wooden boats. And they must have been terrified and so I'm, I'm glad I felt that way, um, because I think I was able to channel what they felt on their trip.

LA: How long did it take you to feel like you could take this constant sort of tirade against you of these rapids?

MS: It took me about three days to unhinge my brain from all of my worries and my nervousness and to really be present in, in what I was experiencing. And you know, the nervousness never exactly went away, particularly when we would hit a rapid that had a lot of stories around it. Some of the rapids in the Grand Canyon have their own mythology, a lot of terror stories about things that went wrong.

LA: Was there a particular one that had been really sort of mythologized for you all that you were kind of building yourselves up to?

MS: I mean the big one is Lava Falls and it comes very late in the trip. It's kind of one of the last big rapids that you reach in the Grand Canyon. And there's an expedition that's going just ahead of us and one of their boats flips over in the rapid.

LA: Oh my God.

MS: A pretty bad thing to have happen. And everybody's fine. There, there are no injuries, you know, everyone does that what they, they're supposed to do in an emergency and they, they get to safety. But watching that happen just ahead of me, I was like, I do not want to have that happen to my boat. I have very little confidence in my skills as a swimmer.

LA: But you made it over?

MS: Yeah, we roared right through that rapid and it was, it was okay.

LA: And you didn't flip the whole trip?

MS: We didn't flip the whole trip, thank goodness.

LA: That would, I mean that would've just been the thing I was winding myself up about. I remember like when I was learning how to kayak, given it was in like freezing cold England, it wasn't very glamorous. But being taught what to do if you capsized and how to like push yourself out of the kayak. And it was one of the most claustrophobic things I've ever done. I hated it.

MS: Oh, yeah.

LA: Um, so I can't, can't imagine what it would be like to be on a, on a rapid.

MS: Yeah, there's a sense of if that river grabs me and wants to keep me, there's not much I can do about it. There were a few drowning deaths that had occurred and there was one, um, one expedition that got caught in a landslide that came down the, the side of the cliffs and, um, took them out. Took out their camp and, uh, someone died in that, that experience. And they were doing nothing wrong. They hadn't camped in a, in a bad spot.

I mean, running the river today is much, much safer, you know. But it didn't feel like that to me because I was really like mentally living in 1938 and so just in case, you know, I wrote a letter to my husband telling him a bunch of practical things about, you know, computer passwords and, and whatnot. But also, telling him, you know, that I loved him just in case I didn't come back. And, uh, I put that in the, in my safe before I went on the journey and told a friend that it was there.

LA: Did you let him read it once you got back safely?

MS: No, he, he didn't read it. [laughs]

LA: [laughs] I would be, I would be, that part of me would be like I want you to see how much I care. [laughs]

MS: No, he hasn't read it. I think it might still be in there.

LA: After the break, reading the diaries and letters from Elzad Clover and Lois Jotter to find out how they camped, what they ate and how they almost didn't make it. Lois and Ezelda, the subject of your book and the whole reason why you embarked on this trip. Tell me about them, who were they?

MS: So Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter were two botanists from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And in 1938 they cooked up this somewhat crazy plan to run the Grand Canyon and make a plant collection there. And this had never been done before, no botanist had ever done that trip. And it was a time when people just really weren't doing river trips. You couldn't just sign up to go down the river.

They partnered up with a man named Norm Nevills who had an idea of starting commercial river running expeditions in the Grand Canyon, which had never been tried before. And they built some boats and they recruited some people to row them and off they went down the river, no experience. Nobody in this trip had ever done whitewater river rafting before, really didn't know what they were getting into.

Elzada Clover was 41 years old at the time of this river trip and, uh, she had been born on a farm in Nebraska. She could shoot a gun, she could ride a horse, you know, very like Indiana Jones kind of, kind of attitude, um, towards the world. And she was obsessed with plants. At some point, she fell in love with cactus and she decided she wanted to make a collection of all of the cactus in the Southwest. And so she went to the University of Michigan, she got her PhD in botany, which was pretty unusual for women at the time.

Lois Jotter was one of her kind of students and, and mentees at the University of Michigan. She was 24 years old in 1938. She described herself as being bookish and a bit of a klutz and she went into this with a certain amount of trepidation about what she was getting into. Clover decided to invite Jotter along so they could kind of chaperone one another on this trip. And, uh, Jotter had to spend a lot of time writing letters to her family to convince them that it was going to be okay. Lois packed all of her stuff up in boxes before she left and she labeled the boxes, and she told her roommate what to do with them if she never came back.

LA: This is like your letter. Just like it.

MS: They're one and the same. [laughs] Right? Right. I mean, yeah, I really channeled what she was feeling. You know, I felt that, right.

LA: In their diaries, did you get a sense that they knew they were doing something quite unusual?

MS: Yes. Yeah, I did. But they focused mostly on the botany and not on their gender. There was actually a, a pretty clear rejection that their gender was what was unusual about the trip. The journalists who covered the trip, and there were a lot of them, it was national front page headlines for quite a while, really focused on the fact that these were the first two non-native women to make this journey. And, uh, Elzada Clover in particular really hated that about the press.

She wanted the focus to be on the fact that it was the first botany collection ever made at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She tried to convince the journalists to cover it from that point of view and that really never happened. Lois writes about getting her hands all cut up and bleeding while she's trying to put all of those stacks of plants and paper together between two pieces of wood. And you could imagine doing that with a cactus. Pretty tricky, finicky work, you know.

Their journey was considerably longer than mine. They ran through three canyons on the Colorado River in Utah and Arizona, Cataract Glen and Grand Canyon. It took them 42 days to make that trip. There were six people in all and three boats, just like on my, my journey down the river. But their boats were wooden boats and, uh, had been sort of scrapped together by the person running the expedition and Lois actually wrote that when they first put the boats in the water she was, she wasn't entirely sure they were going to float.

So when they, when they hit their first rapids, they hit it up very high water. It's monsoon season in the Southwest, which means it's, it's raining, big thunder storms. They lose a boat and it runs away from them and they have to chase it. They capsize in one of the rapids. There's a couple of points where they end up widely separated from one another and, uh, everything takes so much longer than they're expecting. They start running low on food. Really, especially the first half of the trip they, they weren't prepared for what they were going to find.

LA: If they were running low on food, I mean, what were they eating?

MS: Everything was canned so they had canned peaches and canned peas and canned butter. I don't know what that was like. They had, um, rye crisp crackers, which were a brand of cracker that was actually, um, marketed as a diet food at the time. This was not what you want to be eating when you're doing hard work.

LA: Not fuel, right? It's ... [laughs]

MS: No, no fuel. Yeah. So that's fun. And they had Klim, which is a, a brand of powdered milk. Klim is milk backwards. And they would, they would stir it into cups of river water. They would have to drink the water out of the river. Today you do that as well but you treat it. Um, you've got all this fancy stuff you can add to the water that makes the dirt settle out and cleans it all up and makes sure, you know, it's safe to drink. Um, and it's a whole process, right.

But then they didn't have all of that stuff. There'd be all this mud on the bottom of the bucket and they'd, they'd take the top water off and they would stir in this powdered milk. And that was pretty typical lunch for them, powdered milk, crackers, maybe a can of fruit.

LA: The contrast. What were you eating? 'Cause I imagine you weren't, I mean you said you weren't sitting with a bucket of water waiting for the mud to settle.

MS: No.

LA: And you probably weren't eating canned peaches.

MS: No, we, we had wonderful meals on my trip. I was really quite impressed, um, but I, I did almost none of the cooking on my trip. They were very kind, um, the, the boatmen who were rowing the boats on my, my expedition. And we had, we had grain meals. I mean, we had fresh eggs, you know, to make eggs in the morning and steak dinners and, um, yeah. It was, it was pretty nice.

LA: That's fantastic.

MS: And I was so hungry. I mean, you're out, you're out in the sun and the water all day and you're doing work and you're bushwhacking around in the thickets and I would eat everything that was put in front of me. And I have no idea how Clover and Jotter did it.

LA: Coming up, how their expedition impacted Elzada and Lois's careers and what Melissa's trip has meant for her. Think you said to them, the most important thing was the science and it was the botany, the role and intention of this trip. Did they achieve what they set out to do and what was the sort of legacy they left behind?

MS: They collected more than 400 species of plants. Those physical plant specimens are still in herbaria today, all over the country. So they're still available for researchers to use today.

LA: Do they deserve to be more famous? I mean, clearly you've kind of, you've been able to tell their story. But I mean it feels like everyone, people should know them.

MS: I think so. Right? And I mean, you know, I think they have an incredible story. We wouldn't have any idea what the plant life in this region looked like before Glen Canyon Dam was built. Glen Canyon is a giant dam. Behind it is the second-largest reservoir in the entire country. It's right at the head of the Grand Canyon. It changed everything about the ecology of this river. And nowadays, scientists spend a lot of time trying to figure out how that dam changed things and how we can manage it differently to protect the ecology of this incredibly iconic place, you know, the Grand Canyon.

LA: What happened to them after? I mean, they both had a lot of life to live after this trip.

MS: Elzada Clover stayed at the University of Michigan for her entire career. She taught generations of students. She traveled all over the, the country and the world, collecting cactus. Some of those still grow at the Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And eventually she retired to Texas where she could be out West, close to her cactus. Um, she died well into her 80s, I believe it was.

Lois Jotter kind of took her life in a different direction. Not long after the river trip she got married, she had two children. She returned to the University of North Carolina to teach botany and environmental science and biology. And she got a chance to run the Grand Canyon one more time in 1994 at the age of 83.

LA: Oh my God.

MS: She went back.

LA: I love this. [laughs]

MS: It's pretty cool. Um, uh, a group of scientists have gotten together and decided that they wanted to know what the river used to look like before that big dam was built at the head of the Grand Canyon. And so they invited Lois Jotter to come back on this trip because she could tell them what it used to look like half a century before.

LA: The trip is a lot more recent for you. What impact has it had on you and do you think it's going to be longlasting?

MS: I think doing it helped a great deal with my own self-confidence in situations like that. Um, it sounds silly but I think we all, we all need that sometime, sometimes. We need to prove to ourselves that we can do difficult and scary things that are outside of our comfort zone. I mean, being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a life changing experience. Something about your perception changes.

After about three days, you really forget what the outside world is like. You're completely cut off. There's no cell phone, there's no texting. You know, there's nothing but the river and the cliffs and the animals and the plants and sleeping and rising with the sun. And looking forward to the next rapid and the next meal, and you feel very human. I know that sounds strange, but it was like a revelation. It's like, this is what being a human is supposed to feel like. And it's so hard to come back to the outside world and to look around you at all of the strange markers we have of time.

I was coming out in October, around Halloween and there were Halloween decorations and there were pumpkins, spiced lattes in the stores and these, these markers that we have of time make no sense. What makes sense is the sunrise and the sunset and the way the colors of the light change the Canyon walls. I could've sat and watched that all day and never gotten bored. So yeah, they did change my life, um, in ways that I think I'll still discover as time goes on.

LA: How often do you think about the Grand Canyon?

MS: So I, I miss it, especially this time of year when the fall rolls around. I took my trip in October and sometimes a scent or a smell or something will take me right back there. And yeah, there's kind of a longing. Both Clover and Jotter described that coming out of the river, this instantaneous longing to go back. And I don't know if I'm ever gonna make it back. Um, it's not necessarily easy or inexpensive to get on a, a river trip. So, um, so I don't know if I'll have that opportunity again, but I do think about it a lot.

LA: Well, thank you so much for telling me all about it and taking me there. This is just such a fascinating and exciting conversation. I mean, I kinda felt like I was in a movie. Next week, the power and playfulness of an iconic cosmetic, eyeliner. Join us as Zahra Hankir explores the intersections of beauty with health, spirituality and freedom around the world from the hair salons of Veron to the streets of Tokyo. See you then.

I'm Lale Arikoglu and you can find me on Instagram at @LaleHannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus and Gabe Quiroga. The show's mixed by Amar Lal. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. See you next week.