Photos from Katie Lee's 1955 and 1956 demonstrating the 'fisheye" position on Norm Nevill's Mexican Hat Expedition boats. Katie worked her her way on the trips as a musician. All photos used with permission,©Katie Lee, 2013
Getting All Wet With Norm Nevills as portrayed by author and columnist Ernie Pyle
In each of the little settlements of the Navajo country there is usually one white family that stands out. One such family was the Nevills, of Mexican Hat, Utah. It was Norman Nevills who kept the newspapers in hot water for more than a month in the summer of 1938, with his expedition down the treacherous Colorado River. The party was forty-two days making the six hundred sixty miles from Green River, Utah, to Boulder Dam; for weeks they were supposedly "lost." But they came through, and if you've ever shot a rapids with Norman Nevills you'll understand why.
There were two families of Nevills at Mexican Hat - Norman and his wife and little girl in one house, and his parents in another. The elder Nevills was a California oil engineer. He had arrived in this majestically bare part of Utah in 1920, and had been there ever since. He was in poor health; he said that even to say a few words exhausted him.
Norman and his mother ran the Indian trading post, and a tasteful little lodge where they put up occasional wayfarers. But to Norman, those things were sidelines. The river was his main life. He was a college graduate from California, and had studied engineering. They'd had a lot of money at one time, but shot it all in oil, and didn't get it back. Norman was glad, now, for otherwise he might never have stayed at Mexican Hat so long, and today he loved it there above any other place in the world.
He was, I would say, not much over thirty. He spoke some Navajo, and dickered impatiently with the Indians who brought in rugs to trade for supplies. His mother said he offered the Indians too little. He said she offered them too much. But the Indians must have liked it, for they were always hanging around.
Norman had been playing with the rapids of the San Juan River for years. But it was the expedition of 1938 that was likely to provide him a livelihood for many years. It publicized him as a river guide, and it was from the river, mainly, that he made his living. His schedule was full for the summer, and far into the fall.
What he did was take summer parties on an eight-day boat ride from Mexican Hat, on the San Juan, clear down to Lee's Ferry, on the Colorado. He charged sixty-two dollars and a half a person for the eight-day trip, and that included grub, a cook, sleeping bags, a long taste of the simple outdoor life, much scenery, and many thrills. On the ninth day he pulled his boats from the water, loaded them on trailers, and in one hard day's driving over rough Navajo roads was back again at Mexican Hat. And on the tenth day he would be headed downriver again with a new party. "See the desert by water" was his slogan.
Norman told some whoppers about the force of the rapids, and I believed them all. For instance, he used to wear a stocking cap on the river to keep his hair from flying. But once, in particularly bad rapids, the water came over the whole boat with such terrific force that it pulled the stocking cap right down over his face, clear to his neck, and he couldn't see a thing.
He said he had never overturned a boat. In all these years the river had never nicked him, but he had an intensely respectful fear of it.
The greatest aviators I know are those who are always a little afraid; they're the ones I like to fly with. And so it was with Nevills, and the river he loved and feared. We were a little skittish about riding with Nevills. "I wonder if this guy can really row a boat?" my traveling friend asked, the night before. Before another twenty-four hours we knew damn well he could row a boat - and how!
We were up early. Nevills was up ahead of us, overalled and dirty, smearing black tar on the boat bottom with his hands. "I don't think it will leak much," he said. It was a fifteen-foot plywood rowboat, very thin. We lifted it onto a trailer, and drove twenty miles north, to where the road crossed Comb Wash. Then we headed the car right down the dry stream bed, dodging rocks, until at last we bumped up to the shore of the San Juan River. We put the boat in the water, and we two passengers put on life jackets. By river, it was nineteen and a half miles back to Mexican Hat. Nevills said we would make it in five to six hours.
There are many odd things about boating on a river full of rapids. The very first is that you float down backwards—in other words, stern-to. This is so the oarsman can sit facing forward and see where he's going. Also, the boat takes it better.
Nevills took off his shirt before we started. He was a smallish man, but his muscles were powerful and steely, from much rowing. The first thing I knew, we were floating sideways. And, although the waves were a couple of feet high, we seemed to rock across them like a blob of oil. "In small waves, we always go sideways," Nevills said. "That way we don't smack the waves, and don't get so much water aboard. But when they get bigger, we have to switch around stern-to, or the boat would swamp."
For the first couple of hours the rapids we went through were small. To be sure, they looked bad enough to a novice. But we handled them so simply that my friend and I were disappointed.
It was beautiful to watch Nevills handle the boat - just fishing around, easing the boat through the big waves like an eel. Often we would go into a rapids stern-to, switch sideways in the middle, and come out into smooth water bow-to. Water oozed in through the seams of the boat, and soon we were wet. Every fifteen minutes or so one of us would bail with a tin can. "This boat can't leak," Nevills said, "but it's sure doing a good job of going through the motions, isn't it?" On dry land, that would have been a swell joke.
The hours went on. Nevills told us river tales. And always, as he gracefully oared that little boat through the rushing waves and around hidden rocks, he would sing or whistle. I think he must have made up his songs as he went along, for I'd never heard any of them before.
The riverbank rose gradually, and before long we were riding along between canyon walls a quarter of a mile high—frightening, forbidding cliffs of solid rock that would have been impossible to climb. Eating lunch on a rock ledge in those narrows, we were a little apprehensive, and kept our eyes on the boat. It was tied to a small jutting rock of the canyon wall. If it had broken loose, we sure would have been in a pickle. The ledge was cut off by canyon wall behind, and deep, rushing river in front.
It was just a little after noon when Nevills rowed over to a sandy beach, jumped out, and tied it up. "This is Eight-Foot Rapids around the bend," he said. "Hear it? It's bad. We'll walk down and see how it looks today." The personality of rapids changes from day to day, it seems.
It developed that Nevills didn't expect to take us through this rapids with him; we'd have to walk around, and he'd pick us up farther along. We walked down. The rapids didn't look bad to me. Nevills studied them, and finally said, "I guess maybe I could take one of you." I wanted the experience, and since I was the smaller of the two passengers, it was agreed that I could go. We left my friend alongside the rapids, and Nevills and I walked back to the boat. He really did a build-up on Eight-Foot Rapids. He said lots of boats had been lost there. He put on his own life jacket, for the first time. He told me just how to sit.
We got all ready to go. And then I learned something else - that it's a custom and a tradition among rivermen, just before shooting a big rapids, to—how shall I put it? - to go to the gentlemen's room. We honored the tradition.
I was excited and eager as our little boat eased off from shore and the swift current caught it. We were around the bend in a few seconds. Going through was just like having an automobile accident. It was a blur—over so quickly I never caught any details at all. I only know that even right in the middle of it, I was let down, for it wasn't bad at all.
Our friend walked on down to us, and we started on. I'm afraid we disappointed Nevills, for two or three times he said, "I'm telling you, twenty-five per cent of the people who make this trip are scared speechless." And later he said, "You two are the only newspapermen who have ever shot rapids on either the San Juan or the Colorado. The rest are scared." Maybe I'm making this sound as if we were too brave. Just wait.
The afternoon was tame. The sun grew hotter, and the rapids down below were milder. For long stretches we floated on smooth water. We all got sleepy. Finally we came to the bluff above which sits Mexican Hat. Nevills started calling, hoping his family would hear and send the car and trailer down for us to the landing, another mile downstream. He yelled a weird, half-musical "Moo-hoo!" over and over again. And then he sang little nautical chanteys, made up as he went along. "Three men in a boat, yo ho, sailors three. Ahoy, we're home. Come and get us."
"We're almost there," he said to us. "Just one more little rapids, if you want to call it a rapids. Gyp Creek. Doesn't amount to anything."
We were bored with small rapids by now. We hardly paid any attention. We hurt from five hours of sitting on a board seat. It had been a swell day, but we were ready to quit.
And suddenly we saw what we were in for. Nevills saw it at the same time, but it was too late. Gyp Creek rapids, usually placid, had turned into a maelstrom. We were caught, and going like the wind. The roar ahead of us was terrifying. The sand-laden waves reared up ahead of us like a painting of a furious sea. Nevills was magnificent. He didn't sing this time—he was working too fast. He turned us, switched us, played the boat through those waves as though he was fingering piano keys. But we hit a hole. It was a terrific smack, like dropping down a roller-coaster and then ramming a blank wall. The water came over our heads in a great swoop. Boy, it was cold! It knocked off the dashboard in front of us, which was fastened on with long screws. It threw us off balance, but we held on.
The boat came up a third full of water, and logy. We grabbed the cans and started bailing. Nevills jerked off his sun helmet and bailed with it, a gallon at a time. We were soaked to our ears. But we were joyous, elated. We felt as though someone had handed us a million dollars. What a dramatic surprise! And what an end to a perfect day!
Within two minutes we were at the little landing. The water squished deliciously in our shoes as we stepped onto the safe white sand.
Wonder if that guy can really row a boat? we had thought the night before. Haw, haw, haw! Could he row a boat? By the Horny-handed Oarsman on the River known as Styx, that guy could row a boat!
From: Home Country, by Ernie Pyle pg. 397 - 401
About the author: Ernest Taylor Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was an American journalist who was known for his columns as a roving correspondent from 1935 for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, especially during World War II, when he reported both from Europe and the Pacific, until his death in combat on a Pacific island. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944.