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The Old Man and the River

Martin Litton has spent his life crusading to keep dams off the Colorado and other Western waterways. At 80, he decided to take up the oars for what could be his last ride through the Grand Canyon.

May 11, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — Water running over rocks,

Normal people don't come here

--Martin Litton On the Grand Canyon

*

No one is likely to insult Martin Litton by calling him normal, average, conventional, reasonable. Not in describing his life, not when considering his ideas. So on this particular workday it is no surprise to find the old man rowing his boat with big, meaty, sunburned, liver-spotted hands: gliding onto a sand beach of the Colorado River beneath the naked cliffs of the canyon, the Grand Canyon--a place so vast and timeless as to mock the ambitions and trifling exploits of all but a very few people.

Martin Litton is one of those few and, in some ways, the most extraordinary of all.

He is 80 years old now, with a lavish belly and a mane of gossamer white hair. In the name of a new and unimaginably audacious conservation campaign and for the sheer wild hell of it, he has just finished rowing a 17-foot dory down 258 placid and furious miles of the Colorado River from Lake Powell to Lake Mead.

Perhaps for the last time.

Champagne corks pop into the afternoon sky, and a fierce smile answers on his leathery face.

As he has been doing for decades, he maneuvered his fragile boat into, and out of, the maelstrom of Colorado River rapids, and he lumbered by foot up the precarious ledges of the side canyons; once again he has come here to renew his enduring love affair with nature, to sleep on the hard ground and to raise his booming, uncompromising voice on behalf of wildness.

Those of us who have trailed along during this 19-day adventure--four journalists, other paying guests, the boatmen and our camp cook--gather around. Sunburned, sore, tired, dirty, bruised and inspired, we cheer.

A scattered few thousand people--river runners, canyoneers, desert rats, tree huggers, romantics and perhaps some of his adversaries, the champions of development--will understand the poignancy of this moment.

For others, a story is warranted. . . . Because Martin Litton is the grand old man of the Colorado River. And one of the most remarkable of 20th century American conservationists.

A Prejudice Against the Old

Let us begin with this generalization: American culture is hard on its old.

By 80, more than half of us are dead. Too many of the survivors dodder, no longer just retirees but classified as The Elderly. Mostly, they are not asked for their wisdom or leadership because they are not regarded as having much of it. The world moves too fast. The young know what is up, not the old.

Yes, a youthful lawyer may look with esteem at the venerable judge, or an aging actress may bring the Academy Awards crowd respectfully to its feet. But running big rivers, scrambling over canyon boulders, sleeping among scorpions, rowing against the howling wind--these are physical endeavors. Lobbying the Congress, courting contributors and journalists, stirring up public fury and arguing the cause of conservation in three places at once--these demand energy and wiliness of a different kind.

"Martin Litton exemplifies a philosophy that life is one great adventure, or nothing at all," says one of our voyagers, Don Frew of Newport News, Va.

Life also carries obligation. This young boy who explored the mountains and canyons of Southern California grew into an indignant young man who wrote letters to the newspaper demanding that natural treasures be left unspoiled. Later, his letters became freelance news features, and he touched off conservationist crusades, including a pioneering campaign against litter.

By midlife, the combination of immovable views and a growing reputation as a Colorado River runner earned Litton special stature. In particular, he motivated idealists with his call to fight and never yield. In later years, when other environmentalists were kicking themselves for the compromises they made, Litton could say, "I told you so."

Because he refused to deal, his influence has always been strongest inside the conservation movement. A voice not of reason but of righteousness. Also, it should be added, a voice that can be cantankerous, brusque, even harsh and irritating. Still, his endorsement, his appearance at the scene of a development flash point, sends a signal of priorities to the larger environmental community.

Insofar as is known, he is the oldest to row himself down the Grand Canyon. Old Bert Loper tried it on his 80th birthday in 1949 but died in a rapid at Mile 24 1/2. His remains were found two decades later.

"Eighty, hell," Litton jokes at the end of a day's rowing, pouring himself a mug of Irish whiskey. "I did it at 79, and nobody said anything. And next year, if I go again, I'll be doing camp chores with everyone else. But 80, big deal. The significance is trivial. People say you're the oldest guy to row the canyon. Well, I've been that for 20 years. How many 60-year-olds do you see doing this?"

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