Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham
Foundation

Socialite Edith Clegg's Big Adventure: Cross the U.S. via a Water Route

It hasn't been only men who have sought out rivers for adventure. Edith Clegg, a wealthy widow from Vancouver, British Columbia, was fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1939 the 58 year old Clegg undertook her own voyage of discovery, to cross the United States, from west to east, and do it by a water route.

Edith Clegg
Edith Clegg a wealthy widow who decided to cross the U.S.

Author and historian Cort Conley has collected information on this intriguing piece of history. "One thing that interests me is how people get the idea for their so-called adventure. How does somebody sit down and look at a map of Idaho and decide they want to cross it by water, and then decide they want to go clear across the country by water, and they set about finding out how they could maybe do that?

Edith Clegg sitting on the boat with crew members in Hells Canyon
Edith Clegg sitting on the boat with crew members in Hells Canyon

"In fact, one of the most amusing things is trying to read the early newspaper accounts of her travels; everybody thinks she's out maybe surveying sites for possible dams to produce power in the northwest. And then they decide, could this just be a sporting trip? What would a single woman be doing with four males and two boats?

"It wasn't characteristic in any sense, but she was very interested in the Lewis and Clark expedition, and obviously she was curious about what it would be like to span the entire length of America at water level."

Buzz Holmstrom in 1938 after his Grand Canyon trip
Buzz Holmstrom in 1938 after his Grand Canyon trip

Conley says Clegg collected maps, but didn't tell anyone what she was planning to do. Then one day she saw a 1938 Saturday Evening Post article about a really competent boatman, Buzz Holmstrom, who boated the Colorado River by himself. "She had her lawyer contact him and then came down to meet him and then took off after he made careful preparations, wrote people, collected maps, learned what he could and set off across country."

Clegg took photos and kept a diary of the difficulties encountered along the way. They covered eight rivers, from the mouth of the Columbia to Brooklyn, New York. But they knew that the hardest part of the journey would be up the Snake River through Hells Canyon. In fact, the main boatman, Buzz Holmstrom, nearly drowned there, when a wave knocked him out of his boat.

one of the rapids in Hells Canyon
One of the rapids in Hells Canyon

Clegg wrote about it in her May 15th diary entry: "Buzz fell out and was not wearing his life preserver… The other men dropped everything… and ran to the Mongoose…The doc got there first… the engine wouldn't start, but he couldn't get Buzz with the oars. He tried the engine again and it started. Buzz was swimming strongly towards the bank, but an eddy sucked him down twice. The doc got below him and pulled him in. Thank God… I had said to St. Christopher that I won't smoke until the end of the trip -- a kind of gratitude."

Buzz Holmstrom after almost drowning in Hells Canyon
Buzz Holmstrom after almost drowning in Hells Canyon

It took them nearly a month just to get through Hells Canyon and around all the rapids, with their two 14 foot boats and 9.6 horsepower motors.

But after that, the worst was behind them. And three months later, the adventurers reached their destination: the mouth of the Hudson River.

"That had to have been the great adventure of her life," says Conley, "because she never did a similar adventurous trip." Surprisingly, Clegg never really talked about the trip to her children or grandchildren and never kept mementos from the trip in her house. "That may well have been because the boatman from the trip wound up taking his own life," Conley said. "She probably wanted to suppress that memory because she certainly would have known him well after spending 4 months in a small boat together."

St George and Mongoose
The St. George and the Mongoose