The very hard way
Biography traces the life of legendary river runner Bert Loper

SideStory: A booksigning with Brad Dimock

Bert Loper in a rare moment of rest as he looks out upon his newfound life calling, the Colorado River, in this undated historical photo.

‘The Very Had Way: Bert Loper and the Colorado River,’ by Brad Dimock. Fretwater Press, 2007. 456 pages.

by Joe Foster

“The trail I have traversed has all been the very hard way … but I still love it all.” – Bert Loper

In 1908, 39-year-old Bert Loper rowed and dragged a boat from Lee’s Ferry to Hite. That’s 162 miles – upstream … in February – by himself. His journals conjure scenes of toiling waist-deep in mushy ice floes, dragging a wooden boat loaded with food and gear over sand bars. It only took him three weeks or so. The boat contained the only things he owned, and in his own words, “… there is no other course for me to persue (sic) for my boat is the only home I have, so I must take it with me.” It just dumbfounds me, the things people used to do simply as a matter of course and necessity. We are, as a species I think, weaker for our technology and leisure. Granted, we have a higher life expectancy and all that crap, but hell, Loper was still rowing rapids in his 70s, up until his death on the Grand Canyon when he was 80. It’s humbling and inspiring all at once.

And therein lies the underlying current of the newly penned story of Loper’s life, The Very Hard Way: Bert Loper and the Colorado River, by Brad Dimock. The book details the innate toughness Loper possessed, not only because of the times but also because of his extreme poverty, drive and passion. Dimock has done a truly wonderful job of conveying that toughness in relationship to Loper’s life and the land that he called home. I’ve mentioned in a past review how much I don’t like biographies, but I am yet again shown the error of my prejudice by a book so well written it reads like great literature. I’m not kidding. Its 456 pages that never once bog down; fast-paced whitewater reading all the way through.


The story alternates each chapter between Loper’s life story and the legend he left behind in the words of those who knew him best. Chapter 1 tells of Loper’s death from the point of view of the man who shared his boat on his last voyage. Chapter 2 tells of the day of his birth – the same day that John Wesley Powell discovered the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado, a fateful day for those rivers. The way Dimock formatted the telling of the story was brilliant in that between Loper’s life and legend, history, exploits, and deeds and how others perceived him, there is never a dull moment. Very impressive.

Loper, the “Grand Old Man of the Colorado” was apparently also a cantankerous and opinionated old curmudgeon (like I hope to be someday) who found it a fairly easy thing to piss people off aplenty. People loved him or despised him. Dimock doesn’t shy from this side of Loper one bit but takes time to explain the possible differences in opinion, using letters and circumstances to attempt an understanding. Most of the people who were vocal about disliking Bert seemed to be the kind of people who are disliked for being so damn vocal about things. Like two rams crashing heads together, two stubborn old men arguing about the correct way to do things are inevitably going to cross swords. The fact that toward the end of his life Loper had traveled almost every mile of most of the major rivers in this part of the world was hard to take for other experienced boaters. Likewise, it was hard for Bert to take the publicity that these other boaters received, for what he saw as lesser accomplishments. A lot of folks took issue with the claim that Loper and friends made the run from Green River, Wyo., to Green River, Utah, (700 miles or so) in just 14 days, for example. They just didn’t believe it was possible. Loper didn’t necessarily brag about it, he just did it.

A hard-working grunt, Loper, like many of us, was obsessed with the beauty of the places he called home. All the back-breaking work he did, from hard-rock mining in Telluride (and many other places), coal mining in Durango, ranch work in Cortez, ditch-digging, chicken-plucking, placer mining, and subsistence ranching, he could always heed the call of the canyons and get the scent of the river in his nostrils to be at peace. Brad Dimock has done a beautiful job of making this legend accessible and human and immediate that I feel as if I knew Loper myself and mourn his passing while at the same time marveling in the fact that he was who he was and did what he did. •



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