What I am—and perhaps this is the reason I first resonated with this story so strongly—is a woman in science.
In Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon (W.W. Norton, 2023), Melissa L. Sevigny describes, in vivid detail, the 1938 Colorado River exploration of Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter. The two botanists joined early river outfitter Norm Nevills and a handful of other less-experienced crew members to reach the inner gorges of the Green and Colorado Rivers. If they made it to Lake Mead, Clover and Jotter would become the first non-Native women to boat the entire Grand Canyon downstream of Lee’s Ferry. Eager to characterize a hidden flora not yet classified in modern scientific terms, the women saw their gender as immaterial to running the river and undertaking their “botanizing.” In succeeding at both, they made river-running history.
Brave the Wild River is the story of two courageous scientists following their passion to explore one of the last regions of the United States known to white Americans. It’s also the exciting, well-told tale of a Grand Canyon river trip, and the characters who undertook it, at the interface of old-time expeditions and modern-day river-running.
Sevigny was born in Arizona and writes poetic nonfiction with a fierce dedication to deep research. She is the author of Mythical River(University of Iowa Press, 2016), and Under Desert Skies (University of Arizona Press, 2016). Currently the science reporter at KNAU (Arizona Public Radio), she has garnered many awards for her work, including the Ellen Meloy Award for Desert Writers, Edward R. Murrow Awards for excellence in science reporting, and the Gold Prize in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. Her writing has been published in Orion, The Atavist Magazine, River Teeth, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She is also the interviews editor for Terrain.org.
For Clover and Jotter, it was essentially one very intense summer of field work, and yet, it became a touchstone that they returned to again and again. It changed the way they looked at the world, I think. A river trip has that kind of power.
Rebecca Lawton: Melissa, thank you for writing this engaging account of two women who, for many Grand Canyon river runners, have long been just tiny faces in black-and-white photos on waterproof strip maps. You’ve managed to bring them to life with gorgeous, lyrical prose. What inspired you to explore the 1938 Nevills Expedition, as it’s often called, and highlight the lives of Clover and Jotter?
Melissa Sevigny: Lois Jotter’s papers are archived at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where I live. I ran across the collection while doing some research for Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial year in 2019. I was surprised I had never heard of her, or Elzada Clover, before. Not much had been written about them—and what had been written framed their story as a minor episode in the annals of Colorado river running. I suspected that wasn’t the case: this was arguably the first commercial trip through the Grand Canyon, but also the first formal collection of the region’s plants for Western botany. I realized if I wanted to know the story, I’d have to write it myself.
Rebecca Lawton: A terrific reason to write a book! I’m grateful that you did. Your detailed research notes in the back matter answered a ton of the questions that came up for me as I read. You share much of your process and the sources you consulted: conversations with modern-day river experts like Jack Schmidt and Larry Stevens, journals of Clover, Jotter, and Nevills, as well as other crew members of the 1938 expedition. Did you ever have moments when you suspected pieces of the story were missing and wouldn’t be found?
Melissa Sevigny: All the time. I was lucky to have journals from most of the expedition members, but sometimes a hasty scrawl would leave me wondering. A dramatic episode in the book is when Clover loses a significant portion of her pressed plant collection, and then recovers it again. I was able to reconstruct that story from a few bare scraps, but I wonder: Who, exactly, had she entrusted with the plants before they were lost? What made her blame the trip leader, Norm Nevills, for their disappearance? I tried not to guess or speculate when I didn’t have much information—but I can’t help wishing I’d had a chance to meet both these women before they died and ask a hundred questions.
Rebecca Lawton: That would have been amazing. I’d love it, too, if they could read your account of their trip. From page one, you dive right into the story with alliteration and word choices that evoke the river’s slippery sounds. Your use of “susurration,” for instance, to describe the hush of the river around willow roots on the night of June 23, 1938, when Jotter sat alone on a sandbar in Cataract Canyon. You’ve told me that your “poetry past slips out sometimes.” What was that past?
Melissa Sevigny: I’m glad you noticed, Becca; perhaps only another poet would! I’m sure I exasperated my copyeditor with my occasional slips into poetic technique, which follows rules of its own. I remember she raised an eyebrow at a phrase I used, describing the dawn as painting the cliffs “blush and rouge”—ignoring grammar and good sense in favor of image and impression and referring to the makeup Clover and Jotter felt they had to wear until they ditched it well into the trip. To answer your question, I started out as a poet. I began writing when I was eight years old or so, but I credit my godfather, Richard Shelton, with introducing me to good poets and good writing. He died last year, and I found among his papers some poems I wrote about the Grand Canyon when I was 12 or 13—so I suppose I’ve been working toward this story all my life. Though I migrated mostly to nonfiction during my graduate school years, poetry was my first love.
Rebecca Lawton: Deeply sorry for your loss, all our loss, of such a wonderful poet and person. How touching that he kept some of your early work. About the Grand Canyon—you’ve rafted it yourself, in preparation for writing this book. Your whitewater scenes were very skillfully done. And exciting! I got the sense that you were weaving your own river experiences with takeaways from the journals of the 1938 boaters. Is that true?
Melissa Sevigny: Yes, that’s true. After I signed the book contract, I went on a hike with some friends to celebrate—this was early in the pandemic—and they said, “When are you going to raft the Grand Canyon?” And I thought: oh, shoot, I have to do that, don’t I? I’ve hiked and camped in Arizona all my life, but I’m not really all that adventurous. A whitewater rafting trip was pretty far beyond my comfort zone. I think my general terror at the prospect helped me channel what Clover and Jotter must have felt. I know Jotter, at least, took seriously the possibility that she might drown on the river—a risk all the more real to her because people kept telling her the story of Bessie Hyde, who disappeared in the Grand Canyon in 1928.
Thankfully, it’s much safer and considerably more comfortable to run the Colorado these days. I went on a two-week trip with a crew tasked with weeding an exotic plant species. It was a small expedition—three boats, six people—just like the expedition in 1938, though of course we had rubber rafts, sleeping bags, and an emergency radio, all things that Clover and Jotter had to do without. I kept a detailed journal on my trip, and when I got home, I typed up bits of description I thought I could use, printed them out, cut them up with scissors, and taped them into my draft. I wanted the story to have texture, sound, scents—you know, that gritty feeling of sand in your hair, or the way a flower’s scent can move like a ribbon down a slot canyon and stop you dead in your tracks—things hinted at in the 1938 journals but made vivid when experienced for myself.
Rebecca Lawton: How beautiful. What about places like Dark Canyon Rapids and Separation, now under water or, when they emerge at really low flow, are greatly changed. Were the journals fairly complete, or did you have to improvise?
Melissa Sevigny: Right—Clover and Jotter’s trip included a bit of the Green River, Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and the Colorado all the way to Lake Mead, which was still filling up in 1938. I did not have the opportunity to see all these stretches of the river for myself, and as you say, they’re greatly changed by dams and drought, as is the Grand Canyon itself. I had to be careful not to make assumptions about what the experience was like in 1938. Even something as small as the sounds the river made—it used to scrape against the sides of the wooden boats, but now the Colorado runs clear because of the dams and only rarely makes the same raspy sound.
So, I relied heavily on Clover and Jotter’s journals and their published papers, which contain some wonderful details—for example, seeing the crowns of waterlogged barrel cacti poking up above the waterline in Lake Mead. To a lesser extent, I also took inspiration from other accounts about the region. I read, for example, Katie Lee’s All My Rivers Are Gone to glean descriptions of the undammed Glen Canyon, and a collection of Navajo stories about Rainbow Bridge. I interviewed members of the Intertribal Centennial Conversations group and the Returning Rapids Project to get a sense of the region from people who know it much more intimately than I.
Rebecca Lawton: Excellent. I was impressed, too, with your grasp of botany and the particular desert flora you were describing. You wrote in great and picturesque detail about specific species. What in your background prepared you for that?
Melissa Sevigny: Thank you. It helped to have a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a couple of graduate-level classes in ecology under my belt. But I also tapped into my childhood experiences growing up in the Sonoran Desert. Many of the plants that Clover and Jotter collected are old friends. The scent of creosote, the taste of prickly pear fruit, the texture of a dry mesquite bean pod—those descriptions all came from my own experiences.
Rebecca Lawton: Lovely details. Was there anything else in your own background that especially came in handy while you worked on Brave?
Melissa Sevigny: Truthfully, I had a lot of gaps to fill—I’m not a botanist, I’m not a river runner, and I’m not a historian. I’m thankful I was able to reach out to people who are those things and ask for help. What I am—and perhaps this is the reason I first resonated with this story so strongly—is a woman in science. I recognized many of Clover and Jotter’s experiences as hauntingly familiar. When I read historical accounts that dismissed Clover as “naïve” or Jotter as “lazy,” I instantly knew there was more to the story—a version of the story that foregrounded their point of view.
Rebecca Lawton: Sounds so familiar! I was thrilled that you quote Clover (from the NBC Broadcast at the South Rim) on the matter of river running: “There’s a great deal of hard work that goes with it.” As a former Canyon guide, I could relate to Clover having her hands too full to do much else (too tired from the rowing and cooking and caring for others). I’m wondering how your river time was for you? Did you also get the time and space and energy to explore and write up things as you’d hoped?
Melissa Sevigny: I should say, Clover and Jotter rarely got the chance to row—and they were only allowed to handle the oars in calm water, not in rapids. It would be decades before women like you, Becca, came along and broke into the masculine-dominated world of river guiding. Still, they were exhausted: plant collecting, cooking, wrestling the boats around rapids deemed too dangerous to run. I suspect Clover wanted people to understand she wasn’t just going on a lark: she was doing real work, both as a scientist and as an outdoorswoman. On my trip I was fairly exhausted, too, or perhaps a better word is overwhelmed: so much to see, so much to experience, the stars so bright they keep you awake at night! But I made sure I wrote in my journal every evening, often after dark with a flashlight. Clover managed to do it, so I could, too.
I was also lucky enough one morning that a rainstorm settled in and kept us all trapped in our tents for hours. That’s where I wrote the epilogue to the book.
Rebecca Lawton: I love that. Another thing I loved was your observation of boaters describing the river in “animalistic” terms: tongue, tail, and lip of rapids, for instance. As a new boater, you took a fresh eye down the river. Did you record many of those things in your journal during your river time, or did you find yourself realizing them as you engaged your wild brain while writing?
Melissa Sevigny: A bit of both. That particular paragraph I wrote before my river trip, based on descriptions of rapids in historical accounts—like Powell’s, Eddy’s, and Stanton’s—as well as more technical or scientific accounts, like Robert Webb’s wonderful books, Cataract Canyon and Grand Canyon: A Century of Change. But I revised it heavily after I saw the river for myself. I was waiting for that moment—my first rapid—and in fact had marked many key moments on my waterproof river guide so I wouldn’t miss anything. I wanted to be sure I could describe the instant they spotted Desert View Watchtower on the rim, or what it was like to clamber over boulders on the shoreline as they walked around Lava Falls. There were serendipitous moments, too, that aligned with what happened in 1938—getting caught out in the boats during a thunderstorm, for instance, which was miserable to experience but wonderful to write about.
Rebecca Lawton: That’s such a great contrast of experiences. Your book is captivating not only in describing what the expedition encountered but also what they did not: they ran rapids in Cataract Canyon most of us have never seen (Boulder/Hoover Dam was in place but still filling). They boated Glen Canyon. They crossed Lake Mead (thank you, Buzz Holmstrom, for the rescue). But there was no Crystal Rapids—the riffle there was small enough to go unmentioned. I thought, “Wait a minute, a page is missing!” as I read of the trip’s unimpeded run below Hermit. It must have been fun blending the past and the present while creating their through-line.
Melissa Sevigny: In my first draft, I attempted to weave in bits of the future: the fact that Glen Canyon Dam would be built, for example, or the changes wrought to Crystal Rapid. It didn’t work. I ground to a messy, tangled halt, with too many threads. I realized that the small forays into history and science woven into the book act like eddies: they take you out of the swift current of the 1938 expedition. Eddies flow upstream, always. Back into the past, so to speak. Once I worked this out, I eliminated all references to anything that happens after 1938, and everything fell into place.
Even my metaphors try to keep the reader in the proper through-line, as you call it. I remember googling the history of vacuums at one point when I described Lake Mead sucking up a waterfall like a vacuum with a ribbon. Luckily, vacuums did exist in 1938, so I got to keep this one.
Rebecca Lawton: Terrific detail. Another detail I loved: rattlesnakes! Especially in your early chapters, when the expedition was on the highest flows, rattlesnakes are everywhere. That was such an important observation—in the 1980s high water in the Grand Canyon, we guides saw tons of rattlesnakes, more than usual, probably flooded out of their homes. But you might not have seen so many on your exotic plants trip. Were the snakes noted in the crew’s journals?
Melissa Sevigny: All of the crew mentioned rattlesnakes in their journals many, many times: Nevills because he was terrified of them, and Jotter because she loved their pink color (to blend with the pink rocks of the region, I assume), which she thought made them “cute.” I’ve also seen the film footage which Clover took during the trip, which features a rather unhappy rattlesnake. I’m afraid they probably killed it—nobody thought twice about killing snakes back then, except possibly Jotter. She had quite modern ideas about conservation and environmental protection.
Rebecca Lawton: She is so impressive—Clover, too. You managed to portray them as individuals, rather than just this duo locked in history together. You painted excellent portraits of the other adventurers as well. It was helpful to me, both as a reader and as someone who’s been on many river trips, that you followed each of the crew members post expedition. In doing so, you let things wind down as they do in life. We who share the adventure of a peak-flow experience or a river new to us seem to both move on and hold the memories close—all the hardships as well as triumphs—after a period of letdown. Were you as a writer, in coming to the end of the book after following all the camaraderie of the crew (especially strong in the Grand Canyon), experiencing some of that letdown, too?
Melissa Sevigny: Yes. It was hard to let these characters go, and I had to resist the temptation to include too much detail about their lives after the river trip. I was fascinated with how the 1938 expedition reverberated down the years: it shows up in unexpected moments, like when Clover is listening to the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, or when Jotter pulls out the old film reels for her young son to see. For Clover and Jotter, it was essentially one very intense summer of field work, and yet, it became a touchstone that they returned to again and again. It changed the way they looked at the world, I think. A river trip has that kind of power.
Rebecca Lawton: So true. That power reverberates through this book. Nevills, I felt, you depicted quite humanly: his fears that any blunders might end his career, his push to keep moving at the expense of some botanizing, his absolutely key role in making the expedition happen. Anything you want to share about how it was to characterize him?
Melissa Sevigny: Nevills is a famous (or infamous) figure in the history of the Colorado River, sometimes praised and sometimes reviled. I tried not to get too bogged down in what had already been written, however. I wanted to base my characterizations—of all the people in the book—first of all by what they wrote in their journals and letters, and second, by interviews with people who knew them well. I tried to fix in my mind that I was writing about real people, who had really lived: none of them perfect, all of them with deeply held dreams, which sometimes brought them into conflict with each other. Nevills’ dream of commercializing Colorado River trips exasperated practically everyone he knew; but it also made him willing to include women, and without that, who knows if Clover and Jotter would have gotten to realize their dream?
Rebecca Lawton: Beautifully said. Clover and Jotter had such refreshing attitudes about their dream trip, despite all the hype that might have gone to their heads. You wrote, “If they came to the Colorado to prove their courage, it was only to themselves.” As a woman who rowed big boats in the Canyon, I suppose it could’ve looked like I was trying to prove something, but I see it more as stepping up to do the job. How did you come to your statement about courage?
Melissa Sevigny: It’s because I don’t really think they came to prove their courage at all, though that’s been implied or mentioned many times by others, certainly by the journalists covering the story in 1938. I think they came to find plants, and that’s what mattered the most to them. They complained very little about the hardships of the journey, even in their private journals. And they both were quite dismissive of the claims that they were the so-called “first women” to boat the river and survive. Clover, at least, was well aware that the long Indigenous history of the river made that claim nonsensical, and both Clover and Jotter felt their work as botanists mattered much more than their gender.
Rebecca Lawton: In that, too, I see them as kin to we who followed. You touched so well on the longing that these women and other canyon-country boaters have for the river. Your passages about Buzz Holmstrom and his affection for Clover and Jotter, too, were moving. Anything to add there?
Melissa Sevigny: What can I say? I think everyone falls a little bit in love with Buzz Holmstrom in the course of this book; I certainly did. The redemptive arc of his story is irresistible. I read every one of Holmstrom’s letters to Clover and Jotter and had to stop myself from transcribing and printing them all: they were filled with such warmth, humor, and a deep, deep, love for the Colorado River. I must thank Vince Welch, Cort Conley, and Brad Dimock for their wonderful biography of Holmstrom, The Doing of the Thing, which is well worth reading. Vince wrote me very early on in this project to say he felt I was filling in a blank space in Holmstrom’s story, which warmed me to my toes.
Rebecca Lawton: Yes, The Doing of the Thing is a must read, along with Brave the Wild River, for anyone who wants to understand Canyon (and river) history. What a joy to hear of your love for Buzz and his letters. Jotter (late in life, as the widow Jotter Cutter) was able to get down to the river again, on the Old-Timers’ Trip. So many people in the river community helped make that happen, which was moving. She had missed the place so much. How about you? Are you missing it? Will you be braving the wild river again soon?
Melissa Sevigny: When I first came off the river, I dreamed about it vividly. I imagine many of us have that experience. Rather like Clover and Jotter, I don’t know if or when I’ll have a chance to raft the Colorado River again. I’m most drawn to opportunities that allow me to engage in science or make myself useful in some way. I’ll keep my eyes open for another chance.