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Canyon Swim Made Alums Legends

By Kevin Cool

AzRA lead guide Alan Fisk-Williams sat cross-legged on the sand one evening as students gathered around him in a half circle. "It's story time," he said, and began thumbing through a dog-eared book titled We Swam the Grand Canyon. For the next 20 minutes, he regaled the group with a story of two former Stanford students who in 1955 swam the length of the Grand Canyon and lived to tell about it.

John Daggett and Bill Beer, both '50, had been roommates as sophomores at the Farm and remained friends after college. When they cooked up the idea to swim down the Colorado River, only about 200 people had navigated the full length of the Grand Canyon in a boat, and the river's rapids had claimed several lives. No one had ever swum it.

Their plan was to begin at Lee's Ferry and finish at Pierce Ferry near Lake Mead, a distance of 280 miles. They packed food for 24 days, expecting to complete the trip in three weeks. And they brought along a 35mm camera to film the adventure.

Strapped for money and lacking proper equipment, they improvised. They wore cheap rubber shirts and woolen long johns to protect them from the 50-degree water. At a military surplus store, they found large watertight rubber boxes designed to protect radio equipment—these would hold their food and gear, and double as flotation devices.

A week into the journey, they climbed up Kaibab Trail to reprovision and learned that park rangers had been searching for them: Media reports had claimed they had been killed. "We had to make immediate efforts to resurrect ourselves," Beer wrote in We Swam the Grand Canyon.

After 26 days, the pair made it to Pierce Ferry, battered, bruised and exhausted. Daggett survived one near-death encounter when he was pinned beneath a large rock, but the men emerged from the adventure generally healthy.

The Grand Canyon swim remains one of the most remarkable endurance feats in American history, and secured Daggett and Beer as legends among the canyon's pantheon of pioneers. Beer died in 2000, at age 71, of heart failure while flying an ultralight aircraft in Arizona. Daggett died in 2010 at age 82.

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