Georgie White!  

Georgie White!

Colorado River Rapid named for controversial river runner!

November 30, 2001.

 

 

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from a newspaper article:

It's not the roughest or wildest section of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, but after years of debate, Twenty-Four Mile Rapid is now named after Georgie Clark, the renegade whitewater pioneer whose legend continues to swirl nearly a decade after her death. In a split vote, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has approved the name change, memorializing the woman who helped found the float-trip outfitting industry on the Colorado River, thumbing her nose at convention in the process.

"This name change was more of a fight than I ever imagined," said Roz Jirge of California, a friend of Clark's who began the "Georgie Rapid" project with the Grand Canyon River Guides association a year after Clark's death from cancer at age 81 in 1992.

"It's fulfilling for everyone who knew and loved her, but there were a lot of people who hated her guts," said Jirge. "But she deserves this. Whether you liked her or not, she was a part of the history of the Grand Canyon."

Clark's penchant for leopard-print swimsuits, canned-food cookouts, and damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead daring while making a 45-year career of running North America's biggest whitewater became the stuff of legend. She and her "Royal River Rats" raft trips were featured in magazines such as Life, on television programs such as "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," and in countless newspaper stories.

"She was the first woman to run a boat through the Grand Canyon, the first woman outfitter, the first woman to swim the canyon, but she wasn't really into women's lib at all," said friend and fellow outfitter Dee Holladay of Salt Lake City. "She didn't think any other woman could run the river besides her."

For all her notoriety, Clark remains something of a mystery to even those closest to her. Evidence discovered at her home the day of her funeral raised the possibility Clark fabricated portions of her past, giving rise to a new element of the Georgie legend.

While the theory is discounted by several associates, there is a faction of friends who are puzzled by connections that suggest Clark was in fact Bessie Hyde, who vanished in 1928 along with her husband, Glen Hyde, while the Idaho couple were on a honeymoon adventure floating the Grand Canyon in a wooden boat. Their boat was found in calm waters, upright, unscathed and fully loaded.

What happened to the newlyweds is one of the canyon's enduring mysteries. The most popular version of the Hyde tale holds that Bessie shot and killed her abusive husband while on the river, hiked out of the gorge and began a new life under a new name.

Speculation about Clark's connections to Bessie Hyde began when friends were going through her personal effects following her May 1992 death at her trailer home in Las Vegas. Those who had known or worked for her for decades, even people who considered themselves close friends, had never been invited inside her home.

"Any time we had any business to do, we always met at the Silver Slipper Hotel in Las Vegas, never at her home," said Bill George of Salt Lake City, whose Western River Expeditions bought Clark's company at her request when she became too ill to run raft trips. "I conducted her funeral and that morning, her good friend and nurse, Lee McCurry, called me and said, 'Bill, you'd better sit down because you're never going to believe the stuff I've found at Georgie's."'

For starters, her birth certificate showed her real name was Bessie DeRoss, not Georgie. Clark, as well as another surname she sometimes used, White, were the last names of divorced husbands. While her 1977 autobiography waxed at length about a childhood in her native Chicago, she was actually born in Oklahoma and raised in Colorado.

Friends also found the marriage license of Glen and Bessie Hyde at Clark's home, plus a pistol in her lingerie drawer.

"If you match it up to one of the pictures of Glen and Bessie Hyde in the canyon, it looks like it's the same pistol," said Bill George. "I'm not saying that Georgie was Bessie Hyde, but the whole thing is a little spooky."

River historian Brad Dimock, whose new book, "Sunk Without a Sound -- The Tragic Colorado River Honeymoon of Glen and Bessie Hyde," investigates the couple's story and the myths that have sprung up around it, examined the paraphernalia from Clark's home. While some of the connections are "inexplicable," Dimock concluded from photographs that the two women were certainly not one and the same.

Clark's biographer, Richard Westwood, said he also found little to substantiate the theory that she and Bessie Hyde were the same person. Still, Westwood wouldn't put it past Clark to leave behind the Hyde clues to keep people guessing.

"She was not above creating things that made a good story," said Westwood, author of "Woman of the River -- Georgie White Clark, White-Water Pioneer."

Jirge also said there is no hard evidence that Clark was really Bessie Hyde.

"Their first name may have been the same, but Georgie was a lot taller than Bessie, and Georgie was barely literate while Bessie wrote poetry," said Jirge. "Why she had that marriage license, I have no idea, but she certainly could have related to the stories about Bessie Hyde escaping from a bad situation, because, to a certain extent, that's what she did by finding her place on this planet when she came to the river."

After her 15-year-old daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1944, Clark began hiking in Utah and Arizona with an acquaintance, Harry Aleson, to ease her grief. Donning life jackets, the pair swam and floated the lower portion of Grand Canyon in 1945. The next year, Clark and Aleson floated the river through the canyon on a driftwood raft; then in 1947, they became among the first to use war-surplus inflatable rafts to navigate the rapids of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Clark began tying two and three rafts together to make a floating island of passengers in the early 1950s, and eventually invented the "G-rig," a raft of three pontoons lashed together and powered by an outboard motor. These "thrill rigs," as she called them, helped create the modern-day river outfitting business.

Yet her scant attention to creature comforts was a far cry from the pampering that other outfitters were known for. She told guests, "If you want to eat, go to a restaurant; if you want to see the canyon, come with me."

"We used to accuse her of shopping for groceries with a magnet, because anything that stuck to it would wind up on her menu," said Bill George. "You'd choose a can of spaghetti, chili, whatever, and toss them all in a pot of boiling water and the labels would come off, so you never knew what you were opening."

Clark's unconventional style on the river sometimes clashed with the increasing regulation of outfitters by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, whose agency representatives opposed changing the name of Twenty-Four Mile Rapid to honor Clark.

Grand Canyon National Park information officer Maureen Oltrogge said the opposition stemmed from a feeling that Clark had no connection to Twenty-Four Mile.

"We were not opposed to a rapid being named after Georgie, we just didn't think that this particular one was the best choice," said Oltrogge.

Jirge once asked Clark what canyon rapid she would have named after her if she could. Clark chose Crystal, the biggest of all the Grand Canyon cataracts, but Jirge soon learned that altering the name of Crystal -- even as "Georgie's Crystal Rapid" -- would be politically impossible.

"I used to think, 'Aw, I wish we could have gotten her a bigger rapid,"' said Jirge. "But I rode it last summer in low water, and that thing really kicks you in the rear-end as you go through. And that was Georgie, she liked to give people a good kick in the rear as she went through."
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