Legendary Grand Canyon Conservationist, Boatman Dies

By Laurel Morales
December 03, 2014
There was no compromise or trade off with him,
John Blaustein for OARS
"There was no compromise or trade off with him," said boatman O'Connor Dale. "When he was fighting for something it was all or nothing. A lot of people tried to make deals in the back room, not Martin. He jumped in with everything he had guns a blazing. His philosophy was once you give it up, you’ve lost it."

In the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River flows for 296 miles free from dams and other development. Many say the man responsible is Martin Litton, a legendary conservationist and boatman.

Litton died Sunday in his California home. He was 97.

Litton devoted his life to preserving wilderness. Whether it was keeping dams from the Colorado River or a ski resort out of the southern Sierra or preserving the redwoods, he refused to compromise. He shared his philosophy in a 1994 interview with Boatman’s Quarterly recorded on the Colorado River and archived at Northern Arizona University.

“To compromise is to lose,” Litton said. “When you’re willing to compromise your principles you’ve given up. You abandon them. When you compromise nature, nature gets compromised. It’s gone. It’s hurt. It’s injured. You gain nothing back ever.”

Litton was a force, a larger-than-life character with his penetrating glare, long white beard and booming voice. He used that to full effect taking countless tourists down the river in wooden dories.

In fact his approach to the river was unorthodox. Other boatmen would scout the big rapids ahead of time for the best route, not Litton.

“People said he had an angel on his shoulder,” said O’Connor Dale, one of Litton’s guides at Grand Canyon Dories. “This is the way he ran the river. He was more interested in talking to the people then necessarily scouting as he entered the rapid.”

While he enjoyed sharing his beloved Grand Canyon with visitors, long-time friend Brad Dimock says you wouldn’t want to cross him.

“He was no saint,” Dimock said. “He was a cantankerous combative. But in the end he sacrificed a lot of his life and a lot of his livelihood never for personal gain. It was always for the cause.”

Dimock laughs when he hears people say, "rest in peace, Martin."

“He won’t,” Dimock said. “He would hate to rest in peace. He is going to raise hell forever.”

Litton continued to boat the river well into his 90s. He was the oldest to row down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon at 87.

The river community will gather to share stories about Litton this week in Flagstaff.