Milotte Part IX: the first 100 to boat down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon

Alfred and Elma Milotte were among the first one hundred to travel through the Grand Canyon by boat down the Colorado River.

Part IX - the Milottes film on the Colorado River.  

The Milotte Wildlife Film Festival slated for Saturday, October 20th, between 11:00 am and 4:00 pm will show three Oscar Award winners for both the Milotte’s and the Disney Studios and they are “Seal Island”, “Bear Country” and “Beaver Valley”.

The following has been provided by GBLHS member and author of “Bonney Lake’s Plateau”, Winona Jacobsen:

Colorado River

From the wilds of the Alaskan wilderness to the wild rivers of the western United States, Walt Disney sent Alfred and Elma Milotte on another photo expedition. The Colorado River evoked visions of terror filled boaters clinging to their rafts as they were swept through riffles and rapids and became caught up in eddies and whirlpools. Since the first known passage of the Colorado River through the mysterious Grand Canyon in 1869 by John Wesley Powell and nine companions, fewer than one hundred persons had braved the turbulent waters by 1947. To film a documentary on the wild Colorado River, Disney knew the Milotte team was capable of delivering some excellent and entertaining footage.

On July 12, 1947, Alfred and Elma joined Norman Nevills Colorado Expedition. Nevills used four boats to transport the fifteen people from Lee’s Ferry through the first major rapids at Badger Creek. Barry Goldwater and his friend Bill Saufley had flown up from Phoenix to participate in this first leg of the journey. Elma and Goldwater were boatmates only as far as the creek, but they quickly developed a friendly rapport. Since he was co-owner of the Rainbow Bridge Lodge, located near one of the most inaccessible natural wonders of the Southwest, he offered assistance to the Milottes in getting permission to take pictures around Navajo Mountain where the Rainbow Bridge was located. Goldwater, Saufley, and Doris Nevills, Norman’s wife, left the expedition following their passage through the Badger Creek Rapids, leaving twelve hardy people to continue down the Colorado.

At each of the major rapids along the river, the crew, sometimes referred to as the “brain trust”, would stop and huddle together to survey and assess the potential danger. If deemed too treacherous, the boatmen would take their boats through the rapids, stopping on the far side where they would wait for their passengers who had to scramble over rocks and along ledges to meet up with the boats in calmer waters. The land route was sometimes so arduous that the adventurers preferred risking their chances with the rapids, instead of any scorpions or rattlesnakes lurking along their desert path .

Evening would usually find the group camping on one of the sand bars along the bank. Meals provided basic sustenance and lacked any gourmet touches. One lunch, for example, included a can of sardines, bread, peanut butter, jam, cookies, and orange juice, which was served at every meal. The temperature was frequently over 100 degrees so everyone kept themselves doused with water to keep cool.

Sometimes there were opportunities to explore the surrounding canyons or maybe even go skinny-dipping in a cool pool of water near a refreshing waterfall. Ancient cliff dwellings or the skeletal remains of some unfortunate predecessor offered diversions for the group. They investigated an old abandoned mine shaft and found a case of dynamite and caps. They dragged the case back to the sand bar with the idea of creating a little entertainment and proceeded to generate quite an explosion. Fortunately no one was injured.

The challenges of filming the Grand Canyon experience were almost overwhelming. The River and its rapids waited for no one, so Al and Elma traveled in separate boats, and each had a camera. Al identified his rolls of film with numbers, and Elma used letters. Between the two, editing could be done to merge their shots and provide a smooth flow.  Of course, that would all depend on whether or not they could keep the camera equipment and film free of sand and water. Unlike today’s cameras, they were also very concerned about the quality of light; too sunny, too dark, too hazy, or too cloudy. Losing exposed film overboard also occurred.

Just a couple of weeks before this Grand Canyon trip, Al had spent two weeks shooting the rapids of the Green River in Utah and Colorado. The weather had been cold and rainy for much of the trip, and Al became familiar with the perils of filming on the river. The act of sending exposed film to the Disney Studio and receiving needed supplies from them and sometimes additional advice and direction were challenges that Alfred overcame in preparation for the trip down the Colorado River.

The inherent dangers of the river were obvious with its treacherous rapids, ten foot waves, whirlpools and eddies. As the miles of the journey downstream grew, so did the depth of the canyons. Sandstone cliffs rising up from the river for hundreds of feet could leave them in a shadowy semidarkness along narrow stretches of the river.  Alfred and Elma were able to capture much of the drama of on film, and they were also able to find the rare oases of flowers and maidenhair ferns in such a hostile desert environment.

 The Disney Studios edited the thousands of feet of film taken by Alfred and Elma Milotte and were to create the documentary, Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Although it has been referenced in a 1971 publication, it appears that it has become a phantom film. Even the Walt Disney Museum in California was unable to provide information on it, but the Greater Bonney Lake Historical Society has the notes and journals of the Milottes to tell the story of their adventure. In 1958 another film, The Grand Canyon, was released by the Disney Studios, but Ernst Heiniger was the cinematographer to receive credit on that one.


Next up will be the Milottes journeys in Africa.

In closing I’d like to remind everyone that the Greater Bonney Lake Historical Society (GBLHS) is a nonprofit 501 (c) 3, our next meeting is the last Monday of the month and is slated for September 24th at 7:00 PM in the meeting room at the Bonney Lake Library. We are always open to the public and welcome new members.

Don’t forget to check out www.mwlff.org and look for the trivia questions. There are five of them and if you’re the first to answer any of them you can win a 2013 GBLHS – Milotte themed calendar. 

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