e has always found something of interest in every person he ever met," said one outfitter. "Wesley...well, he’s a spirit," said another. People sense it; he has wit, humor and an insatiable compassion for others. He teaches with the insights and observations of someone you usually classify as brilliant or even genius level. True genius often has a depth of perception that makes complicated stuff simple and confusing things more understandable. It’s a gift. Wesley takes in an astounding amount of information from every source imaginable then imparts it with a startling clarity and simplicity that makes one see things in a new way—and you wonder just who the hell is this guy? He’s different than the rest of us. Maybe it’s a depth of humanity and kindness, I don’t know. People name their kids after him. He’s the guy who makes light of fear, fatigue and hardship, who gives all his rain gear away, who sleeps by an injured person all night, who makes friends with hopeless nerds, fools and incompetents and gives them confidence and hope. Every guide who knows him gets tears in their eyes when they talk about him long enough. He is, in fact, the most loyal and loving friend one could have in life. It’s that simple. In a selfish and rather evil world, he lives to do good
I was in the infantry. I was a private when I got there, about two weeks before the Tet Offensive in 1968. I worked on the Mekong Delta. The company I went into had 130 men. I left it in eight months and we had gone through 520 men to maintain 130-men strength. There were like 12 people, 6, 2, somebody killed every day. Sometimes hundreds of people stacked up. So I was just really lucky, the way booby traps would misfire, one thing or another. I was there for a few months and then I was in charge of the group that was there. But, you know, the turnover was so fast and everything, that’s not very uncommon at all.
So anyway, I got out of there and got back to school. I got an early out to go back to college. So I was in a firefight and then I was in a classroom about fifteen days later. And my teachers told me that I couldn’t concentrate! (ironic laugh) So I skipped out of education for a while and was just hanging out… wasn’t ever going to work again in my life.
My younger brother worked at a gas station in Williams where ARTA drove through and filled up their gas trucks. He said, “Hey, my brother’s a bum. Will you give him a job?” (laughs) A few weeks later, they came through; Roger Hoagland had fallen off the back of a boat and broken his ankle, and they needed somebody. So they said, “Tomorrow, be here, channel-locks, cutoffs.” I knew nothing about the river, running it or anything.
Steiger: How did you get to Vietnam in the first place? Did you get drafted?
Smith: Yeah. I went to school. My skills weren’t very good. In fact, they did a study at NAU—I started like in 1964—and they did a spelling thing of every student in the school. And the dean calls me in. “Well, Wesley, someone had to be the worst.” (laughs) So I really wasn’t into school at that time. It was like something just to do. I went for about two years, and then they told me that I had to take a year off—got kicked out of school, sort of like, for a year. And about two minutes after you’re kicked out of school they send a thing right to the draft board. And like a week later… there I was. The minute I was out of school, just like that (snaps fingers). Everybody in that same era had the same thing occur. The next thing you know, you’re in the Army. And then…You know.
Steiger: Well what did you think about all that stuff then, about having to go over there and all that?
Smith: Oh, I was completely ignorant about the whole thing. I got taken into Fort Bliss, and then I got sent to Colorado to basic training. And great, we could ski in the winter and everything. This buddy of mine, Jim Gannon, from Iowa, he said, “Hey, we’re going to miss the whole thing! We’ve got a friend down here that graduated with us. He can send us anywhere we want to go.” I said, “Well, where do we want to go?” He said, “Vietnam. I’ve been hearing something about that. Do you know anything about it?” “No, let’s go there.” “Well, you know what, we can get a three-day pass, and we can take off for Thanksgiving. We can be home at Christmas, we can get our thirty days for going overseas. We can have forty-five days off here! And then we’ll go to this Vietnam.” We went over there like, (humming), “What’s going on here?” And we met everyone and we talked and everyone’s going, “Yeah, it’s pretty casual, not much going on here.”
Four days later the Tet Offensive started. The North Vietnamese took over every town in South Vietnam. They’re dropping 500-pound bombs on hotels in the middle of Saigon. It was a different war from that moment on. And we were so dumb about it, the first day out in the field you say, “Uh-oh, I don’t like this. I’m going to go back and I’m going to freak out. I’m going to tell them ‘I’m out of here, I’m leaving this place.’” I mean, you call in artillery and stuff, you go in a ditch, you look at someone, you try to pull their arm out, and you get the whole trunk of their body. Their legs are missing, their head’s missing. They’re telling you, “Dig in the mud,” finding stuff, pulling it out, and I’m going, “Whoa! What’s going on?!” And kicked ass like that (snaps fingers) every day from then on out. And it’s “Whoa! What is happening here?!”
You have two choices: If you freak out, they send you to Long Binh Jail, which is a military prison in Vietnam, where they brutalize and will horrorize American citizens… under taxpayer dollars, under the auspices of the federal government. And these kids freak out and say, “Well, send me to jail. I’m not going to fight any more, I’m not going to go out there, I’m not going to kill.” And they go “Ha! You’re not home, you’re in this country and we have a military prison,” and they put them in there, shoot them with fire hoses and brutalize them.
I wanted to take that route, but I saw so many cases of it. They come back and they’re like zombies. Because you go into that prison, the minute you object, your time stops, and however long it takes to break you, you’re in there, and then you’re coming back. If you were killed in that prison, your body, your paperwork, is shipped to a line unit and you’re cranked up there, and they have to pay no attention to anybody.
I’ve seen these kids come back, and they go, “I can’t do this, I’m not going to do it,” and just stand up like this, (makes shooting sound), to get shot, just to get out of there. You can’t kill yourself in an American prison, but they can beat you so much that you will come back like that. There’s no way out once you’re over there. If it was in South America or something like that, you could walk home. But you can’t swim across. There’s nothing that you can do except go out there and say, “Well, I’m going to do what I can do. I’m going to protect my brothers, and I’m going to try to kill as few people as I can, because it’s for no reason.”
You know? We’re on their land, we’re stomping on it, trying out our weapons and stuff. (ironic chuckle) We left anyway. Has it changed the world? It would have been the same if we had never gone over there, except we wouldn’t be missing so many Americans. And we talk about our people that are Missing In Action?! (ironic chuckle) They have hundreds of thousands. You can just see these bombers coming, just blowing these whole towns up. You can’t find a piece of anybody for whole square miles! And we think that we need to know accountability?! We do—but they would like some accountability too. And it’s splattered all over the whole country. You know, we did some wrong things there. We are dealing with Agent Orange back here, the guys who get sprayed a little bit, working in it. How would you like to be sprayed with it at the same time, year after year, have it on all your trees, in your water system, in your water tables, in all of your food?! You think that they’re not going through the shit that we’re going through?! It’s incredible…
I was born in Williams, Arizona, in 1946. When I was a kid we would go out to the airport and we would set there and watch the sky light up as they did the explosions here in Nevada. And we would drive back to Williams, and we would feel the entire town shake. My father owned a drugstore. We also have a big basement in it, so we had civil defense supplies and stuff in it. He would take a Geiger counter, and after it rained, he would go around the aisles, and he could tell where people had come in with radiation.
It was neat! It was an event! Everybody in town would drive out to the airport and set there, a big line of cars. Big explosion in the sky. Come back to Williams and set there and wait: (makes sound of explosion and demonstrates shaking) the shock wave. You could just feel it running across the thing.
I remember the Grand Canyon—we used to hike down before the dam—underneath the bridge there at Phantom Ranch, where the nice little lagoon and stuff is, there used to be these big sand dunes, and it used to be that real silty mud. And in Boy Scouts we used to go down there. They had apple orchards all up there, apricots. We would get in the trees.
Steiger: So that’s like late fifties or something?
Smith: Yeah, anywhere in the sixties. I graduated in 1964. But we went down there: every Boy Scout group, every church group, every graduating group. I mean, you walked up and down that Canyon so damned much that you just got tired of it. It wasn’t like “fun,” like going out to the woods. It’s like, “You guys are going to go somewhere this weekend.” “Oh, far out. Let’s go to Phoenix. I hear they have a TV down there. They have swimming pools.” They would entice us to walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to swim in the swimming pool that they had there. And we’d swim in the swimming pool, but we wouldn’t get in the creek. We wouldn’t get in the river. I mean, that was. . . . But the swimming pool! “Yeah, let’s go!”
Steiger: So you weren’t totally sold on the Boy Scouts then?
Smith: No. This is just some things our scoutmaster did: “You guys don’t want to take any canned foods.” So we’d open up the cans and we’d dump everything into plastic bags and put them in your pack, you know. And then you get down there and then it’s all a big mush, and he was calling you dummies, you know.
You go, “How about a little bit of leadership here?” (chuckles)
I swore when I was a senior in high school I’d never go down there again. I went to college, went to Vietnam, came back from Vietnam, hung out. And then this great opportunity came. They said, “Hey, come on the river.”
I knew nothing! Never heard of river running, never knew of it. My brother said to me, “I can get you a job on the river.” I said, “Well, what are we doing?” I thought it was like coal barges or something like that. He said, “No, you take people down on boats on vacation.” I said, “Uh-huh.
Steiger: how did that very first trip that you did, strike you?
Smith: Oh! It was just like going into the Bible or something! (exclamation of awe) I was looking around, and I thought it was the only time I was ever going to be able to see anything. I looked at it and I went, “Wow, this is just so neat!” I was just so happy to do it. And I never thought that I would be asked back or anything. But somebody wasn’t healed, and they said, “Hey, come on. You work good.” And, oh, boy, I tell you, it was just incredible. I’m sure it’s like that for everybody. And there’s places in the Canyon that I haven’t gone, that I don’t go, that I save for special events.
Me and Louise were there; we were both looking at each other, and I’m going, “Louise knows everything,” and she’s going, “Wesley knows everything.” And between the two of us (laughs), we’d bounce it back and forth. But I tell you, the motors, we used to have those shear pins in. And the amount of driftwood in the river was just… all the time! Just about the time you’re going into Crystal or something (makes sound of buzz saw, then a crash). You’re pulling up the motor, trying to pull out the cotter key. We’d drop more props and channel locks in the river than you could shake a stick at. And trying to get it back on, getting it up there, and then trying to crank the sucker before you get into the hole! The guy that trained me, Hugh Wingfield and Dave Hosenbrock and his wife: you would just go… When the motor would go out, we’d just go ahead and get up on top of that load and set there with everybody else. (laughs) Like Georgie would say, “Here we go!” (exclamation of panic)
But I was paranoid. I tell you, I’ve taken people down, and I can teach them how to read the river or something, and I can see them go to sleep some. I didn’t go to sleep for probably the first nine years. I’d hear one little thing, I’m going, “Uh-oh, uh-oh.” And some people say, “Well, you feel very comfortable with us now?” I say, “Yes,” because I’ve been stuck in here every possible way you can, and I know how to get off. “Okay, this is where we’re going to end up, and this is how we get off.”
Steiger: This is Crystal you’re talking about? Or any of them?
Smith: Every one. Every rock that you can possibly get screwed up on. I’ve been there, or I’ve seen somebody there, I think.
Steiger: Did we get it down what year it was that you first went?
Smith: In 1970.
Steiger: I’m trying to remember how it was different then, just physically, the place.
Smith: Oh, we used to come into camp, your stove thing would just be like… you’d go and dig like this and make a pit. Get four stones, put the two rails across, throw a thing down, all the chicky pails, all the food. And in the morning, just leaving the firepit, just pulling your things out and leaving it. All the beaches were just cluttered with all these different little campfire things.
Steiger: Had to get your wood before you camped.
Smith: (laughs) Oh, the river was so full of wood that it was (sarcasm) like a problem! And you get to the back of Lake Mead, and try to get to Pierce’s Ferry, all the way across the river, like for a quarter of a mile, just logs, logs, logs. You have people out on the front of the boat with big sticks, going like this. No slip clutches, just… (ching, ching) Along with having an Allen wrench today, and duct tape—a box of shear pins. They were gold to trade. When Mercury came out with the slip-clutch, what a blessing, boy! The bosses liked it too—it started saving them money. (laughs) I’d run those things up.
I started out on this first trip with these guys and then they asked me to come back, do another trip. I’d done three trips, and on the fourth trip we were unloading the boats at Lee’s Ferry, and we were pushing a little too hard at the back, Roger fell off again, rebroke his ankle, and I got to be a boatman and take the boat down. (chuckles)
Now at this time, I knew nothing about boating. I had been down three times, but the trips had to go on: “Hey, you’re it.” So Louise and myself—now Louise and Roger had been married and Louise, I thought, knew more about the river than I knew—we both would write on our hands all the layers of the Grand Canyon. If someone said, “What layer is that?” You’d go, “Let me see (consulting hand), it’s Tapeats.” (laughs) And if you did the dishes too much, you know, then you couldn’t really have an orientation or anything.
We didn’t know how to start the motors, how to fix them. If it wasn’t for the people on our trip, being able to repair motors, and for the grace of God, you know… because we actually weren’t professionals in those days. We didn’t know much…
Steiger: What would have been the job description in the seventies?
Smith: They just say, “Okay now, take care of those folks, and we’ll see you at the other end.” Whatever it entails! (laughs) You have to know how to start an engine, to cook food, to do first aid, to lead hikes, to interpret natural history and geology—all of those things come very slowly, especially for me. A lot of people take off with degrees and stuff and have studied stuff, but almost everything that I know has been taught to me by the passengers. There’s a million people that go down there, and they’re all experts in one field or another. You can pick anybody’s brain about science, nuclear reactors, medicine, carpentry—anything. And just float down with these people, pick their heads, they pick your head. Wow! You learn everything!
One of them will be reading a book… And I bring a lot of books. After lunch, I pass them out and someone reads, “Oh look, it says right here… that we’re going past this or that.” And I’ll… “Hmm, I’ll remember that.”
Steiger: You mean almost everything you know about the river has been taught to you by the passengers? The interpretive stuff?
Smith: Oh, all the geology, all the faults, all of the plants. I knew a lot, but like names and how, sequence and everything. And I just listen to them read and discuss back and forth. I have no formal training on any of this. And if there’s anything I can’t think of, I go, “How does that go together? I understand that and that, but this here…” And then all of a sudden a geologist will come on your boat, and you go, “Well, now, explain that to me.” He explains that to you, and then all of a sudden, you know everything. Except when you go on a trip with Larry.
Smith: Oh yeah. (laughter) Because he can tell you not only what bug it is, but what kind of fleas are on its shoulder and what kind of parasites are on it.
I had some skills when I first came back from Vietnam of rescue and first aid—sort of like in situations where you don’t know what’s going on. (chuckles) In Vietnam, anyone who’s there before you, you respect and you think that they know more than you do, that they know one trick or another. And after I was there for about two-and-a-half months, I was the oldest person there. And all the younger people would look and say, “What do we do?” It’s sort of like being a head boatman. I cross-use these skills. It’s like, “What do we do?” All you gotta do is… “I don’t know what the f*** you do!” and freak out and watch everyone just go in every f***** different direction.
Or you can say, “Ha!” and just use whatever sense you have, you know. Everybody’s just right behind you, doing exactly what you say.
Steiger: As long as you were in control.
Smith: Right. And now the thing about it is, I knew that I didn’t know anything about it. But, as little as I know about it, I knew ten minutes more of it than they did. And when we started rafting and stuff too, it’s the same way: nobody knew about anything. But all you could do was try. You know, we were forced into a lot of situations. We didn’t say “we’re professionals.” You know? “Hey, these trips are going. You want to try this?” And the people more or less knew that they were on an adventure too. They didn’t really… Not like nowadays.
Steiger: They didn’t expect anything.
Smith: Yeah. Now it’s pretty much canned, you can expect certain things one way or another.
Steiger: I thought it was snout boats that you started out with. So these were motor trips?
Smith: Oh yeah, these were motor trips. We just put all the tubes together and a platform up there, chains around it, threw all the gear in the middle, threw a tarp over it, and ropes back and forth, and that was it.
Steiger: So it was a boat similar to the Life Magazine picture of the boat . . .
Smith: Turning over? Yeah. Exactly the same.
Steiger: Was there a clear-cut shift between motoring and rowing?
Smith: More or less, the major change came… I’d worked for about three years. The Park Service started this rumor that they were going to change the jurisdiction in the Canyon and that the companies should convert to rowing, because they were going to try to outlaw motor things. So some of the companies believed that rumor and some of them didn’t. But when they first started the rumor and invited the companies to convert into rowing, AzRA started developing a rowing program down in the Grand Canyon where there was mostly bigger boats or dories. At that time they brought a lot of the California crew out: Don Briggs, Melville, all those guys that knew how to row boats and stuff, they brought them out here. At that time we were rowing basket boats, light boats from off of life boats—round circles and stuff.
Steiger: They had those “roll bars.” (laughs)
Smith: Yeah. First step, we’d cut them off of them. Jerry Jordan cut the bottom off of one (laughs) in Havasu one day. Collapsed the whole thing. And then the Winn brothers, who were great stallions in the AzRA company, they came on-line. And then Peter Winn started developing this snout design, and we went through about three generations of frames with those. When we started rowing them, nobody knew how to row them, nobody knew a catamaran system or anything. You can teach somebody like this something right now, in a day. But when you’re trying to figure it out, you know, like we’d come back to work that year and someone’d go, “I know how we get in that eddy! Let’s aim our tubes toward the eddy, and then we’ll just power into it!” Instead of, like, getting broadside and just letting the current go and trying to make it across. We tried everything. We used to work twice as hard. Every year, you’d come back to work, it gets easier and easier. “Ah, ah, ah.” Now, proper boating and techniques are so commonplace, because everybody shares this information.
In Vietnam, we shared every secret that we knew with every other person, because we knew that eventually it could save our lives. In a lot of jobs where you have an apprenticeship, like making shoes, making gold, making whatever—pharmacy—a lot of those things can go slow. In the river business, everybody has to share their knowledge with everybody, and that way we can all stay safe. If you’re an old boatman and you know some secrets, and you see a young person come along, and if you keep that information from him, sure as shit, your ass is going to be in a sling one day. You’ll be going down (makes sound of getting in trouble), “I wonder if I told him about…”
AzRA spotted me money to raise homing pigeons. This was before we had radios. They gave me $150 allowance and I bought six pairs of pigeons at Phoenix and I had a cage here. And I raised them for like five years. Now, the first wave of pigeons that I had, the ones I paid twenty-five bucks for, we would take them, after I had gone for three years, and they would retrieve from the Grand Canyon back to Williams. They could make it back within an hour. But these pigeons were sort of retards. They would sit on the boats. We would have them in apple crates and stuff. And when we let them go, we’d have to throw rocks at them to make them go home!
Steiger: What was the idea? When would you send them? Would you take them down there and just report in “everything’s okay”?
Smith: No, like if we had an accident, if we needed a helicopter or we needed…
Steiger: And how would you care for them? This was on motor trips, or rowing trips?
Smith: Oh, on rowing trips too, yeah. And they loved just sitting right there and getting splashed and stuff. But then there was a settlement down in Phoenix where this guy who died had this pigeon club: he had these babies he was selling for $150 a piece, and he gave me twenty-two of them. So then I went another three years, and we had these pigeons; they could get back to Williams within fifteen minutes from anywhere in the Grand Canyon. I took them to Cortez in a windstorm that was going that way, and they made it back to Williams within six hours, the first ones did. Very dedicated, the minute you let them go, just straight up and straight home. But then radios and stuff came in. I wasn’t protecting the pigeons well. One of them, ring-tailed cats got into their cage, killed one.
This is amazing: once we started carrying them, we didn’t have any accidents! I think the most important message we ever sent out was, “Hike a guitar into Phantom Ranch.” Becca was on the trip. We never got to make any saves with them, but we did it. When I first started taking them, for a long time they didn’t do anything. And then Tom Workman got appointed up here, and he classified them as pets and then I had to go before a tribunal of the National Park and explain to them what we were doing. They didn’t want anything released down there that would stay down there. But we let them go three at a time, usually one white one, you know, like, one for the peregrines, one to get lost, and the other one to get home. The first group that I had, these guys, they loved the river, man. They’re homing pigeons, but they don’t mind living on your gypsy wagon, you know. We throw them up in the air, they’d start flying off, and then they’d follow us for a while. And then they would land on a motorboat and someone would just walk over to them. They had these little cylinders on their leg, you take the note out, sign your name, tell them what it was, throw them back in the air. Finally they get bored and they go home.
Steiger: Do you have a favorite river story?
Smith: Gosh, not really. There’s one… when we almost all made the turn to the right-hand side in Crystal, and Chris Brown wrapped a snout boat on it. They were trapped out there on the rocks, right on the very tip of the island.
We were carrying at that time—paddleboating wasn’t done in the Grand Canyon, especially not at those big water levels or anything—and we had this little Redshank that we had pulled up and we would take it out on calm sections and stuff, but we never did any major rapids or anything with it.
They’re stuck out there, the water’s coming up, and the boat’s getting sunk underwater. We can’t do anything for them. So I drafted about six of the youngest kids on the trip. From the bottom boat we found a big log, we tied it on there like a dead animal on sticks, and we walked all the way up to the top of the rapid. There were some private trips coming through, and we asked them—they had Avons and they had boats that they could do it, but nobody had the skill. They said, “No, we can’t get out there and get in that backwash and rescue those people. It’d be insane to do that.” And with our skills nowadays, any one of us would go out there and we could do this routinely. But at this time, we didn’t know it. And so I got all these kids, we all carried this boat all the way up to the top. We begged these people, they wouldn’t go out there, they wouldn’t lend us their boats, so we loaded up, and the six of us, we got right out on the tongue, and we drifted right down, pulled in an eddy, picked four of these people up…
Edwards: With paddles?
Smith: With paddles. And these kids didn’t know how to paddle. I didn’t know how to paddle captain. We didn’t know if we were going to turn over when we hit the eddy fence or anything. But we said, “What else can we do?” And we got six of them, and then we got back out into the current, made it over to the side at the bottom, carried it back up, and we got the other people just as the water was coming right up to the top of the rocks, and we got them back. The water completely pulled the entire snout boat underneath the river. And we’re walking back, and the people said, “What are we going to do about that boat?” (laughs) I said, “We’re going to go on with our trip. We’re going to do whatever. We’ll just leave it here. It’s recreational equipment.” (laughs) And just at that point, the whole boat popped back up, came out and floated right down beside us, right into the eddy we were in. We camped in the eddy that night, half of us laying, sleeping on that upside down boat, all the other boats harbored together, and passed food around. I set the porta-potty up at one end. The next morning, we got up in a crack, got some ropes, set up a pulley system, turned it over, went on our way again. But these young kids, and for us having no paddling experience—in those days, we weren’t set up, we didn’t have pulley systems, we didn’t have enough long ropes, we didn’t have carabiners, we didn’t have the knowledge of how to pull things off. And everybody coming right together…
And some of the passengers… (laughs) Because we got out there and I would start screaming and yelling at these kids just like they were in the army or something, and we’d get back to shore and the parents would say, “You’ve got to take it easy on that person, maybe he…” I said (yelling like a drill sergeant), “Get up out of the bottom of the boat! Pull, pull!” (laughs) And we were all just scared to death. We didn’t know what was going to happen. At the very least, we’d have to take a swim. But it worked out fine. Seeing so many people pull together—in the old days, it seemed to be more and more. Nowadays, it seems like when something happens, everyone looks around and expects you to know what to do—and we do! (chuckles) But when everyone looked around and they go, “We don’t expect anyone to know how to do this. Let’s all help out on this, let’s all support the people.” That kind of stuff. It isn’t as much there nowadays as it used to be.
That’s that story!
Steiger: You’ve got to have another one.
Smith: Well, the greatest story: I took my mom down on a river trip. Now this has given me a lot of tolerance for dealing with anybody. We were like the second day or so, and we’re to House Rock, and you know how cold the water can be there and everything. Everyone’s washing their hair, and my mom says, “I think I’ll wash my hair, Wesley.” I said, “Fine, go ahead, wash your hair.” And she said, “Warm some water.” And I go, “Ha! What do you mean?” She said, “Warm some water.” I said, “Mom, people just go down to the beach.”
“Yes, ma’am.” (chuckles)
And I warmed some water for her. (laughs) Since then, I’ve done it for myself, we do it for anybody. But having my mom on a trip was just incredible. The shit that you go through for your mom and you don’t think anything about it, and then you see somebody else and you go, “Well, if I can go through this with one person, why can’t I go through it with everybody? Treat everybody just like they’re normal.”
I took her up to Havasu Falls—she’s overweight, she hadn’t hiked or anything—we made it all the way up, nine miles. She goes, “Okay, I’d better start back, my arthritis is kicking up.” Her legs were swelling up. She can only walk like little Chinese [steps]. I said, “No, sit down, sit down.” It continued to happen.
So I was head boatman on the trip again, and we started walking back, and we didn’t make it back until way late at night. I had to leave her about three miles up, go down and tell everyone, “Hey, we’re doing an emergency camp.” We’re camping on all the ledges and everything there. It’s fine. I said, “Hey, f*** it, man, it’s my mom. I’m not leaving without her!” (laughs) She kept walking all that night. She finally got back. She set on the boat for the next three days, smiling. She was real proud of herself, for doing it and everything. And I didn’t think anything about it.
Now, if I have a passenger that’s lost up there or slow or anything, I don’t think anything about it. I just say, “Hey, this is how it’s going to have to happen,” you know. Treat this person like you would treat your own parents.
Not to talk about my outfit or any particular outfitter, but they do always talk about the same boatman burnout: “Are you burned out on doing your job? Is that why you’re becoming slack, or you’re doing one thing or another?” Well, there’s times when you want to hike, there’s times when you want to do anything. And if you’re there for years, you’re going to go through different phases, different things. But a boatman can burn out, if they have so much work piled on them. A lot of times, when a company, if they schedule you back-to-back trips, without time out and stuff, you can burn out. And we see most boatmen have eventually moved on to different things, or supplemented their earnings from different things.
The thing that we don’t talk about is owner burnout. There are owners who have companies who have fresh ideas, who want to get in there, but the way the politics are set up now, it behooves you to stay owner of a company—even if you don’t want to do it—because it’s so economically beneficial to keep ahold of that permit.
If the owners were under a policy to where when their permit was up, it was given back to the National Park, and they could reassign it to somebody who wanted to use it. Then an owner would not have any reason to stay in the business unless he was getting something out of it, unless it charged his life, unless he was ready to go for it.
If everybody, every concessionaire in the Canyon, when they were ready to quit the business and say, “Okay, I’m getting out of it”—if they got out of it and their permit went back to the federal government, that’d be one thing. But every one of them that gets out of it right now, they get out of it with million-dollar boosts, by selling their user days to another company —that distorts a lot of the free enterprise, and the growth too.
They are basing their entire livelihood on the user days that belong to the United States public, when they are through with them, if they don’t want them any more, they should not be able to sell them for a million dollars. They should say, “I’m walking away from this, and I’m selling my equity in my property over here, and here, government, you reassign these days.” Because those days should be for the people. It should not be for these twenty-two groups to be here forever. It’s, like you have the right to graze on this land—you don’t have the rights to the land. If your cows can go out there and eat the bushes, and you can make money off this. But when you’re through using the land, the land is ours, it belongs to the federal government. You don’t sell your grazing rights to another farm—they go back to the government, and it can give it to whoever it feels like. It was never written in the law of the land that these people have the singulatory right to jurisdiction over these days forever.
I’m saying that there is burnout between owners, as there is in boatmen, and there is no checks about it. If you know someone’s being completely—gutting the public, not giving services, or is not a good person—the Park Service should be able to say, “Hey, we’re not going to renew your contract.” If you’re totally into it, it can be renewed forever. In some of them, there’s families turning it over to their children: and that’s completely responsible, as long as there’s new generations and stuff. I think that they ought to be able to be allowed to be there, but there ought to be some kind of safeguard.
If I had to make up the Park Service rules, what I would do is, I would give ten-year leases on something, up to ten years, and that way they could get better financing, instead of financing on a five-year permit. You have to put so much money into a company. Every concessionaire owns his own property, he owns his boats, and he owns his equipment. That can be sold, if somebody wants to buy it.
If there was a way that the owners of the companies, when they’ve had enough of it, when they’ve had a good life, could turn it over to somebody who wanted to work it—because we can see all of the different stages that people have gone through. And if there is burnout as boatmen or as firemen, as controllers, there’s gotta be burnout within the owners too. But the owners won’t relinquish their hold on these companies, because they economically can’t afford to. It’s too beneficial.
Steiger: Have you run a bunch of other rivers all over the place?
Smith: I worked in Africa with Dave Edwards and Kevin, on the Zambezi. Then we went up to Tanzania and did the Rufiji through the Selous Game Reserve. We went to Thailand and we did some in bamboo boats—crazy bamboo boats. Walked through all of the poppy fields up to this place, ride on elephants for a day, and then they take you to a place where they have a mill downstream for the bamboo, and they have no way to get it there. But the dumb tourists come through, so they take all of these great big, like, eighteen-, twenty-two-foot pieces of bamboo, and thrash them together about nine foot wide, and they build a little tripod out on there, and we all get on board, and tie your packs onto it. They give you a pole, and you start taking off down this river. Kevin Johnson…this limb comes like that, just knocks him off the boat. It’s incredible: some places you come to corners where there’s hundreds of these boats that are all just smashed or making a sieve around this corner. And it’s totally out of control. Nobody knows what’s going on. There may be one guy, and he’s yelling, running from boat to boat.You might lose everything, but they don’t tell you this… you’re lucky to get away with your life. And then finally you get down to this place and you see a saw mill there, and you’ve just brought in the new load of logs! (laughter)
Steiger: Can you describe what’s been the best part of river running for you?
Smith: The best part of it is dealing with people, the other boatmen, having a life that you can share with people, do things and stuff—interesting people. I have met so many good people down there. The boatmen, working with them, is similar to having the camaraderie like you would have in Vietnam or something like that, where everyone depends on each other, they know what each other is doing, they’re working for a common good, “let’s keep each other alive, let’s help each other out here,” and stuff. A lot of the places in the world, you can’t find that experience, or you can’t work with people—you have to rely on how they are and stuff. But I’ve found that on the river.
But just dealing with people. Once you get on the river, and figuring out how to fix this or how to do this, working together, you know, accomplishing something, watching people laugh, smile, and have fun yourself. That’s been the great part of it. I’d definitely say that it has to be the people. The Canyon is fun, and it’s great, and it’s magnificent and everything, but I don’t know that I would have spent three or four months a year for twenty-two years down there by myself, just looking at the Canyon. Not that it’s not worthy of looking at or anything, but for me, being with the people, being with the folks, being able to share, smile…