Team to trace pioneering Grand Canyon journey

A team of historians and scientists is embarking on what is thought to be the first attempt to recreate a pioneering trip through the Grand Canyon

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A team of historians and scientists is embarking on what is thought to be the first attempt to recreate a pioneering trip through the Grand Canyon.

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The 280-mile expedition, which will retrace the 1869 passage of US soldier and explorer John Wesley Powell down the Green and Colorado rivers in the American west, is set to start several miles downstream from Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona and is expected to reach Lake Mead by the end of August. Among the nine-strong team is historian and television presenter Dan Snow, geologist Dougal Jerram, ecologist Mike Dilger and maritime historian Sam Willis.

Planning for the current voyage began in January, with the team commissioning replicas of the boats used in the original expedition. A total of 30 people are involved in the project, including safety, support and BBC production teams and representatives from the US National Park Service. The explorers, who are unable to deviate from the river’s course once they have embarked, face challenges including a lack of electricity and the requirement to add nothing to the local environment from outside the area – including food and human waste.

After being on the river since May 1869, Powell entered the canyon in August with eight men and three Whitehall boats, vessels that are notoriously hard to control. In a journey now known as the Powell Geographic Expedition, the American Civil War veteran successfully navigated an area of the US long thought too dangerous to explore. Although the fate of some of the party is uncertain, Powell and five other men are thought to have ended the journey at a site now covered by Lake Mead at the end of the month.

Dougal Jerram, who spoke to BBC History Magazine a week before the trip, said: “It’s amazing that, even after the American Civil War, the Grand Canyon remained ‘unexplored’ (as it was labelled on US deputy surveyor RP Kelley’s 1860 map). It will be my first visit there, and what a way to travel back through time, following the journey that opened this natural wonder to the world. The whole trip promises to be a geological rollercoaster: it’s a great tale of exploration, history and science, and one that everyone should know about.”

Sam Willis said: “Following in the wake of such intrepid men is daunting. At least we now know there aren’t 300-foot high waterfalls to negotiate, but we will still be challenged at every step: we have no idea how these boats will work in the rapids. It is enormously exciting to be part of this inter-disciplinary team because the results that you can get when scientists, historians and ecologists work together is always hugely rewarding.”

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We’ll have more updates as the project develops; check back this page in the coming weeks for the latest news