Time and the River Flowing
of long days, long trips, and naps in the afternoon

   Time and the River Flowing; it’s a fine book. If you haven’t read it, you should. It was written by Francious Leydet after joining Martin Litton and Pat Reilly on a trip through the Canyon the year the gates at Glen Canyon closed. The book celebrates the timelessness of the Grand Canyon in a beautiful mix of words and pictures. It was one of the first books I owned when I first fell into river running. The paperback edition, the only one I could afford, fit perfectly in an ammo can, something I think was more than coincidence. I dragged my copy down every trip, rereading chapters to myself and my passengers, until the pictures were a smear and the words unintelligible.

   I first was drawn to the pictures, beautiful images I still hold as the epitome of the Canyon. One in particular that sticks in my mind was the view downriver from Nankoweap. The scene was tranquil, evening light streaming across the water, the Canyon walls glowing, reflecting in the muddy river. Time stood still. As I moved beyond the visual to the prose I was caught up in the author’s magical view of the Canyon. He set it on a pedestal, unique and special in the whole world. From the magnificence of its distant vistas to the delicacy of a monkeyflower bloom I was captivated by the Canyon and in awe. I still am. The place was timeless. It still is.

   The one thing that seems to be more and more in short supply these days is time. It sometimes seems as if time is our enemy as we chase our busy schedules each day. As the old saying goes “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.” Our recreation magazines are filled with advertisements to “get away from it all,” to relax and take some time, to step out of our normal rat race. Instead we head for a Caribbean resort or ocean cruise only to find ourselves caught in a multitude of activities offered; snorkeling, hiking, dancing, skiing, parasailing, shopping until we arrive back home more exhausted than when we left. Despite our proclaimed longing for more time and simpler pleasures, we seem unable to bring ourselves to really slow down. We seem to be on a runaway rollercoaster, crying for help but unable to get off. Time is something the Grand Canyon has been always blessed with. But it’s an asset not fully utilized.

   Things have changed in the Canyon. Up until 1949 a total of less than 100 had journeyed down the river. In 1970 a little less than 10,000 people went down. More than 22,000 made the trip in 1993. Twenty five years ago it was unusual for passengers to leave or join their trip and they did so only at Phantom Ranch. Last year more than three quarters of commercial visitors left or joined their trip mid way. As a result, each visitor now spends an average of only 5.6 days on their visit. These trends exist for a variety of reasons but the result is obvious: more people are packed into a finite space. It’s crowded. It’s a concern for the National Park, the guides, the outfitters, and,their passengers. The Park has instituted a monitoring program and established management limits on visitor contacts. Outfitters and private boaters struggle with the unavailability of launch dates. Guides face the reality of a dozen or more boats at popular attraction sites. As the number of passengers increase the ability for each visitor to experience the timeless peace and tranquility of the Canyon decreases.

   It’s a problem that mirrors the congestion on the South Rim. But it’s a problem that can be at least partially solved by the outfitters and guides who have provided quality visitor experiences for over 25 years. In fact it may be possible to address these problems and strengthen the outfitting industry.

   Without a doubt Grand Canyon is unique. We all know that. What we’ve got to recognize as a river industry is that it’s not Lava Falls that makes the Canyon unique, nor its depth, nor the fact that it’s a National Park. These attributes can be found elsewhere. What we have all to ourselves is 270 miles of roadless river; the longest stretch of roadless river in the continental U.S.

   And what does that mean? That two hundred and seventy miles translates into time, lots of time. We, the guides and outfitters, have an opportunity to solve this problem by trumpeting our unique resource of time. We can sell time rather than trips. We can lower congestion by promoting longer trips. Many companies already do this: lengthening trips, limiting changeovers. But we can do even more.

   It’s not necessary to mandate three week trips or eliminate motors. Simply increasing the average trip length by one day (to 8 days for motors and to 14 days for oars) will result in a 10% decrease in the number of trips. I suggest that we achieve this goal by voluntarily limiting motor trips to 30 miles per day and oar trips to 20 miles per day on the average. Ten percent may not sound like much but it could have a major impact on the River. It would free up 60 launch dates in the height of the season. It means 60 fewer trips at Deer Creek, at Havasu, or competing for Grapevine Camp throughout the season. Perhaps most importantly it would give guides the opportunity to be more flexible on the river and avoid conflicts with other trips. We can make an analogy to a freeway. There’s a point where a small increase in traffic load begins to really slow down the system and where a small reduction can make a big difference.

   It will take some combined effort. There is a prevailing public psychology which says, “why take 8 days if you can do it in 5?” We’re caught in a descending spiral by allowing the value of Grand Canyon to be measured in miles instead of days. The end becomes more important than the means. We take more and more people down the river but each experiences less.

   Perhaps this is a waste of our unique resource. We’ll have to advertise our resource of time. We have to tell people that the extra day or two is worth it, all of us, guides and outfitters alike. But we have help in the Canyon itself. Nothing on earth is linked as closely to time in peoples minds as Grand Canyon.

   It can simultaneously strengthen the river industry. It’s become an accepted fact that the reason trips keep getting shorter and more sliced up with changeovers is simply the combination of the user-day system and human greed. The theory goes that you can charge more for shorter trips, so shorter trips make more money. But this cannot be completely true because expenses increase as well. Shorter trips mean booking more passengers which increases office costs, shorter trips mean more trips and more put-in and take-out costs. In fact, if the cost per day stayed the same, longer trips could produce greater profits. It’s true that people request shorter trips, that it’s easier to sell a three day than a three week trip. But that doesn’t make it an appropriate use of the resource. Many visitors would rather only spend three hours; some 200,000 do so in scenic flights. We don’t allow that on the river. Service businesses must keep in mind the customer’s desires and we’ve done a very good job of that. But we’ve got a greater responsibility.

   There are at least two good reasons for encouraging longer trips for our clients, one short-term and one long. In the short run, longer trips can go a long way toward lowering the impacts of running into other parties along the river. They can make scheduling easier. They lower office costs. But there is another view. From a business standpoint it makes sense to emphasize your unique qualities. The fact that the Colorado through Grand Canyon is the longest roadless stretch of river should be recognized and taken advantage of. Breaking trips into three and four day segments puts us in the same category as the many competing rivers in this country. Only we can offer more than a week of river without a road. They cannot. Today the economy is good and river trips are selling out a year in advance. History shows us this will not always be the case. A wise long-term strategy is to separate our trips from all others, to focus on our unique resources to better weather any future downturn. This is Grand Canyon.

   We’re the ultimate “get away from it all” industry. We have an advantage over the resorts and cruise ships; we don’t have a lot of other activities to compete with in the Canyon. The activities we do have tend to be unorganized and individual like sitting by the river in quiet contemplation or an evening stroll up a quiet side canyon. We live in a separate world, away from radio and television and even last names. We have to entertain ourselves. We eat together, sleep together, and enjoy daily adventures together in a world removed from the rim. We have an opportunity to give people something they have trouble giving themselves. Time.

   I spent several pleasurable years running the river for Dick McCallum. Brian Dierker was my friend and the usual trip leader. We got going early every morning in order to get the most out of each day. And we made the most of every trip. But often, in the early afternoon with the lunch put away on the boats and customers ready to don lifejackets, Brian would tell everyone to relax and we’d take a half hour nap. No one who has ever tried to keep up with Brian on a hike would argue that he is lazy. But he forced everyone to take a little time out. Is there anything so luxurious and decadent as taking a nap? When was the last time you took one? Things such as naps are not a part of our normal schedule. But, come to think about it, it’s the perfect thing to do on vacation.

Tom Moody