Dave Edwards


It was June of 1984, and we were running around the clock on 50,000 cubic feet per second. We were in Havasu. There were two azra trips in there together. We had ten boats, and there were some private boats. The private boats left, it was late in the afternoon, it was a gray day. I was up Havasu, hiking, and it began to sprinkle—rain—and so I turned around immediately, which is generally our policy, and headed back to the boats. And I started running back and it continued to rain lightly. I got back to the boats and put on my lifejacket, just to be ready if anything happened. I remember I was drinking coffee with Lorna Corson and a guy named Joel Schaler and then someone called me from the shore. All the boats were tied along the edge of the mouth of Havasu, and I walked over the boats and onto shore, and I’d no sooner taken four steps on the shore when I heard Lorna Corson scream out, “Flash flood!” A very quiet young lady, and she was shrieking at the top of her lungs, and she came flying off the boats with the other guides, at which point there was a roar and I turned around and began running back to the boats. I saw Sharon Hester stand up and holler, “What do I do?!” She produced a knife and we yelled out, “Cut ’em!” And she sliced a bow line and she was away in the rapid in this torrent of water and logs and all kinds of stuff came whipping by, and the boats were ripping and lines were snapping. So I started to jump back on the boats with Bill Wasley and we had to leap about four or five feet out. The boats were bucking. We were going to go out and cut some lines or maybe jump on some boats. Suzanne Jordan was out on a boat, I know, trying to keep them all together. It was a very violent, fast thing that was going on there. And as we jumped on, Wasley hollered right beside me, “Body!” And we both spun, tripped, recovered, and went back the way we had come, leaped back onto shore and started looking down the river, because the river was right there, right on the edge of Havasu, where Havasu meets the Colorado. As we ran along, the body surfaced. It was face up about six, eight inches underwater, black hair, unconscious, going down head first on her back. And so I had a jacket, so I hit her. I just dove after her…out in the river, yeah. And so I grabbed her, and you know we’ve all been trained in what to do, and I hit her, spun her around, put her in a Nelson lock and I was being swept quickly down river. I had a very light jacket on—I don’t know what would have happened. I heard Suzanne hollering in that Alabama voice, “Dayvid, Dayvid, catch this!” And Joel Schaler threw a throw bag at me, and the throw bag hit right in front of me in the water, and I grabbed it, pulled tension, and I was still being swept down the rapid. Only had one hand free, so I took the rope and I stuck it in my back teeth and I knew since the line was already tense, it would sweep me in a pendulum to shore, just for a moment. At that point, Dave Lowry was rushing down along the ledges. And he’s a strong fellah, he’s moving like a cat, real low to the ground…I remember the look on his face, he was reaching, reaching, reaching, couldn’t quite reach me, and then finally he caught the tips of my fingers, and I let go of that rope. (chuckles) I guess I valued my dental work. And then lots of hands came and we pulled that lady out. And then they hauled her off and I heard her coughing. That’s the last I saw of her. I never saw her again.
Then we scrambled back on the remaining boats and we’re looking for more bodies. We figured maybe a line of people had been washed away. We were really lucky to have seen that one, because it was of course muddy water. There’s a great deal of foam, about four feet of foam over the boats. Most of the boats had been ripped away, torn off, washed away down the river. We only had a few of them left. We didn’t find anybody. It was astonishing but we got everybody, nobody was lost. This lady had been sitting by herself on the edge of the creek cleaning gravel out of her shoes when the flash flood hit her, a wall of water…she was one of the people on my trip. She was okay, a little shaken up, but afterwards she told people that the wall of water frightened her. She looked up and it just ran right over her, and then she was swept down Havasu Creek, probably about three hundred yards, and was unconscious and she’d given up. She floated underneath the boats.
Steiger: She went over that waterfall?
Edwards: Uh-huh, over the waterfall and then out into the current. And then she said she’d given up, and everything was peaceful. She felt no fear at all, and then I hit her. (chuckles)…See, there were all these people involved—it was Suzanne calling and the throw bag that got in and got me to shore, and it was Lowry that saved the day…It was just…mostly we practiced using throw bags. We constantly were practicing or horsing around with them one way or the other, handling them all the time. I was trained as a lifeguard when I was just a teenager. So I knew what to do. Most of us at that point had been for plenty of bad swims. I think I just did what any one of the guides would have done. I was the only one with a lifejacket.
Steiger: So Sharon went on downstream, huh?
Edwards: Yeah, she got in on the left side below Havasu. A very strong woman, and she got into shore alright. But Suzanne was with five boats, two of them sinking, one of them upside down, and it took her seven or eight miles to finally get to shore.
Steiger: Oh, Suzanne ended up going on out too, huh?
Edwards: She was on the boats alone, and what she would do is, she rigged up a long line with bow lines, and lashed them all together. When the boat would come near to shore, this flotilla of out-of-control boats, she would dive in the water, swim to shore with a rope, and then run down the shore to try to get ahead of the boats, and then try to belay the boats. She tried this a bunch of times. The line would jerk her back in the water, she’d swim back, get on the boats again, wait for the right opportunity, jump in the water again, swim to shore, and then try this time after time until she finally got the boats tied, and they all swung into shore. She told me she damn near lost a few fingers to the rope.
Steiger: So she helps get you the throw bag and the flood’s still going on?
Edwards: Right, yeah.
Steiger: And she goes back and jumps on the boats.
Edwards: Right.
Steiger: And then the boats are blown out of there.
Edwards: Right…At that point, I think the lady had already been pulled back to shore. I pulled the lady back to shore, and between the time I got on shore and ran to the boats, Suzanne was swept away.
Steiger: Now this lady, did she need cpr or anything?
Edwards: Oh, they had a lot of people looking after her…It was surprising she didn’t aspirate water. Maybe somebody did a Heimlich [maneuver] on her, I’m not sure. I just let other people handle it at that point. There was a lot of stuff going on. To get the people from Havasu Creek right to Havasu Creek left, we had to use a Tyrolian traverse, bring people over with belt harnesses that we fashioned and so on. There were some Outward Bounders who knew rope work on the crew, and they were a big help.
We had one boat left. And a motorboat came up. A guy—I think it was Ed Smith—came up and stopped and ended up taking all the people from both azra trips down to Tuckup Canyon…He saw the disaster. Yes, he pulled in below the mouth and hiked up. Perhaps he had been there before that, I don’t know. There was much confusion. I know that he helped, and then we all went down river, slowly recovering the various boats that were on the side of the river, down towards Tuckup, and we arrived at Tuckup in the dark, a flotilla of boats. Suzanne was already down there with her boats. We had five boats we were bringing down. It was quite a scene, because there were, I think, four or five trips at Tuckup—motorboats and oar trips—all of whom had been involved in the Havasu flood…But we were the only two trips in the mouth at the time when—our boats were the ones washed away. Yeah, the motorboats were okay, they weren’t damaged in any way but they all stayed to help. It was an extraordinary scene with five companies and their cookfires lighting up the cliffs at Tuckup—something I’ll never forget. And crews were patching boats and doing all kinds of stuff. We drank a lot of beer that night.
***
Dave Edwards, in addition to being a hard-headed Welshman, is a world class boatman, raconteur, and photographer. On magazine racks and bookshelves all over the country these days one can find a new publication entitled “National Geographic: 100 Best Pictures. Collector’s Edition, Volume One.” Edwards has a photo in there of a Mongolian eagle-hunter (a year or so ago, “National Geographic” ran a feature article based on his Mongolian work in their regular publication).Though he is disgustingly modest about his own achievements, we’ve all seen numerous Edwards shots in the Patagonia catalog and in countless other periodicals we know and love too. If you’ve met him through the river, you don’t realize what a great photographer Dave really is until you badger him into letting you root through his files and admire all the stuff in there (or log onto his website at www.daveedwards.com). The work reflects a passion and exuberance that is uniquely “Edwardsian.” His presence has enlivened the Grand Canyon boating scene for the last thirty years or so.
***
Edwards: I was in the Army…I was in an intelligence outfit, and as Vietnam started, I was discharged from the intelligence outfit after having been in two years active duty and four years reserve. I’d just graduated from the University of North Carolina at that time, and I was discharged. It was just amazing, because intelligence outfits were some of them activated for that war, and how long I would have been in intelligence, I have no idea. When I went to West Point, my goal was to be in infantry, and the code of my family was to be a fighting soldier, not a “back of the lines” type.
Steiger: The “code of your family”?
Edwards: Yeah, I come from a long line of military people on both sides. We had people who were soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo; in fact, who came to the United States and fought in various wars, including a relative in Company I of the Third Georgia [Regiment], went all the way through the Civil War—two relatives. Many more, but I don’t know who the others were, but two for sure—my-great-great grandfather and his son. And then five West Pointers in the family, and of those, one was killed in Vietnam, most of the others survived. I lost two relatives, both pilots, in World War II. Some became drunks from their experience, some went off their rocker a little bit. But basically it was a good family with good people. I was in that tradition, so I felt strangely lucky I didn’t go…My first cousin was nine months younger than I was, and he was killed in the First Cavalry, Vietnam. That was a big blow to my family. And then other cousins were killed as well—not war-related—accidents—sometimes military, sometimes not.
And then I went to the University of North Carolina and graduated with a degree in literature. After that I went to Europe, stayed for five years, and during that time I was in film school for two years. I graduated from film school in London, came back to the United States. I was in the industry for a while and didn’t like it. Round about the time I quit that, I was invited to come on an experimental paddle-boat trip into the Grand Canyon. That was 1973. After that trip I was invited back as an assistant boatman, and slowly I was drawn into the profession.
I was wondering what to do, what would be the right thing for me to do in my life, and I just asked myself a simple question. I never thought to ask it of myself before. It’s a good thing for anybody to ask themselves. If you were able to look back at your life, as an old man or an old woman, and…in looking back at your life—ask yourself, what would you be most glad you did in this year of your life? (snaps fingers) I knew exactly what to do—be a river guide. And I don’t regret it. It’s been a very, very rewarding time, being here in the Grand Canyon.
***
Edwards: In 1973, a friend of mine had been to whitewater school, named Conrad Levasseur. He was a big ol’ boy and a good athlete. He’d been selected from the whitewater school, put on by American River Touring Association [arta], to be looked at, as a possible guide in the Grand Canyon. So a trip was put together of all arta guides, and, at the time, they were trying to do an all paddleboat trip with no oar-boat support, to see if could be done. And [in the end] we decided it couldn’t be done.
It was arta in those days, arta Southwest. And subsequently arta was changed about 1978 or 1979 to azra, which is Arizona Raft Adventures, and I’ve worked for them for a long time, freelancing to other companies sometimes.
But Levasseur had a girlfriend at the time, they had a big quarrel. I was in San Francisco, I’d introduced him to river running up that way, in a minor way on the Tuolomne and the Stanislaus where I’d been doin’ a little bit, and he said, “Hey, c’mon down, come with me.” So I went, and that was my first trip. After that trip, I was invited back to be an assistant—not by dint of my river skills, but by probably because I was a big guy, and strong. There was a lot of lifting to do in those days. I never thought it would be my career. I went down with a view towards just enjoying it, but I slowly discovered that it was really a profoundly important thing to be doing in life, and I was very lucky to have even been considered. And that got through my thick head, so I continued to pursue it, not really thinking it would be my life. And then finally, maybe five, six years later, I realized that it was a very, very important thing to do, in terms of having an interesting life, meeting interesting people, and it certainly led me to the type of photography I do now. And I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever encountered in my life.
…[That first trip] was September 1973, and it was about nineteen days long. On that trip were a lot of people who’ve remained in my life since then, including Don Briggs, Bob Melville, the Center brothers, Rob Elliott, Jessica Youle, Rob’s ex-wife, and Steven Dupuis and others who I still know. Sue Bassett was on that trip. Most of us became guides, or were guides at the time, and continued to be guides. And slowly, people would start off in their own outfits, or pursue a different career.
It was an exciting trip. I’d never dreamed a place could be so magical as the Grand Canyon. Every day I was just astounded at what I experienced. It was a really wonderful revelation for me.
Steiger: Did you see a lot of other trips, do you remember?
Edwards: No, we didn’t see very many. It was September, we saw a few motor trips go by. I don’t remember any encounters with other oar-powered trips.
I remember scouting Horn Creek Rapid for about, oh, three hours. It was low water, and Melville was the paddleboat captain on the paddleboat I was in. They were all paddleboats, remember, on this trip. I looked at it and looked at it, and one of the big mistakes new guides make is they think they can do maneuvering in a rapid, and the more experienced guides rarely make that mistake. They know that they want to make as few maneuvers as possible, and those they do make, they calculate very, very carefully…What I’m saying is, the veteran guides are very, very conservative about their moves in a rapid. Well, Melville was new to this game, and of course I didn’t know anything at all about it. Conrad Levasseur and I were the bowmen, heavy paddlers in the front of Navy surplus assault boats that weighed about 400 pounds empty. Sue Bassett was in the boat, and a girl named Laurel, and a couple of other people. Melville said, in his Fort Bragg accent, “Way-el, we’re gonna git in the boat and go out in the middle of the river and turn raht and then go down here and turn left agin and go out in the center agin, and then we’ll turn raht agin, and then go through that over there.” We said, “Fine, fine.” We got in the boat and immediately went out in to the river and were swept instantly downstream. [laughter]…right along the right shore, into some gigantic holes. I remember being hit with a wall of water, hit square in the chest. There were no foot cups here, and I was slammed against the huge load behind the bowmen, with tremendous force. It just almost knocked the breath out of me. And then the boat wallowed and then didn’t turn over, but pushed on through. I was waiting to hear more commands, and I looked back, and everybody else was gone but Levasseur and myself. And then I saw Melville’s striped engineer cap calmly floating by. Sue Bassett almost drowned…
But it was a good trip, we did a lot of hiking…
Steiger: You were saying earlier that when you got into it, like on that first trip it wasn’t a big revelation, “Okay, this is where I’m gonna spend the rest of my life.”
Edwards: No. It wasn’t like that…I think that some people know right away, and I wasn’t anybody that ever knew right away about anything. I just needed the experience of seeing what it was like, and meeting the passengers we would take down. Passengers are very, very crucial to my experience in the Grand Canyon. I don’t think I would have been a boatman if I’d just been doing research trips, or if I’d been just moving supplies downriver in some fantasy world of Grand Canyon boating. I liked it because of the guides I worked with and people I met and my interaction with the people on the river. It was a very moving experience to see what would happen to people.
I went on the paddle trip in 1973, and then afterwards they invited me back as an assistant boatman. In those days we were running snout rigs, which are catamarans made of bridge pontoons. One assistant would be on every trip, and that assistant would switch boats every day and row for the boatman, is basically what it was. This gave the boatman a day of not having to row the boat, and recover their strength, and so on. That’s how I learned to row…
They were heavy, very heavy boats. We carried six people on each boat, plus all the gear. I didn’t know how to row as well, and the other guides didn’t know how to row as well as we do now. We used to turn those boats over in Lava Falls, we’d turn ’em over in other places as well. These are 21-foot snout rigs, and it’s hard to over turn one, I thought., But after a time I saw that one can do it, and it’s not that difficult, really.
Bottom hole at Lava Falls, about 12,000 or 15,000, yeah.
We used to turn ’em over on the black rock, we used to turn ’em over in the ledge hole, we used to turn ’em over in Hermit Rapid, turn ’em over in Granite. So it was a very exciting thing. They didn’t seem like such big boats to me at the time. They seemed pretty small in the face of the size of the rapids. That’s how I learned to row. I could move the boat around. It takes a while to read water, know where you are and what you’re doing. I think there were many more skilled boatmen than I was.
Steiger: One of the things…This is kind of a new one. We’re movin’ into a new phase of this project. So much of it has been talkin’ to old timers and talkin’ about what was, back in the fifties and stuff. We’re just now gettin’ to the current class. One of the things that’s interesting to me is just this evolution of guiding, of what happened to us. Like you’ve now been doin’ it, you started in 1973, and it’s now 1998, so that’s 25 years.
Edwards: Yeah.
Steiger: And things have changed a lot, just in terms of our skill level. Those early, early trips…You say you’ve always done this for the people. Has it changed over the years as far as what you’re able to give people? What was it like in the beginning between you and the people? And how has that changed? Or has it?
Edwards: Well, I said I did it for the people. That’s not exactly right. I did it because of the people, but especially because of the guides, the teams I worked with. I really, really liked my fellow guides a lot, and I liked being a guide, and I liked the responsibilities and so on. Things have changed quite a bit, the people have changed. We used to have a clientele that was more adventurous; very, very good hikers that were enthusiastic. A lot of times the entire trip would be nude—not for any reason other than just the freedom, the joy, the privacy of this wilderness location where we were and what we were doing. Our skills weren’t as good. I remember rowing a snout rig with six passengers down what we used to call in azra, the “forever eddies,” right below the Little Colorado. They were really difficult in a high wind. It was hard for me, at the time, I couldn’t see where the currents were. And now, if the wind is up and one can’t read the currents—I know where they are, of course, I memorized them years ago—I can make my way through. But, anyway, I just pulled my way through these eddies in a high wind, and I remember my people were crouched on the floor to cut wind resistance, and my hands were pretty ripped up. When I finally made it to Carbon Creek, about forty-five minutes after the other boatmen pulled into shore, I was almost in tears with the frustration of it, and there was Wesley Smith the Vietnam vet, just squattin’ on the beach, smokin’ a cigarette behind his cupped hands, in the wind. He just laughed, said he was expecting me and helped me tie it up. I just didn’t know how to row the boat through all those eddies. I eventually learned. Wesley was always a big help to me, he supported my being a guide. I got stuck on a lot of rocks on those early trips, low water. Wesley always made fun of it, and made sure the passengers just enjoyed the adventure, and everybody knew I was a new boatman.
Steiger: He made fun of you, but not in a bad way?
Edwards: Not in a bad way, he just made light of the whole situation. That’s the way he would do with people, so my pride wouldn’t be hurt, you know. (chuckles) He got us to laugh at ourselves. They were real adventures.
I remember another time as my first trip leader. I really supported all the trip leaders I worked with, I thought. That was my military background, I guess—I just liked to really be supportive of the effort. That’s kind of a naive thing to do in a way. You want to be supportive, but I was with a lot of people that had never been in the Army, and I supported them, but when it came time for them to support me (chuckles) they weren’t so good at that…Yeah, I thought they were gonna be great teammates. Boy, they didn’t give a damn. Of course I was new at the game, but they just stood off and let me make mistakes, rather than help me out. We finally got down to Lava Falls, and I was runnin’ it and they were up lookin’, standin’ on the rock. Drifter Smith’s mother was in my boat, along with a couple of Finns who had managed to get over to the U.S.. I had an assistant on that trip, on my boat—no, it was the trip’s assistant—and her name was Rebby Gazzaniga. She was just learning to be a boatman down there. Of course she was studying under a boatman who was just learning to be a boatman, too. (chuckles) So we went down the current above Lava Falls, and she was gonna follow the bubble line and go through what was called the slot at the top on the right-hand side at Lava Falls. And I was squatting right behind her on this huge, stern-heavy load that we used to carry in those days. We didn’t understand about boats—honestly. We had strange rigs. And there were three people in the bow, and myself on the load. Rebby, [who] was from California, said, “Am I on the bubble line?” And I said, “Yeah, you’re doin’ just fine.” “You sure I’m on the bubble line?” And I say, “Yeah, just great.” And I was dehydrated and nervous about all those guys up there lookin’. I guided her right over the ledge hole. I could hear the screams from the guides tryin’ to warn us. Drifter Smith was watching us go over over the ledge hole.
Steiger: You mean you could hear the screams from the guys on the black rock?
Edwards: Yeah. And Drifter’s mother was in the boat. She was right in the bow, and there was this Finn on the right of her, and a Finn on the left of her. We got through the bottom of the rapid, and I’d been thrown with such violent force, forward, that when the boat flexed, it released the tension on the sling of the spare oar on the side of the boat, and I was pinned between the spare oars. How I got there, I just do not know, but I was actually pinned. You know how the oar hangs from a strap? I was in there, [up to my] chest…We had to cut that oar free to get me out. And the other boats made it down all right, and then we got down to Fat City and had lunch. Drifter Smith had to be restrained and didn’t speak to me, really, for about four or five years.
Steiger: After that?
Edwards: Yeah. Yeah, he was pretty pissed off at me. I understand why. I mean, I wasn’t rowin’ that boat, but I was helping guide the boat without being at the oars, and I didn’t know, I made a mistake. Nobody was hurt, but still, that’s what it was like in the early days. Our boating skills weren’t that good, we made mistakes, and that’s why it’s an important job. As we become very, very good at rowing the river, we seem to think—I hear people saying, “Well, anybody can come down there and row.” That’s not true. You can get a private trip and somebody can come down and make it successfully down the river, but we do it time after time after time after time, in every condition: high water, low water, medium water, high wind, low wind. We can do it in the rain and storms. We do a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. And it takes a lot more skill to get down there, and get safely down there, especially on the hikes, because that’s where most of our injuries are. There have been some horrible injuries on the river in boats—people with jaws broken and teeth knocked out and that type of thing. In 1996 I had my ribs broken. I could have been killed by an oar one time. It hit me like a jousting spear, right in the side. And except for the rubber handgrip and my life jacket, it would have gone into me. That’s when it broke ribs.
Steiger: Man! How did that happen?
Edwards: Oh, it was at Crystal Rapid. You see, we get beaten up, you know. I’ve been in the hospital, I’ve been lucky, I don’t have carpal tunnel syndrome or anything like that. I work out in the wintertime, and am in reasonably good shape for a fellow my age, I guess. I have the blood pressure of a twenty-two-year-old, according to the doctor last week. I hear boatmen saying that just anybody can do this job. That’s not true. The reason you hire people is not for the principal effort of getting down a river safely. You hire them because of those moments when you really need them—the moments that are exceedingly difficult, when you need someone to know exactly what to do. And this has to do with injuries, it has to do with disasters, boat wraps, it has to do with extraction, it has to do with being able to know which camp to go to, and which not to go to in a storm. You have to know when you can push people in the heat, and when you just back off, no matter what anybody says, because of the extraordinary amount of risk involved with having people in the heat when it’s 119 degrees. You have to know these things. You have to know how to run your crews so the crews are productive, and really enjoying themselves, and are good with the people. And you can’t order people around—not in my company anyway—you don’t order people around like a sergeant or anything. You get people to work together, and they generally know what to do. It’s like Drifter Smith once said, “You could be a boatman in the Grand Canyon and be involved in an accident that killed people, and people would forgive you for it. But the only thing they’ll never forgive you for is laziness.” And I like being in a situation where that is one of the parameters by which one has to run one’s life.
***
Edwards: Maybe you could catch me later on and let me think about what another story would be. There’s so many stories.
Steiger: Yeah, I know.
Edwards: I don’t want to just repeat the same ones.
Steiger: Yeah, me either…Are you going to keep doing this?
Edwards: Oh yeah, I’m going to keep going. I’ll keep on ’til I can no longer do it for some economic reason, or because my health has failed, or I get injured or something. I’m a better boatman, I think, than I’ve ever been, so might as well continue. I enjoy it very much, I enjoy the people I meet very much. I especially enjoy the people I work with. The richness of this life—you’ll never be rich if you’re a boatman, but the strength of it is the friends that you make on the river, and the guides that you know, and that you’ve been through so much with these people. You’ve known them for so long. There’ll be months and months when you don’t see them, but when you’re together, there’s a friendship that is indescribable, because…words would really fail. You could say that it’s like a brotherhood, and I suppose it is—a sisterhood. These things fail. That’s the richness of this life. You work long hours and you have a great deal of joy and happiness from the experience.
***
Edwards: I’ll tell you a story. There was a time in 1983—it was before the Havasu flood—and I was on a trip with Martha Clark and Miles Ulrich and Suzanne Jordan was leading it. I think there was another guy, and perhaps I’ll remember in a second. There were two azra trips running close together, and we got down to Twenty-four-and-a-half Mile Rapid, which is always a rapid that gets our attention, but in this case, we stopped to scout it. It was running at 62,000 [cubic feet per second], we stopped high up and walked down. We looked at the waves, they were mostly standing waves, and I think we were confident we could take it straight away. Mind you, we’d been through quite a few rapids upstream, and some of them washed out, some of them still active, and this one we figured we could do just fine. We had two paddleboats rigged as oar boats. They were Maravias, and the people that had designed the boat had the “D” rings in the wrong place, I remember, and you couldn’t strap the frame down tightly. This proved to be a problem, as you’ll see.
I was the second boat in. We rounded the corner, and what we hadn’t noticed, because we hadn’t been on 62,000 before, is the waves would break forward maybe two, four, five times, and then sideways once; and then forward, forward, and then break in a regular way. But they were not breaking consistently. And so we went in and immediately we knew something was wrong, because Miles Ulrich’s boat was ahead of me, it stood right on its tail, did a fishtail, and dumped everybody out, and then we were right behind. I started hollering at these folks in my boat at the top of my lungs, “High side! High side! High side!” So they started throwing their weight around. I must have had some good people in the boat, because we didn’t turn over. But I shouted to the guy behind, “Look behind, how are the boats behind? Look at the Maravias!!” And he said, “One’s over. Martha’s over. Now Suzanne!” [I said], “Which one, damn it?!” And he said, “Both.” And so there we were with two boats upside down, some elderly people in the water, a big mess on our hands, grapefruits floating all over the place. The grapefruit box had been torn off one of the boats—it was bizarre. And so we started hauling for shore and getting the people and just gathering folks as fast as we could. We finally made it over below Twenty-six Mile on the right. It was a long ways downstream. Mind you, it’s 62,000, moving really fast. We had people in the water a long time, and we’re missing a couple of people. They were washed down [to] another azra trip that had a very bad experience there too, but didn’t turn over any boats. They were waiting downstream and picked up those people.
We got to shore, Suzanne came in rowing the Spirit that had dumped everybody out, towing her Maravia, pulling an extremely fast current, and violent eddy water, and got to shore…I mean, her boat was upside down anyway. Miles Ulrich was a strong fellow, but she took the oars, and while she rowed, he bailed like mad, to just lighten the boat up. They didn’t have anybody else in that boat, as I recollect.
She made it to shore, and then we pulled over the Maravia, and she said, “Dave, dive under the boats and see if there’s anybody under there,” so I did. There wasn’t anybody under the boats, but there were bags hanging down. We used to carry drink bags, very foolishly, not being tightly tethered to the boat. I cut those free and we hauled those to shore. Then other people were tending to the shocked people, because they were definitely going into shock. And that was going on, we got them taken care of, got them warmed up, got people looking after them, and everything was reasonably stable, and at which point Martha was standing there like a wet cat, I remember, and Suzanne said (in Southern accent), “Ah want to talk to you down the beach.” And we went down the beach and we got down well out of sight of the passengers and Suzanne looked at us and she said, “I almost died. That one almost got me.” And she began to shake a little bit, then she started to cry. Not a lot, just a little. She said, “I was trapped between the frame and the boat.” We’d gone out with improperly prepared boats. These Maravias weren’t ready, they weren’t made right. And she had been thoroughly wedged between the frame and couldn’t get out. I don’t know, she took off her jacket or did something, got out of there finally, but she almost died. But the thing that I was struck most by, she did that, then got in the boats, then towed them to shore, then saw to everybody, controlled the entire situation until it was totally safe, and then, only then, did she allow herself to feel anything. There’s a good boatman right there.
Steiger: Yeah, that’s Suzanne.
Edwards: Yeah, there are a lot of Suzanne stories, there are a lot of them. There’s so many different experiences down there, different people—some of ’em short, some of ’em long. But that’s one I’ll never forget. A very brave person, I think. (long pause) Lost a lot of grapefruit that day.
***
Steiger: I’m curious. If we’re supposed to interpret all this stuff, what are we supposed to tell these people? What’s the most important information that you’re supposed to pass along? I mean…
Edwards: In an orientation, you mean?
Steiger: No, I mean…
Edwards: About the canyon?
Steiger: Yeah, as a professional guide taking people down the Grand Canyon. I mean, there’s more important things to convey than like, for example, what you do in the winter. (laughs)
Edwards: Yeah. What I do is inevitably in a crew of five people you have guides that are particularly good at certain things, and they do certain explanations of, say, geology, because they’re often geologists, far better than I could ever do it. And what I like to do is get the guides on the trip, if I’m trip leader, to give talks in their expertise, in their areas. This also introduces the people to that guide, because many times people will not really know that guide, because they would have been on other boats the whole time. So that is what I really feel strongly about. When I do a trip, I really like people to contribute. And I find if you do it well and you don’t make the guides feel like it’s a chore, or that you’re getting them to do your work, if you do your work and do it well, and then ask them to contribute, they will be glad to contribute to a job that’s being done well. But they don’t want to contribute to some sloppy-ass way of runnin’ a trip. Sometimes later in the seasons, I’ll do all the talks if the people get really tired and are burned out. But as often as not, folks can really give a very fine explanation of things. For example, you could hardly beat John O’Brien talking about geology. He’s a geologist! But there are nongeologists, for example, Jon Hirsch isn’t a geologist, but good Lord he knows a lot about the canyon and how it was formed, and he’ll make these massive almost sand table structures on how the canyon was formed, that’ll cover twenty or thirty feet on the beach. And it’s really a lot of fun watchin’ him do it. And he gets the group of people, and they walk through this big terrain of formations, and he will describe what happens in different time periods and what not. It’s so good that I always go to ’em and stand around and listen. That’s a good thing.
Or you may have someone like Bryan Brown, or the equivalent of Bryan Brown. He doesn’t come on commercial trips, but someone who really knows about birds. You will have seen some birds, and they’ll talk about ’em. Or I’ll have somebody on the trip who’s not a guide, but knows a lot about astronomy, and they’ll give an astonishing presentation of information. Oftentimes really cool things come from people on the trip itself. Not real often, but occasionally you can get people to talk about what they do. And sometimes it just is overwhelmingly interesting, to where the entire trip and all the guides listen to one person almost every night, talking about…. One fellow was a guy who discovered massive theft on the Internet, and break-ins into the cia and the National Security Agency by these same people, spies. He did it. And so every night he would talk a little bit about it. So you have all these amazing…
Steiger: Wait, this guy, was he working for the government?
Edwards: No.

Steiger: You mean, he was just cruisin’ around on the Internet and he stumbled on all this stuff?
Edwards: He figured it out himself, and couldn’t get the government interested, until he finally discovered things…
Then sometimes just really good stories are told at night. I’ve been on dory trips with Brad Dimock and [others]. Brad will tell really good stories about the full history of the Bessie Hyde controversy, and whether she died or didn’t die or whatnot. And they don’t make it necessarily into a National Enquirer type half-truth, but they tell the whole history of all that they know about the controversy over the disappearance of the Hydes.

And people who know a whole lot about, say, the bat caves. Or they know a whole lot about some miners that used to work down there. And in my case, I sometimes tell stories about the Mormon massacres and the commando tactics of the Mormon irregulars, and the assassination groups that they had—all trying to defend Mormons from the depredations of a society that did not observe polygamy and considered the Mormons sort of heretical. Mormons were under a lot of pressure, so they started their little armies, and that may be what happened to Powell’s men. I’ve looked into that a lot, and so I tell stories about that.
Steiger: I’m just fishing here, and it’s just because I have this question in my own mind. What is it that we’re supposed to leave these people with? What’s our cosmic obligation to get across to ’em? Is there anything on these trips?
Edwards: Yeah, I think it’s worth talking about. I don’t know what people are supposed to get out of things, I have no idea. I’m sure of one thing, that I’m not going to proselytize for the “Church of the Grand Canyon.” If you get down there and you can’t see what’s there, then there’s nothing I can really say that will change that. All I can do is make an experience happen, or try to make an experience happen that will wake you up…
Steiger: What would be an example of that?
Edwards: A long hike, a strenuous hike, and getting through it all right. It’s not a hike you would have done originally, but you got some help on the hike, and we showed you, you could do it, and we took you to magnificent places, and you did things you’d never done, and didn’t ever dream you could do. And the proof of the pudding is particularly when you get somebody that is receptive to this, and especially someone who’s disabled, and they come out of the canyon realizing “there’s nothing much is gonna stop me.” But you can do it with an elderly lady or someone who just doesn’t think they can do it, and you just show them that they can do it, and that’s a very positive thing. I like that a lot.
I think there’s nothing in this world like being with people who are radiant with pleasure over what they’ve seen and what they’ve experienced in the Grand Canyon, in terms of the side canyons, the vistas, the adventures on the water, the excitement, the fears, the storms, the dehydration, the narrow escapes, the views of wildlife that they get, and so on. Our job is to make these things happen, and happen safely. And I really like it when people are into it. When people are excited about being there, the guides get very, very excited and extremely pleased with their work and what they’re doing. If people are not excited, the guides become embittered, reclusive, and negative. And it can be pretty bad.
…There’s one story that you might like, just quickly. I was on a trip one time, and a bunch of Yankee blue bloods were on the trip. They made themselves clear who they were. In addition, there were two brothers from Baltimore. Now, remember these Yankee blue bloods had an almost-full charter except for these two brothers, and they were working class Jewish guys from Baltimore and they ran a bowling alley. And they were big guys. One of ’em was real big and strong, an athlete. The other was kind of just big and fat and tough. These guys were really loud. It turns out that they were loud, but they did everything. They helped everybody, they helped with the food, they helped with the boats, they helped the blue bloods set up their tents, they laughed constantly, they told hilarious stories, and they were so beloved that by the end of the trip, we had a trip dinner, and all these blue blood Yankees never even sat down at the table. We went to El Charro. They never sat down, I tell you. They all stood in a circle. In the middle of the circle were these two hilarious guys from Baltimore, telling yet another story or an observation. They were that beloved. They were such good people. But those Yankee blue bloods, one of ’em told me, “We thought these were horrible people, they’re really loud and obnoxious. We thought, ‘My God, we’re gonna be on the river for 13 days with THESE guys!’…”
Yeah, they ran a bowling alley. But they could tell stories like you wouldn’t believe. They told stories about elder hostels coming to bowl, and somebody dying in the bowling alley, lying in the lane, and how they took ’em by the ankles and dragged ’em away from the bowling lane, so they could continue to bowl. And they would tell it in such a way that we’d almost be wettin’ our pants, be rollin’ around.
One of those brothers went on a hike. He wanted to go to Mooney Falls, and we got in late, and he took off with a couple of guides and a couple other really strong characters. They took off at a run. They had to run up there and run back. I was trip leader, and they got back really late. We were havin’ to wait in the Havasu eddy for ’em. They came in, and they were all beat up. And you know what it’s like, their t-shirts were filthy, and plastered to their skin, they were just sweatin’ like mules, and they’re all scratched up. And this Baltimore guy climbed in my boat breathing hard and he apologized for bein’ late, and he’s still just takin’ in air, you know, he says, “There are three things—three things I love in my life. I love my wife! And I love my daughter! And I love that fuckin’ hike!” (laughter)
…These blue bloods came on the trip and they were all snooty and they thought that two guys who ran a bowling alley and were really loud, were gonna be a problem. It turns out they got to know these fellows.
And all of us, the guides, get to know people. And you discover people after ten days, thirteen days. It takes ten days sometimes to discover ’em, eleven days to discover ’em sometimes. That long. They’re on a different boat, maybe they’re on your boat, they’re boring. They talk about tv programs, fer’ Chrissake., You never really want to get to know ’em. But you’re with ’em twenty-four hours a day for that length. You go on hikes with ’em. You get to know ’em, you know their names, you talk. But then you discover something about them. Almost always something good. Rarely do you find something bad.
***
Steiger: You were involved with a group of guides who set out to sue the nps and the Department of the Interior for mandating drug testing on the river, weren’t you?
Edwards: It was a touchy issue, and Grand Canyon River Guides had to make…It is an organization, and they have to make a stance, and their stance was “stand off.” They didn’t want to be a part of this. There were, of course, people that were in favor of it, but the official position of Grand Canyon River Guides is they had no position in this that they were going to make public. But there were a lot of Grand Canyon river guides that were a part of it. I have in my hand here, “Guides Defending Constitutional Rights.” And these were guides on the advisory board: David Henshaw, former guide, a Harvard graduate, law school; Pete Gross; Bruce Keller; Dave Edwards; Jeri Ledbetter; and Brad Dimock.
Steiger: These are all impeccably credentialed, very strait-laced people.
Edwards: Yeah. And so what we did was try to bring some sense to this authoritarian move on the part of the Department of Interior.
Steiger: Collected some money—that wasn’t too hard to do.
Edwards: That’s right. We got a lot of donations coming in and because of the duplicity on the part of Arizona Raft Adventures—saying that they were against this abuse of personal privacy—although they had a very strong position, if you smoked marijuana or got drunk on trips, they fire you. That happens, they’ve already done it, they prove they do that. “And the guides are not a problem that way.” I was involved in this lawsuit, and Arizona Raft Adventures turned the tables on my position. The suit was about to go to court.
Steiger: You were going to be the poster child, as it were.
Edwards: You called me straight-laced, and now you call me a poster child. I’m none of those things. I’m just an ordinary guy.
Steiger: No, that’s Dave Henshaw’s word. I’ve talked to him about this. We had talked about it, and he was like “you gotta have somebody that absolutely is impeccable.”
Edwards: Well, that’s law stuff. But the fact is that I don’t smoke marijuana, I don’t use narcotics.
Steiger: Didn’t even drink up until recently.
Edwards: Yeah, until recently I didn’t drink at all. So my view is that everybody supported this, we had about $10,000 spent in an effort with Debra Fine, a very fine lawyer around here, working with it. The entire case was blown out of the water because azra, on the advice of a very clever attorney named Amy Gitler, and possibly being influenced by private phone calls possibly from the government officials, azra went over to the Arizona State Drug Testing System, and wrote a letter saying that they could not follow two systems, and that, of course, was satisfactory to the Park Service. Then I didn’t have a case. Very clever…azra essentially blew the case out of the water—for Dave Edwards, anyway, or anybody at azra.
Steiger: Because they said that…
Edwards: They’re going by the state law, instead of the federal law.
Steiger: So the government wasn’t forcing them to do it—they were gonna do it anyway, is what they said. Because your case was based on, you were suing the U.S. government, because they were forcing azra to test you against your will.
Edwards: Bruce Babbitt or the Department of Interior. It was only a few days before I would have been deposed for an entire day, or maybe longer, by lawyers from the government. And at that point I discovered, by some loose talk—not from azra, where I would have hoped to have heard it—I worked for them for twenty-five years—is that I was accused by Amy Gitler of being a drug smuggler and a trafficker.
Steiger: And that was because of something that was on your record?
Edwards: Yeah…I don’t know, I haven’t seen the records, but it was probably the cia or dea. When I was working as a photojournalist in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, during the Russian-Afghan War. And at that time I didn’t have anything to do with drugs. I wanted to do a story on drugs, and maybe that’s why…I wanted to do something on a place called Dara. I never did. Somebody was padding their investigative reports, because there’s absolutely nothing—I never smoked or took drugs socially, I wasn’t with people…My girlfriend was with me, and we agreed 100 percent, you will not touch any—she smoked marijuana sometimes—never touch anything here, because you can go to prison. So we were completely clear. The report is an absolute and total, 100 percent fabrication and lie, yet here I am, an American citizen, discovering that I have this terrible thing, which in the communist times in Russia would have gotten me shot. There’s no corroboration, nothing, just a secret report. That’s what the government is going on. Once again, think of the poppy seed bun, think about that one. [Where eating a poppy-seed bun gets you thrown off the river due to a false-positive on a drug test.]
Steiger: So this lawyer told your management that they have this stuff, this record on you, where you’re suspected of drug smuggling. And if your guy goes and sues the government on behalf of this company, it’s gonna be a total hit on azra? Do you think that was what made ’em…
Edwards: I think the reason azra behaves this way—according to Rob Elliott, who was forbidden to talk to me by his lawyer, but he talked to me a little bit…
Steiger: He was forbidden to talk to you about the case?
Edwards: Uh-huh…Just his lawyer told him, “You’re not allowed to talk about this case.” He talked to me anyway, and he said that the situation in which David Lowry, a long-standing, top guide at azra, was caught, and then admitted to smoking marijuana on a river trip. He had behaved badly, very clearly cracking up—a mid-life crisis or whatever you want to call it—he was crackin’ up, and he was not havin’ a good time in life, and he needed some help. He could have produced dozens of witnesses to corroborate what I’m saying. He’s a good man, he was havin’ a hard time, and he admitted to smoking, was fired, lost his job, and never to be rehired again. And that embarrassed azra, because that information about him smoking was from two National Park Service employees to the Superintendent of the Grand Canyon.
Steiger: [Two employees] who happened to be on that trip as passengers?
Edwards: Yeah.
Steiger: And what was the deal? They were up Saddle Canyon and they could smell it or something?
Edwards: Yeah, something like that.
Steiger: It was one incident, and that was it for life for Lowry.
Edwards: Yeah. It was a real incident of a guide smoking marijuana, for sure…They caught him, and so I think it would have been almost as severe if they’d have caught him with a pint of whiskey down somewhere, but maybe not quite as bad. It’s still something you can’t do as a guide.
Steiger: You mean, he’s gone for good, that’s it?
Edwards: Gone for good, yeah.
Steiger: How’s he doin’? What’s he doin’?
Edwards: I’ve asked about him quite a bit, and I hear from friends that he’s doin’ okay.
Steiger: Boy. I didn’t realize that that was it.
Edwards: That was it.
Steiger: So because of that, those guys felt like this lawsuit was gonna be a dumb move politically for azra? That was the story in a nutshell?
Edwards: Azra had nothing to do with the lawsuit. I just happened to work for azra. The Lowry business embarrassed azra, there’s no question about that. So they put the lid on it.
***
Steiger: What stories leap to mind, things that have happened to you, that you’ve seen? If you had to say what was the most important or dramatic, or things that you think about for you, personally, what comes to mind?
Edwards: I think that some of the more dramatic things that I can recall have had to do with high water. I already mentioned those—the high water of 1983 and 1984—dramatic moments with flash floods, dramatic moments in storms where you have to be so careful about where you camp and make sure that people aren’t washed away. That sort of thing. Or extreme inclement weather, when it’s very cold and you have big rapids to go through. Very, very harrowing circumstances, such as extremely high winds and rain, and you’re compelled to camp in an area that’s being just battered, and how the guides work together to put up shelter and manage to pull off cooking hot food and help people get their tents up. People take care of their own tents, but sometimes we’ll help ’em in high winds and rough times. Those all are good grist for stories. I guess I don’t like telling the same stories over and over again, so I get bored. So I can’t really say that I have fixed stories for different places.
I also tell stories to people who are interested and curious. If they’re not curious, then I’ll give them the “story lite” version (chuckles), rather than the full-on heavy-duty story. Sometimes I don’t say much. I’ll not tell people a lot of stories, because they’re not tuned-in, necessarily, to the canyon—particularly these days where people are there in the Grand Canyon because they chose a trip through a travel agent, and really didn’t know what to expect, and really don’t care that much. The guides are pretty sensitive to how people are interested in the canyon, and they’re very good at getting people more interested and showing them how wonderful a place it is. But it does take some effort on the part of the person, and we do get people who do not make that effort. And there is no way you can get them interested. And I’ve had people, when I give talks in the morning, I have this book here, sitting right here in this chair, it’s a journal that I’ve kept over the years. I’ll read from the journal, I’ll read poems from it, I’ll read stories from it, I’ll read anecdotes, I’ll read from old news clippings—everything from the nineteenth century up to now. I try to put something in this journal that is different than you get in regular history books. I’ll tell anecdotes about people, let’s say, or things I’ve seen in the Grand Canyon. But I have had at least one instance I can remember, a guy say to me, “We’re not gonna have to sit through one of your lectures again, are we?” Yeah, he did, because I had to give an orientation to the others. And many other people came and said, “Hey, I’m really sorry that guy said that. We really like hearing these talks in the morning.” I don’t like to be too long-winded, but I do think it sets the mood for what we ought to be thinking about. If you have a roomful of people, and you’re trying to get something done, we know this from…I’m not a real good committee guy, you know—I don’t do well in committees and groups and stuff, because things get so distracted you never find a singleness of purpose. But the guide can set a mood on a trip of curiosity, of wonder, of adventure, that’s real, and everybody’ll get into it.
***
Steiger: While the tape was just turned off—and earlier too—we were talking about how you keep these journals. You’ve always kept a journal, and what you do is you write in it things that you’d like to remember, and you make little drawings in ’em.
Edwards: Yeah, I keep the journals—they have a life of their own, really. I write things down. I don’t write daily things in, but I write down things that I’d like to give in a morning talk. Sometimes I just write down what’s happening, because I didn’t want to forget it later in life when I no longer am a guide. So I would write details of life as a guide, so that I could remember it. That’s what I’ve turned to right now—you said you’d like to hear…
Steiger: Yeah, so you’re holding this little book, and it’s just a little notebook, but it’s filled with handwritten notes and drawings.
Edwards: Yeah, I’ll give it to…
Steiger: Well, we’re not gonna hold you to that.
Edwards: I don’t give a damn, I’ll give it to the archives, or whatever you have.
Steiger: That would be great. But anyway…
Edwards: They’re just details of life as a guide that many people sometimes don’t know…Yeah, I keep this journal and write in things, details that maybe I’ll write about one day, or things that I want to make sure that I never forget, that are so pertinent to being a guide. Sometimes they’re just sketchy notes of what we see.
September 1990, I write in here, “There’s a different feel about a river on the rise. It’s nothing noticeable at first. Then bits of wood float by, and long strands of dirty white water. Finally it takes on a lumpy look, swelling, sloshing as though gaining appetite.”
Then just quick notes, “Hummingbirds that are attracted to red—hats, scarves, shirts, life jackets. Downstream winds, dry skin, cracked heels, Velcro fouled with sand, dull knives. The sound of a whetting knife. Sandy ropes, ropes with cactus spines in them. Your eyes ache in the sun. You have a headache. How the metal burns your hands. Top of grape leaves so green in subdued light, and yet they glare in the sun as if they were made of mirrors. Lizards that move with tiny, jerky motions, as if trapped by time, picking their way through life. Havasu water, always flowing, noisy, blue. People come and go. When they’ve left, it’s best. A butterfly moves in erratic flight. Stillness. My fingers hurt—every cut and nick has been stretched open in the dryness. My hair is matted and dirty. My body is salty. I lay as far from camp as I could go. Things are so grim sometimes. And then I heard it, a distant low growl from the bushes behind me. I got up quietly and squatted and looked—nothing. Actually, I’d heard something moving before and I’d gotten up before, but this time I picked up a stick. The animal was large, it moved bushes that way. I looked. Nothing.
“I fall asleep under a boat or with my head on a smallish rock—a short nap and am revived. Sleeping on a boat at night. Silence. The sound of water passing under the tubes. Warm wind, then a cool wind, loving the comfort of the softness, and feeling the down lift and fall against the wind. The stars, satellites passing by. Canyon walls etched in black against the sky, the moon coming up, piercing your eyes like a flashlight on the face. Night sounds: water, crickets, wind, the smell of rain, storm sky, distant lightning, mare’s tails in the moonlight.
“The sound of drops hitting the deck and tubes, the rat-tat-tat on rainwear, the hustle to put up a protection against the weather. The butterfly thrill. A violent wind, rain and thunder crashing all around, inside my chest, hid, lightning. It’s the sexual supercharge of life—wild light, zig-zagging around, like some benediction.
“The schist has its dark side, a relentless crumbling of jagged parts. One-and-a-half billion years? Is that the latest year they’ve put on it? It’s the first rock I’ve thought of as being oblivious to life. An absurd thought, but it so predates any part of life. It’s the stuff of a remote cosmos, more than the history of our planet. Gravity, air, water, pressure, are the undoing of this rock.”
It goes on. “Scratched legs. Betadine stains. Sandy cuts. Warm wind drumming in my ears. Wet shirt, cold, clinging to my body. I can’t remember when it was ever dry. I look down, and it’s dry. Stillness, long lunches of time. The stillness is the stillness of a warm rock moving slowly up the canyons, not making a sound, coming up on a snake. What a pleasure. Confronting a bighorn sheep. We stare at each other for fifteen minutes. I don’t move, he doesn’t move—just staring. Then I move backwards, just slightly, and he dashes off into the grapevines.
“Louise Teal said one day, ‘You don’t have to do sit-ups out here. All you have to do is laugh.’ I’ve never known any experience in life where there’s so much laughter at breakfast, lunch, and supper—day after day after day. The river running brings out stories. They rise like freed chickens, flopping, squawking, sending us all howling. It’s good to be weak from laughter.
“A mare’s tail streaks the sky today—long, voluptuous, magnificent in their form of beauty. They’re the harbinger of a storm yet to come, just out of view. Jesus, I love the feel of anticipating the waves and running the boat well. I like it when it’s hard. I like it when the wind heaves and pushes us to shore. I like when the wind howls and pushes us to shore. I like it when it’s hard. I like it when I have to row in the wind. I like the storms. I have a secret in rowing. That is, you feather the oars always, you pull, lean, totally relax, set, and pull. I can row for hours that way. I don’t know anyone that can row further or longer than I can in the wind. When I say I like it, they think I’m joking. But I like it, it’s just such a great challenge. I guess that says it. The feeling of moving the boat—the lift, the plunge, the shudder, the twist, the bump—even the rip. The way it rocks, the easy sway, the squawk of the boats at mooring. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Overhead the stars, the huge sea. So few people can ever see this these days.
“I like the water—muddy, red, desert brown. I like the look of the rapids, the roar—the more resolute, the better. I like the mud, the slick mud, slipping, the way it cakes my sandals, fouls the Velcro.
“I have a fly swatter with a hole in it. It’s called the ‘karma hole’ for the lucky bastards that get away.
“Sun rotted life jacket. A knife that can shave the hair on my arm. Foot rot from leather bracelets. Foot rot on the feet. Setting up a good kitchen. River cobbles, immobile. I think of how locked-in they are—still, stopped, water moving over them. You can sense, fleetingly, the depth of time.
“Sand blasted. Sand in the ears, in the eyes, in the eyebrows, in the hair, fine grits in the teeth. You cover up, but you can’t get away. The sheet buffets and flaps. You tuck, you try to make an air hole, but always the sand gets in. You turn away, and finally you fall into sleep, and it doesn’t make a damn.
“Bighorn sheep by the river. I’m alone. I watch it munching grass, it won’t stop, won’t look up. I don’t think it hears me. I make a rattlesnake sound, and it won’t look up…
“Wind, how it caresses and pats and rubs and buffets and shoves and pushes. A blast of hot air.
“You get up in the morning before anybody else, you make coffee. You don’t want to call that it’s ready. You put it off, and stretch the silence, sip your coffee, and look at the cool morning.
“Your friends make you coffee in the morning. You feel ’em step on the boat, the boat moves, and they put a hot cup of coffee next to you. Sometimes you can’t move or speak, you’re so lost, down deep tired.
“A compliment made in an offhand way makes your heart sing. It’s from one of your pals who has split fingers like you, who is exhausted like you, who took the time, saw a good job, said ‘Way ta go, Boyo.’” There’s some other lists of things here that are so pertinent to the beauty. Some of these things I’ve repeated, ’cause I just write these down…
“There’s the fragrance of tamarisk. The limestone’s like coral. The smell of ground coffee. The sound of sand grains on the tent. The sound of the ground cloth. A hot spot in the sand where coals were. The drips of a spring on rocks. Violent water is one thing,” it says here, “but it’s in eddies where the gods live.
“Washing in river water. Sand in your gear. The stillness of shattered rock. Fossils in limestone. A letter from a former lover that says nothing but just lipstick on paper. It gets wet in my pocket and I throw it away.
“The sound of wind on the cliffs, the echo of a rapid at the same time, wind coming upstream. You hear it and watch it advance on the surface of the water.
“A cold drink of water. Wood turning slowly in an eddy. Hot tea on a cold morning. Bacon cooking—makes your nostrils flare. Violet-green water. Swallows in a light rain. The smell of muddy water. The tapping of raindrops on a tight tent fly. Silver tape holding my ripped tent together. Gnarled, wrinkled, Russian pendants hang from the dome from the Chuya Rally in South Central Siberia back in 1989.
“Sour odor of urine in the sand. The clank and thump of a can smasher. Wet cardboard. Mouldy orange. Cracked skin. Burned skin. You wait for cancer, and when it comes, you know damned well you’ll spit. All it is is a knock on the door.
“Al, a passenger, has clothespins on his hat. He had a rake with a three-foot handle. He has a bath mat he puts in front of his tent, a stocking cap. He wears pajamas! He has cloth gloves covered with rubber cement so he can grip things. He has a burr haircut. He talks about out-of-body experiences and the Hardy Boys adventures. His day bag is a faded green gym bag with a broken strap. His old green tennis shoes. His food bowl is the size of an average dog dish. He wrote a bad letter, said that I didn’t pay attention, left him in camp.
“Joseph Campbell said that what people say we’re all seeking is the meaningful life. He said, ‘But I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re really seeking is the experience of being alive.’ Campbell said that.”
Steiger: Joseph Campbell said that?
Edwards: Uh-huh. “Why should I live my life waiting for three months of happiness?”—Bill Karls, who said he quit being a doctor so he could row boats.
***
Edwards: You asked about stories I tell people. I often tell stories from actual incidents of people observing animals. For example, I have a big section in this book on ravens, and just the things—I always add to it—and some of the raven stories are so unusual that they will seem fabricated. The raven’s a very smart bird. People like us who are outside all the time—rare in America now—can observe animals. In fact, see things that other people don’t. And so that’s one thing that’s been very interesting for me as a guide, is the fact that I spend so much time outside, and am able to observe things, and particularly if I’m lucky enough to observe one animal over and over again. We always see ravens. And so I’ve collected stories about ravens and how they behave. I haven’t got any big answers for anybody, but I do have a lot of anecdotal material that I’m sure is accurate, ’cause I try to say precisely what it is that they do…
Well, let’s see, I’ve got a big section here. Nothing’s numbered in this book.
Steiger: It’s a beautiful book. Grand Canyon River Guides sticker on the cover of it. Those were optimistic times, huh? That was 1990?
Edwards: Yeah…Oh, yeah, here’s one, just a brief one. We noticed that over the years the ravens at Havasu had learned how to steal lunches. They would actually open packs, undo zippers, and get the lunches. I’ve seen ’em undo a zipper before. They grab the tab and they just shake their head, and the zipper naturally backs off, and they get inside, empty the pack completely, find some food, and then fly off with it. They did this to my pack. I didn’t get there in time to stop ’em one time, and they dumped my camera equipment in water. I had my lunch with me. And they were very angry. They just sat off a few feet, screaming abuse at me, because I had no food in my pack.
Anyway, Sharon Hester was floating towards Havasu, and she told a paddle crew about the thefts of the sandwiches at Havasu, and the people, as usual, didn’t believe what she was saying. But the guy in the bow, when she mentioned that they would steal lunches and just take off with them, he pointed upward at a raven flying upstream, towards them, over their heads, and said, “Like that?” And they looked up, and there was a raven with a sandwich bag in his mouth, flying like hell upriver. That was pretty funny.
The next trip, she was floating again, with a paddleboat, with people, towards Havasu, and told this story. And as people were listening incredulously, somebody looked up and said, “Like that?” again, and there was another raven flying over with somebody’s lunches. We figured it was Georgie having an issue to bag lunches once again, to people.
Larry Stevens saw a raven take a flicker on the wing in mid-flight. Saw that at Phantom Ranch.
Gary Bolton, at Upset Rapids, saw a raven being hectored by a phoebe. In a flash, it knocked the phoebe down, pounced on it, and consumed the bird, swallowing it in gulps, like a snake.
Martha Clark and Suzanne Jordan drifted around a point into Marble Canyon one day, and saw four ducklings that had been killed by a raven, and a fifth being brought in—all accumulated carefully on a ledge by one raven.
Roger Henderson lost a case of Guinness to me in 1986 when we put two hard-boiled eggs on rocks, spaced about fifteen feet apart at National Canyon; and then waited in the eddy to see which hard-boiled egg would be taken by the raven, and that would be the loser. I won a case of Guinness.
A bald eagle was observed by Tom Brownold fishing at Nankoweap. He sat on a rock and reached down and took a huge trout out of the stream. Two ravens were hanging around. One raven stepped forward in front of the eagle, and the eagle crouched slightly and made a threatening sound towards the raven, while his partner came around behind the eagle, leaped forward, grabbed a tail feather and tugged it sharply. The eagle dropped the fish, spun around and confronted the retreating raven. Meanwhile, the first raven came in, grabbed the trout, and stole it.
“Saddle Canyon, 7/23/91. A raven was on the shoreline, by the point. He was feeding on a trout. He’d just caught the trout with his talons. The tail of the trout was still flopping. The bird had pulled the fish from the shallows and was eating it. It didn’t know how to eat it. I came up to check it out. The fish was still alive when I touched it. The bird flew away and didn’t come back.
“Ravens steal sun lotion, soap, body lotions—anything they can possibly imagine eating.
“Lora Colton, a guide for azra, reported seeing a raven on the mountains here in Flagstaff, playing with a snowball. It made the snowball, and then let it roll down the hill, and kept jumping on it.”
There are more of them, but that’s just a few.
***
Edwards: I think it’s an important thing to live your life and be proud of what you did, and the positions you took in your life. We all have these things that we’re not very proud of that we’ve done in our life. We’ve all made terrible mistakes. The journey of a human being is to try to do some good in your life. You want to intentionally declare it, “I want to do something good. I want to do something that’s unselfish, for the benefit of others.” Declare it! Just call it that! Put it into words! That’s what’s important. A lot of people never put it in words, never do it, never stand up. The reason you go to vote is because you have an obligation to the country. The reason that you do volunteer work—in a way, what you’re doing for the Grand Canyon Archives—is because it’s an obligation you feel for others…
Steiger: Nah. I just stumbled into this.
Edwards: I know. I kind of stumbled into Mongolian Orphans Association—stumbled into this or that. But when I saw those kids in Mongolia, for example, I was covering them as a photojournalist, and they were starving to death, and they were naked and they were dirty, and they were crazy. I started bringing clothes over, and then this year came back and Geoff Gourley and I got a big organization goin’, and what not. Geoff suggested we get a container to send over there. It just comes from a decision of, “Look, I’m gonna do something about this crap!” It’s not gonna take much of my time.
Steiger: So you got it together to send a container of clothes over there?
Edwards: That’s what we’re doin’ right now.
Steiger: All right!
Edwards: We’re gonna have a slide show on the eighteenth to raise money.
Steiger: And you’ve got a contact over there that’s gonna pick ’em up and distribute ’em?
Edwards: I have contacts over there, but we’ll go over and help distribute. Our idea is to put the clothes on the kids, not just send a box of clothes somewhere… Put ’em on ’em. Put them physically on each child. That way they have ’em.
Steiger: That’s a pretty good story right there.
Edwards: Well, it works. We’ve done it so far, since 1993, every year. But that’s trying to do something worthwhile, seizing the opportunity.
***
Edwards: You know, I’m profoundly grateful to life that I was a Grand Canyon boatman. It’s helped me so much. I have been grateful for a long time now. I’m an independent person, but I also like teamwork. And I’m not really at home in the world unless I have people to work with. I really like a job that requires bringing the best out of me as a person, working with people. I have failed at that, and I’ve also succeeded at that. I like this job because all guides get to be better and better people. And to be a guide, you have to be a fairly decent person to begin with. You don’t last long…. There’re not many flaming assholes that are guides.
Lew Steiger