Film Debut: ‘Martin’s Boat’

When legendary conservationist Martin Litton passed away in 2014 at the age of 97, boat builder Duffy Dale got to work. He began constructing a new vessel for the fleet of Grand Canyon Dories, an outfitter which Litton founded in 1969. As a second-generation river guide for the company, Dale grew up on the water hearing the tales of the indefatigable Litton’s many fights on behalf of wilderness and he wanted to build a boat in Litton’s memory. As Dale put the final touches on the new dory, he and his fellow boatmen christened it the Marble Canyon, following Litton’s tradition of naming each of his boats after a significant place either lost or preserved. The dory’s namesake canyon–the sixty mile stretch between Lee’s Ferry and the Little Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park–falls into the latter category thanks to the man who it was built to honor. In the 1960s, Litton inspired the Sierra Club to lead a battle against several dams that would have turned the Grand Canyon to a series of reservoirs.

Filmmaker Pete McBride joined O.A.R.S for the boat’s maiden voyage last year and directed the new 22-minute film Martin’s Boat, which captures Litton’s life and legacy through the eyes of the boatmen he continues to inspire. Today Litton’s conservation ethic lives on in the river runners who are confronting a new set of development proposals in the Grand Canyon. We caught up McBride to hear more about the project. Martin Litton was a man of many talents–World War II veteran, pilot, boat builder, writer, founder of Grand Canyon Dories, river guide, and of course a relentless champion for preservation of wild places. You touch on all these aspects of his legacy in your film. What part of his life impressed you the most as you were working on this project?
Pete McBride: What stood out was his tenacity, his persistence through all the projects he did and how much reach they had. When he wasn’t on a Grand trip, he was flying his plane back to California to engage with Redwood forest conservation. But author Kevin Fedarko, who was a passenger with Martin on his last paddle through Lava Falls at age 87, reminds us that he was larger than life but also indelibly human as well. He wasn’t perfect (no one is) — but he was a deeply passionate man who stood up tall for what he believed in.

The film follows a trip with Litton’s company Grand Canyon Dories. Is their founding figure pretty legendary around the campfire?
There’s no question. The guides had a tremendous amount of fond memories about the guy. And that was another highlight of the project: getting to know the passionate, remarkable community of rowers Litton left in his wake. There are people who have been rowing dories in the canyon for 40 years and I’ve been lucky to get to know a few of them, people who are gems in their own right. His legacy carries on collectively through the lives of a lot of these boatmen.

The film isn’t just about Martin, it’s about Martin’s Boat? What is it about dories and the Grand Canyon that make them such a special match?
As my friend Mark “Moqui” Johnson says, “Dories are like rowing a boat that’s made of baby bird bones and tissue paper down the river.” They just don’t do that well on the rocks, but that gives you a different experience. Rafts are great, but they’re kind of like an F-150 with a bunch of dents—you’re not too worried about what you hit. Dories feel like you’re in an old classic sports car.

Litton at the oars. Photo courtesy Rudi Petschek.
Litton at the oars. Photo courtesy Rudi Petschek.

What were some of the other highlights from the trip?

It was really fun for me when I made the film because I got to row a boat for a first time down the Grand Canyon, and I’m no veteran boatman. When we got to Lava Falls, I filmed the scout and because my head was in the camera so much, I missed some of the discussion. When I got behind the oars to row, I actually had to watch the scout again in the back of the camera. So that was kind of fun. I got to do multiple things at once.

Almost 50 years after Martin Litton helped defeat the Marble Canyon Dam, the battle to protect the Grand Canyon isn’t over.
Yeah, Litton’s story highlights threats that have come and gone, but there are current threats too. People often think it’s an indelibly protected piece of real estate, but it isn’t. Grand Canyon is a natural wonder of the world and a national park, but it’s so much more. It’s a place to respect silence, but it’s also a place that people have been coming to for decades to make money. Conservation is a challenge that never ends. Today it’s not dams; the threats are appearing in different shapes in sizes from mining to development to ourselves really. It’s a question of how we want to view wilderness. Do we want to view it with handrails and in short visits with helicopters? Or is a place we want to visit with time and patience. Ultimately we’re the ones who decide what our park will look like.

What’s one of the biggest threats today?

The Grand Canyon Escalade is a proposed tram that would carry up to 10,000 people per day from the rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, which is a place that many in the Native American community hold to be sacred. It’s a real challenge because I understand that people want to see the canyon from its floor, but the tram would change the park forever. I think when we have truly unique places—and there’s only one Grand Canyon on the planet—we shouldn’t demand comfort and luxury when we’re visiting them. I think places that are really spectacular should be a little challenging to see. And the reality is you can already see the canyon in a variety of ways today from wheelchair access on the rim to river trips that come in a range of affordability levels.

What’s at stake?
To put it in perspective, the gondola would bring more visitors to that part of the river in two and a half days than all river trips—private and commercial—bring down the canyon in one year. That lays out the scale of the project. I’m not opposed to people seeing or visiting Grand Canyon, but I think they will have a far richer experience if they experience it as a wild place and not as an amusement park.

Can today’s conservationists learn from Martin Litton in this battle?
Absolutely. The key is he was able to engage the public. If the public doesn’t get involved and realize what’s at risk, the place will be lost. Whether you’re in China or in Arizona, just knowing a place is there for you is crucial. This isn’t a battle between wilderness junkies and developers. This is a challenge of what the American public–and the whole world on some level—want to do with this national park, this world park.

What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve completed 95 percent of a Grand Canyon hike. I’ve hiked from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek, most of it with Kevin Fedarko. We’ll finish it in the fall and people can read all about it in National Geographic magazine. And I just released a film on a Ganges source-to-sea trip. That one recently premiered at Telluride Mountain Film and will be appearing at other festivals across the country. (More info:

— Watch Martin Litton’s acceptance speech when he received the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award from C&K

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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