For a River Heritage Museum at Grand Canyon National Park

Escalante

The folding kayak—devised in the 1800s and brought into production by Johann Klepper in 1907—underwent a boom in United States when Jack Kissner moved his Folbot factory to New York from England in 1935. Kissner set about publicizing his folding kayaks, championing the sport of paddling them in whitewater, and mass-producing the boats to meet demand.

Alexander “Zee” Grant was in the forefront of the new sport. He had won several whitewater championships in the East before he turned his eyes to the Rockies and beyond. He took on the Canyon of Lodore on the upper Green River in 1939 with fellow foldboater Stewart Gardiner. Gardiner had soloed this stretch in 1938, hot on the heels of a trio of French paddlers who had kayaked the Green and Colorado all the way to Lee’s Ferry. In 1940 Grant, Gardiner and three other paddlers ran the Middle Fork of the Salmon. In its own small way, kayaking was booming.

Grant wrote pioneer river runner Norman Nevills in 1941, asking to join his upcoming Grand Canyon expedition. Nevills was dubious but agreed.

Grant, in preparation, worked with Jack Kissner to produce a custom “sixteen-and-a-half foot, folding, rubber-covered battleship,” with “bulbous ends carved from balsa wood, and huge sausage-like sponsons along the sides, made from inner tubes of Fifth Avenue bus tires.” For added buoyancy he crammed in eight additional inner tubes and five beach balls. He named it the Escalante.

Grant’s pluck knew no bounds. He described getting hit by the huge waves in House Rock Rapid: “about half way through one of the little fellows picked the Escalante up, and slapped her down smartly on her topsides, leaving me sputtering in the water alongside. In a moment, climbing on her keel, I had the foldboat under control again and paddled ashore almost as easily as if she were right side up.”

He ran most rapids but, following Nevills’s lead, portaged Hermit and Lava Falls. Upon finishing the river, the group caught a tow across Lake Mead, arriving at Boulder Beach on August 3. Wrote Nevills: “Pictures are taken and Zee is the sensation of the hour—and justifiably so as he turned in a swell job of bringing his boat thru.”

The Escalante resides in the Grand Canyon collection.

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