Spotlight On An Original Dirtbag: GEORGIE WHITE, QUEEN OF QUEENS by Kevin “Taz” Riggs

This article first appeared in weekly posts of Dirt Bag Paddlers on Facebook, on Throwback Thursdays in September 2014. We will be transitioning this monthly feature to DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE. Enjoy! ~the editors

 If there is one true Queen in the Dirt Bag lineage, it would be Geogie White Clark. She was a de facto co-inventor of an industry; an explosive industry and she was one of the hottest sparks to find the fuse. Pioneers are often painted as rebels and quirks. If you had told her to her face, she probably would have smiled, winked one of her turquoise blue eyes, raised her Coors and said, “That’s just the way we like it.” A common response to her many triumphs and adversities. 
 She was born in 1910, and had claimed to have been born in Chicago, but it was actually rural Oklahoma. she was the child of an itinerant farmer and a laundress. At birth she was named Bessie DeRoss. At some point she changed it to Georgia and later to Georgie. Her father’s name was George and from him she probably inherited her will to wander as well. Her mother provided a love of life and a willingness to take things as they were.
 Georgie married right out of high school and soon gave birth to her only child Sommona Rose Clark. The Depression soon forced her and her husband to leave Sommona Rose with her mother and traveled from Colorado to Florida to find work. Finding none they moved to New York, where they soon made friends that provided them with bicycles that they used to head west for California with only one weeks salary in their pockets. They slept on the ground off the road, took what small jobs they could find and sneaked bathes from unsuspecting boarding houses.Once established in Los Angeles she sent for her family to join them.
 Mother and daughter were inseparable and they hiked and biked together frequently around Southern California. The family moved several times between L.A. and Chicago and eventually her marriage dissolved. She joined the Sierra Club and added to her outdoor activities, cross country skiing and rock climbing.
 Georgie married again to James “Whitey” White. The outbreak of WWII, offered her the opportunity to train as an airplane pilot in Arizona and Texas. With Sommona Rose in tow they slept in a culvert off base and Whitey stayed at his trucking job in L.A. Afer completing her training, the Armed forces Ferry Command that she had hoped to shuttle planes for disbanded, so back to L.A. she went. Soon thereafter her favorite biking partner, her daughter was killed by a drunk driver while on a biking trip to Santa Barbara. Georgie did not press charges, she felt it would accomplish nothing, Sommona Rose was gone, doing so would not bring her back.
 Much of Georgie’s life is difficult to trace; between name changes, places of residence, and jobs that she worked. Her daughters death was a milestone and she seemed to set a new direction. Though her goal was unknown to her, her path and the steps that she took become easier to follow. Her relationship with the Sierra Club brought her to a friendship with Harry Aleson and together they hiked and explored the lower canyons of the Colorado and it seemed to set the stage for the rest of her life.
 Her first river experience consisted of a twenty mile hike from Peach Springs, Arizona to the mouth of Diamond Creek’s confluence with the Colorado wearing hiking boots and bathing suits. There they donned bulky Mae West life jackets, flippers and dry packs with their meager supplies and jumped into 125,000cfs. It is a miracle that they survived the huge waves and repeatedly being sucked under by vicious whirlpools. Surprisingly that is where the seeds of a romance with rivers were germinated. 
 Her second trip was not much better conceived. She and Harry hiked to the river by Parashant Wash carrying a 3’x6′ survival raft and nearly succumbed to dehydration before they reached the river. Although controversies surround both trips in terms of miles and methods, there is no doubt; they started in one place and ended in another and the river was in between. The end of WWII brought the availability of surplus rafts and she and Harry took a number of river trips, including Glen and Cataract Canyons, the San Juan and Escalante rivers to name a few.
  Tales of her exploits spread and she was soon sought out by Mexican Hat Expeditions and film makers to work as a boatman and act as a chaperon to starlets for the making of a film with Glen Canyon as a backdrop. Fellow boatmen on that trip declared that she could match the men stroke for stroke and her athletetisism at swimming, hiking and rock climbing was unmatched.She also excelled at taking care of her charges and often stood between the director and the starlets to protect them from dangerous and foolish situations.

 In 1952, she took Elgin Pierce in a ten man surplus raft from Lee’s Ferry to lake Meade. This made her the first woman to captain a boat for hire through Grand Canyon. Soon she was making regular trips in the Canyon on a “share the expense” basis. The spirit of these trips still survives in Grand Canyon private trips. With more people and more trips she began to experiment, lashing rafts together to make them more stable and forgiving. These were as experiments go, imperfect, and there are many stories of rigs folding on top of themselves like an accordion. Then came her greatest innovation. When she discovered surplus inflatable bridge pontoons, she tied three side by side, inserted sponsons (large singular tubes) into the inner space of the outer rafts to displace water, and eventually adding a motor. The triple-rig or G-rig was born; the mother of all motor-rigs that followed. Her personal rig was dubbed “the Queen Mary” and at 33’x29′ with an estimated gross displacement of 39 tons, even Georgie had some concerns about it’s ability to “fit” through some places on the river. 
 A short list of rivers that Georgie ran would include many in the west: the Green; San Juan; Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon; Hell’s Canyon of the Snake; the Columbia; and canyons of the Colorado, including Cataract, Glen and the Grand. In Canada she ran the Frazier; the Columbia and the Nahanni rivers. In Mexico she racked up first descents on Rio Grande de Santiago; Rio de Chiapas; Rio Balsas and Usumacinta. This woman kept up a grueling schedule of promotion, trade shows and lecture tours. She ran the company almost single-handedly and rarely missed an opportunity to be on the water.

 Though many followed her lead , no one could keep up her numbers. By the 60’s she had taken more than half of all persons transported by all the other outfitters combined. In addition, in her large boats, statistically more safely. A majority of her boatmen over the years were off duty L.A. firemen. In this a perfect match was found: valuable first-aid training; fearlessness under pressure and a penchant for mischief in camp. Add to this a little “Stupid” (grain alcohol and fruit juice), a gulp or two of blackberry brandy and a few Coors, and you have the first know tribe of Dirt Bags. Georgie never shied from the fun and was often the instigator. Legend has it that a boatman nearly lost an ear in a fire-side wrestleing match that she was determined to win.

In 1973 Micheal Denoyer first met Georgie White.While working for Whitewater River Expeditions, Denoyer and his river manager arived at Lee’s Ferry to rig for a trip. When they pulled in at the ramp Georgie’s boats were spread out all over the place; Georgie and her crew were no where to be found.
 Denoyer asked, “How are we going to get our boats in?”
 “Just go on down there and untie one of her boats and move it or downstream a little bit, so we can slide our boats in. She won’t mind that.” his manager said.
 So Denoyer went down and untied one of her boats and moved it downriver a short distance. After he tied up the bow line he looked up and saw Georgie coming down the ramp with a big smile on her face.
 All of a sudden the smile disappeared and she said, “Young man. What are you doing moving my boat?” He told her he just moved it down a little bit, just enough so that they could have room to push their boats in. The next thing Denoyer knew she put both hands on his shoulders, shoved him back, and said, “You don’t touch my boats. Don’t you go messing around with my boats.”
 About that time she shoved him again and said, “I don’t want you touching my boat.” She shoved him pretty hard-and would not let up. Then she took a swing at him and hit him on the shoulder. He later said, “It wasn’t going to kill me, but I sure could feel it.” Then she took another swing and hit him again. Denoyer was backing up all this time and trying to figure out how to get out of this situation gracefully. He was not about to punch a woman out, thinking, “She would probably kick my butt anyway.” Then she said, “You don’t think I’ll hit you between the legs, do you?”
 He was not about ready to find out. He looked behind her, saw about a dozen Los Angeles firemen, and did not want to mess with any of them. He pushed her away, walked past the firemen, and headed toward his own truck. When he got there his manager was rolling up the windows and locking the doors. He didn’t want any part of it.
{from an interview with Micheal Denoyer, Kanab, Utah 25 May 1994.
Reprinted in Richard E. Westwood’s “Woman of the River- Georgie White Clark, White-water Pioneer}

 White had no intention of modifying anything as she bore down on Crystal at the helm of her mammoth boat on the morning of June 23, 1983 and set herself up for a maneuver that Brian and his squad of river rangers could see was patently insane.
 As the rangers watched, stupified, White shut off her motor, levered the propeller out of the water, and allowed the current to carry her across the top of the rapid, a gambit known as dead-sticking. Without power, steerage, or any other form of control, the Queen Mary now boasted all the agility and responsiveness of a dead manatee. While her passengers- who had no idea what was about to occur- threw their arms into the air and screamed in excitement, White crouched in the bottom of her motor well and braced her feet against the rubber. Then the boat was seized by the accelerating current and hurled into the hole.
 By dint of it’s prodigious mass, the Queen Mary was too large even for Crystal to flip upside-down. Instead the boat danced indecisively inside the hole, first fainting downstream, then retreating upstream. In this violent game of cat and mouse, the pontoons were wrenched side to side, pulsating like the bellows of an accordion as the current probed for a weak point.
 In light of this punishment, the boat was fairing remarkably well. unfortunately, Whites cargo and passengers were not so successful. Each time the raft buckled and sprang back, the rangers could see bodies and pieces of gear being ejected.
 To the astonishment of the rangers, all of Whites passengers had survived. After gathering everybody up, Brian walked down along the shoreline  to check on White, who was now standing in the motor well holding a can of Coors and surveying the damage. 
 Every item of gear and equipment on the Queen Mary had been stripped from the boat. Brian saw nothing left on board except for the motor, which was still strapped to the mount, and, remarkably, White herself.
 “Georgie, what happened?” asked Brian.
 She looked at him and winked. “I told ’em to hang on.” She shrugged. “They don’t make passengers the way they used to.”

photo caption: Layne Parmenter’s Tours West boat being dismantled later in the day. WALLACE BIG 
In their summer news letter, Boatman’s Quarterly Review, the Grand Canyon River Guides printed Georgie’s picture on the cover along with this tribute:
                             Georgie
                          1910 – 1992
“From her first float trips with Harry Aleson in the 1940’s to her last trip at the helm of her triple rig in the fall of ’91, she was unquestionably, incontestably, THE WOMAN OF THE RIVER.
 She was a renegade from the get go. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s she did it herself and she did it her own way. On through the 70’s and 80’s. Her folks adored her. She was never mainstream.
                She was Georgie.
                Always Georgie.
 It was the 1990’s when the river community finally embraced her for it. Here’s to you Georgie.”

 Georgie White’s career spanned more than forty years. She guided her last trip at the age of 81. We should all hope to be that fulfilled. Compared to most of us, she started at twice our age when we began. We should be that determined. It was said she didn’t know or learn much about the geology, the flora nor the fauna. She took it all as a package. The rocks, the rattlesnakes, scorpions, ring-tailed cats, canyon wren and the Navajo people were all rooted in the canyon and she was protective of them all. She grew with, tolerated and even spoke out against the Park Service. Her input was often useful in developing a management plan for the river.
 Jane Foster, manager of the Marble Canyon Lodge, and a long-time friend summed her up well. “She was NOT a woman’s libber, and she didn’t stand up for woman-kind. She was just an adventurer.” Jane said, “She would never have been the bra-burning, flag-waving feminist type of person. She was just a PERSON and she just did what she wanted to do and gender wasn’t a big item!”
 Here’s to you Georgie, my Queen of all queens! And, to all my DBQ’s! I couldn’t be without you.

  • Show Comments (1)

  • Priscilla Macy

    What a great read. May need to make that leopard dress a part of my river wardrobe. Here's to you Georgie!

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