Earth Notes: Martin Litton

Apr 3, 2019

Fifty years ago, a World War Two glider pilot and Sierra Club board member started a successful business offering dory trips down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon. Along the way, he became a warrior for wilderness.

Martin Litton
Credit Courtesy John Blaustein

Martin Litton adapted the original Oregon “drift boat” design to the Colorado’s big waves—creating beautiful handcrafted, but rather fragile, wooden vessels. He named each dory after a place sacrificed to “progress”—Hetch Hetchy, Peace River, Roaring Springs, Music Temple—a custom that OARS Grand Canyon Dories company still follows.

Litton, a journalist, first floated the Yampa and Green rivers through Dinosaur National Monument in 1952—and he was hooked on the wild rapids and rockbound solitude. After the trip, then-Sierra Club president David Brower convinced him to join the fight to foil the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to build dams at Echo Park and Split Mountain.

Three years later Litton made his first boat trip down the Grand Canyon. But soon after, he and Brower conceded and said the Sierra Club would not oppose Glen Canyon Dam in exchange for the dams in Dinosaur not being built.

To both men’s everlasting regret, Glen Canyon Dam was soon constructed just upstream of Grand Canyon.

Martin Litton ran his last river trip at age 92—the oldest person ever to row a dory in the Canyon. He died in 2014 at age ninety-seven.  

Litton downplayed whitewater—and implicitly his whole career: “What’s heroic about having a good time?” he’d say. Yet anyone floating past the shafts drilled into the Grand Canyon’s cliffs at potential damsites can appreciate his achievements.