The Canyoneers Story: From Nevills to Nowadays

Norm Nevills in Grand CanyonWe trace our company’s beginnings as a river rafting outfitter back to Nevills Expeditions, the first to carry passengers for hire down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

The story began in 1934 at the little hamlet of Mexican Hat, Utah when a young ex-Californian named Norman Nevills decided to treat his new bride to a honeymoon trip down southeastern Utah’s rollicking San Juan River. It was a winter trip in a boat made of scrap lumber and it lasted only four days, but that was long enough for Norman to become afflicted with that mixture of awe and excitement river buffs now call “rapids fever”.

Norm, the son of a gold miner and wildcat oil driller, was then working part time for the Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Expedition, which was exploring the area for national park status, and when one of its staff expressed interest in going down the river to see and photograph Rainbow Natural Bridge, Norm jumped at the opportunity.

Norm Nevills Horsetrough Grand Canyon river rapids boat

In 1936 he built a boat nicknamed “The Horsetrough,” because, he said, the lumber came from an abandoned outhouse and Navajo horse-watering trough and in it he successfully rowed the expedition staffer and two other men down 191 miles of the San Juan and Colorado to Lees Ferry Arizona. The film of their trip was shown in the university communities in California, and resulted in a flurry of letters that in turn produced passengers for several more San Juan trips.

In 1938, Norm organized and led the first commercial trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon, for which he designed and built a new type of craft called a Cataract Boat. The 1938 expedition generated a great deal of national publicity and succeeding expeditions, each of which generated more interest in river expeditions as adventure vacations. During Norm’s lifetime his Nevills Expeditions carried scores of adventurous passengers down the San Juan, Green, Snake, Salmon and Colorado rivers. At the time of his death in a 1949 plane crash, Norm, then only 41 years old, was widely known as the World’s Number One Whitewater Boatman.

New York Times 1938 clippings on lost Grand Canyon river running expedition

After Norm’s death his mother asked two of his boatmen, Frank Wright and Jim Rigg, to continue the expeditions. They did so, changing the company name to Mexican Hat Expeditions. They added motorized trips in express cruisers built by Jim and his brothers Bob and Jack, and for several years offered a choice of 6, 12, or 19 days by cataract boat or 5 to 7 days in motorized boats.

In the early 1950’s I had met and married Norm and Doris Nevills’s oldest daughter, Joan, and life-changing surprises had begun. Frank Wright, learning we wanted to write a book about the lives and times of Joan’s parents, invited me to go on the river trips to get some first-hand background. In 1956 I was a passenger on one of Mexican Hat’s seven day expeditions down the San Juan, and shortly after that, on their nineteen day cataract boat expedition through Grand Canyon. There were twelve in our 1956 group and at that time only about three hundred people had ever gone all the way through Grand Canyon by boat.

Along the way, Frank allowed me to row some of the easy rapids and afterward I told him I’d like to be a boatman — if he ever needed one from a thousand miles away. To my great surprise, instead of a trip or two he offered me a partnership in Mexican Hat Expeditions. I jumped at it, and after the 1957 season ended he offered to sell Joan and me his remaining interest, which put the Nevills company “back in the family”.

Historic cataract boat on Grand Canyon sandy beach
Historic Grand Canyon boats

Expedition boats were designed to get explorers down the river, with passenger space a secondary consideration. In a cataract boat one of the two passengers sat on the bailing bucket behind the boatman and the other sat or laid on the stern deck hanging onto safety lines. From 1958 through 1969 we carried on the Nevills tradition, conducting wooden boat expeditions for ten to fifteen hardy passengers at a time. Seven of those years were on the pre-dam San Juan, Glen Canyon, and Grand Canyon.

By then, though, we had substantial competition in the form of several Nevills / Mexican Hat “alumni” who had begun making war surplus inflatable pontoons into “boats” that could carry more supplies and amenities, and larger groups at lower rates.

In 1969 we retraced Major Powell’s route of discovery down the Green and Colorado rivers and, to my delight, my narrative of the adventure, Broken Waters Sing, became a Book of the Month Club Alternate Selection. After the Powell Centennial Expedition we put our venerated cataract boats aside, and to stay with the times, updated from expedition river running to whitewater vacation trips, converted to pontoons, and changed our name to Canyoneers, Inc.

The Rapids and The Roar bookThose stories and many others are detailed in The Rapids and The Roar. It’s about triumphs and tragedies, the successes and failures, the rivalries and feuds, and the growth of whitewater boating and river regulation. The book has 344 pages, more than 140 photos—many from the earliest attempts to ascend or descend the river—plus chapter notes, four appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography. Whether you read this book before or after your river trip, we think you’ll find it an interesting addition to the experience.

Expect professional service from our trip leaders, guides and staff. They are the heirs of Canyoneers’ proud tradition and our many years of experience.

Owners of Grand Canyon river rafting outfitter


Gaylord Staveley
Founder and CEO, Canyoneers, Inc.

Joy Staveley
President, Canyoneers, Inc.