USGS Group Retraces John Wesley Powell's Colorado River Journey

Jul 31, 2019

A group of artists, scientists and geologists is wrapping up a raft trip from Wyoming to Arizona following the route of John Wesley Powell’s historic exploration of the Colorado River 150 years ago.

Credit usgs.gov


They’ve been creating artwork and conducting experiments along the way. KNAU’s Steve Shadley spoke to Thomas Minckley who’s a researcher with the University of Wyoming and a river guide with the “Powell 150 Project.” Minckley steered his boat to the shores of Lake Powell in Page, Arizona to talk about the experience…

Shadley: “Hello, Thomas, thanks for joining us…

Minckley: “Oh, thanks for having me…”

Shadley: “So, John Wesley Powell. I don’t think a lot of people realize he started that trip back then at the Green River, Wyoming. Why did he begin this trip there?”

Minckley: “Well, two weeks before the expedition launched, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed so the reason he started at Green River, Wyoming was because the railroad could bring the boats in from Chicago and drop them right off at the river. He might have started in Colorado if it hadn’t been for that artifact of geography and American development.”

Shadley: “So tell us how far that is in miles from Green River, Wyoming to Grand Canyon, Arizona.” Minckley: “From Green River to Arizona to where I’m sitting right now on Lake Powell is about 700 miles. We have about 300 to go to get to the Virgin River which is where John Wesley Powell’s expedition formally ended.”

Shadley: “How long will this take you? When did you start and when will it end?”

Minckley: “We started on May 24th, on the same day as John Wesley Powell’s expedition began. And, we’ll be finishing I think about 28 days earlier than him on August 1st.”

Shadley: “Now, I understand John Wesley Powell was one of the earliest directors, leaders, of the U-S Geological Survey, the USGS, he took over shortly after the Civil War in that position. So, what was the significance of taking geologists on that trip that you’re taking now…compared to what John Wesley Powell did back then?”

Minckley: “Well, he democratized science and he made it more something more common people would do. So, it wasn’t just an activity for the wealthy. And, he was an incredible public servant and one of the things he did in the development of the west was essentially mapping the region. So, for the USGS employees it’s a great opportunity to connect to the legacy of their role serving the public.”

Shadley: “There were some experiments that experiments that happened on this trip…scientific experiments. What was the focus of those experiments? What were you looking for? What were you trying to determine?

Minckley: “We’ve been monitoring, recording bird songs to determine the changes in bird songs through the system. We’ve been identifying bats that were flying above. We’ve been collecting bugs for the USGS to determine food for said bats. We’ve also been conducting a survey of beaches and collecting samples for micro plastics within the river system and in a way we are setting a data base for future researchers to build upon…”

Shadley: “And, finally I’m just curious to find out. Do you have a lot of sore muscles…maybe a bad sunburn? Are you going to be glad when this whole trip is over with?”

Minckley: “We’re uniquely happy. We haven’t had the trials and tribulations they had in 1864…”

Shadley: “Okay, well Thomas thank you so much and good luck on the remainder of your trip…”

Minckley: “Thank you very much. It’s been great talking with you.”

Thomas Minckley is a researcher with the University of Wyoming and he’s a river runner retracing the expedition of John Wesley Powell’s famous voyage 150 years ago.

You can find more at “Powell 150.org”