In 2005, I quit my job as a newspaper archivist in Spokane, Washington, to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory.
You can’t float the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory without knowing about Martin Litton. The Grand Canyon, wooden dories and Martin Litton are an inseparable trio.
Martin Litton was a conservationist and an adventurer, who is credited with audacious feats of environmental salvation like preventing the Grand Canyon from becoming a series of mild cascading reservoirs. Litton died, at the age of 97, on November 30th of this year. And as I started reading remembrances of his life, I realized I never took the opportunity to thank Litton for keeping the Colorado undammed through Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon. And I had the chance to thank him in person years ago — one of the closest brushes with greatness of my life.
Martin Litton not only saved the Grand Canyon from environmental destruction, but he also created an outfitting company that would allow the stretch of river to have an appreciative audience. His Grand Canyon Dories company gave the gift of transformative adventure and the gift of the Grand Canyon to many lucky visitors (Grand Canyon Dories survives as part of the O.A.R.S. family).
Dories are flat-bottomed drift boats that Martin Litton iterated into what he thought was the perfect shape for the whitewater of the Grand Canyon. Dories are graceful but unforgiving. I saw a boat with its bow cracked clean off on a beach in the Grand Canyon. A note said “R.I.P. The Pima” and detailed her last hours pinned between a cliff wall at the bottom of Horn Creek rapid and the surge of the Colorado current. The oranges that fell out of her busted open hatches could be found floating in eddies below most rapids for miles and miles downstream. We were halfway through the trip and it was one of the more sobering moments of my life.
This was Litton’s chosen mode of transportation down the river. Sleek, fast, curvaceous, gorgeous. The shape of his fleet was bespoke for the whitewater of the Grand Canyon. Dories ride high on the tops of waves. They turn on a dime. They are the racecar to the rubber rafts’ bulldozer. To understand the appeal of the boat of Litton’s choice is to understand a bit about the man himself. He was a firecracker of a conservationist. He was a relentless advocate for wilderness. He was a daredevil with a cause.
“Martin Litton made a difference in this world and what he accomplished in his life will remain for thousands of years to come,” says O.A.R.S.’s Steve Markle. “He was a giant—a man before his time and one of the first to use adventure travel for good. He realized early on that the best way to protect a place is to help people really get to know it.”
Markle reminds us, “As many of us heard from Alexandra Cousteau two years ago at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Switzerland, ‘We save what we love, and we love what we know.’ Martin fought passionately for what he believed in and was unwilling to compromise. He was a role model for us all in so many ways and we should strive to fight so hard for the things we care about. More than anything, we owe him a debt of gratitude for his contributions to the Grand Canyon and to the California Redwoods. Because of him, these American treasures will be protected in their natural state for many generations to come. He will be missed, but what an incredible run he had!”
Martin Litton lived the line between conservation and adventure. To love a place enough to save it, you have to know it as Cousteau said. You have to experience it: immerse yourself in it, be surprised by it, let a place terrify you a bit. When a place gets under your skin like this, you’re able to fight for it like it’s your child. Litton was a true adventure guide, too, in the sense that he led people through places in order for them to develop special relationships like this to places. He touched the lives of many in the adventure travel industry. It’s no coincidence that I got my first job in adventure travel just a few short weeks after returning from my first Grand Canyon river trip. In a way, I can credit Martin Litton for the call of adventure that drew me out of the dark basement of a local newspaper building and onto whatever path has kept me here.
We’ve received several remembrances from ATTA members over the past two weeks and reading them all will give you the best sense of who Martin Litton was and why his loss cannot go without impact on our industry:
- O.A.R.S. founder and president George Wendt said “Martin was an amazing guy and the entire Grand Canyon community owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for the vital conservation work he did…” Read more on the O.A.R.S. blog: “The Legacy of Martin Litton.”
- ATTA storyteller Cameron Martindell wrote “A Game-Changer: Martin Litton” for the Mountain Gazette.
- The editors of Outside magazine published this remembrance, saying “… in that vein Litton delivered his greatest contribution to society—not a tangible thing that you can touch or see, but the preservation of the Grand Canyon itself.”
- Outside’s Kevin Fedarko was also interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered about Litton. Fedarko’s book the Emerald Mile profiled Litton.
Feel free to leave your own remembrance of Martin Litton in the comments to this article.