Glad You Asked: Where is Shaw Arch?
How a simple question led me to a deeper appreciation of Utah’s great outdoors.
by Mark Milligan
At the UGS we often field questions not only about Utah’s geology but also about Utah’s geography. The inquiries can be quite interesting, such as the one I received in 2016 when a gentleman named Kent Ahlstrom called and asked for the precise location of Shaw Arch. It is in Grand Gulch, 11 miles from the San Juan River in San Juan County. The arch is known for the amazing pictographs (painted or drawn images) and petroglyphs (carved images) found at its base. What set this inquiry apart was that Mr. Ahlstrom had not only been to the arch long ago but indicated that he was integral in naming the arch. The following is his account as recorded in my notes from our phone conversation.
Many years ago, Merlin Shaw started a youth group with the goal of taking as many youths down the Colorado River through Glen Canyon as he could before Glen Canyon Dam was completed and Lake Powell was filled. The eight-day river trips led by Mr. Shaw cost $50! Kent took the trip when in high school in 1962 or 1963. He described Glen Canyon as eight days of paradise…beautiful beaches the whole trip…they camped two nights near Rainbow Bridge, taking a day hike up to the bridge.
Tragically, Mr. Shaw died in 1963 while riding in the back of a truck that rolled when on its way to meet a river trip at the bottom of the Hole-in-the-Rock trail [a now-submerged very remote and difficult-to-reach location about 3.5 hours from Panguitch, Utah]. Several Boy Scouts also died in the accident. In 1964 Mr. Ahlstrom was among a group that hiked to a remote arch that they believed Mr. Shaw had recently discovered* and placed a placard naming it and dedicating it to him. Someone at the Bureau of Land Management (or perhaps the U.S. Geological Survey) helped with the paperwork to make this an official name.
*Other reports state that the arch was previously known locally as Grand or Wetherill Arch, after the Wetherill brothers who explored Grand Gulch in the 1890s.
My conversation with Mr. Ahlstrom piqued my interest in the history of this youth group and Merlin Shaw, and an internet search soon revealed more details about Mr. Shaw. In the late 1940s he and his cousin bought a ten-man raft at a military surplus auction and started a non-profit outdoor adventure group “…for the purpose of guiding the youth and providing a meaningful relationship with nature.” They named the group SOCOTWA, an acronym for the South Cottonwood Ward in the Murray area of Utah. By the mid-1950s, when plans for Glen Canyon Dam were announced, SOCOTWA was leading about a half-dozen river trips at a time and had over 30 rafts and associated equipment.
The success of SOCOTWA made the sudden loss of Merlin Shaw all the more acute. The accident happened on a steep grade out of Carcass Wash near Hole-in-the-Rock in Kane County. The engine of the large truck, carrying 38 people, stalled, causing it to roll backwards, out of control, and off the road. The truck overturned, ejecting passengers and gear and then rolling over some of them. Twelve people died, four trip leaders, and eight scouts. Twenty-six more were injured, some critically. The remote location meant a slow and daunting rescue and recovery. Noted river historian Roy Webb gives many more details about SOCOTWA in a 2003 historical essay that he wrote for The Confluence: Journal for Colorado River Guides titled, “‘Set My Spirit Free’—A History of SOCOTWA” (http://www.riverguides.org/Confluence/27/27SocotwaWebb.pdf).
Upon recently rediscovering my notes, I was wondering if this would be a good “Glad You Asked” article. I also wondered if I could find Mr. Ahlstrom to confirm and clarify the details of my notes. Sadly, my search found his recent obituary: “Alonzo ’Kent’ Ahlstrom (1946–2020). Our tenderhearted dad who was fierce and adventurous was taken tragically in a car crash on Christmas Day, 2020.” According to details of his obituary, in much the same way that Kent’s mentor Merlin Shaw had passed on his love of the outdoors to so many, “…dad’s love of the outdoors was instilled in all of us, and we have passed that on to our children.”
If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you too have a passion for the outdoors. Merlin Shaw “provided a meaningful relationship with nature” to Kent Ahlstrom who in turn instilled a love of the outdoors in his children, who then passed this to their children. Be sure to hand down your passion for Utah’s great outdoors.
This article was written with the approval of Kent Ahlstrom’s family.
Kent Ahlstrom, April 05, 1946 – December 25, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the family did not have a large memorial but did ask family and friends to wear a plaid shirt in his honor and post pictures on social media using #plaidfordad.