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Dodging wolves, weather and strong waves, former Columbus resident Bryan Brown recently kayaked 2,400 miles in just over three months in the historic wake of John Wesley Powell, who made a similar, but shorter trip, in 1869.
Brown, 57, placed his kayak into the water June 1 at Green River Lakes, Wyo., and traveled down the Green River until it meets the Colorado River, southwest of Moab, Utah.
He then followed the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon and lakes Meade and Powell, to the Mexican border near Yuma, Ariz. Afterward, he flew and drove to Grand Lake, Colo., where the upper Colorado River begins, and followed that part of the river until he again reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers near Moab on Sept. 8.
Brown said no one before him had run the Green River and Upper and Lower Colorado rivers in one solo trip.
June 1: Bryan Brown starts his journey in Wyoming at the headwaters of the Green River.
July 4: Brown reaches the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers and heads south toward Mexico.
Aug. 14: Brown reaches the U.S.-Mexican border via the Colorado River. He ends this leg of his journey to travel to Colorado to the river’s upper portion.
Aug. 26: Brown departs from Rocky Mountain National Park, the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Sept. 8: Brown reaches the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers a second time, completing his 2,400-mile journey.
Along the journey, Brown battled blisters, a broken rib and physical and mental exhaustion. And he had another faithful companion, sorrow, as Brown fulfilled a near-lifelong dream to make the trip with his brother, Bruce, who died last year.
At the same time, Brown said, the trip reaffirmed Brown’s love for America and its people, as he received unsolicited help from many people along the way.
Brown grew up in Columbus and was part of Columbus East High School’s first graduating class. He married his high school sweetheart, Sandy Chappell, got degrees in chemistry and English from Indiana University and moved to Houston to work for Exxon Production Research Co., Exxon Mobil’s think tank.
He spent 30 years as a securities analyst on Wall Street, although he lived all that time in the West, including Houston, Dallas and Beverly Hills, Calif., where he and his wife reside today.
At age 15, Brown and his brother, who was 11 at the time, traveled with family to the Grand Canyon. The two enjoyed backpacking and read about Powell’s historic trip. One day, as they sat on the canyon’s South Rim, they made a pact to retrace Powell’s steps.
But life intervened.
Bruce Brown was diagnosed with adult-onset muscular dystrophy, a condition in which muscles progressively weaken. The disease was quite painful at times, Brown said, and to keep his brother’s mind off the pain, he suggested that Bruce plan the journey for the brothers. This was long before the Internet, Brown said, but his younger brother plunged into the research and generated a detailed itinerary.
Brown pursued long-
distance challenges, including hiking the Appalachian Trail and biking across the continental U.S. — but the brothers never made the trip together. When Bruce died last year, Bryan Brown decided to make the trip on his own; although, he carried some of his brothers’ ashes with him.
“It was done as a tribute to a guy that lived an incredibly hard life,” Brown said. “Whenever I reached points that were significant to him, I scattered a pinch of brother Bruce.”
While Brown said the trip was the hardest, by far, he has ever done, it reaffirmed his belief in the country and its people.
“This entire trip was an extraordinary affirmation of life,” he said. “People showed the most extraordinary … kindness I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Brown slept in a light sleeping bag and tent he kept in his kayak. He bought food along the way, walking or hitchhiking to a gas station or grocery store to stock up on peanut butter, pouches of tuna, tortillas or whatever he could get. He also had mailed a couple of boxes of provisions to post offices along the way. And before he launched the trip, he also talked the staff of a Motel 6 along his route to hold a package for him. It took about a month for him to reach that motel.
He had made a cooking stove out of beer cans, but he used it only for the first week as it proved too difficult to find fuel. He never built a fire, he said, because it damages the environment.
He traversed the river on a 10-foot, 2-inch kayak, which, including his gear — air mattress, sleeping bag, medical kit, helmets, backup paddle — weighed about
120 pounds. It had to be lightweight, he said, because he often had to leave the waterway because of dams and other obstacles.
Beyond the physical and emotional toll, the trip also required a lot of patience in requesting permits from federal authorities. Some areas were accessible only to people whose names were drawn in a lottery. Despite repeated attempts, he could not get a permit to kayak in the Grand Canyon area. So for about 240 miles, he had to embark on a commercial raft.
“John Wesley Powell himself could not get this trip done (today) without an accommodation from the National Park Service,” Brown said.
Brown said his kayaking adventures started about 40 years ago in south-central Indiana waterways. Brown and some of his friends also would kayak in Columbus’ Mill Race Park during heavy flooding.
Brown said he generally keeps in good physical condition, but he still lost about eight pounds on the trip, reducing his 5-foot, 10-inch frame to 170 pounds. He also got markedly stronger in the shoulders.
Cut off from communications
For the most part, the waterway is remote. Brown said he had cellular phone connection about 5 percent of the time. At one point, he and his wife did not talk for 12 days.
Sandy Brown said that stretch was about the only time during which she was concerned.
“It was unnerving,” she said. “I just didn’t expect it to be 12 days.”
In general, she said that living in Los Angeles, her concerns about her husband trekking in the wilderness are outweighed by her worries when he goes to the local Home Depot store. In the wilderness, she said, at least he is unlikely to get run over by a car or be exposed to gang violence.
“Generally I didn’t have many reservations,” she said. “He’s a very experienced, very seasoned traveler.”
Brown carried no weapon except a knife with a 3-inch blade, and that only to free himself in case he got wrapped up in rope in the water. He saw many wildlife, including moose, elk, wild horses, bats, foxes, coyotes, cranes, swans, falcons, ospreys, eagles, rattlesnakes and wolves, but he said he never felt threatened by either wildlife or humans.
He also witnessed the awe of nature, especially as he paddled along the shores of Lake Powell.
“The weather is biblical,” he said.
He negotiated wind-blown waves of up to 3 feet. Anything beyond that forced him to take a break. On his worst day, he traveled six miles. On his best, he reached about 60.
His wife said she hardly recognized him when they met along the way for the first time, at a casino in Nevada. She said she saw this old guy sitting there, waving at her, before she realized it was her husband.
He had grown a full beard that was grey and not very tidy, Sandy Brown said, and he looked 20 years older than he really is, she said with a laugh.
In the southern reaches of the watershed, in which Brown said agricultural chemicals are concentrated, his feet got cracked and badly infected to the point where they looked as though they had suffered second-degree burns. A woman he met offered him a ride to where he could get cellphone reception so that he could call his doctor. The doctor phoned in a prescription to a nearby pharmacy, and the woman took Brown back to his kayak. The process took the better part of a day, and yet the woman would not even accept gas money, Brown said.
And that’s just one example of the many instances of “astounding kindness” he received from strangers, he said.
“People want to help. People are inherently nice,” Brown said. “It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.”
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