Skip to content

Posts from the ‘heritage’ Category

The Original Westerley: Dude, it’s finally back.

ColoradoManager&signYou may know it as The Dude’s cardigan or the Big Lebowski sweater, but we debuted the Westerley cardigan in 1974 as part of our High Grade Westernwear line.

Original History

The Westerley drew inspiration from beautiful Cowichan sweaters that are hand-knit by Pacific Northwest tribes. Our version was machine-knitted by Winona Knitting Mills of Minnesota, a two-facility company owned by the Woodworth family. Winona Mills was one of the very few USA knitting mills who offered a 2gg knit, a term meaning only two knit stitches per inch. A 2gg sweater is heavy enough to work as outerwear. As the long-time leader of our menswear division expressed it, “You could wear it in a monsoon, and you’d stay warm.”

The vintage Westerley was knit in 3gg, and it was almost as impressive as the 2gg for thickness and warmth. The Westerley was one cozy sweater. We offered it in the western, outdoor and casual lines for over ten years. Over its run of production, the zip front, ring zipper pull and shawl collar stayed the same, as did the Greek key-inspired pattern. Archival visits show that the Westerley’s color variations are surprisingly wide.

The sweater went out of production in the 1980s, but found the limelight in the early 2000s, thanks to an obscure movie that didn’t stay obscure.

The Big Lebowski

This Coen brothers film was released to low to middling success in 1998, but quietly grew into a cult favorite. No one can pinpoint the exact reason why. Was it Donny’s clueless questions? Walter’s chin-strap beard? The German nihilists? The dream sequence scored by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition?

Well, it was probably a grand confluence of all of these important factors, plus the masterful turn taken by Jeff Bridges as The Dude. He staggers in and out of trouble, wearing alternately sweats, shorts, pajama pants, a bathrobe, a purple t-shirt and a battered Westerley cardigan.

Jeff Bridges wore his own clothes for this role, and though there were two sweaters hand-knitted as back-ups, he preferred wearing his personal Pendleton Westerley.

“The Big Lebowski” continues to grow as a cultural phenomenon. It’s not a movie anymore, it’s a lifestyle. Its fans, the Achievers, have conventions and their own documentary. And as the movie’s audience has grown, so has the demand for a re-creation of The Dude’s sweater.

The First Revivals

Pendleton’s first run at reproducing the “Big Lebowski sweater” came in the Fall of 2011. The Dude Cardigan was not an exact replica. It had the weight and coloration of the original Westerley, with a slightly different knit pattern and a leather zipper pull. This homage sweater generated an enormous amount of publicity, especially because the sweater worn by Jeff Bridges in the movie was going to auction that same year. The provenance of the auction sweater came into question and it was withdrawn from auction. Pendleton’s version sold out almost immediately.

New Dude

In Fall 2013, we brought back the sweater in the original 3gg knit under the Westerley name. We went to the archives, and settled on two versions: a cream with red and black pattern, and a desert brown version with navy and gold pattern.


We offered the Westerley in another archival coloration in charcoal and blue early in the fall of 2014.  These were all great Westerleys. They were archivally accurate, beautifully made and selling well to fans of traditional menswear. We stand behind these Westerleys!

But this was not the sweater the Achievers wanted, and the Achievers would not be denied.

The Original Westerley

Well, it’s here. We have researched the archives and studied the movie to capture the coloration as best we can for our newest version, known as The Original Westerley.


This is 100% lambswool in 3gg knit, and it’s ready to take you through your next monsoon, or maybe to your next Lebowskifest. We’ve even restored the ring zipper pull, to which we’ve attached a small bowling pin keychain. We think it really pulls the sweater together.

The Dude abides. And so does his sweater. Come see us in our stores (see Ben, the manager of our Colorado store, above), or order online before they’re gone.


Jackson Sundown and the Pendleton Round-Up

Note: In honor of the Pendleton Round-Up, we’re sharing an older post about Jackson Sundown, who is one of the great riders of the American West. We’re adding new photos to make the read worth your while. Let’er Buck!


The Pendleton Round-up  is going on right now—an amazing rodeo adventure in Pendleton, Oregon, celebrating its 102nd year. Our designers travel there for inspiration, entertainment, and to watch our westernwear in action on rodeo competitors and fans. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a video titled “Pendleton Round-Up: The Wild West Way”  that’s well worth watching, and Cowboys & Indians magazine has some great background.

Among the historic images, you’ll see this shot:

This is Roy Bishop and Jackson Sundown posing at the Pendleton Round-Up. This image actually made the fashion blogs in 2009, when recreations of Roy Bishop’s fringed coat and Jackson Sundown’s oval-print shirt were part of Pendleton’s Centennial offering. But the story is about more than fashion history. This photo is about rodeo history.

The association of Pendleton Woolen Mills and the Round-Up goes back to the very beginning, when along with his brothers Clarence and Chauncey, Roy Bishop established the first mill at its current location in Pendleton, Oregon. The brothers combined their production and retailing expertise with an idled mill, a river, and fine fleece provided by local wool growers. Back then, PWM was a blanket company. Our first and most valued customer was the Native American, and the Bishop brothers worked hard to fill the strong demand (we still sell approximately 60% of our blankets to Native customers every year).

The Bishops were key to the conception of the first Round-Up. Rodeos are big business now, and they were big business then. It was an undertaking to get to a rodeo, especially for a working cowboy. The Round-Up needed something special to draw the crowd. It was unheard-of to include Native Americans to a Western rodeo, but Roy Bishop rode out to meet tribal leaders and invite their participation. He was politely received and quietly listened to, but he left without receiving a definite answer.

The rodeo’s starting date approached, and still he waited. On the morning before the rodeo began, Roy stepped out on the mill’s loading dock. In the distance, he had his answer when he saw the dust of the tribes as they made their way to the Indian campground. The cooperation between the Columbia Basin tribes and the Pendleton Round-up, unique among modern rodeos, continues to this day.

So what about the other person in this photo?

Jackson Sundown was born Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn in 1863 in Montana. During the Nez Perce war of 1877, he rode with Sitting Bull, retreating to Canada with the Sioux. He eventually returned to Washington, then to Idaho, then to Montana, supporting himself by working, breeding and breaking horses.

In 1912, at the age of 49, Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn began entering rodeo events in Canada and Idaho using the name Jackson Sundown. The crowds went wild when he tied his braids under his chin, lifted his sombrero and started the ride, his wooly angora chaps streaming.

He took so many prizes that other riders refused to challenge him. Stock owners pulled their animals when they saw his name on the list of possible riders, as after Jackson Sundown rode a horse, it might be so thoroughly mastered that it never bucked again.

Jackson Sundown entered the Pendleton Round-Up several times, placing but not winning. In 1915, in a controversial decision, he placed third and decided to retire from rodeo riding. But a sculptor named Alexander Phimister Proctor prevailed upon him to try one more time. In 1916, he did. Jackson Sundown came out of the gate on a horse named Angel, and the spectacular ride that followed has become legendary. The crowd went wild, and threatened to take down the grandstands board-by-board if Sundown wasn’t awarded the title he had so clearly won.

At twice the age of his competitors, the lanky six-foot tall Indian not only won the bucking championship, but the all-around title as well. He lived out his life on the Nez Perce reservation, raising horses and passing on his skills until his death in 1923. He’s been inducted into more rodeo and athletic halls-of-fame than I have space to list. He is a key character in a novel by Ken Kesey, The Last Go ‘Round.

Jackson Sundown is also featured in a terrific documentary called “American Cowboys.” This is a detailed look at the frustration of competitive riding for contestants of color. It was playing at the Tamastslikt Cultural Center just outside Pendleton, which is a fantastic place to learn about the history of the tribes of the Columbia Basin. It may or may not be part of their permanent installation, but this documentary includes footage of Sundown riding. Sadly, photographs of him riding rare; this may be the only one.

It is sad that a man who possessed such incredible skills in horsemanship isn’t memorialized while sitting a horse. But there are plenty images of Jackson Sundown that show just how much he understood the role of wardrobe in a great performance. Chaps, hat, and that aloof expression. Jackson Sundown had it all, a fact well-illustrated by this logo for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Yes, that is Jackson Sundown.

So today, in honor of the Pendleton Round-Up, please enjoy these images of Jackson Sundown; Nez Perce warrior, compatriot of Sitting Bull, bronc rider, horse breeder, main character, documentary subject, fashion blog icon, Round-Up Champion and Inductee into the Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

And a true proponent of individual style.








Pendleton Wool Decade Shirts for Women: Steal His Shirt

Women have been carrying on a love affair with men’s style since the 1940s.

1940s teenager in Pendleton wool shirt. We won't apologize for the cigarette, because everyone smoked in the 1940s, including doctors while they performed surgery.

Call it Boyfriend Style, call it Menswear-Inspired, call it dressing like boys or whatever you want to. Women have always loved wearing male-inspired fashion and men’s garments. Especially, it seems, men’s Pendleton wool shirts.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Comey Boots

Boyfriend style is hot right now, but it’s not new. The Pendleton 49’er grew directly from this trend. To quote our blog post on this iconic jacket:

Pendleton’s success with men’s shirts had happened twenty years earlier, but during WWII, men were not the only people enjoying distinctive plaids and ombres in pure virgin wool. Women began to borrow men’s work shirts for both work and warmth.

1940s women in Pendleton wool shirts. The fetching ax-wielder on the right looks like Mad men's Peggy Olson AKA Elizabeth Moss, doesn't she?

 It’s possible that by wearing their husband’s shirts, women kept the memories of their husbands, fiancés and brothers close, though many undoubtedly needed some serious work wear that was simply not available for women at the time. Whatever the reason, women loved Pendleton shirts.

We answered this love by introducing the Pendleton 49’er jacket in (you guessed it) 1949. (As an aside, how much does the woman on the right resemble Peggy Olson?)

Women loved the 49’er, but continued to raid men’s closets. Here are two 1950s icons of femininity, rocking their Pendletons.

Marilyn Monroe in a Pendleton wool shirt.

Jayne Mansfield in a Pendleton wool Board shirt. With chihuahuas. Cooking breakfast, because that's how all chihuahua owners cook their eggs.

These photos of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield offer a clue as to why Boyfriend Style was so popular in the 1950s.  It was associated with relaxation, home, comfort, ease, the outdoors. It probably offered them a break from their sexpot styling, though this Life magazine series of Jayne Mansfield cooking breakfast in a Pendleton shirt still manages to radiate her kittenish allure.


(As another aside, clearly Jayne inspired today’s selfie-pout).

The desire to steal his shirt didn’t end in the 1950s. Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall style showed up in the 1970s, creating a wave of skinny-tie-and-vest wearers. Women tucked shoulder pads under the bigger shoulders of men’s shirts and jackets and belted them tightly to create the signature silhouette of the 1980s. The 2000s brought the rise of thrifted style. Countless women reworked shrunken men’s Pendletons into their looks. And when we introduced our Fitted line, market intelligence informed us that a surprising amount of these slimmer-cut shirts were selling to women. Women still love wearing Pendleton men’s shirts.

When we decided to celebrate our Nine Decades of Pendleton Wool Shirts, we knew that women would want to celebrate this milestone, too. So we developed three Decade Shirts for women using plaids from our archives.


Three styles, five fabrics, all available at The Prineville is a popover with a 3/4 placket. The Ranch Hand is based on our Men’s Canyon model, the original High Grade Westernwear shirt. The Ponderosa uses our beautiful Sir Pendleton worsted fabric, meaning there’s almost a mile of yarn in every shirt.


To finish things nicely, because we love to do that, each shirt has a special Decade Shirt label in the placket. We wanted to give you everything you love in our Men’s shirts with Women’s more fitted shaping.

Here are the Decade Shirts for Women in action.

Photo by Lauren Field

You can see the special Decade label in the shot above. Copyright 2014, Lauren Field All rights reserved by Pendleton Woolen Mills

03930003Copyright 2014, Lauren Field All rights reserved by Pendleton Woolen Mills

photo by Blaire Russel

Copyright 2014, Blaire Russel All rights reserved by Pendleton Woolen Mills

photos by Travis Hallmark

Copyright 2014, Travis Hallmark All rights reserved by Pendleton Woolen Mills

Our Decade Shirts for women celebrate our past and inspire our future. But even so, we know from experience that you’ll continue to steal his shirt.

Macklemore: a Northwest Artist with Pendleton Wool

Macklemore is originally from Seattle, WA. Maybe that’s why his videos use Pendleton wool  letting us act as a signifier for the west and the wilderness.  We’re glad he hasn’t forgotten his Pacific Northwest roots.



The train seats are upholstered with our Canyonlands fabric, and bring to mind the Portland Express run by AMTRAK last year. The blanket on the camel (okay, so maybe we don’t get that one, either) is one that benefits the American Indian College Fund called the Earth blanket. These are both great songs, but we’re still partial to his first big hit, which also celebrates a Portland passion; going to the thrift store. We don’t have anything in this one, but hey, don’t you love finding Pendleton when you’re thrifting?


The Decade Shirts: Nine Decades of Pendleton Wool Shirts

The Pendleton Decade Shirts for men celebrate our ninety years of shirt making using re-creations of fabrics from each decade. We went deep into the archives to find the wool shirt fabric that best expressed the men’s fashion ethos of each decade, and here’s what we chose. Pendleton wool shirt 9 decade wool shirt fabric

We used these special fabrics  in your favorite Pendleton shirt styles; those that have stood the test of time, just like a Pendleton should. That includes the Gambler, a western shirt that first debuted in the 1930s.

January 1959 vintage pendleton wool shirt ad

And Sir Pendleton, which is turning sixty next year.

Sir pendleton wool shirt advertising vintage


We are offering the Lodge, Trail, Epic, Guide, even the Zephyr shirt from early in the 2000s. And the Board Shirt is offered twice, including a labeled version of the shirt made famous by the Beach Boys in their Surfer Girl days.

Photo of Beach Boys

If you want to make sure you’re getting a Decade Shirt, check the front placket. You see a special label there, letting you know you’re getting the goods.

pendleton wool shirt label

And here they are: all the shirts and all the fabrics and all the styles and all the decades.

Pendleton wool shirts

Of course, there are nine decades and ten shirts. The tenth is the numbered limited edition Guide Shirt, that you can read about here.  All the shirts are currently available at pendleton-usa, and in most of our retail stores.

We are fairly certain that there’s a shirt for every man in that assortment. But quality shirts are not just for men. We marked the Nine Decades with some beautiful Pendleton wool shirts for women, which we will talk about next week.

In the meantime, ladies, just steal his shirt.



The Limited Edition Guide Shirt: 9 Decades of Pendleton Wool Shirts

Limited Edition Guide Shirt for 2014 by Pendleton, photo by Taylor Painter

This fall, we’re offering a limited edition Guide shirt in an edition of 1863. Why 1863? Because, of course, that’s when our weaving legacy’s founder, Thomas Kay, arrived in Oregon. We made the shirt in an amber and brown ombre plaid that appears to be straight out of the Pendleton archives, but was developed just for this year. Each shirt has a hand-numbered label:


This shirt model first appeared in our 1927 men’s shirt line. Back then it was called The Buckaroo. Thanks to the Pendleton archives, here’s a look at the Buckaroo’s debut (you can click to enlarge):


Yes, we understand that it looks comical to the modern eye to have a man going hunting wearing a bowtie and trilby. Perhaps sportsmen really were that much more dapper in 1927.


He also oddly resembles Peter Sellers, but this was long before Inspector Clouseau’s time.

But back to the Buckaroo. As a manufacturer of Native American trade blankets, Pendleton Woolen Mills was (and still is) headquartered in the west.  It made sense to capitalize on America’s fascination with all things western in the early part of the last century, so our garments were named accordingly. But despite the rodeo name, the Buckaroo was meant to be worn in a variety of settings. The dressiness of the shirt depended on the fabric, not the cut; plaids for hunting, solids for fishing, and broadcloth solids or stripes for “dress-up.” The plaids/solid demarcation is a bit baffling. Were the plaids better for forest camouflage? Would plaids startle the fish? Despite these marketing mysteries, America responded to this shirt line with enthusiasm. The Pendleton wool shirt became a wardrobe staple.

Pendleton wool shirt, Taylor Painter photography

Of course, you become a part of this history every time you choose a Pendleton shirt. The limited Edition Guide Shirt is available at and other retailers. Enjoy some special shots of this shirt taken by Portland photographer Taylor Painter, who you should immediately follow on Instagram.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

90 years of Shirtmaking: the Taxonomy of Pendleton Shirts

We’re celebrating nine decades! yes, that’s right. We have been making men’s wool shirts for ninety years. The Pendleton shirt story starts in 1924, when the Bishop family decided to enlarge their business from trade and bed blankets into men’s apparel.

To quote

In 1924, a man could have a wool shirt in any color he wanted – as long as it was grey. Wool shirts were utilitarian items; warm, durable, an excellent first line in the defense against the elements. They were uniformly drab. Of course, all that was about to change.

At Pendleton Woolen Mills, Clarence Morton Bishop envisioned a different kind of fabric for a man’s wool shirt. Pendleton’s sophisticated weaving capabilities were producing vibrant Indian trade blankets. Why not bring that same weaving and color know-how to flannel shirting?

He wrote to his father, Charles Pleasant Bishop, “I believe we should add such goods as shirts and hosiery.” C.P. Bishop agreed, replying “I am more and more impressed with the opportunity we have here in Oregon.” While his son investigated production options, C.P. Bishop did the early marketing work. He wrote to his son that “I am impressing it on the minds of my employees and patrons…that we are putting a new fabric on the market, something better than other mills can or will make.”

After much weaving experimentation and hard work, Pendleton’s innovative Umatilla shirting fabric rolled off the loom. The rich colors in Pendleton’s woolen plaid shirts were completely new to the market in 1924. The positive response was immediate. It has also been enduring.

Ninety years! To celebrate, we’ve released a poster that elaborates on the design features of our most enduring models.  Click for a larger view, though the best view is in person at one of our many retailers.


Here’s the styles you know and love in photos.


Fall 2014 brings our Decade shirts, each made a style and fabric that represents a decade of Pendleton shirtmaking. We will be taking a closer look at those in the next few weeks. But for now, it’s kind of awesome to sit back and consider how many Pendleton wool shirts we’ve put on the backs of men over the last ninety years. Thank you for your loyalty, and here’s to the next decade!

Before they were the Beach Boys, they were the Pendletones.

ed. note: Happy Summer! This post originally ran a few years ago, but with the weather like it is, we hope you’ll enjoy it again today.

In the early 1960s, a group called The Pendletones adopted their name in honor of the surf uniform of the day: Pendleton shirts worn over tee shirts with khakis. The original lineup included brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine.

The Pendletones soon changed their name to the Beach Boys . Even though only one member of the group had ever been on a surfboard, they sang about the California surfing scene; waves, sunshine, cars and girls. This might have been simple subject matter, but layered instrumentation and soaring harmonies made these songs anything but simple. Under the unique artistic leadership of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys defined surf music. And though their name changed, their uniform didn’t. The band wore this blue and charcoal plaid shirt on the covers of 45s and LPs throughout the early 1960s.

The Beach Boys’ Pendleton shirts were part an existing trend. When surfing came to California in the late 1950s, surfers devised performance wear: swim trunks and plaid Pendleton shirts over a layer of Vaseline. Surfers wore the same shirts over light pants on the shore, and a fashion trend was born.

This look hit the radio airwaves courtesy of the Majorettes, whose song, “White Levis” became a number one hit in 1963. As the lyrics said, “My boyfriend’s always wearin’ white Levi’s…and his tennis shoes and his surfin’ hat and a big plaid Pendleton shirt.”

That’s a Pendleton shirt  cover of that 45, even though they named the song after the pants. You can give it a listen here, and don’t be surprised if you start singing along.  But let’s get back to the shirt made so popular by the Beach Boys.

In 2002, Pendleton celebrated eight decades of Pendleton shirts by bringing back iconic shirts from each decade. To celebrate the 1960s, we brought back the Board Shirt in the same plaid seen on all those record covers. We officially named it the Blue Beach Boys Plaid.

The shirt has stayed in the line ever since. We’ve used it in caps, hats, bags and jackets. It’s still made in the original 100% virgin Umatilla wool as it was back then, but we’ve interpreted it in rayon for campshirts and cotton for sleepwear.

We have done a few colorations of the plaid. Whether it’s in blue, coral,  rust or olive,  the pattern is easily recognizable.

Because of its strong ties to surfing history and culture, this pattern was used in key collaborations with Hurley and VANS in the late 2000s.

There is a discussion now and then in Pendleton’s Menswear division about which is our most enduring men’s item of all time. Some say it’s the Topster, the shirt jacket that defined collegiate wear in the 1950s and 60s. Some say it’s the Westerley cardigan worn by the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Others claim the honor for the Beach Boys Board Shirt.

This shirt is almost as beloved as the band that made it famous! It’s one of our top-sellers each year, regularly chosen by winners of the wool shirt giveaways we have on our Menswear Facebook page, and still worn by surfers, boarders, musicians, sons and fathers. The shirt is still going strong, and so are the Beach Boys. The band is currently out on tour, and they still love Pendleton.

Patriotic Blankets for July 4th

We have woven many blankets that celebrate American patriotism over the years, from the Grateful Nation and Code Talker blankets that celebrate the contributions of our veterans, to retired blankets like Chief Eagle and Home of the Brave.

Here are two beautiful blankets that summon the patriotic spirit of this Independence Day.

Dawn’s Early Light:


“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light.” These words were penned on the back of an envelope in 1814 by young lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key. Key was held captive on a Royal Navy ship as British ships in Chesapeake Bay bombarded Fort McHenry throughout the night. When dawn broke, the fort was still standing, the American flag still waving. It was a turning point in the war of 1812, and the birth of our national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner.” This blanket, woven in our American mills, commemorates the Bicentennial of that momentous morning in U.S. history. Fifteen red and white stripes and stars represent those on the flag at that time. Each star is shaped like an aerial view of the fort, which was built in the shape of a five-pointed star. Striations and imprecise images give the design a vintage Americana look.

Brave Star:

Brave_StarThis contemporary interpretation of the American flag is a celebration of the patriotism of Native Americans. In 1875 Indian Scouts carried messages from fort to fort in the West. Native American soldiers saw action with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. And soldiers from many tribes battled in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Iraq. Five Native Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery “above and beyond the call of duty.” The design marries modern asymmetry and vintage Americana. The unique striations, using pulled out yarns, reflect an era when dyes were made from plants.

Have a great Fourth!


Night in the Canyon by Greg Hatten

Enjoy this, out third and last guest post from Greg–for this trip, anyway.

Nighttime in the Grand Canyon adds another dimension to darkness for me.

1_Nate_PickensPhoto by Nate Pickens

Towering walls rise up almost a mile above the Colorado River to touch the night sky, soft sand wraps around our sleeping bags in a warm embrace, and the river of darkness between the canyon cliffs overhead is filled with so many bright stars that most nights, the ground is visible without the aid of a flashlight.  Darkness in the Grand Canyon is filled with light, and my favorite light comes from the campfire after dinner.


Photo by Nate Pickens

We throw another log onto the bed of half-spent coals in the fire pan, sink deep into our camp chairs…and take a long breath.  No rapids to scout, no river to run, no boats to wrangle.

The banter is lively as we replay the day – the heroic runs, the botched lines, and the close calls.  Laughter and teasing settles into quiet conversation and reflection as we enjoy the flames of the fire and each other’s presence.  Together, we unwind from the challenges of the day.  Sometimes the only sound in our circle of camp chairs comes from the flickering fire and the river (and occasionally, snoring from Tony).  We listen to the river every second of every waking hour and we hear it in our sleep.  Darkness in the canyon is filled with the sounds of the river and laughter from the circle.

When we’re talked out, we fold our chairs, and one by one, leave the warmth of the fire. Sometimes two or three of us take the campfire conversation deeper into the night.  The smoke from the fire follows us to our sleeping bags and tucks us in. Our best and our worst is on display in the stressful situations of the canyon and in the solitude of my bedroll each night, I sort through which of those “won the day” – and then I sleep.

Darkness in the canyon is filled with the smoky smell of a campfire and self reflection.


Photo by Izzy Collett

Brightly colored tents sit below the steep rock walls of the canyon.  Some are scattered between boulders and sagebrush or even clustered in bunches on the sand banks of the river.  They glow with a dreamy light.

Some nights there is a special sound to the darkness as Izzy plays a Native American wood flute while she sits on her boat.  The rich low sounds are from a different time and place.  Authentic music mingles with the smoke trails and travels up the canyon on its way to the stars.

It adds a richness to the experience that I will never forget.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with the haunting sounds of the Anasazi flute.


Photo by Dave Mortenson

In the daylight, my canvas tent blends with the light tan color of the sand.  It’s the same material they used for tents and bags on the 1964 trip we are replicating.  I use the tent when there is a threat of rain or I want a break from the strong winds and blowing sand.

When we’re not in tents, we sleep on the open ground with nothing overhead except the stars in the night-sky.  The distance we hike away from the river to throw our bags down on shore is in direct proportion to the energy we have left at the end of a day spent rowing heavy boats through heavy rapids.  Most of the bags are within 100 feet of the boats on the sand banks above the river.  Some mornings we wake up as part of a sand dune and have to shake our way out of our bags.


Photo by Greg Hatten

Many nights we sleep on the boats.  It’s my favorite place to spend the night.  Down here boats are life… they’re everything.  We row them through the valley of death and they deliver us from evil… repeatedly.  They carry everything we own and faithfully get us to our next campsite at the end of our rowing day.  They “connect” us to the river with a bond that’s hard to explain.  We love our boats.

6_John_SchroederPhoto by John Schroeder

All covered up in our warm blankets, we peek out in the dark and occasionally see a falling star in the night sky as the water gently slaps the sides of the boat and the river rocks us to sleep.  On “two-blanket” nights it’s cold enough to see our breath – which makes the blankets feel even warmer and the boats seem even cozier.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with cold cheeks, cold noses and gently rocking boats.


Marble Canyon Tunnel – Photo by Robb Grubb

The darkest dark I found in the canyon wasn’t on the boats at night.  It was in an exploratory tunnel drilled deep in the side of Marble Canyon where construction had begun in the 1950s on one of the last proposed dam projects in the west.

A couple of us tied off our boats on river left and scrambled up the loose shale to the mouth of the tunnel – a hundred feet above the river.  From that elevated vantage point, the canyon looked spectacular.  I tried to imagine a dam in this special spot and couldn’t.  We turned from the river, climbed over the railroad ties and boulders guarding the entrance, and crawled through a portal into the heart of the Marble Canyon wall.


Marble Canyon Entry – Photo by Robb Grubb

Twenty feet in and we were covered in darkness.  Real deep dark heavy darkness…. an eerie black quiet darkness… and I thought of orcs, and goblins, and the Lord of the Rings.  We turned on a laser light, splashed our way through the puddles on the packed-dirt floor and tripped over loose rocks that had fallen in the narrow passageway.  Walking with an awkward stoop, we finally reached the end of the tunnel several hundred feet from the entrance.  For a moment we turned off the light and just stood there listening to “drip…drip…drip” coming from the dank ceiling and falling to the floor somewhere in the blackness.  For the first time in days we couldn’t hear the river – it was silenced by the tunnel and it was deafening.

We shimmied back out the portal, slid down the shale pile back to our boats and spent a quiet afternoon rowing through the beautiful rose colored walls of Marble Canyon.


Marble Canyon – Photo by John Schroeder

That night, I reflected again about what the trip in 1964 meant to river runners like us.  That trip and those guys made a huge impact by shining a bright light on the beauty of the canyon.  Their pictures, their videos, and their words inspired millions of people to take a closer look at the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and for the first time, many of them saw this place as much more than just a source for water.

The darkness in the canyon is filled with passion.



Last of the Three Part Series by Greg Hatten


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 142 other followers