The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West

Amos Burg

Amos Burg

Chronology of River Voyages

  • 1915-22 – Makes numerous voyages on upper and lower Columbia River near his hometown of Portland, Oregon
  • 1920 – Makes first lengthy voyage on lower Snake and Columbia River in canoe, a distance of 450 miles
  • 1922 – Completes 135-day, 4,200 mile canoe voyage on Yellowstone, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers
  • 1924-25 – Completes 1,200 mile voyage on the Columbia River, the first voyager to make solo trip in a canoe
  • 1925 – Completes 1,100 mile voyage on the Snake River, the first individual to run the river from source to mouth
  • 1926 – Voyages the Inside Passage of Alaska and returns to Columbia Rver for another lengthy voyage
  • 1928 – Runs 2,000-mile Yukon River with Fred "Spokane" Hill
  • 1929 – Completes 4,000-mile transit of Canada's Mackenzie River, including the Bell and Porcupine Rivers in the Yukon Territory
  • 1930 – Descends Canoe River in British Columbia; Returns to Snake River to make another 1,100-mile voyage
  • 1937 – Paddles the English canal system from London to Liverpool, England
  • 1938 – Completes 1,300-mile voyage on Green and Colorado Rivers becoming the first individual to row a rubber raft (Charlie) through Grand Canyon
  • 1939 – Descends Idaho's Middle Fork and Main Salmon River in Charlie, another first
  • 1944 – Returns to Hells Canyon/Snake River on pleasure voyage
  • 1968 – Returns to Athabaska and Mackenzie Rivers
  • 1971-78 – Returns to Yukon and Snake Rivers with friends and family for river trips

Slide Show

 

Amos Burg, c1913; Oregon Historical Society

Born in Portland, Oregon on December 3, 1901, Amos Burg, Jr. was the sixth of eight children. A shy child, he showed little interest in school and proved a mediocre student throughout his grammar and high school years. At one point his Norwegian-born father wondered aloud what would become of his "dreamy son". The younger Burg, however, was a voracious reader and showed an early talent for writing, keeping detailed journals as a teenager. He favored adventure stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and poured over maps of his favorite explorers – the early French voyageurs, Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, and Roald Amundsen. His favorite authors included Kipling, Stevenson, and later, Jack London.

 

 

 

 

Columbia River Slough, 1919; Oregon Historical Society

Burg spent his childhood and youth exploring the Columbia Slough, a few blocks from his home in northeast Portland, in home-made rafts and second-hand canoes. A combination of tidal wetlands, lakes, and narrow waterways, the slough brimmed with fish and wildlife. During his teenage years, he ranged onto the Columbia River, making 3-day downriver trips from Portland to Astoria on the Oregon coast. He also took the local paddle wheeler upriver from Portland to The Dalles and then floated down the river to Portland in his canoe. There were no dams on the Columbia at the time.

 

 

 

 

kobeKobe Harbor Japan, 1920; Oregon Historical Society

At 15, Burg went to work as a bellboy on one of the passenger steamers plying the coastal route between Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He dreamed of voyaging to the South Pacific. Over the next decade, when he was not running rivers, he worked as an able-bodied seaman aboard transport ships traveling the "Great Circle Route". He kept a daily sea journal, recording details of shipboard life, storms at sea, near disasters, drunken sailors, mutinies, scenic beauty, and ports-of-call. While the older sailors caroused, Burg, a non-drinker, read the Encyclopedia Britannica which he had purchased while in port in Seattle, Washington. During this "shipping out" period, he decided to return to school at the Oregon Institute of technology and eventually earned his high school diploma.

 

On January 7, 1925 Burg crossed the Columbia Bar into the Pacific Ocean becoming the first person to navigate the 1,200-mile Columbia (source to mouth) in a canoe. He had begun the voyage at the headwaters of the Columbia the previous October while still hobbling on crutches from a knee injury he suffered while at sea. He hoped to write an article on his voyage for one of the popular magazines of the time – National Geographic or Saturday Evening Post. Previous to this epic voyage, he had voyaged down the Lower Snake and Columbia Rivers (1920) and the Yellowstone-Missouri-Mississippi Rivers (1922), a journey of 3,800 miles. Quietly ambitious, Burg had decided to become what today is known as a "adventure photo-journalist". He attended classes at Oregon State College and eventually transferred to University of Oregon. Despite his ambition and love of learning, he never received a degree. Burg would make two more lengthy voyages on the Columbia River.

ceilo fallsShooting Celio Falls with 'Spokane' Hill, 1926; Oregon Historical Society

old town canoeOld Town Canoe, 1925; Oregon Historical Society

On the heels of his successful Columbia River transit, Burg set off from Jackson Lake five months later (June 1925) to run the 1,100 mile Snake River. After wrecking his canoe Song o' the Winds in the "Grand Canyon" reach of the Snake below Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he was forced to abandon the trip, only to return a month later with a new canoe. With the help of John Mullins, local guide, miner, and moonshiner, Burg navigated the treacherous rapids of Hells Canyon and completed the voyage, becoming the first to run the entire length of the Snake River in a canoe. He would make the Snake River voyage two more times.

 

 

 

 

burg cameraBurg & HIll, 1926; Oregon Historical Society

Fred "Spokane" Hill, a WWI veteran and experienced seaman, met the novice Amos Burg aboard the SS Waikiki in 1919. Although Hill was a few years older, the two seamen quickly became friends. Hill accompanied Burg on his first lengthy river trip down the Lower Snake and the Columbia in the summer of 1920. Six years later they voyaged along the Inside passage from Skagway, Alaska to Ketchikan, working the salmon canneries to pay expenses. Once they reached Seattle, they decided to run the entire length Columbia River for good measure. In 1928 Jesse Sill suggested Burg film the caribou migration in Alaska. Burg suggested filming a voyage on the 2,000-mile Yukon River and invited Hill to accompany him. Hill and Burg produced a film called "Alaska Wilds". National Geographic accepted Burg's article "Today on the Yukon Trail of 1898" and 60 photographs. The two men remained life-long friends.

 

 

Dorjun TierraDorjun Tierra Del Fuego, 1934; Oregon Historical Society

In November 1933, Burg began one of his more ambitious expeditions – a coastal voyage through the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on the southwest coast of South America – from the port town of Magellanes, Chili (present day Punta Arenas) aboard a converted surf rescue boat he named Dorjun. His assignment for National Geographic was to photograph and write about the remaining indigenous tribes of the region. He had little or no experience navigating a small vessel in coastal waters, often considered the most dangerous and difficult challenge by experienced seamen. The voyage lasted nearly four months during which Burg and his companion nineteen-year-old Roy Pepper encountered stunning natural beauty and at times, horrific weather conditions.

Roy PepperRoy Pepper, 1933; Courtesy of Dan Pepper

While traveling aboard the transport ship West Mahwah to South America, Burg mentioned to the captain that he had yet to find a reliable companion to accompany him on his upcoming voyage. The captain generously offered the services of one of his seaman to Burg, agreeing to release the man from duty. Of the six candidates who expressed interest, Burg chose Roy Pepper, the least experienced among the group. The decision boiled down to the simple fact that Burg liked the young man. Pepper was young, strong, and willing. He was handy with tools and machinery and had a can-do attitude. Compatibility would be equally as important as experience on a long voyage in a small boat. On the first page of his diary Pepper would write of his duties "1st Mate, Steward, Chief Cook, Sailor, Bosun, 2nd Engineer, & Most Anything." After the voyage, Burg and Pepper remained life-long friends.

 

 

Burg took this photo at Green Lakes in the Wind River Range, Wyoming in August 1938. He and fellow-Oregonian Buzz Holmstrom (seated in foreground) were about to set out on a voyage on the Green and Colorado Rivers. The previous year Holmstrom had made the same run in a wooden boat, the first person to complete the 1,200-mile transit alone. The voyage made Holmstrom famous across the country. Burg, with Holmstrom acting as lead guide, planned to film a re-creation of the epic voyage.

Green River LakesGreen River Lakes, August 1938; Courtesy of Cort Conley

Burg raftAmos Burg, 1938; Oregon Historical Society

While Holmstrom rowed his wooden boat, Burg piloted a rubber raft down the Green and Colorado Rivers. He named the 83-pound boat he had designed specifically for whitewater Charlie, after Charles Wheeler, a friend and benefactor. One veteran Colorado boatman scoffed at the odd contraption, predicting that Burg and Holmstrom would never be seen again. Some seventy days later the two voyagers reached Lake Mead. Burg became the first person to row an inflatable raft through Grand Canyon. After WWII a number of adventurous river runners employed navy surplus rafts to run the rivers. Cheap, easy to transport and repair, and forgiving on a rock-infested river, inflatable rafts would change the nature of river running, opening the door to recreational trips for many people.

Throughout the 1940s, Burg traveled around the world making educational films for ERPI (Electrical Research Products Inc.) as well as writing articles for National Geographic. He worked in Japan, China, Europe, and Central and South America. During WWII the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a forerunner to the CIA, asked Burg to work undercover while in South America. He accepted the assignment, but later complained that being secretive caused him indigestion.

Burg Japan 1940sAmos Burg, Japan; Oregon Historical Society

marrigeAmos Burg & Carolyn (Warren), 1958; Alaska State LibraryThe nomadic Burg, living aboard his boat Endeavour, made his home port in Juneau, Alaska during the 1950s. When he was not traveling for National Geographic, he worked as a patrol officer near Sitka, Alaska in the Inside Passage delivering supplies to the men who camped at the mouth of rivers to stop poachers. In 1955 Burg took a "temporary" job with Alaska Department of Fish and Game as its first "Education and Information" officer. He joked, "At fifteen I retired; at fifty-five I got my first real job." In 1953 Burg met Carolyn Warren, who had moved from Wisconsin to Juneau to take a position with the Veterans Administration. Five years later they were married.

 

 

 

burg and friendsAmos Burg & Friends, 1978; Oregon Historical SocietyThroughout the 1960s and '70s Burg returned to the rivers of his youth. He made a number of trips with a single companion, but often voyaged with family and friends. He relished his role as guiding spirit, trip organizer, mentor, and especially, river storyteller. He often invited people who had never met, but who thought "a friend of Amos' is a friend of mine." By 1979 health problems caused Burg to give up river running, a major disappointment. He and Carolyn, however, continued to make river-road journeys along the Columbia and Snake River where Burg pointed out the places he had camped with his companions or the mishaps they had suffered on the river a half-century ago.

On June 11, 1986 Amos Burg's final voyage ended. His ashes were spread on the rivers of the west he traveled when dams were non-existent and river voyagers few – Columbia, Snake, Yukon, Middle Fork and Main Salmon. Green and Colorado, and Canada's Mackenzie. The Last Voyageur would have approved.

amos burgAmos Burg; Oregon Historical Society



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