Grand Canyon National Park marks its centennial this year, and Johnson County has an unusual connection. A Franklin native, John M. Findley, may be the only person to attempt swimming the 277-mile length of the Colorado River through the canyon.

He failed, but not for lack of trying. In his first attempt, in 1969, he made 53 miles before being persuaded to stop. His second effort, in 1972, failed after 27 miles, and a third try the following year after 17 miles.

On all three swims he was alone, by choice and also because the swims were illegal. The National Park Service forbids swimming in the rough and rapid Colorado, and Findley’s request for a special permit was rejected.

Findley wrote a short account of his initial swim for a 2007 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which gave it the impish title of “In Over His Head?” Findley began the story this way: “In 1968, I was 43 years old, bored, and in need of a new challenge. After 10 years, even exhibition skydiving just wasn’t exciting enough anymore.”

Those words could stand as their author’s philosophy of life. After an early childhood in Franklin, he grew up in Bloomington, enlisted in the Navy at 17, served as a gunner’s mate in the South Pacific during World War II, and came home to be one of Indiana’s first scuba divers, a cave explorer, and one of the first 200 skydivers in the country to earn a coveted “D” license. In short, a born risk taker, who couldn’t resist the lure of swimming through the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps most amazingly, he survived all this, married, and at last report was still living, in his early 90s, in Arizona. In 2010, AuthorPress published his autobiography, “Just Lucky.”

In the Arizona Highways piece, Findley explained his plan to swim through the canyon at 10 miles a day. “I would need a month’s worth of food. So the food, a sleeping bag, stove, fuel, and more went into four small, bright-yellow waterproof drums.” The drums, lashed together with an inner tube around each, made a sort of raft that he could tow behind him as he swam. On the night of June 1, 1969, he donned his wet suit and launched into the Colorado, giving a Tarzan yell as he passed under the Navajo Bridge 467 feet above.

The first rapids brought the raft crashing down on him, so he switched to pushing it. Raging rapids and bruising rocks were only one problem. Another was river level that fluctuated with the release of water from an upstream dam. Battered by hours of struggle, he rested on sandbars and gazed up at the stars. “I wondered how anyone could ask for anything more,” he wrote.

This went on for several days, during which his drums escaped, forcing him to swim 13 hours before finding them caught in a snag. Not long after that he met a pontoon boat full of tourists. They and their leader pulled him aboard, and the leader refused to let him go on. It would be sure death, he explained, and anyway the park would fire him as tour leader if it found he had abetted an illegal swimmer. “Captured,” Findley wrote. “My adventure had ended.”

But not for good. He planned to try again the next year, but legs broken in skydiving accidents postponed the effort until June 1, 1972. He pushed off again at night, for secrecy, carrying his supplies in two bags resembling bloated water wings. On the second day out, he again hit heavy rapids, nearly drowned, and again parted company with his supplies. After a struggle he reclaimed them, but realized he had reinjured his most recently broken leg. (It turned out to be a hairline fracture.)

Eventually he hauled the bags up on a sand bank, where he rested for three days, hoping for another tourist pontoon boat to come by. On the fourth day one did, and he shouted and waved his arms but the boat went on around a bend. He’d been noticed, however, and after a time a man appeared climbing up the ledge. “Are you John Findley?” the man asked. “Yes. How did you know?” Findley replied. “I’m John Cross,” the man answered. “My brother Jim picked you up three years ago. I never heard of anyone else crazy enough to try swimming through the canyon.”

Findley managed to get down to the river again and swim to where Cross had anchored his boat. End of Attempt 2. “As in my first attempt,” Findley wrote¸ “I was no longer a swimmer, just a very grateful hitchhiker.”

On his final attempt a year later he carried his supplies in a single drum supported by an inner tube. But at Soap Creek Rapids, the 11-mile mark, the drum broke loose and sank. He was able to go on about six miles, but then had to leave the river and try to get out of the canyon. (He had no communications gear.) He tried unsuccessfully to hike out, but had to return to the river, where once more a pontoon tourist boat appeared and rescued him.

The Arizona Highways article is short, Findley’s autobiography a longish 623 pages. He describes growing up in the early 1930s as a “dumb kid” with his two sisters in the three-room home of their grandmother, located in Lynhurst Addition at the north edge of Franklin. His mother had died when he was two, and his father was on the road selling vacuum cleaners. By the time he was 11, he had moved to Bloomington, where quarry swimming had become a favorite pastime.

The autobiography continues through a succession of youthful and not so youthful pranks and adventures that support Findley’s own happy admission that he was a boy who never quite grew up. Some of the adventures were harmless, like waving lights behind the curtains of a “haunted” house to startle passersby. Others were potentially life-threatening, like hauling a cache of deteriorating dynamite to a quarry to see how big an explosion it would make. Or with other young-adult friends launching a colorful rocket over downtown Bloomington during the Sputnik era. (Findley also describes, with a certain glee, how he burned up his wife’s newly decorated kitchen while cooking rocket fuel on her stove.)

While trapped in the canyon on his third attempt to swim the Colorado River, Findley had promised God to attend church every Sunday if rescued. But he admitted at the end of his book that he had broken that vow. “I often wonder where the lightning is,” he concluded. “I think the Lord is patiently waiting in hopes that I will do something wonderful to make up for it. And I hope I do.”