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Powell-Like River Trip Makes For Good Reality TV

Photo credit: Alex Thevenin

Historian Richard Quartaroli explains to the crew what provisions Powell had on his expedition.

A reality TV crew recreates the first recorded expedition down the Colorado River's white rapids through the Grand Canyon.

In 1869 John Wesley Powell dared to paddle the Colorado River’s white rapids through the Grand Canyon in the first recorded expedition. A Flagstaff group just returned from recreating the adventure for a reality TV show and lives to tell the tale.

When the one-armed Civil War veteran ventured into the canyon, John Wesley Powell’s crew rowed heavy wooden boats made for flat water, not rapids. Today’s group took replicas of Powell’s “whitehall boats.”

"I had full use of my arms, which was really nice," said experienced river guide Fred Thevenin, who was the expedition leader for this trip.

Photo credit: Fred Thevenin

Fred Thevenin takes a picture of himself. He grew a beard for the trip to look more Powell-like

Not an exact reenactment, but they did take on some of Powell’s challenges. They portaged a 1,200-pound boat around a rapid and attempted to line a boat with ropes and guide it downstream.

"We ended up sinking the boat," Thevenin said. "But with our river knowledge of the dam and the fluctuations we knew that the water was going to drop out. We knew we could walk out in the morning and bail the boat out and get it off the rocks and continue on our way."

Powell’s crew had moldy flour and rancid bacon to eat. Because of national park rules, this group was spared that survival challenge. But they did have to eat beans and rice for 18 days straight.

Photo credit: Alex Thevenin

A BBC photographer films Fred Thevenin expedition leader.

"Your feet are swollen from foot rot," Thevenin said. "And you’re moist and you’ve got rashes on your body and we’re eating beans and rice for three meals a day for 18 days. Tensions grew. People rubbed each other the wrong way. There were a few arguments."

All made for good reality TV entertainment. But like Powell, Thevenin’s crew did have whiskey to calm their nerves at night.

The episodes will air in January on the Discovery Channel and BBC2.

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