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Pioneering female botanists ‘Brave the Wild River’

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20min 31sec
Lois Jotter Elzada Clover Brave Wild River
Courtesy W.W. Norton & Company
Lois Jotter, left, and Elzada Clover at the end of their trip down the Colorado River. Their story is chronicled in “Brave the Wild River.”

It was 1938. The Grand Canyon and river tearing through it, the Colorado, had been home to Indigenous people for millennia but the white explorers who came after that and navigated the river were men. The first woman who tried died, with her husband, on their honeymoon.

And then came a female botanist with a big idea. Elzada Clover, who taught at the University of Michigan, visited the southwestern U.S. to study cactus. While she was there she connected with a lodge owner named Norm Nellis. She told him she wanted to catalogue the plant life of the Grand Canyon. He told her he dreamed of launching a commercial rafting business on the Colorado. Together, they planned an expedition down the river.

Clover recruited a Michigan colleague, graduate student Lois Jotter, while Nellis built the boats and found men to run them. The tale of their sometimes-harrowing trip, and the science it produced, are told in the book “Brave the Wild River,’’ by Arizona journalist Melissa Sevigny.