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  Dog Days of Fall
  BQR ~ fall 1995

ife is hard lately; not even close to what most of us would call fun. The pressure is on from every which way, and no one is immune. The winds of change gust and swirl... the summer of ‘95 does not slip gently into autumn.

   Early September: In the pouring rain at Lees Ferry an unusual mixture of people stand, paying stunned respects to the memory of our good buddy and classic old Grand Canyon boatman “the Whale,” always the life of the party, who studied his cards, surveyed the table at large, and abruptly cashed out. We sing “Shall We Gather at the River,” followed by “How Great Thou Art.” Lightning splits the sky; the rain falls harder. An unspeakable sadness hangs heavy in the air. It feels, among other things, like the death of an era.

   That same week, 16 Grand Canyon outfitters and the competing public send in new applications for commercial river permits. Everybody bids on their own company, some bid on each other. Mystery players ante up with multiple offers, and rumor has it a few are pretty big. The Prospectus, or call for bids, was theoretically designed to foster competition in a way that will do justice to the Canyon and somehow provide better long term service. It contains some strange language from a guide’s perspective, though. Who wrote it, and what they were really thinking when they did is somewhat obscure to us, as is who will actually award the new contracts and what they’ll be thinking when they do. The spectre of big (or bigger) business looms dark in the background. Until the new contracts are awarded, our entire community will twist in the wind.

   Back in D.C., the pendulum keeps moving. The last two ideological swings have been so hard, so fast, nobody knows what’s next. Rapid, unpredictable change is the order of the day. A bill making the rounds in Congress—H.R. 260—considers the closing of 315 different National Park units that fail to measure up. The Grand Canyon isn’t one of them, but the basic foundations of the NPS may be under the hatchet, along with God knows what else. “Government” is a hefty word these days—fraught with tension. The worst of it is, more than ever, it’s hard to see what’s right anymore. The American Dream keeps slipping somehow, but we don’t know how to fix it.

   Back to that same weird week in Arizona: lower down on the food chain, the process of guides, outfitters and private boaters co-operatively helping the NPS write the Commercial Operating Requirements, having simmered along all summer, suddenly boils over. The new Pres. at GCRG takes the tiller from ex-Pres. Murphy and instantly runs full cob aground on the shoals of an untimely emotional outburst. The rocks that took off his lower unit on the way in were the Coast Guard; the application of an urban Health Code to the river; drug testing; a huge pile of paper, growing ever bigger; and, mainly, a regulatory ethic that seemed to say that if somebody wasn’t there to force commercial boatmen into doing a good job, the old rape and pillage days of the late 60’s would’ve never ended (absent the fear of Big Brother, we’d be passing out drunk in the middle of the day and drifting unchecked into eddies, or burying our human waste in the sand and stirring the spaghetti with greasy old channel-locks).

   But even if the obstacles are gnarly, and scary to contemplate too deeply (both for the bullshit and the traces of truth one might find), that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to steer around them if it’s your turn to lead. And the truth here is, this particular wreck isn’t the least bit pretty. Later on it feels about as suave as hanging up in the middle of the Paria Riffle in plain sight of the whole world; and telling the brand new people on your boat “Ok, no big deal. We’ll just have a little lunch and wait for the water to rise;” then lifting the cooler lid and realizing you’ve left all the cold-cuts back in Flagstaff. At which point the thin-lipped executive sitting toward the front says “there seems to be a problem with this tube under the frame up here, it’s losing air.” After such a terrific beginning, the whole trip itself (one more year of service to GCRG—which wasn’t looking all that easy anyway) starts to crystallize as Definitely a Bad Idea.

   This wreck will eventually necessitate, of course, a call from the Superintendent.

   ***

   The short version of all the above is, basically, September sucked. There were a few good moments but by and large the big question on my mind most of the month was “What the hell were you thinking when you said you could do this job?”

   After countless hours of being tied up in knots about it, it still came down to a few simple things. Grand Canyon is the coolest, and so are the people in it. Any fool who’s sat back lately and kept an eye on the signs could see a big storm brewing ahead, not unlike the flood of ‘83, or the motor-rowing wars of the ’70s. A new management plan is coming up, and everybody (and their brother) wants in. Who knows what the place will look like after the waters recede? Nothing stays the same. Might be worse. Might get better.

   For the next little while, we’ve got two ways to run.

   At the extreme end of one direction are attitudes like: Me First (nice guys finish last) and Us vs. Them (and those guys are assholes). Which lead to Major Pissing Contests over Every Little Thing, and Lingering Bitterness for Years on End.

   The other direction is harder to see these days, and much more difficult to describe without sounding kinda fruity. About the only way to start toward it is look over your shoulder at the outside world, then sit back and think hard about Grand Canyon and oneself and everybody else... then just keep asking “What’s really true? What’s really going to be right for this place in the future?” It’s still subjective, but if you do start traveling that direction, and keep moving, eventually you get to a pretty nice place—where everybody sees what a good thing this is and how lucky we all are to be part of it. All us guides acknowledge the enormous privilege it is just to live here (and get paid for it). Our outfitters figure out the same thing (plus what a good job we do for them, and the personal price we pay to do it long enough to get really good at it). The commercial sector as a whole wakes up and realizes what the best of us—which to our everlasting credit includes some of our biggest companies (along with a few smaller outfits too)—already figured out a long time ago. Which is: the bottom line here is more than just the money. What you really get out of this place, and this adventure, is directly proportionate to what you put back in.

   Keep heading that way, and pretty soon the people who’ve taken the most out and given the least back start pitching in a little better, and giving a little more than they have in the past. It feels good. They actually like it. The thing starts to snowball. Everybody reaches down and finds the best in themselves instead of the worst. Meanwhile... the people over at NPS tap into more of all the good things guides have done over the years and the teamwork between us starts to pick up even better. We, realizing our great privilege as seen from the private perspective, and what a special thing a private trip is, begin to treat all those guys even better than we have in the past. We take more responsibility for “the private experience” too; and, both the private sector and the NPS actually start seeing through us to what commercial guides are really all about, which is, we’re there for everybody we meet along the way who could benefit from our considerable (albeit pretty darned enjoyable) experience. Granted, the people on our own boats are who we’re mainly here for; but that’s ok, the bulk of them are pretty darned cool too.

   Sounds crazy, but anywhere in that direction is bound to be better than where we—meaning everybody involved—went 20 years ago, when the last big storm we lived through (new CRMP, motors vs rowing) turned out be a major pain in the ass that took years to get over.

   ***

   Luckily everybody escaped down the river and time passed before the call actually connected. Finally, though, Superintendent Arnberger was on the phone to talk about the hotheaded comments sent the month before by GCRG.

   Picking up the receiver and heading in, it looked like only a couple of things might mitigate the damage.

   a.) As a group we had provided a package of input that actually was fairly constructive (before I, the new President, slipped off the deep end and singlehandedly took the GCRG letterhead with me). We’d stewed about the whole mess for quite a while and Brad Dimock, in particular, had come up with an inspired notion about a new protocol for managing places like the river. “Do what Wilderness Medical Associates did for outdoor first aid,” said Brad. “Change the baseline assumption.” In our case, tell people up front that in order to preserve the “wilderness experience,” it was necessary to leave in an element of risk, and exclude several layers of modern day bureaucracy.

   b.) The other ray of hope was, in an introductory letter to the new Super last year I’d already snuck in a qualifier: Being an officer at GCRG didn’t mean you actually represented everybody’s views. You could try, but Grand Canyon boatmen definitely went their own way and spoke for themselves, etc. The letter was a little windy, as usual, and blathered on about the real nature of the profession... Boatmen weren’t so bad once you got to know them, really. Like old Ed Abbey said, if you had to go off to war or do something scary with somebody, you’d want em to be pretty much like most of the people working down here... etc.

   Hanging up, and heading out the back end of the Superintendent’s call, it felt safe to throw a couple more observations into the overall equation of Grand Canyon, 1995.

   a.) If you ever did have to go off to war somewhere and needed a General to hold a big operation together, you’d want one pretty much like Rob Arnberger.

   b.) After seeing him operate several times, in several different situations, you get a certain clear impression. When it comes to our new Superintendent, there’s good news and bad news.

   The good news is, he’s usually just about the smartest guy in the room. (He doesn’t act like he thinks he is; he just is.) Also, he’s tough but fair. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s obviously a survivor in the political arena, but his core motivation is to do what’s right for this Park. Accordingly, he gets out and looks around; in about one year, he and the upper echelon of his entire staff have seen more of us and the river than an earlier bunch did in ten.

   The bad news? He ain’t stupid. He’s tough but fair. He doesn’t screw around. He covers his country. He wants to do what’s right. And he’s not afraid to do it.

   Why is that bad? Well, maybe it ain’t. (Depends on your definition of “right”.) Here’s what he said on the phone: The COR’s are kicked upstairs a notch. They “appreciate” GCRG’s input, now they’ll do pretty much a final draft, let the commercial sector have one quick peek at it, and that’ll be that for ‘96. They’ll continue to take input from the County Health Department, but the NPS is writing the rules. We may not like all of them, but he and his staff will do the best they can. He hasn’t signed anything with the Coast Guard yet, and he’s not going to sign anything that’ll jeopardize the integrity of the Park or NPS’s responsibility. Drug testing? He didn’t really say how that’s going to shake out, except to comment that for him it was pretty simple: “One (meaning an injury caused by a substance-impaired boatman) is too many.” Which I’d say echoes the sentiments of just about every working boatman I know: a fact that is pretty well upheld by the outstanding safety record we’ve established thus far. (To belabor the obvious, random drug testing just ain’t right. Neither is getting high on the job... nor any other behavior that can legitimately be used as a justification for bringing this invasive, unnecessary, and unconstitutional measure down on the heads of everybody here.)

   So that’s where we’re at for the moment, and that’s what seems to be happening with all the little stuff. The big stuff lies ahead. In about this order it entails:

   How do we protect this Park from an outside world that is developing at an exponential rate and rushing headlong away from everything “the Canyon”, and the river, seem to be about? What can we do now to safeguard the best of what we still have on the river?

   On the national scene, will we soon need to help shore up the entire NPS itself? And locally, can we stay interested enough in Glen Canyon Dam to make the last ten years of pain and suffering mean anything?

   Whether we can achieve any of the above or not... who gets to go? The worse it gets “out there,” the better things look on the river. In the future, as the pressure increases, should we set aside this great place and all our wonderful experience on the commercial end for, mainly, the rich? What is “fair access,” and how can we, the professionals, help set this situation up so that such a thing exists?

   What about the can of worms called “private vs. commercial?” We know the current system is full of holes. Can we help fix it? How?

   Back home on the commercial end, how do we rise above the current user-day system, which presently rewards the fastest possible trips and the biggest number of exchanges? Are we ok where we’re at? Are we really giving all these innocent city-crazed people the very best shot they could have at the Grand Canyon? Is there anything we could do to improve that picture even just a little and make sure we’re giving everybody the best possible deals? We’ve gotten better with congestion. Is there anything more we can or should do on that end? When it comes to service, what is a river guide? Are we moving toward a situation where we ourselves become more and more like parking valets, or waiters, or country-club pros? How do we avoid that?

   Do we have a snowball’s chance of really pulling together more—in a calm, cool, collected fashion—and actually seeing the whole thing get better? (Maybe.)

   Stranger things, of course, have happened.

   ***

   There was an amazing moment or two there at Whale’s funeral... We were all pretty shook. Whale was definitely an extremist, but he was also a genial big brother to so many of us. Being a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam had made him different in those early, innocent days on the river. He always seemed... experienced beyond his years. We never saw him scared, and we never saw him buy into anything he didn’t want to do again, ever. But meanwhile he was so much fun. He had fun. He gave off light. He made people laugh and for years and years he managed to pull off the illusion that life was just a game, or a party. We really loved him, too, but he left so quick we didn’t get to tell him that, and there at Lee’s Ferry it hurt like hell we hadn’t. Since so few of us had told him anything like that lately, he might not have known.

   Two distinct groups were there; his buddies from the river, and his family down from the farming country in Idaho. And Whale’s family, it must be said, are pretty conservative compared to many of us who were there. People said some stuff and then we sang those two songs in the rain, “Shall We Gather at the River,” followed by “How Great Thou Art,” which seemed to underscore, in a way, the difference between the two camps. Then Bob Grusy stepped up and said something really good straight to Whale, which kind of spoke for everybody. So that made us all feel a little better. And finally Brian Dierker, who is sort of the antithesis of what you might call conservative, came forward and surprised the whole crowd. He didn’t talk really to “us” or old Whale exactly, but instead just to Whale’s family. He wasn’t kidding around, either. He was shook up and he meant every word. He loved them, he said, and was so glad they were here because they’d given us Whale, who meant so much to so many. Any family of Whale’s, he said, was his family... and our family too.

   The river rolled on, and later, a little of Whale went with it. For the rest of that day, at least, we all knew just what Brian was driving at.

Lew Steiger

big horn sheep