Georgie White – The woman who tamed the Grand Canyon

By Doug Williams
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Rafting on the river
 
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Back in June 1945, a woman named Georgie White and her friend, Harry Aleson, had decided to swim down the Grand Canyon because the two did not have money to buy or rent a boat.

They jumped into Diamond Creek wearing windbreakers, shoes, backpacks with food and beverages, and life jackets. They were swept away by the current, 60 miles down to Lake Mead.

From then on, White had become obsessed with the Colorado River.

 

Back in the 1940s, rafting was just beginning to get popular. White was the only woman on the river.

In 1946 she decided to swim it again, until she and Aleson bought an Army raft and started taking people on trips, as long as they pitched in for paying for the raft.

 

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White became the first woman to row the Grand Canyon, which caused a lot of heated discussions back at the time.

Even her friend Aleson had been against her doing the tours alone. She didn’t listen, though. In the early 1950s, she had taken more people down the Grand, more than any other guide.

 

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White was originally from Los Angeles, but after getting fed up with her life there, she decided to move to Colorado. She was in her second marriage, which would soon end, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sommona Rose, had been killed in a hit-and-run accident while riding her bike.

 

She had met Aleson at a Sierra Club talk, and the two decided to explore the river. He had convinced her to try something new to help her deal with the grief of loosing her daughter.

After her second marriage officially took a turn for the worse, she said that she fell in love with the river and wanted to marry it, and never divorce it.

Her guide trips were so popular that she set up her own company called Georgie’s Royal River Rats. Once that took off with flying colors, she began starting up other guide companies on other popular rivers.

 

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She had given guides on the Green, Snake, and Salmon, and even explored some of the popular rivers in Mexico. However, they would never compare to the Colorado.

It is thought that if anyone was ever so lucky to take a tour with White, that person would immediately fall in love with her, and the river itself.

In fact, she was so into the guiding experience that at each takeout she would crack a raw egg over a person’s head to dub them a “river rat”.

White’s trips weren’t anything in particular, but it was the personable way she conducted them that made people on the trips fall in love. She was known for surviving on only beer and vegetables.

She didn’t bring much for anyone who didn’t prefer beer and vegetables. The dinner she offered was canned meat and vegetables mixed together.

Because of the cheap dinners and rafts she had, she charged a lot less than the other guides. This way, she had more business and made more money.

Georgie White

White asked the BLM for an organized permit system. She also invented the G-Rig, which is three boats strapped together with a motor on the back. This invention made it possible to guide bigger groups down the river in a more stable raft.

Many people thought she was as tough as any man; she was definitely rougher than other women. She rarely hired women, except as cooks.

She even hired Los Angeles firefighters as guides since they were strong and followed directions well.

White became a popular figure in Colorado and was known for her rafting. Life magazine and Sports Illustrated ran regular stories about her.

In fact, she was even on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She took the Secretary of the Interior, Steward Udall, on a trip. She loved the attention she got and never shied away from it.

However, she never shared much about her personal life. She told many she grew up in Chicago, but was born in Oklahoma. She even said her given name was Bessie.

After she died, rumors surfaced that claimed she was Bessie Hyde, who was thought to have disappeared in the canyon with her husband George in 1928.

White’s friends had found her and George’s marriage license and a pistol in her underwear drawer when they had started sorting things after her death.

White died of stomach cancer in Las Vegas in 1992 when she was 81. She sold her guide company, Georgie’s Royal River Rats, the same year.

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In 2001, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names had renamed Twenty-Four Mile Rapid Georgie Rapid to honor her.

In 1991, White was able to take her last raft trip down the Canyon, right before her 80th birthday. She wore her famous full-body leopard leotard and drank a Coors beer for dinner.