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The history of whitewater rafting: From necessity to adventure - Subscriber Access Only

By BCShippingNews 27 December 2017
Whitewater rafting is now a mainstream popular sport thanks to earlier innovations. Photo courtesy of Michelle “Make Lemons” via Flickr.

Whitewater rafting had a slow evolution into the extreme sport it is today. Humans have used rudimentary rafts for thousands of years. Even imagery from the ancient Assyrians depicts rafts built with inflated animal skins. But these rafts were designed out of necessity, not amusement. It was the colonization, exploration, and thrill seekers of North America that truly inspired the sport of whitewater rafting.

Some date the first attempt at whitewater rafting back to 1811 when the first recorded attempt to navigate the Snake River in Wyoming was planned. However, the river was deemed too dangerous and that rafting trip never took place. In the United States, a variety of rafts evolved over time. First came the pirogue which was a flat-bottomed boat. Another type of early raft used was a bateau which was made of planks on a frame. But the most advanced design of the early years was the keelboat. The famed Lewis and Clark expedition used this type of raft while travelling through Idaho and Oregon. Besides having a keel to steer with, it also had a streamlined hull and enough room to carry both people and supplies. But these designs did not tend to fare well in whitewater. For example, in 1869, John W. Powell set out to navigate the Colorado River with four wooden boats. As his party went down the Grand Canyon, three of the four boats and four men were lost.