As a guest on a Hatch River Expedition, you will hear so many stories that they all start to blend together. This rapid is where this person died and this rock has this memorial etc.

The Grand Canyon has such a long, rich history that the best river guide can really only scratch the surface of the stories it has to tell. And yet, when you venture just a little further—beyond the rim of the story—you will find, in the unfathomable depths and winding pathways, whole people, entire lives lived, worlds of existence to which those few sentences are merely doorways. Shorty Burton is one of those people.

"To remember [Shorty] as a river fatality," writes Al Holland in Boatman’s Quarterly Review, "makes him into some sort of passive object in the grammar of life." But, through Holland’s piece, "Shorty’s Back," we who know only about a pie plate on a rock have the opportunity to learn so much more about Shorty Burton and to gain a deeper understanding of just why every time a pie plate near Upset Rapid disappears another takes its place.

Shorty Burton Memorial Pie Plate

This tin was mailed to Hatch with the following message: “I found this pie tin between Upset Rapid and Havasu Canyon on a recent trip down the Grand Canyon. After reading about the memorial plaque in the RiverMaps guide, I thought your company would have the most interest in getting it replaced properly. Hopefully you will be able to place it very soon.”

Shorty was one of the first lead boatmen who ran the Grand Canyon for Hatch River Expeditions. He drowned on the river in July 1967 when his boat flipped in Upset Rapid and his life jacket caught on an open eyebolt, holding him underwater. His contemporaries remembered him fondly for his Dutch oven pies, thus inspiring the pie tin memorial.

But, Holland reminds us that Shorty was so much more than a pie tin beside the river. He was a rancher by trade who guided river trips primarily to support his family—a wife, Ruth, and five children. Before becoming a river runner, Shorty worked on Bus Hatch’s building crew, and before running Grand Canyon, he ran the Green and the Yampa rivers extensively.

Shorty was endlessly patient and even-tempered, we learn from Holland, and as a result he trained many of Hatch’s rookie boatmen. His professionalism ensured that the guests on his trips did not get restless and testy on the fifth day as they so often did on other trips. And, as a cook, Shorty was without rival—he was even featured in an Aunt Jemima pancake commercial when the woman they’d hired for the job simply couldn’t get her pancakes to the desired golden brown in the wilderness of Marble Canyon.

Though, Holland’s nine pages are hardly enough to cover every detail of Shorty’s 44 years, in reading them we begin to understand the man who died in Upset Rapid in 1967. And, when we understand more about the ones who have gone before, we make our own journey’s fuller.

I am the one who’s gone before.
In reverence long ago I trod.
Most humbly I did explore
These handiworks of God.

-Vaughn Short, inscription from a Shorty Burton memorial plaque

Shorty Burton, Pie Plate, Upset Rapid

Learn more about Shorty Burton in "Shorty’s Back" in the summer 1998 edition of Boatman’s Quarterly Review from Grand Canyon River Guides.

Hatch River Expeditions Boatman, Shorty Burton: More than just a pie plate was last modified: October 1st, 2015 by Jessica Clark

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