Bob Quist


   We hate to interrupt a good story but there’s another version of this tale you need to hear… (from a panel discussion at the GCRG Fall Meeting 1993, held at Ken Sleight’s Pack Creek Ranch in Moab, Utah. Bob wasn’t going to tell this one at first but Brad, who’d heard it before, coaxed it out of him)

   Bob Quist: My first trip with Tony Sparks was in 1969. He had offered me a job that I couldn’t pass up. I mean it was so much money that it was unbelievable.

   Brad Dimock: So much money... how much money was “so much”?

   Ken Sleight: More than I was paying him.

   Bob Quist: Way more. (laughing) It was fifty bucks a day. But you’ve gotta understand that Grand Canyon boatmen were few and far between. Hatch had the lock on Grand Canyon boatmen. You know there were outfitters that did it. But at the same time the outfitters were the boatmen.

   Tony was into the “triple thrill” trip. From Lee’s Ferry to the Little Colorado, helicopter ride out, and then you got to look at some Indian ruins on the drive. Of course this was on the rez. You got into it from Cedar Ridge and so you can imagine... I mean if you’ve never been in that country, that’s another world. That ain’t the same world as we live in.

   Brad Dimock: That’s the third thrill.

   Bob Quist: Yeah. The third thrill. So we got old Woody to build a frame that we could— we were going to helicopter everything out at the Little Colorado, the whole schmear. The boats...everything. So Tony and I went down there and we built this pad. And the deal was, it was on the Indian rez so the Park Service couldn’t mess with us. But the Park Service insisted that the pad and the helicopter and everything else was three hundred feet above the historic high water line, which was the Park Service claim to the land, and the Indians were claiming halfway out to the middle of the river as I remember, and it was a big battle royal... so we go down there...

   Tom Moody: But it didn’t seem odd to you to have to carry a ’33 [@ 700 lbs. of rubber, alone] up three hundred feet above the river?

   Bob Quist: Well, Tom... fifty bucks a day. (group laughter) I was driving a tanker truck in Salt Lake at the time for about $2.35 an hour. You know, delivering oil fuel. I mean it was like “HUH? Yeah, you bet.” Clair was down at Lee’s Ferry rigging out a trip earlier for, I think Don Harris. Or maybe for Cross. And Tony tried to hire Clair. Clair said “Naaah, I don’t think.. (laughs), for fifty bucks a day... I don’t believe...”

   voice in the crowd: But here’s my sucker brother!

   Bob Quist: (laughing) “—But I’ve got a brother in Salt Lake who is an old time river runner. Been running trips with Ken Sleight for a thousand years. And he’ll... he’d work for fifty bucks a day.” (huge crowd laughter) So we go down there we carve this—I don’t know if you’ve seen that pad down there—(crowd answers “yes”) we carve that sucker out, we drilled some bolts into the Tapeats Sandstone and we put up this big L-frame winch thing. With the whole idea that we could extend this far enough over to the beach and literally de-rig everything and pick it up and take it up to the pad and hook it onto the helicopters.

   So Tony hires Sandy Nevills’ husband Woody to weld these frames together, and he gets the tubular square steel, the hardest carbon steel he could buy and he says “build us this frame”. And I show up on the scene early in the spring and this guy is gas welding this moly-carbon steel together. And I—”God, I don’t know a lot about welding. But are you really sure this is the way to do this?” (laughter) “NO problem. NONE whatsoever.” (more laughter) So we build this frame that’s about ten, twelve foot long and then do the old Sanderson rig with a tube down the middle and a tube on either side. And no gussets on the frame whatsoever. Just this straight frame. And, and I told Tony... I was very honest with him about this, I says—

   Dan Dierker: This sucks?

   Bob Quist: I says “Tony... I’ve been running rivers all my life but I don’t know a f#@% thing about Grand Canyon.” (huge laughter) “I hate to tell you this, but I followed John Cross down through here a couple years ago, and I’ve been on a trip with Ken... I can’t really remember anything.” (laughter, Bob shakes his head and grins) “NO problem.”

   So I take off on this trip, with this boat. Customers, we’ve got paying customers. We’ve got a reporter from Phoenix. Probably eight customers. Liquor to order. Everything was first class. And, God, we make it down to Soap and I’m feeling pretty proud. (big laughter) We dive off into Soap and I’m just having a good old time, because I kind of vaguely remembered Soap, and there wasn’t anything, you know, just some big waves down there. And halfway— the middle of the rapid —two of the arms that are supporting this frame just break. Literally break off. The whole basket sinks down into the river. Rips, as it goes down, it rips a four foot hole in the back of the boat. And I’m standing in water up to here (indicates his chest). And I’m going “Oh chit, man.” And here my running motor is totally, completely under water. My spare is under water. And I don’t have a clue. (laughter) I know we’re in trouble, but other than that... So I get, finally at some point go swimming for the motor that’s on the transom, because I’m thinking if we hit anything going backwards and that motor is still on that transom it’s really going to hurt. And I manage to get that off. Meanwhile we wing through the next two little rapids. Whole time everything is totally out of control. Nothing to do. Finally we hit a little back eddy and somebody, one of the passengers as I remember it, swims to shore with the bowline. And, god, then we proceed to start repairing the damage. Drying the motor out. Getting the frame built back up and doing one thing or another.

   Dennis Silva: So in those days you brought oxyacetylene along? (laughter)

   Bob Quist: There was lots of driftwood. You’d be amazed at what you could do with driftwood and just a little imagination. We managed to—I think we camped that night somewhere above House Rock. And I didn’t know where the hell I was. I had that old Buckethead Jones scroll map... We put her back together somewhat. Next morning I dive right into the hole in House Rock and bust the whole @#*! thing again. Major repair. I got three days to get to the Little Colorado. This is morning two. And I remember... You know somehow or another I had confused Unkar with Nankoweap. I’d gotten Nankoweap somehow screwed up with Unkar, and I remember walking the whole length of it [Nankoweap], to scout the rapid. I mean I was totally... the whole trip was... and this guy, the reporter on the trip, he was pissed. He was on my case like stink on... ‘cause he’d figured out that I didn’t have a clue. And this other guy, who was one of the paying customers, he thought I walked on water. “Oh god, if it wasn’t for you we were going die down there.” This is—we’re talking mid-June and not another boat on the river. That was 1969, so you can see how much it’s changed down there.

   So we finally get to the Little Colorado and by then I am so flaked out, spaced out, screwed up, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. I actually make the turn and start (huge laughter) down into the rapid. And old Dave [the swamper] was the one who says “Hey there’s the pad up there!! Remember?!! We built that!!”

   I turn the boat around and actually motor it back out, and get it back up to the beach, and we’re standing there just going “Oh my God,” you know. “It’s finally over.” And the helicopter comes in and this is where Marv [Jensen, the old head of the river unit, who is present] enters the story. The helicopter comes in, lands at the pad—we’re going “Oh man, we’re saved.” And the first person I see get out is this Ranger. He comes down and he says “I’m here to assure that you helicopter this thing out at the three hundred foot high water mark.”

   I guess the last of the story is the last thing we’d hooked up... I don’t think it was the boat, I think it was the basket. But we had it heavily loaded, and we’d hooked it up to our big winch thing and we’re sitting there cranking on this winch... and the whole #@% thing rips out of the sandstone and comes crashing down the hill. (laughs) And missed my head by that far, that part I remember... (crowd laughs) Tony is sitting there going, cause he flew in with the helicopter and he’s “What are we going do now?” And I’m looking up at the Ranger sitting there, he’s going “Three hundred feet.” (More crowd laughter)

   Marv Jensen: My kind of guy.

   Bob Quist: I mean it’s just... there’s no way. There’s no way! I finally go up and we talk to this guy for... I mean forty-five minutes, and I says “Just look at that boat! WE CAN’T TAKE THAT BOAT THROUGH THE CANYON! I mean, it’s obvious. (Bob shrugs, big crowd laugh) He finally says, “Well okay you can helicopter it off the beach. But don’t you let anybody else know that I gave you permission to do this.”

   And we helicoptered everything off the beach, got back to Lee’s Ferry and I’m going “Oh man, I don’t know if I really want to be in this profession anymore...”

   Clifford Rayle: You have to know that the mortality rate on the helicopter pilots at Phantom was only about five months... no joke.

   Marv Jensen: Well that was on the pipeline. Yeah, they lost a number of helicopter pilots on the pipeline.

   Bob Quist: And the whole time that pipeline was being rebuilt it was great times for the boatmen, because Phantom Ranch was really a wide-open concern at the time.

   Tom Moody: Social spot.

   Bob Quist: Yeah. You could bum over and grab a chopper ride up on top regularly if you knew the right people... But it was so damn much fun trying to put this thing together, and then going “Holy #%#*! Did we screw up!” And nobody... everybody was experimenting. Everybody was trying something new. Everybody was...

   Clifford Rayle: Testing new equipment.

   Bob Quist: Testing new things. And plus the fact... there again, you talk about involvement of the customers. Ninety-five percent of the customers were very involved. (laughs) “We’re de-rigging today!”

   I mean it was such an adventure because there was nobody doing anything like that. You know, there was nobody down there.

Lew Steiger