gcrg logo
  Kenton Grua
  BQR ~ winter 1997-98

Did you have any idea what was down there? [At Crystal Rapid in 1983, during an illicit speedrun attempt on 72,000 cfs … just after the rapid had been closed to the public for safety reasons.]

“Yeah, we knew there'd be a big one down there … But basically we were totally unprepared for what we saw. We're just going, oh man we've gotta get through this thing … we look down, we see where we've gotta go, you can see where the lateral starts and you know you gotta be in above that lateral or you're dead meat. But there were rocks there, really shallow rocks. There was a little tamarisk tree out there waving in the current and behind it looked like a pourover and I just went, God, can I go over that? … So I came in just as close to it as I thought I could and I went uhn-UHHHhhhh … I hit that lateral and we just went woooooosh … Got the big surf right out to the very center of the hole and just lined it up and got it straight … I just pushed hard and stood up and went forward with Wren.
Me and Wren were plastered against the bow but you could feel it before you ever got there, you know. There was no way. It just snapped us straight over. I had hold of my oars as tight as I could grip em. I was thinking I'm not lettin' go of these f@#$% oars cause they're tied to the boat! You knew you didn't want to get away from the boat at all and, uh, I hadn't even completed the thought, they just went bing, bing and I was gone. I went down, down, down … felt myself coming back up, still getting tossed around and came up and pfooo! cleared the water out of my eyes and two feet away was the Emerald Mile. I just went yeah, baby! Here we are! … And I hear this gasping and I look over, about ten feet downstream is old Rudi so I stick my foot out for him … We were just going … WHOOAAA … It was an intense flip, really intense experience underwater. It seemed like forever.
It wasn't a regular hole. It was perfection in a hole, you know. You had about, maybe a hundredth of a percent chance of making it through. If you ran it a hundred times in a dory, you probably wouldn't make it through once.
So Wren was about 40 feet away right out in the middle of the river swimming along and the Emerald Mile was headed for the right shore … Me and Rudi got on top of it and loosened the flip line and we were just haulin' ass down the right side and we're going oh man. Now we're gettin' close to the shore. … We got it on its side and almost over, started to come over and flunk! the flip-line broke. Shitty old flip-line and MMMwwhoom! it goes back down and about two seconds later: crunch! crunch! we tag a pourover. But all it did was take off the very tip of the bow and the stern posts …

In the Grand Canyon résumé department, Kenton Grua, a.k.a. the Factor, takes the cake. (Years ago, his pals nicknamed him “Factor” because that's what he was … this additional element you always had to factor in whenever you were on a river trip, or in the warehouse, or anywhere with him … frequently brilliant, sometimes insane, usually intense … always a factor.)
He started out a passenger at age 12 on a Hatch trip up in Utah, went to work for Ted Hatch in the late '60s; then GCE; then Martin Litton; then OARS/Grand Canyon Dories when Martin sold the company. In 1983 – with a lot of help from the river – Kenton, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds somehow managed to row from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs in just under 37 hours, thereby setting the speed record for a Grand Canyon trip. (The tale above was excerpted from that adventure.)
But that kind of stunt was nothing new. Years before, when the place still had a frontier feel to it, Kenton walked all the way through – from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs – in a spectacularly short time too. And, as if those antics weren't arrogant, audacious and irreverant enough, ten years ago he called a meeting of as many river guides as he could round up and put forth the idea of Grand Canyon River Guides, Inc … which got GCRG started, and him elected President of the durned thing.
Last month, we had the bright idea that since this issue marked the 10th Anniversary of GCRG and the BQR, we should put Kenton on the cover, and in the hot seat. The following is excerpted from several interviews that have taken place over the years, most of which can be found in the River Runner's Oral History Project. (For a more complete rundown on the great speedrun, see Christa Sadler's book “There's this River … ”)

I started out, old Shorty Burton took me on my first trip down the Yampa, through Dinosaur. We moved out there when I was twelve years old, from Salt Lake City to Vernal, Utah. My dad owned a truck line. I was kind of hating moving to Vernal but as it turned out, it was all right.
… Sort of for my twelfth birthday, on top of getting a bike that I still have, a ten-speed … we went on this river trip. Did it in a twenty-two-foot old bridge pontoon that Hatch rows, I think is still rowing up there. Shorty was great: taught me how to bake biscuits in a Dutch oven and stuff, let me row a lot. I was hooked!
So my dad bought an old ten-man raft with the bumper tube on it and everything. We rigged that up, put some oar locks on it, took it down the river quite a few times as I was growing up and going through high school and stuff. I was just waiting until I was eighteen to talk to Ted and say, “I'm ready for a job.”
Went to the U of U [University of Utah] for a quarter, and came home for a Christmas break and went and talked to Ted. I said, “Well, you know, I was hoping you might need somebody. I was hoping I might get a job up there in Dinosaur.” Ted goes, “Well, when could you start?” I said, “Well, probably . . . oh, next week is fine.” “Get you on patching boats next week and see how you work out.” So I quit school. My parents weren't too excited about it, but they knew I really wanted to do it, so they let me do it. I quit school – only for a quarter, of course [laughs], and went to work for Ted.
Patched boats all spring and about March – in those days, we started about March – went down [to Grand Canyon] and did a training trip. There were about twelve trainees: Chuck Carpenter and Rick Petrillo – a bunch of oldtimers that aren't even around anymore. Whale was in there somewhere. Pat Conley – he was on that trip. We all piled into one training boat. There were so many of us, it wasn't that much fun to ride in the training boat.
I rode with old Dave Bledsoe most of the time – he was one of the boatmen on the trip. There was, I don't know, gosh, must have been seven or eight boats on the trip – big old trip. They don't even allow that kind of trip any more. And made it through the Canyon.
The only rapid I actually motored was Lava Falls and I just about flipped. We left the side tubes on and ran it down the right. They were old tail-dragger Hatch rigs. The only rig that had the – they called them “training wheels” in those days – the only rig that had side tubes was the training boat. They thought, “Well, let's watch these trainees run this rig.” And since I'd been running with Bledsoe all trip, and hadn't run any big rapids – I'd just been riding and he'd been talking me through it – they put me on the stick. So I was running the motor and we probably dropped over about the ledge, I don't know.
We were going down the right (laughs) but there was one big old wave right on top I remember. As we dropped over it, the transom broke, because it was only bolted on with about six bolts, and of the six, probably four of them busted, and one side, all three of them busted. Dropped it down, just about lost the darned transom, engine and everything.
I just remember motoring along, and as soon as we dropped over that first drop, which was probably the right side of the ledge, my arm jerked way down. I was still holding onto the motor, but it was definitely swamped. I looked back there, and I couldn't see anything but my hand, and I knew I was hanging onto the handle, so I held onto it, and went down sideways through the big hole and almost flipped. It was close. I thought it was going over, everybody thought it was going over. And there's just nothing to do. The only thing I could do was hang onto that motor, because I didn't want to lose it.
So as soon as we got through, Carpenter said, “God, what happened?!” I said, “Well, I don't know, but. . . . Look!” My arm is about two feet longer, the motor handle is underwater. “Jesus!” So he reached down there and grabbed it and picked it up and tied it back on with a piece of line, a piece of old sisal rope that we used to have, manila rope. And it took us clear past Lower Lava to dry the engine out and get the darned boat to run. Finally got it pulled into shore.
Anyway, that was my training trip, and the next trip I had people! (laughs)

What was that like? Did they know it was your first time?

Oh, heck no! And I lied about my age and everything. “Oh, yeah, I'm twenty-two.” (sniff) An old man! (laughs) “Yeah, I've been working down here for a couple of years now.” (laughs) I had a fair amount of experience, but that was like one motor trip's experience was all I had. I'd done a lot of rowing up on the Green and Yampa as a kid, so I felt like I was a pretty good hand. I was confident. Had some pretty wild runs, though, over the years.

But you'd row Lava?

We'd just get there early in the morning, as early as we could, because we'd always take the motors off and everything and just power over against the left shore and float down over the rocks – two guys rowing on an old Hatch tail-dragger rig.

And that was the run?

And that was the run, to get as tight as you could on the left shore and just like slop her down over the rocks. It was a great run, actually worked good. I mean, those old boats had floors and stuff and you could take them out there, and you could flip in Lava. We flipped a couple of rigs there in those early years … down there on the right side into that hole.
Our rowing frames, where we had like two stations, so they were three two-by-eights across the boat, and a long two-by-ten connecting the three of 'em together. That was our rowing frame, which sat in the center of the thirty-three. And from that we'd hang floorboards on chains, so everything was wood. We had pipes, probably three-quarter-inch pipe, coming up out of rowing blocks with old pieces of tire for a cushion. The oar was attached essentially with a thole pin – we just called 'em rowing pins – with a strip of tire material about two inches thick, about six or eight inches long, and it was hose-clamped onto the oar, with a little loop in it so the oar would slide down over the pin. So that was sort of the industry standard for years and years.

Just a loop and a tire that was hose-clamped onto the oar.

Yeah. And you just rowed the oar against the pin. Up on the Green they'd use it a lot more than we would in the Canyon, we'd just use 'em for rowin' two or three rapids, whatever looked bad, if the water was low and we didn't want to risk our motors. We'd either tie the motor up, or even take it off for Lava and those.

So you're runnin' thirty-threes with floors in 'em, tail-draggers.

Uh-huh, they had two boards, kinda one off the back – they didn't meet – and stuck out about three feet off the back, and the transom was bolted to the underside of those boards, and they had a cross-board across the front of 'em that was about maybe six or eight feet up onto the tubes of the boat. You'd have to deflate the rear end quite a bit to even get your motor in the water, 'cause the thirty-threes would stick up a little bit on either end … and then of course that'd make you like you were sittin' on a slingshot – especially if you ran anything really big, like Hermit – it could throw ya' halfway across the boat.

So a pretty wild ride.

Yeah, for the boatman, he had the wildest ride. Boy, you had to hang on. You had three straps: one you put your toes under and one kind of scissored between your legs, and one that you held onto, a bucking strap, if you had to pull your engine, which you had to do often. You'd grab onto that and hoist the engine out, and hang on like crazy, because, boy, as you went over anything, it's like being on the back of a slingshot. It'd stretch your arms pretty good.

What were those big trips like, and why would they do them?

Well, it was just, you know, geology charters or whatever. There was one we did was 140 people, 17 boats. It was amazing! A fire pit that was twenty feet long! Just this huge fire pit. We'd get about a cord of wood for every night. … I mean, that's an exaggeration, but it took a lot of wood. It took a pile. In those days it [driftwood] was on most beaches.
We had these old stakes that we'd drive into the ground, and then you'd just build fires in the sand in those days, in these big long fire pits. They were six stakes long, and so you'd put about twelve griddles on and – it was massive to do the cooking and whatnot for that big a size crew.
It was different back then. I mean, the tammies were no taller than I was, which isn't very tall. A lot more sand, a lot more beaches, a lot more wood. Boy, they were a mess though. We had fire pits you wouldn't believe.

That was my first year in the Canyon, March of '69. I'd say we were more cowboys in those days, than hippies. I mean, I was kind of on the edge there, maybe, between cowboy and hippie – dressed like a cowboy but had fairly long hair, off and on. Early Hatch days I cut it pretty short, just to get on. … But we'd wear Levis and cowboy boots on the river. Then we'd wear these cutoff Levis in the summertime. They're even comin' back into style nowadays, I think [laughs] … take about a week to dry, even in the middle of the summer.

And who were your passengers? You were saying they were pretty robust.

Yeah, everybody in those days that went was out for an adventure, an expedition. They weren't out to get coddled or served – and we sure didn't coddle 'em (laughs) back in those days. We got the food out and everything, and we got 'em down the river, but … they looked after themselves … and looked after us! You look back on it, and you wonder what they must have thought! (laughter) We thought we were pretty much pullin' the wool over their eyes, for sure. I doubt if we were, but people still loved it. There was even one or two people that I'm still in touch with from those early days. So it was, in a way it was a lot more fun, because it was a lot less controlled, a lot more of a wilderness experience than it is now.

Was there much hiking?

Yeah, we'd hike quite a bit, really. Ten days was the standard trip, and we'd go clear through the Canyon, on out to Temple Bar, was where we'd take out trips in those days, because Lake Mead was so low that you couldn't get in at Pearce's. But I think mostly we went to Temple Bar because that's where the bar was. (laughter)

So why did you make the jump to Grand Canyon Expeditions?

Well, we were runnin' motors pretty hard in those days, and I'd started out rowing up in Utah, and kind of grew up rowing. We were starting to see a few rowing trips down there, and I guess I just kind of wanted to row, rather than motor. Again, smaller trips, fewer people per guide type thing.
And Ron Smith had circulated a petition the last year I worked with Hatch, to ban motors from the Canyon. He said, “Let's sign up and let's not motor down there anymore, let's all go to rowing. Let's ban motors. Let's do this petition and hand it to the Park Service and get them to ban motors.” And it made him a pretty unpopular guy amongst the motor outfitters. A lot of people signed on to it. Ted [Hatch], of course, was fairly opposed to it. (chuckles)
So I just thought, in good conscience, if I wanted to row, I should probably work for a company that might row. So I went and asked Ron Smith if he needed anybody to work for him that next year, and he said, “Sure.” And he said, “I don't know if I can get you on any rowin' trips next year, but [we] definitely need some motor guides, and you might get a rowin' trip down there.”
In those days, his idea of a rowin' trip was three Green Rivers [a triple-rig] – which he'd just sort of developed with Rubber Fabricators … with a boat-building company that was building motor rigs for him, and he was like the sole distributor for Rubber Fabricators to the river industry. They were starting to make nylon thirty-threes and thirty-seven-foot pontoons, as well as Green River rafts, which Smith had kind of designed, which were a little bit bigger than the old ten-man, and kicked up on both ends, and were a great rowing design, as well as a couple of other designs. And they were much, much, much tougher.
Of course all the motor outfitters figured that Ron Smith wanted to sell these rowing boats that he'd developed (and they were the only rowing boats goin' in those days) … and that was his motive for banning motors, that everybody already had plenty of motor rigs, but if he could ban motors and everybody had to go to rowing, then he could sell a bunch of Green River rafts and make a bunch of money.
And it probably was a lot of Ron's motive for wanting to go to rowing, because they never really did much rowing. There was like one rowing trip that first year (and I didn't get to go on it) that I worked for Smith, so I ran all motor rigs for him. I think I did nine or ten – can't remember exactly – motor trips for Ron that first year. And another ten or eleven motor trips the next year – and didn't get to touch an oar the whole time. I only worked for him those two years, 1971 and '72.
Regan [Dale] came on line. O'Connor was there when I started. Of course a great guy, O'Connor Dale – and he's still with the company, and managing it now. Rick Petrillo had actually moved the year before I did from Hatch to gce, and he was part of the reason I switched over too, because Rick was kind of one of my “heroes.”
Dean Waterman was [Smith's] manager, more or less, and he was a pretty-darned-good aluminum welder, and of course went into business for himself in 1973, which was the year that he and I and Regan and several other people didn't get hired back – we didn't necessarily get fired, but we just didn't get hired back in '73. … I mean, it was largely a personality thing …

When did you see your first dory?

First dory trip was … Well, Martin Litton moved in the second year that I was there, and rented one of Ron Smith's warehouses. Smith had these two warehouses that were an old lumber mill he'd bought for $10,000: almost nothing even in those days, in Kanab. One of them was just totally empty and only had part of a roof on it, but it was an acre of warehouse space. So he rented the space to Martin.
I don't think he really realized, because there was all these hippies and stuff, and he was not really happy that they were there. They were kind of, you know, not quite what he was hoping, and they just all moved in, in their VW buses and whatnot. Jeff Clayton and all the oldtimers, Mike Davis, moved in there and set up shop with the dories.
God, we'd all go over there and sit in those dories and go, “Man, you guys really row these through there?!” And these guys didn't know how to row at all. I mean, they'd just crash and burn. Every trip, it was like the dories would come out sinking and patched everywhere with duct tape and Marine-Tex and steel wool (chuckles). They had all these wild patching techniques back in those days!

Why did they want to run them?

Well it was just Martin. I mean Martin was … crazy. He just thought that somebody had to row real boats down there, wooden boats, traditional boats like the old days, before they invented rubber rafts. And I don't think anybody ever would have thought of it, except Martin. I think once rafts came in style, that would have been all anybody would ever do, even now.
But Martin – he was a purist and an environmentalist. Definitely had values and standards of how it should be done, and so he started running these dories. They worked good. They really did work, even though you can't hit rocks with them and stuff, they sure are a lot of fun to row. Pretty addicting overall.

So '72, you and Regan went to work for Martin.

It's actually '73.

And Martin was just starting his company, and he had these wooden boats. What did you think of all that? It wasn't so much wooden boats, it was just, “Let's go row.”? Plus, “We need a job.”? (laughter)

Yeah, that was probably it more than anything else at that point. That spring was, “here's somebody who'll hire us.” Yeah, the dories were just … pretty boats. I mean, I don't think I'd really thought about rafts versus dories, 'cause I grew up rowing a raft when I was a kid, and rafts were a lot of fun, but the dories were challenging, because of their fragility, and also, I think quite a bit more fun – you know, in terms of big ride in rapids. So they were appealing in that respect. We definitely enjoyed runnin' 'em in those early days – still do, I guess. They're one boat you wouldn't get tired of running.

Was Martin famous? Did you know what he had done on the dam fights and all that? Did that have any sway with you?

Well, yeah, after we got to know him, absolutely. I don't think early on I realized how important he was in that fight, because that had all happened quite a bit before I started working down there – when he was fighting to keep dams from happening in Grand Canyon. But yeah, as soon as we got to know him and how he came to be running trips and outfitting trips in Grand Canyon, yeah, you have to respect that.
Martin's just … all the way along, he's always been there for the Canyon. He was the original … before the dam, he was tryin' to stop the dam and ever since the dam he's been tryin' to at least make the best of the dam for the Canyon. He deserves a place right at the top in terms of what he's done and where he fits into the whole picture of the Grand Canyon and at least our generation's part in its history. He's my hero.

*****

Well, I think you stand out – for most people that know you or know a little bit about you – as being a pretty historic character yourself – just for some things that you've done. Specifically about three things: your walk through the canyon was one of 'em, and the speed run was another one, and starting GCRG. All those things were pretty big milestones. I guess we ought to start with the hike.

Well, as I can remember, as early as I started workin' down there, Colin Fletcher's book, The Man Who Walked Through Time, had come out, I think in the fairly late sixties. I got ahold of it and read it. It was pretty interesting, but as anyone who knew the Canyon could see right away, he didn't really walk through the whole Grand Canyon, by any means. He only went about 100 miles.
And [I thought] “somebody else needs to do it, just to do it, and do it right, do it light, and do the whole thing.” And so my idea was to do it all the way on one side, all the way from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Fault. So I started lookin' at it, really, that first year as I recall, just kinda checkin' out the route, as I was reading the book.

Workin' for Hatch?

Oh, yeah. And just kind of more and more seriously every year was lookin' at it and kind of plottin' out where I'd go here and where I'd go there. And the spots I couldn't see from the river and couldn't check out, I'd try and pull in there by some excuse on a river trip and go hikin' up and check things out. I finally got to where I thought I had a pretty good handle on it by 1972.
In the fall of 1972, I started out to do the hike, and had a bunch of food caches put in. Not very well planned, just kinda wingin' it. The big mistake I made was – I was kind of a hippie in those days, and actually did most of my hiking and boating barefoot by then. I'd gone from cowboy boots and Levis to – well, I was still in Levis and cutoffs – but to mostly barefoot, 'cause they didn't have good flip-flops back in those days. I'd go just about everywhere barefoot. So I got this idea I was gonna do it in moccasins.
And there was a really good kind of moccasin made by an outfit in Tucson, called the Kaibab Moccasin. They were fairly expensive in those days, even. I think about sixty bucks a pair. So I got three pairs of those, figured they'd be light and I'd move fast. I started out from Lees Ferry and kinda walked along the Marble Platform until Jackass Canyon. That was the plan, and I was doin' it all on the south side. I hadn't even got to Jackass, to where I was gonna start down into the Canyon proper, and I already had a hole in one of 'em, and started a hole in another. So I had a spare pair with me, but I didn't want to break those out. The leather in 'em was a bad batch, and they weren't like a rawhide, but an untanned leather sole – real thick, but the leather just fell apart, basically.
So I kept on walking, figuring, well, you know, just see how it goes. And I was trying to stretch that pair out as far as I could. I got as far as – walking on the top of the Redwall – down around 36 Mile, right in that area, and I stepped on a piece of cactus. It was an old dead prickly pear. And it went right through. There was a hole about the size of a silver dollar in the bottom of both moccasins, right at the ball of my foot, so I got it in the ball of my right foot, just a whole bunch of old dead cactus spines. I sat down and picked most of 'em out. I climbed down to the river there, just above 36 Mile, and camped out by the river and pulled out spines and thought, “Well, I'll just keep goin', see how it goes.”
I started hikin' on down from there on top of the Redwall, and it was gettin' really bad. The next place you can come down after 36 Mile is there at Eminence Break. And by the time I got there, I was really hurtin', and it was starting to infect. It was a couple of days later, and there was obviously some I hadn't gotten out. So I just camped out there for a couple more days, and O'Connor [Dale] and George Billingsley came by on the last Grand Canyon Expeditions trip, and they were sort of my backup, safety. So I decided it'd be the better part of smart to bag that trip and hitch a ride. I just rode on out with them, and came by the next year and picked up all my food caches.

So then I just kinda kept plannin' it and figured I'd do it, but didn't really have a firm plan as to when. And in 1973 – actually, it was later that same year when George Billingsley got married – I met Ellen [Tibbetts] and she and I kinda got together. And ended up the fall of '76, we were down in Flagstaff, Ellen and I, and she was goin' to school, workin' on a ceramics degree.
So I wasn't doin' much, I was just hangin' out with her and bein' in Flag, and I started thinkin', well, maybe this is the time to do that hike. I hadn't put any caches in or anything, but I started plannin' it and started getting together what I wanted, and started buying food and caching it. I think I started hiking things in, in January – put in six food caches in square five-gallon honey cans, big round lids – and kind of spaced them out in what I thought would be about two-week intervals, two weeks of food at a time. And then ended up leaving on the trip about as late as I could possibly leave – in my usual style. That was February 29, 1976.
Bart Henderson and I took off, and he was coming along to photograph it. He was thinking article or a book, and I was kinda thinkin' that, but never really thinkin' I'd really want to do that, write it up. He took some good pictures.

So Bart started out with you, but he didn't go the whole way with you?

No, he went to Tanner. [Then I] went from Tanner, where Bart went out, to Hermit, and met Ellen there. And she came and hiked with me to Havasu, and then she went out. Then I was by myself, again, from Havasu to the Grand Wash Cliffs.

So you went all the way from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs, which was 277 river miles, but God only knows – more like, what? 350-400 miles of walking?

Hm, probably closer to 600 or more, by the time you do all the little …

What was your total elapsed time on that?

Thirty-six days.

That's amazing. So you were doing fifteen or twenty-mile days.

Yeah, I'd say that was an average day, fifteen to twenty, easily. There were days I probably did closer to thirty. Travelled pretty light. I had a North Face rucksack, which was one of the interior frame backpacks, pretty small pack. This time I used Penney's high-topped work boots, with the Vibram sole. One pair made it all the way. Kinda took a lesson from Harvey Butchart.

Was it a pretty gnarly trip? What was the gnarliest stretch for gettin' through – of that hike?

Well, there were some hairy stretches. Probably the most difficult hiking was on the Muav Ledges, upstream and downstream from Havasu, from just below Kanab Creek to National Canyon on the south side. That was a stretch that Fletcher didn't figure out. It says in his book, “I came down to the mouth of Havasu,” and he looked up and thought maybe he could walk along the ledges, but he was lookin' at ledges down by the river, and he probably wouldn't have found the route, which at Havasu is a ways above the river. Maybe 100 feet above the river, maybe 150 feet, there's a ledge that goes all the way, but it was a lot of work, and really steep, and really loose. The best way to do it was to go right along the edge. That's where the bighorn would go.
That's how I knew it'd go as a route, is early on in my Hatch days I spotted some bighorns up on that ledge, cruisin' along on that ledge, and also talked to George Billingsley, so I thought there'd probably be, because there's some little layers of shale in there.

And so you didn't walk up on the talus, you walked right on the edge.

Yeah, you really had to be right on the edge if you wanted to move at all. Otherwise, you were just grippin' and climbin' over big boulders, or gettin' scratched to death by catclaws that were up against the cliff, or anywhere along the slope. So you just kinda had to go where the trail was, or where the track was, and that was right there. You'd come to a lot of places where you'd have what's called a “dihedral” or a “book” in climbing terminology, where there's sort of like an “L” shaped section of the cliff, and you can't go around to the back of it, you've gotta jump across it. The trail would jump like four feet, five feet, six feet. And that's what the bighorns would do. They'd be right on the edge, and they'd just leap across this little gap, that if you missed it, you'd tumble about a hundred feet and get torn to pieces by the carnivorous Muav Limestone before you hit the bottom, and then you'd be pretty dead. We've seen – mean, there was that bighorn maybe four or five years ago draped out on a rock, that had probably just missed that jump up above.
So it's one of those things you either – on that ledge you could move really fast, if you did the bighorn trail, and just did those jumps. And even not doing the jumps, just walking along, you're right on the edge, and it's kind of “ball-bearingy” and loose, but there's a little faint trail there that the bighorns use. But it was exciting. It was pretty hairball. You'd get sort of wigged out, and then climb up and go along in the rocks for a while, until it felt like it was safer, or “I'll never get there if I'm goin' this speed.” And then you'd come back down to the ledge and just start movin', make the jumps. There were a couple of jumps [where I just went], “Unt-uh! No way.”

But Ellie was with you through that?

Down to Havasu, uh-huh.

So at least there was somebody to pick up the pieces maybe. Big deal.

Yeah, you wouldn't have picked up the pieces, you'd just go, “Oh, boy.”

What did that do for you and the Canyon, doing that walk? Did that change the way you felt about the place or anything like that?

I learned a lot. All the way, the things that struck me – all along the way, you could see evidence of Anasazi, or Hisatsinom. And there were places where you'd walk where there wasn't a trail, a historic trail that we know of that had ever been used by a white man. But there was a deep trail there, that somebody'd made – probably wasn't bighorn. And mescal pits. So it was definitely done by the Anasazi. I don't know if anybody ever just kinda walked the whole distance, or hiked the whole distance, per se , [But] they moved through there, did everything that I did, in terms of hiking. And that was kind of a neat feeling, to be in their footsteps.

*****
Your other great feat was, of course, the speed run, the speed record through the Grand Canyon. Your hike was thirty-six days, and the speed run was thirty-seven hours, right?

Second one. That was another one that took two tries – two speed runs. The first one was in 1980. It was really Wally [Rist's] idea. One has to give him credit for it, because it was his passion. When I started workin' for the dories, he was an old timer, he'd been workin' for Martin for at least two, maybe three years. I think he was a schoolteacher in Phoenix in the off season. Everybody – because it was in the River Guide – knew about the Rigg brothers doin' it, and he just thought that would be the coolest thing that you could do, to take a dory and row through faster than the Riggs did back in the fifties.

Yeah, the Rigg brothers went in two-and-a-half days. Kenton, Wally, and Rudi Petschek went in two days. And then in 1983 when all hell broke loose at Glen Canyon Dam with the flood, Kenton and Rudi and a guy named Steve Reynolds – who they called “Wren” … those guys went, and set a new record of thirty-seven hours, all the way through, from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. Very dramatic story, and that is all documented elsewhere. We'll have to put it in the Kenton file. But it's definitely noteworthy, a spectacular thing to do. I wonder what we need to say about it, other than that?

Crystal was big.

Crystal was so big! Had a little mishap there. (laughs)

Yeah, that was a wild flip. End for end. Yeah, there was no makin' it through that hole.

*****
Okay, politics. You go to work for the dories, you work for them for fifteen years, and you spend all that time with Martin learnin' about his history and stuff, and then all of a sudden he sells the company, and what happens? You start Grand Canyon River Guides. That strikes me as being not entirely coincidental.

Well, I think a lot of people were really ready to do it. I think it was a big combination of watchin' Martin headed out the door, Grand Canyon-wise. (Or at least it looked like he was gonna be headed out the door, sellin' the company and claimin' he was gonna retire – though he still hasn't really, probably never will – which is good, really good.)
But you could see a void opening up there that had to be filled. And also, the whole boating community is such a cool thing, that it was really time to finally put something together, sort of a boatmen's club. wrga [Western River Guides Association, now absorbed by America Outdoors] which was originally probably really a boatmen's club, had turned into an outfitters' organization or club, and it was kind of dissolving too at the same time that Martin was selling the company.
So a whole lot of stuff seemed like it was goin' on, though it seems like it always is. (chuckles) We just kind of keep reinventing the wheel … We just put another bandaid on things, and go on, stumbling down the road.
Actually, originally, the first glimmerings of it, we put together a little meeting. And the most likely meeting place, or the most guides that could get together was Brad [Dimock]'s house. So we just kind of called it more of a party than a meeting there. But it was the “original” meeting of GCRG. That was a full house. Everybody went, “Yeah, great idea, let's do it, let's do it. You're in charge!” (chuckles) To me, in terms of at least …

It was your idea, right? I mean, you were the one that said, “Let's start an association.”?

Actually, it was a lot Mike Taggett and me, up in Hurricane, because at that time I was up in Hurricane [Utah]. The Dories had been there for years and years, and it was lookin' like we were gettin' uprooted from there. So there was a lot of change goin' on. And Taggett and I talked endlessly about it, and he was really generous with his facilities and his new toys – Apple computers and stuff like that, and the new old Macs – you know, the very first Macs that came out.

The little bitty ones.

Little teeny screen, and little itty bitty computer. That was a cool machine. That really started a revolution. So we put it together on that – you know, the first mailings. [We] called around, got ahold of the Park Service, got as many names and addresses as we could from them; called all the outfitters and tried to, as much as we could, get their crew mailing lists, and some of them were cooperative, and some of them weren't at all cooperative. (chuckles) 'Cause they were goin', “You want what?! You're doin' what?!” And so we were tryin' to keep it really above-board, and more of an environmental, Canyon-oriented, and group-oriented thing, in terms of guides as a group.
My biggest thing that I wanted to do was – well, first of all, have a cohesive group or club that we could belong to that would give us more of a voice in what was going on, both with the outfitters and with the Park Service in the Canyon, because, really, I mean, who cares more about it than we do? And a good excuse to get together once a year or twice a year.

And have a party! (laughs)

Party. Talk about shit and party. I think that's still the best reason we have for existing, and I hope it continues to exist for that reason. Really, it's kind of amazed me how much it's taken off and become its own thing. It's a lot like havin' a kid and then watchin' it grow up and turn into whatever it turns into … I'm kinda punched out of the work now. I did put in some time the first three years.

A lot of time.

And not just me – Denise [Napoletano] was key. She was the first secretary. She was the one who really did the footwork, and made it happen. And she worked her tail off for three years on it. It was really, I guess, the original, initial thing was me and Taggett and Denise, sittin' around 'til all hours, and other dory … Jane [Whalen]. There were other dory people there involved, goin', “Yeah, this is a good thing, we gotta get this goin'.” It was time.

Mike Taggett was a dory boatman.

The inventor of Chums. Eyeglass retention devices. And Jane. Ellie [Ellen Tibbetts] was around. I imagine Coby was in on a few discussions. You know, it was like whoever we could grab around there. Some of the Sleight boys – Walt, I imagine, was in on a few discussions. Mike Grimes. It became something that really had to be done, and that the time was right for. So we kind of scheduled a time for a spring meeting, and talked it over with Hatch, and went back to Hurricane and did that first newsletter and mailed it out, everybody we could mail it to. Dropped a few bucks on the postage.

Who paid for the postage and all that?

Ah, we did originally. I think we fronted a bunch of money to it. Denise and I. Taggett might have put in a little bit. But then I think everybody got paid back – not for time or anything, but for direct expenses – out of the first dues. It's always pretty much paid for itself. I made it a loan, I think, a $500 loan, or something like that, early on, but it paid me back – no interest or anything – but short-term loan, too, was paid back within a matter of four or five months … Yeah, we had a lot of people get on board right away, and then there were a lot of people who were real suspicious of it, really like …

“Is this gonna be a union?”

Well, it was like the Flagstaff Rowing Mafia. I think there's still a little element of that, you know, though we try our best not to make it that way. I don't feel like I'm Rowing Mafia at all – I love motors, and the best people down there are the motor guides. We're all totally interdependent. I think it works really well the way it is.

You love motors? Why?

Well, they have a place. They take lots of people through very efficiently, which is good or bad for the Canyon. I mean it's bad because of this continuing demand, which is just gonna keep growin', to see the place. And that's what we're kinda facin' now, politically, more and more, with the big private waiting list. It's a limited resource, and too many people want to do it. And the more people we show it to, the more people are gonna either want to come back and see it, or tell a friend and they come see it. It's an ever-expanding ripple. You know, you throw a rock in the pool and it just keeps goin' and gettin' bigger and bigger. That's what we're facin' now, and have been for a long time.

So just a little capsule history of GCRG.

Well, maybe we should come back to just the whole reason for guiding and the good aspect of all the people that love the Canyon is that, first and foremost, the Canyon is protected. And when we started down there, that wasn't the case.

When you started?

Yeah, it was just barely beyond the dam phase. I mean, the whole political climate in the country has changed that much in the last thirty years. Back then there was still a lot of people – a whole lot of people – in favor of damming the Grand Canyon. We were really more lucky than we realized, not to have 'em.
And that was Martin's legacy that he left us – to, in a way, sacrifice the place by popularizing it, taking people down. That was always his philosophy. I don't think he was ever in it for the money at all. He was in it to tell people about it, and he knew at the same time he did that, showed it to people, that it would change the experience, and make it – just crowd the place up. You know, you love it to death that way.
But that's far and away preferable to having it under a reservoir. And then I don't think we dreamed in those days that we could even be entertaining something like the Glen Canyon Institute. So who knows where it's gonna go from here?

My sense of the situation is that Grand Canyon River Guides had a lot to do with the Grand Canyon Protection Act, and the Glen Canyon Dam EIS. My sense of it was just by rallying, it wasn't the guides that they listened to, but by us rallying our powerful passengers that we take down, and those guys writing letters to their congressmen, that really helped grease the wheels.

Well, that's just what I'm saying. That's where our strength is, because we're teachers down there, and we can mobilize people with a lot of different strengths in different parts of the country, that come down to, a lot of them, just to do it because their friends did, or whatever, and it changes 'em, and they come back out goin', you know, “We've got to do everything we can for this place – and for other places.” Yeah, I think we did. Yeah, as I recall, on the Grand Canyon Protection Act, Congress got more mail on that, actual mail, than on any other congressional issue.

Well, what else to we have to say about it? The history of GCRG? What else stands out for you?

Just some great parties. I mean, it has made the river community a lot closer. Everybody grumbles about it, that we're not doing anything for the guides.
But I think if you look – you don't even have to look closely – to see that a lot's happened for the guides. At this point, not for everybody, but the company that I work for, and several other companies, are starting off with 401ks. And they could do a lot better – everybody could – and you're always gonna just keep grumbling about it, but I think the collective energy of just having a guides' organization, that really does make a difference – at least in terms of Park Service management policies, and Bureau of Reclamation dam management policies – that gives a credibility that makes the outfitters start to go, “Yeah, these guys really are serious and committed, and maybe they're in there for the long term, and maybe we should start treatin' 'em a little bit better.”
So it's like a friendly “union” that hopefully … I mean, I think it's done a lot for a lot of us, and hopefully in not the too distant future, it'll do more for all of us. I mean, our theory is to guilt the outfitters, essentially, into taking better care of the people that are working for them, and for the Canyon. That's a big part of it too. I think our main focus should continue to be the high road, and that's protecting the Grand Canyon, and rivers in general, and sort of a philosophy in general that we want to espouse and pass out to the people that we deal with.
So I think it's done that, will continue to do that, hopefully. I hope we can be proud of it in another fifty years, when we're sittin' around in rockin' chairs.

We did have some good parties, didn't we? (laughter) I can think of a couple in particular. (more laughter)

Oh, man! Hopefully we'll have a bunch more.


Lew Steiger


big horn sheep