River Guiding: No longer an adventure

Essay by Brad Dimock

Whitewater trips – July 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

I BEGAN MY “CAREER” as a Grand Canyon river guide in 1971, in the heart of what we later referred to as the clueless years. Few boatmen had more than a couple dozen trips under their belt; some were on their first. We had few wizened veteran guides to tell us where to hike, how to get through Hance Rapid at low water, or how best to manage a disgruntled guest. We were on our own, figuring it out as we went along. A trip that finished at the right place, on the right day, was a good one.

These were expeditions in a true sense of the word. We were learning tricks and techniques daily, making progress and truly magnificent blunders.

Motor rigs ripped stem to stern, or beached a hundred yards from the river after the river level fell. These were expeditions, all right, for passengers paying less than $50 a day. We all struggled together.

What made it work — the thing that was so profoundly different then — was that we were trusted. Not just by the passengers, our bosses, and the National Park Service, but by society as a whole. We were given a boat and a group of passengers at the launch ramp, expected to do our best and show up at the other end. How we did it was left to our wits, judgment and discretion. Just bring ’em back happy.

The learning curve remained steep for several years. We learned how to get the boats through with a degree of predictability. We began preparing meals that were more than just edible. We learned about geology and the ecosystem and found ways to convey our knowledge intelligibly. By the mid-’80s, Grand Canyon had a self-taught cadre of highly trained professionals running top-quality adventures.

Somewhere toward the end of the 1980s, it all began to sour. Although we were performing at ever higher levels of professionalism and training, the trust we thrived on, bit by bit, disappeared.

I struggled for years to find someone, something, to blame. Was it the outfitting companies? The insurance companies? The Park Service? It wasn’t really any of them. It was a societal shift, bulldozing its way through the culture, until even down in the Big Ditch, where we’d thought we were immune, we found ourselves inundated. The ballooning affluence of the Reagan-Bush years finally caught up with us.

As the financial stratification of the culture progressed, our clientele grew wealthier. Schoolteachers, nurses, farmers, and just plain folks were priced out, to be replaced with doctors, lawyers and the Silicon Valley nouveau-riche.

Trip marketing began gearing toward the Outdoor Material Culture, the yup-scale deluxe cruise, the predictable and comfortable “wilderness experience.” As expectations mutated, complaints became more numerous, yet more trivial. Clients wanted “service.”

Meanwhile, the ever-growing private boating population was locked into a small, archaic allocation system, and it clamored for a bigger share of the pie. At the same time, the Park Service began looking seriously at its mandate to manage Grand Canyon for wilderness values.

OUTFITTERS, no longer owning stake-bed trucks full of war-surplus rafts, but million-dollar businesses, became nervous and listened to the whisperings of lawyers and insurance agents. They formed powerful trade organizations — America Outdoors and Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association — complete with lobbyists and political contributions.

Down on the Colorado River, the “resource,” running at or beyond capacity for more than a decade, began to suffer visibly. More beaches and trails had to be rebuilt, reinforced, artificially stabilized, with steps constructed, banks rip-rapped with driftwood logs, trails marked ever more grossly and unmistakably to mitigate trampling.

The river guide was eyed with ever more scrutiny. A profession that was once defined by its sheer lack of definition became quantified, qualified, measured. We had somehow come to be on trial.

For me, the final straw came last year, when boatmen were legally presumed to be drug users. Unless we could prove otherwise through urine testing, we could no longer work in Grand Canyon. We became guilty until proven innocent.

Perhaps it was inevitable. The Grand Canyon river experience is one of the more magical treasures on a planet that has far, far too many people. In a culture that reveres material wealth above all else, bottom-line economics and paranoiac policy-making are as natural an outgrowth as the desperate need to escape from the same. Grand Canyon is caught, vise-like, in the middle. Drug testing was just the dying canary.

Grand Canyon is still a wonderful place; river trips are still changing people’s lives. But the trends are sinister. And unless we change direction, as the old Chinese proverb states, we will almost assuredly end up where we are headed.

Brad Dimock is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo. . He has racked up 150 Grand Canyon trips “private, commercial, science, government and sneak.”