A Game-changer: Martin Litton

The passionate and fierce environmentalist and conservationist Martin Litton passed away quietly in his sleep at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. on the last day of November 2014. His wife, Esther, was by his side. He was 97.

Known more recently for his work running wooden dories down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, he started his career at the LA Times writing about environmental issues and then became an editor for Sunset Magazine. But his legacy resides in the monumental effort he put into saving the Grand Canyon from the proposed dams in Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. He was part of saving and preserving a number of other wilderness areas as well through his work with the Sierra Club.

It was the summer of 1969 when Litton started running wooden dories down the Grand Canyon to form his guiding company Grand Canyon Dories. The little wooden boats were immediately immensely popular with river runners for guides and clients alike. In 1988 Grand Canyon Dories joined the OARS family of companies and, per Litton’s conditions, continues to only run dories exclusively under oar power.

Litton’s life and legacy around his conservation work and dories in the Grand Canyon was documented in the 2013 book The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko about the fastest run down the Grand Canyon. This record run was completed in 1983 in one of Litton’s wooden dories. In fact, it was the first wooden dory, after many iterations, Litton determined was the perfect shape for running the roaring waters of the Grand Canyon and it was the boat from which he modeled the rest of his fleet since. The boat was called The Emerald Mile.

Here’s an excerpt from Fedarko’s Book describing part of what Litton achieved:
Historians often minimize or discount the impact that any one individual can have on human destiny—and for good reason. Given the broad tides in the affairs of men, and the complexity of the forces that shape and change history, it is almost always a mistake to ascribe too much significance to the actions of a single person. But even the most jaded observer can concede that, every now and then, a man or woman steps up to the plate and takes a mighty swing that clears the bases and fundamentally changes the game.

Litton is survived by his wife, Esther, his four children, John, Donald, Kathleen and Helen as well as five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Not to mention the many friends, guides and river lovers Litton inspired across the world.

Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Jon Blaustein.
Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photos by Jon Blaustein.

Published by

Cameron Martindell

Cameron Martindell lives in Boulder with his wife and daughter.

3 thoughts on “A Game-changer: Martin Litton”

  1. Thank you Cameron for such a wonderful tribute. I never had the good fortune of meeting Martin Litton but every time I raft the Colorado through that Big Ditch I give thanks for his selfless work and clear vision in helping save it from human degradation. A true defender of the wilderness he ranks right up there with Thoreau, Adams, Abbey and Brower. RIP

  2. “they” don’t make good music or good (fierce) people anymore? America is a haven of gentrified, insipid, home owner’s association, politically correct wussies………

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