A brief brilliant life on the river

  • THE LONE BOATMAN: Buzz Holmstrom

    Hack Miller photo
  • Cover of "The Doing of the Thing"

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In 1869, John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was the first to explore and record the canyons of the Green and Colorado. Launching with nine sturdy men, Powell spent 100 days working his heavy, keeled boats downriver. There was no art to their river running; they just did the best they could. Two weeks out, they smashed a boat. One man quit. Near the end of Grand Canyon, half starved and faced with ever-worsening rapids, three more men left the trip. Just 30 hours later, Powell emerged from Grand Canyon. His feat, lavishly (if not accurately) recorded in his Exploration of the Colorado River of the West, inspired those who followed his route: Flavell and Montez in 1896, Galloway and Stone in 1909, and the Kolb brothers in 1911. Holmstrom's would be the fifth trip to travel the entire route, and the first to attempt it alone.

* from The Doing of the Thing: The Brief Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom

Who was Buzz Holmstrom? The short answer is that, in 1937, this Oregon gas station attendant became the first person to raft the 1,100 miles of the Green and Colorado rivers alone, surviving 365 rapids over 52 days. The small wooden boat he used he'd built himself; the river lore he'd gathered was all self-taught.

After his feat made headlines, Holmstrom, a quiet man with a sly sense of humor, became known beyond the logging town of Coquille, Ore. Yet he resumed work at the gas station, and in a few years, as more people tackled the canyon, his solo expedition faded into obscurity. Plans to make a documentary about his expedition fizzled and at age 37, nine years after his river-run, Holmstrom killed himself. The three authors of this riveting biography, boatmen themselves, say some people who knew Holmstrom can never believe that he shot himself.

Holmstrom's vivid journals, which river guides have passed around campfires for decades, tell much of what's known about the man. He reveled in the river's wildness and its solitude; he was steady and quick-thinking under pressure; he made himself withstand hunger, cold and extreme discomfort.

From his river diaries we learn that "the doing of the thing" really was his reward. We know that while he never married, he had romantic attachments, and that he supported his mother and felt close to her.

Still, the question every reader will ask while reading this compelling biography is, what went wrong? The authors suggest that his last job as a river guide for the government required too large a risk and that for the first time, his nerve failed him. There is also the theory that he suffered from depression. We won't ever know for sure, but in any case it's his life that counts, and it lives on, thanks to this modest and wonderful book.


The Doing of the Thing: The Brief Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom, by Vince Welch, Brad Dimock and Curt Conley. Fretwater Press, 1000 Grand Canyon Ave., Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Paperback $20; 291 pages, illustrated with maps and photos.

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