Time and the River Flowing
of long days, long trips, and naps in the afternoon
Time and the River Flowing; its a
fine book. If you havent 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 authors 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 its 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.
Its crowded. Its 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.
Its a problem that mirrors the congestion on the South Rim. But
its 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 weve got
to recognize as a river industry is that its not Lava Falls that makes the Canyon
unique, nor its depth, nor the fact that its 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.
Its 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. Theres 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? Were 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. Well 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. Its 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. Its true that people request shorter trips, that
its easier to sell a three day than a three week trip. But that doesnt 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 dont allow that on the river. Service
businesses must keep in mind the customers desires and weve done a very good
job of that. But weve 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.
Were the ultimate get away from it all industry. We have an
advantage over the resorts and cruise ships; we dont 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 wed 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, its the perfect thing to do on