An Ode to the Boatmen


   The methodical swish, swish, swish of the oars was the only sound that reached my ears as the raft glided downstream from the camp just above the suspension bridge at Phantom. I didnít look back at the guide, but I felt his presence; I knew very well that his skill was all that stood between me staying relatively dry and comfortable and swimming in that frigid water surely capable of freezing many a body part. Besides, my attention was riveted downstream, eager to witness what the famous Colorado River and itís infamous rapids had to offer.

   The previous day I had hiked down the Kaibab trail with my NPS companion Jan Balsom to meet up with an archeological monitoring trip that launched a week before. I had only been on duty in my new job as Chief of the Division of Resource Management at the Canyon for five days, but I was eager to fulfill a lifelong dream of rafting the Colorado through Grand Canyon. Now it was not only my pleasure to fulfill this dream, but my job; my job to provide scientific knowledge and leadership for itís continued protection.

   The first two days were great! We hit some of the biggest rapids at a good water level. Each boatman made perfect approaches to the rapids (or so I was told) making the runs exciting but free of mishap. In other words, all boats stayed right side up and nobody swam. By day three I had begun to get to know the three guides as I rotated from one raft to the next providing front end ballast. I donít know what was more amazing to me, the Canyon rocks or the guidesí knowledge and bag of skills.

   Big Wave Dave, seasoned NPS boatman, introduced me to the profession of river guiding. Guiding is a good term. It states that taking guests through the Canyon is a much bigger job than just getting down the river through the rapids right side up. Rowing the boat is obviously only a part of the job, maybe the easiest part. I learned about the tremendous responsibility that guides have for the safety of their passengers. Dave didnít tell me this in so many words. The message came from the thoughtful and professional way he explained how I should react in various situations to protect the raft and save by butt from drowning; guiding was fun but serious business. Dave also started my Canyon lessons. My vocabulary grew: Vishnu schist, boils, groover, debris fan, on and on as he pushed his boat down the river, lining up carefully for the next rapid, not wanting to dump the new NPS resource manager. Near the end of the trip I was pleased when he brought out his small book of poetry and read a verse about Lava Falls. A few minutes later we were sliding over the edge wondering what hand the V-wave would deal us.

   Then I rode with Martha for two days, my God! I sat here in front of this computer for quite a while trying to decide what to say about her. Boathag, hell no! Iím still lost for words. What a combination of skill, wit, knowledge, and yes, feminine charm. My education continued in grand style. Seventeen years of river tales and guiding history, mostly true I suspect. An educated lady, who patiently described to me the geology of the Canyon with the precision of a college professor but the heart of an artist. A tough lady that could row against a mean headwind for hours without a hint of a complaint. A cook so fine that my tongue nearly smacked my brains out each mealtime. And best of all, a person not afraid to be herself, but wise enough to win the award for the riverís best diplomat. I sure hope this was not the last time I have the joy of being on her trip.

   My third tutor was Deb Peterson who recently moved to Washington State but was here to run this trip. Another truly professional guide. We celebrated her birthday around the campfire. The river must be good for women; they donít seem to age (hands donít count). A person sincere in her beliefs, Deb shared with me her inner feelings about the river and the Canyon. I started to get the picture of how deeply guides care for the river. Here was another friend for life.

   During the trip each guide added something different and meaningful to my experience. Most importantly, I took Marthaís sage advise. On our second day together, when there were just the two of us on the raft and the others were working archeological sites, she laid this on me. She said: ďDave, donít get too deep into the management issues on this trip; the time for that will come all to soon. Just sit back and soak it up, get the river in your blood, marvel at the canyon, listen to the silence. Get the feel for the place. You can learn facts back on the rim.Ē It was something like that, wasnít it Martha? Well, I did just that and now Iím hooked!

   River guides have had a profound effect on my introduction to loving the river that made this canyon. You are all a very important part of the partnership of caring people that will continue to preserve the Colorado River experience for all time. You should be very proud of your profession and your fine organization. (P.S. you are grossly underpaid!)

David Haskell
Chief, Division of Resource Management
Grand-Canyon National Park