By Alan Kesselheim
Published: February 2, 2011

A group of adventurers launched from Lee’s Ferry yesterday, Feb. 1, in three home-built replicas of riverboats that haven't been seen in the Grand Canyon since 1959.

Their mission is two-fold. First, to reintroduce historic craft to the river—the brightly-colored, wood and fiberglass boats last plied the waters of the Colorado River more than half a century ago. Second, the party aims to document changes in the Grand Canyon over those same intervening years, most notably as a result of Glen Canyon Dam and the explosive growth of river running. To this end, they hope to replicate more than 250 photographs taken between 1955 and 1959.

The four-person team is comprised of Tom Martin, Ian Elliot, Dave Mortenson and Dave's daughter, Cece. There’s a family history component too: The original boats were first rowed through the Grand Canyon, in 1955, by P.T. Reilly, Moulton Fulmer and Brick Mortenson—Dave’s father and Cece’s grandfather.

The Reilly-Fulmer-Mortenson trio also ran the Grand together in 1956, 1957 (at flows of 124,000 cfs) and 1958, in their boats, the Flavell, Susie R and the GEM.

The latter day replica boats were made by Ian Elliot (Flavell and Susie R) and Tom Martin (the GEM). The modern team plans to maintain a blog, Historic River Boats Afloat, with daily updates during their 30-day, 282-mile journey from Lee's Ferry to Lake Mead.

Support crew in rafts will accompany the historic boats, carrying "a LOT of camera gear," according to Martin. The group totals sixteen people, with members of four generations related to Brick Mortenson, including Dave's nine-year old granddaughter.

"Getting the boats built before the launch date was the first challenge," says Martin. "Once on the river there will be more. We may well have to make repairs along the way if boats get 'holed' in rapids. And it will be tricky to find the precise photo spots and get the light close to that of the original pictures. The good news is that the old camps and photo locations from the 1957 highwater trip are well above the modern highwater line."

While major features of the Grand Canyon remain unchanged, there will be some noticeable differences in the photos, and in the boating experience. "We already know that a phenomenal amount of sand has washed away since the 50s," Martin says. "The photos will show that pretty starkly."